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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ask Amanda ... high expectations for all students

Q: One of the issues I am pondering at the moment is the NSW Quality Teaching Model and ways of incorporating it in my pedagogy. Part of this is the social justice component that deals with raising expectations for children with special needs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students and children from lower socio-economic groups. I am really wanting to find ways of increasing academic outcomes for these groups of children in my class and am wondering what your thought on this issue are.

For those who are not familiar with the NSW Quality Teaching Model you might want to visit

Intellectual Quality

One dimension of the QT model is intellectual quality, or a focus on “important, substantive concepts, skills and ideas.” p9 It is about involving students in analysing, problem-solving and developing their own deep understanding of key academic concepts.

The difficulties faced by students who have different language and/or cultural backgrounds, or differences in self-direction or higher-order thinking skills, is that the basic skills involved in these processes become a stumbling-block. Hammond (2008) discussed this in the context of students with English as a second language (ESL). Essentially, her research suggested that to raise academic performance and meet the standards set by the QT model it was necessary to increase focus on language and literacy support.

This idea could be extended to students of differing abilities. For example, students with developmental delays, such as those with Autism or Down Syndrome, will struggle with the processes of higher-order thinking as well as communication and metalanguage. It is essential, then, in order to raise academic performance that these skills be explicitly taught within the curriculum.

Self-directed learning can be difficult for a range of students with disabilities, so the idea of scaffolding is essential. If you want a student with autism to be involved in problem-solving, you will need to explicitly teach the process. For example, you may have a step-by-step flow chart of questions that will lead the student to finding a solution to a problem. This makes the process explicit and concrete, rather than abstract.

Metalanguage will also be a stumbling block for students with language, literacy or developmental disabilities. The element of intellectual quality that requires lessons that “explicitly name and analyse knowledge as a specialist language (metalanguage)” p11 is a significant element for children with diverse needs. However, we need to think of that knowledge on three levels when teaching to ensure that we don’t overwhelm students with too much new language. We need to think about the fact that what may be a new word or concept to a student with language, literacy or developmental disability will not be the same as other children in the classroom.

Conway (2008) discusses the importance of prioritising content and vocabulary into three categories when learning:
* Must know – information essential to mastery of the topic
* Should know – what the majority of students will learn in the topic, but additional to basic mastery
* Could know – this may be seen as extension work

When working with children who have diverse needs, we still need to maintain high expectations (QT dimension 2 quality learning environment). However, we need to focus on mastery learning. That is, don’t expect the child to master the “should know” if they haven’t first mastered the “must know”.

It may also mean that we need to look at alternate forms of communication, such as pictures, role play, and project or hands-on work, to ensure that the students have the greatest chance of being able to demonstrate and “converse” about what they know.

For students with behaviour or emotional difficulties, or students who have a long history of “failure”, being confronted with new language, unstructured or self-directed learning, or expectations that they feel are unachievable can be a cause for distress and may limit their involvement in learning. So in order to meet the dimension of intellectual quality for these students, we need to be conscious of building a scaffolding system constructed from tasks broken into smaller parts, a focus on mastery learning, and frequent praise and reinforcement of even the smallest successes. It is also important to teach them how to self-assess so that they develop their own, inner sense of success to replace the prior experiential sense of failure.

In conclusion….

While I won’t go further with this discussion at this time, I just want to note that the whole dimension of significance is critical to teaching children with disabilities or diverse needs.

For example, if you don’t tap into the interest areas of a child with Autism or Aspergers, it will be very difficult to ensure the element of engagement within the dimension of the quality learning environment. This doesn’t mean that you have to teach every lesson about trucks if that is the child’s interests, but it does mean that you should incorporate examples, rewards or narratives about trucks within your lesson at some point.

For children with developmental delays it is essential that you link everything back to their experiences of real life. This ensures that you are helping them “see” what you are teaching them, making the concept concrete rather than abstract.

And if you ensure that you incorporate some language and examples that come from the cultural knowledge of students, then you are more likely to ensure that they are engaged.

The dimension of significance (eg. using student interests, learning style, background knowledge, culture and real life experiences) is an essential tool in ensuring more time is spent teaching than focusing on behaviour management in the classroom.


Conway, R.N.F (2008) Adapting Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Strategies. In P. Foreman (Ed) Inclusion in Action, p95-163. Thomson: Australia.

Hammond, J. (2008) Intellectual challenge and ESL students: implications of quality teaching initiatives.(english as a second language)(Report). Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 1-JUN-08 retrieved 11th July from:

Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate (2003). Quality teaching in NSW public schools. Retrieved 11th July from:


Shelley July 11, 2009 at 3:18 PM  

That is an interesting post Amanda. I have a question for next month - what does research generally say about aides and aide time - I am wondering for example how effective an hour's aid time a day might be as opposed to 1.5 days with an aid there all the time.

Sue July 17, 2009 at 10:06 PM  

Hi Amanda,
Just following up on what Shelly is asking about I have been really concerned about a growing trend which seems to be happening in schools at the moment. That being, that teacher aides are more often teaching students with special needs than their teachers are. Also that much of the planning seems to be left up to teacher aides too.
Over the years I have seen many kids who come to a special education setting after completing their primary schooling who are seriously aide and prompt dependent. It is an even greater problem is schools where a student may have had the same ( well intentioned) teacher aide for the whole of their primary schooling.

Amanda July 17, 2009 at 11:18 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda July 17, 2009 at 11:21 PM  

This is definitely something we have to think about in terms of resourcing and training of both teachers and aides. In our course on inclusion we ask students to plan for hypothetical students on the assumption that they don't have a teacher's aide. Often there is a realisation of just what children are capable of if we provide materials and activities adequately adjusted for their needs. I won't try to address it in depth here, but just wanted to acknowledge that I will discuss it in more depth at the end of the month ...

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