Catering for student diversity in the classroom is an increasingly important issue for teachers and principals these days. Class sizes in Hong Kong have historically been big, which presents obstacles when trying to give students more individualised teaching and attention.
In recent years, two other problems have aggravated the situation. One is the implementation of an integrated education policy. Students with special educational needs (SEN), who had attended special schools, are now placed in the mainstream, with resource supports given to the schools admitting them.
Such needs come in different shades, ranging from the more serious, such as autism, to those with physical handicaps. Teachers are obliged to receive training on how to help SEN students learn with other "normal" students, who already display great diversity in their learning abilities and academic motivation. Teachers are hard-pressed to teach such large classes with such learning diversity, and take them successfully through the same curriculum.
Another trend complicating the situation is the decline in school-age populations because of low fertility rates locally. Schools not admitting enough students are phased out or operate under the threat of closure. This leads to upward movement of academically less able students from Band 2 and 3 schools to Band 1 and 2 because of parent aspirations and greater availability of places in the upper-band schools. Often the result is a mismatch between teacher skills and student competence. Teachers used to students with good academic readiness have to deal with those with lower academic achievements in the same classes, often with great difficulty.
These two phenomena conspire to make life miserable for many teachers and school administrators. Mishandling a diverse student body can result in resentment from students and teachers, low learning motivation, sluggish academic progress, class disruption, behavioural problems, bullying of the SEN students, and teacher frustration and burnout. The overall learning and teaching effectiveness can subsequently be lowered and in the long run, that can lead to a decline in the academic standards of Hong Kong students as schools generally have to take in those with learning difficulties.
To tackle the problem, a multipronged approach is needed. As teachers now need a different skill-set to cater for student diversity, across-the-board teacher retraining is needed to help them acquire the attitude and skills to handle both the "normal" and SEN students competently.
In addition, a more inclusive school culture, which values different intelligences and learning styles, also needs to be fostered under more effective school leadership, which needs retraining too.
Expert support is a must for both strategies to work. The provision of educational psychologists has to be greatly enhanced. In recent years, the Education Bureau has implemented the school-based educational psychologist service scheme, whereby one psychologist serves up to eight schools. Such scale of provision naturally results in limiting the number of visits psychologists can make to schools in their care. Student assessments and case follow-ups often take up most of their time. They are inevitably done in a rush, too, as more and more students with learning problems surface.
Under the existing structural constraints, the psychologists cannot stay long enough in a school to observe students and identify and assess those with special needs. Nor can they intervene adequately to resolve them satisfactorily. There is another vital element now missing because of time constraints - helping schools develop measures to forestall learning problems by devising learning and teaching strategies and also by providing in-house training to help teachers meet local needs. It is clear that for the service to be effective, the educational psychologist-to-schools ratio has to be lowered. That would go a long way towards helping schools cater for student diversity.
Robin Cheung is a retired school principal