Evolving Education

Education isn’t static, and at Gibraltar this fall, students and teachers will delve deeper into the next evolution in learning.

Gibraltar will integrate the full inclusion model into the classroom and use more differentiated teaching to challenge and fulfill the needs of all students.

Put simply, inclusion means that all students are taught together, rather than pulling out students with disabilities or advanced learners. Differentiation means that education will be tailored to meeting the educational needs of each individual student, rather than the class or age group.

Elementary Principal Judy Munsey said the evolution is in recognition of the differences among learners.

“We all come from different places and get there in different ways,” she said. “Every child can learn, just not always on the same day or the same way.”

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 said schools must provide students with disabilities a chance at placement in a normal classroom environment before putting them into a special needs classroom. The law, as well as a natural progression, spurred the changes.

“In previous years, students with a disability were begun in separate classrooms until it was decided they were ready for placement in general education classrooms, what was called ‘mainstreaming,’” Munsey said. “With inclusive teaching, we reverse that.”

Munsey said teachers will be provided with more support in the classroom, with special education teachers working in the classroom.

“Instead of pulling students out, we’ll be pushing teachers in,” she said.

It’s an idea that the late Gibraltar teacher Rod “Chief” Billerbeck touched on in a 2004 interview. He said he didn’t think pulling slower learners out of the classroom was a good idea because it encouraged labeling.

“You tell them it’s something else, but these kids know what’s going on,” he said. “They know they’re in these classes because they’re not as smart, and then they’re labeled all the way through school by everyone and themselves.”

Gibraltar fourth grade teacher Bridget Schopf said the new model could be a step toward addressing that problem.

“I hope that through inclusion we’re eliminating some of the stigma associated with special education,” she said. “We’ll all be learning together, it’s just that what you might be doing at your desk might be different than what I’m doing at my desk.”

But Schopf explained that the new models are not only geared to those students who struggle or have learning disabilities.

“It’s more teaching to the individual and that includes advanced learners,” she said. “We may pull a few advanced students aside and form a small strategy group to work further within the classroom. It involves enrichment as well as remediation.”

This year Gibraltar will have a full-time advanced learning coordinator for the first time. Those students will also benefit from the greater emphasis on differentiation, which asks teachers to be more in tune with each individual student’s educational needs and progress.

“There will be more individual instruction, more one-on-one conferencing, more group work, and less whole-group teaching,” Schopf said.

Author and educator Carol Ann Tomlinson has written extensively on differentiating instruction. She has written that a major difference in such settings is that “the teacher works more as a guide or facilitator than an information dispenser, making students more active learners.”

Instruction stresses understanding rather than retention and regurgitation, and teachers learn to get past the assumption that all students need the same task or segment of study.

To prepare for the new demands, Gibraltar teachers have been attending conferences, workshops, and seminars and studying material over the last year to learn how to best make the new models work. After some initial trepidation, Schopf said she and her colleagues came to see that many of the practices involved in the concepts aren’t entirely new.

“We realized we were already doing a lot of this, just now it’s on a larger scale,” Schopf said.

“Change is always difficult,” Munsey said, “but if you’re supported and have the resources you need, you’re more open and receptive to it.”

Teachers will have to work together more than ever, co-instructing, co-planning, co-managing, and co-assessing students, Munsey said.

“You have to give up some ownership,” Schopf said. “It’s not my classroom, it’s our classroom. It really forces us to be a team and work together, and be more of a community.”

So when inclusion and differentiation are fully implemented, what will a Gibraltar classroom look like to an outside observer?

“You would see all students learning, engaged, and learning together, and the teachers working together,” Munsey said.