Cultivate Students’ Uniqueness

Use diversity and individuality to empower student learning.

Topics: Equity and Diversity

How often do we consider the knowledge children have before they come to school? Are we aware of their personal interests, cultural influences, lived experiences, and subject-matter background knowledge? Can we rely upon that knowledge to inform our instructional planning and assessments?

Using an asset-based approach can help cultivate and enhance students’ unique skills and abilities, help navigate how your school approaches teaching and learning, and improve the culture of your classrooms. An asset-based approach recognizes student diversity as a benefit to their learning abilities and capabilities.

When working with diverse learners, reflect on how students from different cultures and languages are labeled. Consider the term English language learner (ELL). Upon examination, the term could connote a deficiency by conveying the message that the learner lacks full English language capabilities.

Students who speak “English as an additional language” (EAL) has been suggested as an alternative. When one reads this, the student is perceived as at least somewhat literate in one or more languages, and educator perceptions of the student’s language abilities jump—they view the student as having a bank of literary knowledge in their native, second, or third language that could help them acquire English proficiency. The term “bilingual learners” is another alternative.

Addressing Assets

Research on teaching and learning in the past 30 years has demonstrated that an asset-based approach to classroom instruction such as this can lead to improved outcomes for children from diverse socio­economic, cultural, and geographic settings.

Schools are using culturally responsive teaching to incorporate respect for diversity into curriculum, classroom management, assessment, and family engagement. Addressing student individualities to personalize learning experiences helps link known concepts and experiential learning to new learning.

A student’s uniqueness is not identified by a talent, such as athleticism, nor is it being a “gifted” learner. Instead, a child’s uniqueness lies in how they are wired for learning and contributing to society. How can we discover each student’s uniqueness to understand and foster individuality? We can start by looking at students as being rich with assets that benefit their capacity to learn.

It’s said that the two most important days in a life are “the day you were born and the day you find out why.” When we approach learning with a mindset based on students’ assets, we can value each for what it brings to the classroom. We have the opportunity to embrace those student assets as resources for growth, development, and continuous improvement.

Collaborate to Cultivate

Collaborative learning methods can support individual recognition and cultivation of unique abilities, as well as provide opportunities for each student to work with others and strengthen social and collaborative skills.

Let’s look at five strategies to promote asset-based teaching in the classroom:

  1. Model. Give praise based on the process, not the product. Instead of stating, “I love your drawing,” highlight the specific skill demonstrated in the process, such as, “I love how you planned your drawing and paid such close attention to each detail.” Providing specific feedback better equips students to self-reflect upon their abilities and apply critical thinking skills.
  2. Observe. Make observations on what the student is doing well, not what they might struggle with. For instance, instead of saying, “Make sure to use proper writing form in your letters,” you can instead state, “I appreciate your creativity and persistence.” This can help strategize the next steps to challenging a student in their areas of strength and cultivating unique skills. Further, this provides you entry to coach them on interpersonal skills such as empathy, resilience, persistence, and self-discipline.
  3. Learn. Be intentional with your conversations. Seek to learn about each student, then share what you learn with them. If a student is a soccer player, for example, you can ask them how practice is going and what they have been working on to improve. You can use soccer references to make connections to concepts in their learning, making lessons individually relevant. It’s a win-win, because the student becomes more articulate and self-aware as you learn details about them.
  4. Plan and incorporate. You can now incorporate any combination of your students’ assets into lesson plans, making the atmosphere of your classroom engaging and real. One way to capitalize on student interests is to implement project-​based learning such as an independent research project.
    Projects should tap heart, head, hands, and mouth. Heart is choosing a topic based on a personal passion or interest. Head refers to the research—learning everything they can. Hands means doing something with the knowledge to make a difference. And mouth lies in the presentation of the project. The goal is to have students walk away with a love of learning, be more curious, take risks, and reflect on the experience.
  5. Assess continuously. As you identify student strengths, you will become more intentional about the curriculum. A culturally responsive school will be a warm, trusting environment where student differences are celebrated and assets are highlighted. Students will feel ownership in their learning and see their interests reflected in it. And knowledge will cement itself, since everyone remembers what they enjoy doing best.

When we consider the assets students bring to classrooms, learning becomes more personalized and relevant to learning needs. By uncovering, cultivating, and empowering students’ unique abilities, we can help them apply their knowledge and skills to better contribute to society.

Stephanie Knight-Hay is a senior adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University’s College of Education.

Marjaneh Gilpatrick is associate vice president of statewide and regional initiatives at Northern Arizona University’s Academic and Workforce Alliances.

Tracy Vasquez is an assistant professor and chair of professional growth and development at Grand Canyon University’s College of Education.