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Teaching and Learning Difficulties: Cross-curricula Perspectives

ACER review

Teaching and Learning Difficulties: Cross-curricula Perspectives, Westwood, P (2006). Wilks, S (Ed) (2005). Melbourne, Australia: ACER Press. RRP $34.95.

In the introduction to Peter Westwood’s latest educational guidebook, Teaching and Learning Difficulties: Cross-curricula Perspectives, the author quotes from a senior research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, Dr Rhonda Farkota, to summarise his position on the role of professional educators:

The one point on which academic agreement can be said to exist is that the vast bulk of the problems associated with student learning can be directly related back to the nature of the curriculum or the method of teaching, and are not due to any lack of requisite intelligence or innate inability on the part of our students. (Farkota 2005)

This focus on the importance of the teacher in students’ school experience should not come as a surprise: plenty of recent research has demonstrated that an effective teacher has more influence on the outcomes of students’ learning than any other factor. The interesting point that Farkota makes here and that Westwood emphasises throughout his book is that an ineffective teacher bears more responsibility for a disengaged student than any other factor.

With nearly 50 years of experience in education, Westwood has published many articles and books for educators. He has taught students from preschool to tertiary level, and much of his classroom career was spent teaching students with special educational needs. As such a well-informed expert, Westwood does not make his claim for teacher responsibility lightly. He acknowledges that many students will have inherent characteristics that will predispose them to learning difficulties, such as sensory impairment, low cognitive ability, learning disabilities, developmental delay, deficiencies in memory, or poor attention span. He also recognises that environmental factors, such as conflict at home, may cause students to have trouble applying themselves at school. Ultimately, however, he takes the line that teachers have a responsibility to adapt their methods to these student problems.

This is not, Westwood argues, a new concept. There is an established tradition of teacher-centred approaches to schooling, and Westwood draws on this to support his approach. Significantly, he chooses to quote from John Lembo’s seminal work from 1971, Why Teachers Fail:

While there are many complex factors, physical, psychological, economic and sociological, which account for each child’s school performance, the basic cause of failure is the schooling process itself. Students do not enter school as failures. When students ‘fail’ it is the practices which teachers and administrators individually and collectively employ that are at fault. (Lembo, 1971)

Thus, the purpose of Westwood's book is to guide educational professionals in identifying the needs of individual students and responding appropriately and effectively.

Westwood begins by identifying potential obstacles to student learning, in terms of curriculum and teaching methods. He contrasts them to research findings into students’ views of 'good' teaching, compiling a checklist that includes both instructional skills and humanistic traits. From this list he extrapolates a basic 'effective teacher' model, but stresses the importance of a teacher’s ability to respond outside such structures to meet individual student needs, otherwise labelled 'teaching adaptively' or 'differentiating instruction'.

Subsequent chapters provide theoretical background on teacher-centred and student-centred approaches to instruction. To approach a range of pedagogies, Westwood has categorised teaching methods along a continuum between 'teacher-directedness' and 'student-centredness', but he posits that all approaches contain an element of both, and that effective teaching involves finding the best balance in any given context. Following this argument, Westwood remains impartial to the merits of any given method over another. Strengths and weaknesses in each approach are discussed, and specific aspects of any approach that may cause or exacerbate learning difficulties are identified and addressed. He describes the benefits and the practical applications of each, but emphasises that no single approach will be suitable for every type of learning environment and requirement. A range of methods will need to be combined for best classroom practice depending on the type of learning vital to any particular lesson and the characteristics and needs of the students in any particular class.

Teaching and Learning Difficulties: Cross-curricula Perspectives references an extensive variety of international sources, drawing on literature, research, policies and practice from Britain, the United States and New Zealand, as well from Australia. Westwood confesses in his preface to a pet hate of parochialism, and so has attempted to make his work as relevant and accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Further to this aim, he has provided reference details for many online resources in an attempt to assist readers to easily direct their own further learning.

In addition to the discussion of conceptual approaches to teaching methods, Westwood directs attention to hands-on classroom interactions and strategies that influence learning and teaching. He considers that social interaction plays a large part in students' classroom experience. Even in teacher-directed methods, students learn not just through the teacher's instructions but through observing, imitating and communicating with the teacher and each other. This chapter explores scenarios involving student peer assistance and collaborative group work to maximise positive interaction in the classroom.

After establishing the big picture of the variety of approaches to overcoming teaching and learning difficulties, Westwood demonstrates the practical applications of these approaches to specific subject areas, beginning with a chapter on each of the fundamental academic skills of literacy and numeracy.

Distinctively for a book on such a broad topic, Teaching and Learning Difficulties devotes individual chapters to the specific subject areas, including science, social studies, history, geography and environmental education.

Teaching and Learning Difficulties: Cross-curricula Perspectives is part of a set of books by Westwood on the topic. Reading and Learning Difficulties examines the way readers process texts and identifies the knowledge and skills needed to become a proficient reader. Numeracy and Learning Difficulties looks at problem-solving strategies and skills to improve students' numeracy. Learning and Learning Difficulties: A Handbook for Teachers demonstrates ways to maintain students' attention; use explicit teaching, guided practice and task-approach strategies; and address students’ personal and emotional needs while working toward cognitive and academic goals.

Westwood's work is designed to help educators better understand and distinguish between the causes and outcomes of student learning problems. His practical advice informed by solid theoretical background will inspire education professionals to take a new approach to student learning difficulties.


This article was provided by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).


Bibliography

Farkota, RM 2005, ‘Basic math problems: The brutal reality!’ Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, vol 37, no 3, pp 10–11.

Lembo, JM 1971, Why teachers fail, Merrill, Columbus.


KLA

Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Numeracy
Literacy
Learning ability
Learning problems