Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 1: The Changing Teaching Profession and You/Teaching Is Different From in the Past/Diversity in Students

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New Trend #1: Diversity in Students[edit]

Students have, of course, always been diverse in the sense that each student learns at his or her special pace and special way, each has a one-of-a-kind personality, and each shows a unique pattern of motives to learn. In recent decades, though, the forms of diversity have become more numerous, and consequently also the extent of diversity. More than ever, classrooms now serve students who come from diverse language backgrounds, who have more special educational needs, and who are more diverse in age.

Language Diversity Across the United States, for example, about 40 million people, or 14% of the population are Hispanic. About 20% of these speak primarily Spanish, and approximately another 50% speak only limited English. The educators responsible for the children among these 30 million people need to accommodate instruction to these students somehow. They can do so partly, of course, by arranging for specialized second-language teachers and classes. But some of the adjustment also must happen in “regular” classrooms over a wide range of grade levels and subject areas: classroom teachers must learn to communicate, that is, with students whose English language background is limited, at the same time that the students themselves are learning to use English more fluently.[1] Since relatively few teachers are themselves Hispanic or speak fluent Spanish, the adjustments can sometimes be a challenge. Teachers must plan and carry out lessons in ways that students actually understand, and about which students can communicate their thoughts and needs. At the same time teachers must still keep track of the major learning goals of the curriculum. In Chapter 4 (“Student Diversity”) and Chapter 11 (“Instructional Planning”), I describe some ways of doing this. As you gain experience teaching, you will no doubt find additional strategies and resources,[2] especially if second-language learners become an important part of your classes.

Diversity of Special Educational Needs Language is not the only way that students increasingly differ. Another new source of difference has been the inclusion of students with disabilities into classrooms with non-disabled peers. In the United States the trend actually began in the 1970s but accelerated with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, and amended again most recently in 2004 [3] In general this law guarantees free, appropriate education for children with disabilities of any kind—whether the impairment is physical, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral. The law recognizes that such students also need supports in order to learn or function effectively in a classroom with non-disabled peers, so it also supports the provision of special services (for example, special teaching assistants) and individualized educational plans to help the students be as successful as possible.

As a result of these changes, you are highly likely to have at least a few students with special educational needs in your classes, even if you never become a special education teacher and even if you have not had any personal experience with people with disabilities. You are also likely to work as part of a professional team focused on helping these students to learn as well as possible and to participate in the life of the school. For teachers, this turn of events is definitely new compared to circumstances just two generations ago, or even one generation ago. It raises new challenges about planning instruction (like “In practice, how do I find time to plan for individuals?”), and philosophical questions about the very nature of education, such as “What does it mean to say that a student has truly ‘learned’ something?” and “What in the curriculum is truly important to learn?” These questions will come up again in Chapter 5, where I discuss teaching students with special educational needs.

Lifelong Learning But the increases in diversity are not limited even to language or disabilities. Another recent change has been the broadening of the age range of individuals who count as “students.” Since 2000, half or more of all three- and four-year-olds have attended some form of educational program, either part-time preschool or full-time child care [4] Some public school divisions have moved toward including nursery or preschool programs as a newer “grade level” preceding kindergarten. Others have expanded the hours of kindergarten (itself considered a “new” program early in the 20th century) to a full-day program.

The obvious differences in maturity between preschoolers and older children lead the teachers of the very young to relatively flexible, open-ended forms of planning, and to relatively personal or family-like relationships with their young “students” than is typical of teachers of older students.[5] Just as important, though, may be the educational and philosophical debates that the growth of early childhood education has stimulated in the public and among all teachers. Some ask whether preschool and day care programs risk becoming inappropriate substitutes for families. Others suggest, in contrast, that teachers of older students can learn from the flexibility and open-ended approach common in early childhood education. For teachers, it is a debate that cannot be avoided completely or permanently, no matter what the grade-level or age of their students. In this book, it reappears in Chapter 3, where I discuss students’ development—their major long-term, changes in skills, knowledge, and attitudes.

But the other end of the age spectrum has also expanded. Even if they do not attend university, many individuals take courses well into adulthood. Adult education, as it is often called, often takes place in workplaces, but it often also happens in public high schools or at a local community college or university. Some adult students may be completing high school credentials that they missed earlier in their lives, but often the students have other purposes that are even more focused, such as learning a trade-related skill. The teachers of adult students have to adjust their instructional strategies and relationships with students both to challenge and to respect the special strengths and constraints of students who are adults.[6] The students’ maturity often means, for example, that they have had life experiences that enhance and motivate the learning of new skills and knowledge. But by the same token they may have legitimate personal responsibilities—such as parenting or a full-time job—which compete for study time, and that leave adult students less tolerant of teaching that they consider irrelevant to their personal goals or needs. These advantages and constraints highlight similar issues that also occur to a lesser extent among “regular” high school students, who sometimes have legitimate family or job responsibilities as well. In this way the increases in adult education have affected secondary teachers even when the teachers do not work with adults directly. How can teachers make sure that instruction does not waste students’ time? Or stated more positively, how can they make instruction truly efficient, effective, and perceived as truly valuable? Later in this book (especially in Part 2, about assessment and instruction), I will discuss this question from a number of perspectives.


  1. Pitt, K. (2005). Debates on ESL teaching and learning: Culture, communities, and classrooms. London, UK: Routledge.
  2. Gebhard, L. (2006), Teaching english as a second or foreign language: A teacher self-development and methodology guide, 2nd edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  3. United States Government Printing Office. (2005). (ref still needed)
  4. National Institute for Early Education Research. (2006). Percent of population age 3 and 4 who are enrolled in school. Retrieved March 21, 2006.
  5. Bredekamp, S. & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice, Revised edition. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  6. Bash, L. (Ed.). (2005). Best practices in adult learning. Boston: Anker Publications.