LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

2.3 Diversity Issues

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According to a survey completed during phase one of this project, experienced instructors agree that LBS practitioners, “need to know how to deal with diversity issues in the classroom”.

Of course, most see that diversity, in and of itself, is not the problem. Diversity broadens our horizons and enriches our culture. Diversity is a good thing. When, however, you put the words, “diversity”, and “issues” together, then, you are talking about something else. The term, “diversity issues”, in the context of the LBS classroom, connects the presence of “challenge“ or “difficulty” (issue) to the idea of “different-ness”, or whatever it is that sets some people apart from others (diversity). Diversity is not an “issue” when there are no difficulties attached to it.

In this unit, when we talk about learners’ being affected by “diversity issues”, we are referring to any influences, conditions, or sets of circumstances that:

  • result in a learner’s exclusion or feelings of isolation,
  • always seem to get in the way of a person’s being treated fairly,
  • keep a person from being involved, or from fully participating,
  • continue to have an adverse influence on a person’s learning.

This training approaches diversity issues from two different angles:

  1. First, we look at diversity issues that produce different barriers to learning for individual learners and explore how those issues affect the learner in day-to-day life. We ask what the learner needs in order to deal with these issues in a positive way and what the instructor can do to help make this happen.
  2. In the next section, 2.4: Creating a Positive Learning Environment, we look at diversity issues that can exist for particular groups of learners and try to establish how the learners’ perceptions of those differences can affect the learning process for individuals and for the group as a whole. We also identify strategies that support learning in groups and foster unity within diversity.

Back to diversity issues for individual learners

When we talk about diversity issues with respect to individual learners, we are referring to these kinds of things: influences, conditions, and sets of circumstances that individual learners have in their lives that adversely affect their ability to learn. We’re talking about things that exclude them, make them feel isolated and keep them from participating. We are looking to see what affects their ability to function in the classroom, in society and in daily life. What continually weighs them down?

Some instructors refer to the extra burdens that learners carry as additional “baggage”. Learners coming into our LBS classes often bring a lot of baggage with them. The nature of that baggage and the level of impact it has on the learner has considerable influence on the learner’s ability to succeed in the program.

Instructors who are fully aware of the burdens learners carry are better equipped to help the learner deal with the effects. Sometimes these issues can be flagged early on during the assessment and initial interviews with the learner, but often the full impact and influence of a learner’s issues only comes to light, bit by bit, as you get to know the learner better.

It is the instructor’s professional challenge to come to a good understanding of the learner and the nature and power of the “baggage” he or she carries in order to choose the best resources, use the best approach, and work in ways that will best help the learner push past the barriers.

What kinds of burdens do literacy learners tend to carry?

Negative-effect issues that learners bring along with them stem from a wide range of possibilities.

They may come from:

  • past experiences – from external or internal influences absorbed and learned in the experiences of life. They can be the results of the influences of other people during formative years, or past events or situations that have shaped the learner’s beliefs and values.
  • present conditions in the learner’s physical, mental and emotional health resulting from choices the learner has made (or continues to make) along the way. Other negative-effect conditions such as FAS, ADD or LD are present from birth, and still others, such as aphasia, can come as a result of trauma or injury. Present conditions also include the learner’s sense of self.
  • life circumstances that seem to conspire against, and overwhelm the learner. They can include: conflicting roles and responsibilities, cultural expectations, socio-economic status, family demands, and the logistics of managing daily life.

Difficulties arising from any one of these possibilities can be enough to create significant barriers to learning. Many of our learners are affected by all three.

Click on Impact Chart - Burdens. Here you will find a more detailed description of these influences and a chart that highlights some of the more common examples of issues that learners face in each category.

It is not reasonable to think that you, as the literacy instructor, have the responsibility or the ability to remove “baggage” from a learner’s life. You can, however, do a lot to minimize the affects that baggage brings.

How can an instructor tell when diversity issues are having a negative impact on someone’s learning?

