sealPurdue News

October 1998

Teachers change strategies as classrooms diversify

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Because K-12 students exhibit a wider range of abilities each year, universities are changing the way they teach the teachers, says a dean of education.

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"American classrooms have changed in the past decade, and our teachers must change with them," says Marilyn Haring, dean of Purdue's School of Education and a professor of counseling and development. "Children are entering first grade with significantly different levels of preparation, more students with disabilities are being mainstreamed, and it's not unusual for English to be a second language for some youngsters."

As recently as 10 years ago, teachers were able to aim their instruction at the average child in a classroom with a reasonable assurance that the other students would not suffer. But Haring says there is no 'average' student anymore.

"That means teachers have to learn how to meet the needs of all of them by coming to each student at his or her own unique, individual level," she says.

Haring says it's very common to find students with three distinct skill levels in a single classroom; the average youngsters who will complete the assigned tasks but not excel, advanced students who over time will not be challenged by the pace or subject matter and become bored, and special-needs students who may have individualized study plans that specify a different pace.

"If you teach to the middle, you'll lose students on the lower end and the upper end," Haring says. "Both can drop out in their own way. And even the middle students can be at risk if they don't get enough attention due to the demands of special-needs or gifted and talented students.

"Teachers now must individualize instruction so that students of many skill levels can benefit. It's not just a matter of being fully versed in content; teachers also have to be able to assess student needs and then design instruction to fit those needs."

Teacher education at Purdue is addressing this need by schooling education majors in performance-based assessment techniques, by weaving technology specific to teaching and learning through the entire curriculum, and by stressing to students that "diversity" is a continuum of abilities that ranges from disabled or exceptional needs to gifted and talented children.

But even teachers who are successful in tailoring instruction can face resistance from the students.

"Children are very observant, and they probably will notice that some students are required to complete certain tasks while others are engaged in something else," Haring explains. "They may suspect that their peers got a better or easier assignment, and that can raise issues of fairness."

Parents can support teachers by explaining to their children that a variety of activities are needed to meet the different needs of students.

"What is fair is determined by acknowledging the differences between students and that assignments must be challenging and doable for every learner," Haring says.

Parents also can help their children gain a voice in their own learning activities.

"If a child complains of being bored, that usually means that the activity is too easy and routine, and a child who is bored is at risk of turning off," Haring says. "That student needs to be encouraged to speak up and seek another assignment with more challenge and relevancy. Parents can encourage this, and teachers will appreciate it."

Parents also will be able to help their children develop good learning habits by encouraging them to go a step further with an assignment that is too basic.

"Parents can encourage their kids to seek a deeper level of understanding and look to other resources besides textbooks to become more expert on a subject," Haring says. "These learning habits are reinforced when Mom or Dad can relate a current event to a previously completed assignment."

While Haring says she believes that teachers must meet the individual needs of all students, the trend toward making education more egalitarian has had its drawbacks.

"Stressing the inclusion of all students regardless of abilities has made the tasks of teaching and learning more difficult," Haring says. "But it is also resulting in students and parents taking more responsibility in the educational process, and that's going to benefit everyone in the long run."

Source: Marilyn Haring, (765) 494-2336; e-mail,

Writer: Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Purdue education major Rachel Pranger instructs Chia-Yu Chen, a seventh-grader at Klondike Middle School in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, during her student teaching assignment last spring. Pranger is now a high-school math teacher in Noblesville, Ind. (Purdue News Service Photo by Vince Walter)
Color photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Haring.teaching
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