Adapted classrooms and inclusive learning have long been part of the educational system in Italy. As early as the turn of the twentieth century, Maria Montessori — founder of the now INTERNATIONAL Montessori school — adapted the traditional classroom and revolutionized teaching practices to the advantage of little learners. Since then, Italy has been a hub for this kind of activity, constantly seeking ways to improve both teaching and learning.
But what is an adapted classroom? And what is meant by “inclusive learning?”
Today, in Italy as in the rest of the developed world, more and more students are being diagnosed with learning disorders and disabilities — and not just dyslexia and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which everyone seems to know about. There are plenty of other types of learning disorders, too: dyspraxia (a developmental delay in coordination — so, movement problems), dyscalculia (a difficulty reading and interpreting integers — so, a number problem), dysgraphia (a difficulty in reproducing letters and numbers or putting them in the correct order — so, a handwriting problem), as well as language processing disorders, which prevent students from easily attaching meaning to sounds. Paired with this proliferation of learning hurdles is the decreased presence of aides or teachers for students with special needs, globally.
The easiest way to solve both problems at once, in my mind, is through the adaptation of classrooms and the practice of inclusive learning — in other words and in reverse order, by using teaching methods that respond to the common denominator of students’ needs in a setting that is inviting and accessible to every kind of learner it contains.
There are three main ways to adapt your classroom, especially as a foreign language teacher. We’ll be looking at all three.
- Physical ways to adapt your classroom There is no shortage of ways for a foreign language teacher with a little imagination and a lot of willpower physically to adapt a classroom. Why do it to begin with? Because some learners are more active than others, some are more social than others, some are more traditional than others. Experimenting with the physical layout of your classroom can help you identify the ways in which your students best learn, starting with the basics: their bodies. You can change the traditional desk-and-chair setting by rearranging desks in a U-shape or a long rectangle and having all students look inward as opposed to forward. You can get rid of the desks and chairs altogether and have them sit in a circle on the floor. Any physical changes you make to your classroom should be with the intention of facilitating the subject you are teaching for your students. Languages are communicative. They require interpersonal exchange. Having students engage with each other in a more relaxed physical setting might let down some of the walls that obstruct the way to language acquisition. Other easy ways physically to adapt your classroom include bringing in tangible learning tools (flashcards, objects, toys, thought buckets, balls, etc.) or making use of an interactive digital whiteboard instead of a traditional blackboard, when you have access to one.
- Social ways to adapt your classroom Along the same lines, social changes in your classroom — changes in the way your students interact with you and with each other — could drastically improve the quality both of your students’ learning and of your teaching. Social changes include mixing up classroom seating: abolishing assigned seating, encouraging to students to change position each class and try out different areas of the classroom (closer to the sources of stimulus, further from it, closer to similar peers, further from them), and moving around, yourself, as an instructor, within it, rather than staying anchored to the teacher’s desk. In group work, changing the social dynamic will also help your students discover how best they learn. At times, this might translate to putting all the “stronger” students together in one group so you can dedicate the bulk of your time to a group still struggling with the concepts being illustrated. At times, instead, this might mean pairing a student who has clearly mastered what is being taught with someone a little behind in that area, so they can help each other out. Learning from a peer is not the same as learning from a teacher. For some students, this closer point of reference is more familiar and relatable than a specialist. Another thing I like to encourage is free time. When a student has clearly completed the task at hand and has shown that s/he understands and has assimilated the information being taught, it is more than fair to grant that student an opportunity to relax, explore the classroom, stay engaged in the material by reflecting on it, but in a passive way. If you think your adult brain could use a break every now and then, imagine what your eight-year-old feels like! Of course, these breaks shouldn’t be disruptive to other students. But they do go a long way in rewarding positive learning habits and behaviours and fostering a real interest in the subject being taught.
- Pedagogical ways to adapt your classroom This section refers to the teaching methods and other tools that every teacher has in his or her wheelhouse. It has been scientifically proven that different people — and especially those with a learning disability — learn in a variety of different ways. Some learn through movement. Others are more visual learners. Some learn through sound. Others, through an analytical approach involving charts and maps. It is important to include as many different teaching methods are there are learners in your classroom. One easy way to do this is to be aware of all of them and incorporate at least one activity of each kind into your lesson. As a language instructor, this could mean including a physical activity on imperatives — jump! run! skip! dance! — or a more visual activity when teaching vocabulary — pictionary or other (moving) images. The sky is the limit. Allow your students to explore their different strengths and competences. BUT! Your activities should all be student-centred, not instructor-centred. This means all your activities should give students an active role and agency in the learning taking place. This could mean allowing them to draw out concepts on the blackboard (or interactive white board). It could mean having them do many role-playing exercises, wherein they are the key communicators. It could mean having them actively reflect on the linguistic (or other) concepts being taught in pairs or in small groups, referring to charts and tables. In all these approaches, by making learning student-centred, you are not only encouraging students to be the authors of their own success (and giving them the tools to do so), you are also encouraging the kind of pattern-based learning that will guarantee the transition from short-term acquired information to stored information.
There are a number of general ways in which you can improve the pedagogical quality of your lessons. Here are just a few:
- Have LOTS of small-group exercises — role playing, card games, etc. Students very successfully (and fairly reliably) learn just as well from each other as they do from an instructor.
- Limit each activity to no more than ten minutes. It will be difficult to hold onto your students’ attention beyond that point. Plus, doing so will help you pare your ideas down to the bare essentials — which is how students learn, too.
- Use colours, charts, diagrams, drawings, and not just examples on the board. Use a colour coding system for difficult concepts, phonetic/ phonemic categories (what does this sound like vs. how is it spelled), try to get students to associate difficult concepts with an approachable, cheerful element.
- Don’t overcrowd your lessons. Focus on 1-2 core concepts and have your students practice them at length. This might slow down the curriculum initially, but it does ensure that students get a very solid base in the lessons they are being taught before building on top of it.
- Mix up your activities. In a foreign language class, this means moving regularly among listening exercises, oral exercises, written exercises, and reading comprehension exercises. Make sure your students have access to all four components in every lesson. Not all will respond well to each of them, but they are likely to respond very well to at least a couple.
- Encourage reflections and allow students to make mistakes. Very rarely does one student’s mistake represent only his or her misunderstanding. More often, instead, it signals that a concept was perhaps not effectively illustrated to the whole class or that not enough time was allocated to practicing it. Often, one student’s mistake is a learning opportunity for the instructor to understand where his or her students’ doubts or insecurities may lie.
- Particular to foreign language instructors: teach your students how correctly to use a dictionary! Even those with dyslexia and dysgraphia can benefit from the proper use of such a fundamental language learning tool. Dictionaries have become passé, but an overwhelming amount of mistakes I have seen in my students’ work could very easily have been avoided had they just looked up the word they (mis)used in a dictionary. Many don’t know how to get started. Show them!
I’ve drawn these tips from my experience both in training as a language instructor and in practice. They are by no means universal, but can easily be adapted to any subject at any level, with any age group. At the heart of inclusive learning is the ability to turn your classroom into a space of active engagement for everyone within it.
At Triple E Travel and its adjoining cultural centre in Montreal, we use these and other similar teaching methods in all our classes, with all our learners. The strength of our approach is in our willingness and ability to match these best practices in teaching with effective online tools that help our learners continue their journey at home. If you’d like more information about our courses or online learning tools, please send us an e-mail.
And just in case you missed our live-talk on adapted classrooms and inclusive learning last week, you can have a look at it here:
Grazie a tutti e a presto!