  • if it seems clear from a learner’s initial assessment that the learner has the ability to learn, and
  • if the learner is working on materials that are appropriate for her literacy level, and
  • if the instructor has provided adequate information and prior instruction in engaging ways, and
  • still the learner is struggling on a daily basis, it is likely true that some external issue is getting in the way.

When a learner is continually struggling to make any headway, he usually feels very uncomfortable in the learning environment, and his distress will be evident in a number of ways.

The most obvious signs, of course, include the many mistakes, frequent expressions of frustration, mental blocks like the inability to remember how it goes, and, ultimately, the lack of progress, but these signs may not be the only things that prompt the instructor to ask, “What’s going on here?” There are other signs and behavioural signals that indicate all is not well and point to other factors that are holding the learner back.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?
What signs would you recognize that seem to point to particular problems such as emotional or mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, physical abuse, low self-esteem, educational deprivation, etc.?

What can the instructor do?

Here are a few suggestions that can help you be prepared to deal with the effects that diversity issues have on your learners’ progress.

  1. Be vigilant and watchful in order to learn as much as possible about the issues your learners face and to determine the level of impact these issues have on the learners’ ability to learn.
  2. Be careful not to jump to conclusions prematurely on the basis of only a few “signals”. Different issues can present in similar ways. (e.g. there are many different reasons why a learner may be regularly listless and lethargic to such a degree that she cannot work successfully.)
  3. When the time is right for the learner, provide explicit, current and accurate information about diversity issues in ways that respect and preserve the learner’s dignity and right to privacy.
  4. Provide an atmosphere for learning that will best support the learner as he works to overcome his particular barriers.
  5. Be aware of the corresponding realities in day-to-day life outside the classroom that often accompany particular diversity issues.
  6. Choose appropriate materials and activities that will support the learner in dealing with his or her issues and in making better choices in day-to-day life.

Read the following two links for information and specific ideas for working with learners who have diversity issues.

Impact Chart - Burdens This link revisits the chart you saw earlier on issues that can lead to obstacles to learning, but now it also shows:

  1. the kind of impact each different issue can have on a learner,
  2. needs that must be met in order for the learner to move beyond these obstacles.

What To Do This link gives seven strategies that help to address the barriers to learning that come from diversity issues.

The following links pick up three specific issues: 1) physical and emotional illness, 2) conflicting roles and responsibilities, 3) mental ill health, and examine more closely the negative impact they can have on a person’s ability to learn. Read the links that are relevant to working with your particular learners.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

Give some thought to your position on offering the level of support and accommodation suggested in these readings. What in your mind is worse – providing too much understanding and support or too little? Would you be more likely to say, ”This learner needs support in accepting and dealing with his health issues. I think that will result in his gaining greater self-confidence and that will help him move forward.”, or “What this learner needs to learn is that people don’t get breaks in the real world. A boss at work won’t let an employee rest when he is tired. This learner needs to learn to take responsibility for himself and learn to get on with things as best he can.” ? …Kind of makes you want to say “Hmmm”.

What guidelines would you recommend to other instructors for working with learners with situational, physical, mental or emotional problems?

Creating a program that is personally relevant for learners is critical to maintaining the learners’ interest and motivation. The key to creating relevance is awareness of what day-to-day life looks like for learners outside the classroom. Click on the following link, and check out the chart that has descriptors for how people function at five levels in society. Look for the descriptors that reflect realities for the learners in your class.

Real Life -This link provides a framework for gaining insight into what “real life” outside the classroom looks like for many LBS learners.

SIDETRIP for experienced instructors

If you would like to see an example of a planning process for developing curriculum that meets these kinds of real life needs, Click on: Plan for Real-to-Life Learning

This link builds on information from the previous one and shows how to select curriculum content that targets specific real-life needs for learners who are functioning at different levels in society. It also provides worksheets and a sample to show you how to go about this task.

Principles of Adult Learning

The Learning Environment

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