The professor of educational psychology and exceptional learning at Australian Catholic University was one of the keynote speakers at the ACEL Leading [E]Quality Education: 2019 National Disability Leadership Summit.

All teaching makes assumptions about how students learn, Munro told attendees.

“I was young at one point too, and I made assumptions; I assumed that all the students I taught had enough vocabulary and symbolic knowledge for making sense of what I was teaching,” Munro said. 

“I assumed that they could all recall earlier experiences where we had investigated linear equation solving, that they could recall how to cope when they answered a problem incorrectly.

“I assumed they were all equally grabbed by learning quadratic equations as I was teaching it, that they identified themselves as maths learners so they were motivated to learn.

“I assumed they could all use all the appropriate cognitive skills and meta-cognitive skills to learn independently, and all I needed to do was just teach the maths.

“Now you might say ‘well yeah, what stupid assumptions to make’.

“But that's what a lot of teachers do now. A lot of teachers assume that all of the students in their class are operating in these ways.”

According to Munro, teachers need to differentiate their teaching practices according to the needs of each student.

“Because if I can do that, I'm in a better position to differentiate my teaching, differentiate the curriculum, differentiate the classroom climate and put in place learning outcomes where children will start learning automatically,” he said. 

How memory works for students with autism          

“One major issue for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the way they use their autobiographical episodic memory,” Munro said.

“So what these students often have difficulty doing is applying their bank of experiences to the current situation in which they find themselves in.

“Let's just imagine today.

“Now I had never been to this conference centre before, but I've been to earlier conferences. So I knew when I came through the door that I should try to find the reception early. I knew that from my experiential knowledge.

“I knew there'd be a place where we'd meet; I knew that there would be various speakers and so on.

“So my experiential knowledge, my past experience of conferences allowed me to expect a whole lot of things.

“But what if you couldn’t do that?

“What if I turned up at the conference and it wasn't like the last conference I went to? I mean, what would I do? I can't remember the earlier experiences…

“I know abstractly a conference is where I go to hear people talk. But what do I do? How do I cope?

“And this is the situation that a lot of people who have ASD find themselves in. They have difficulty using and applying their autobiographical episodic memory, which impacts on their emotional and cultural knowledge, self-awareness and thinking, and their ability to learn effective motor behaviours and ability to learn by imitation,” Munro said.

How teachers can address this

Munro proposed that teaching visualisation strategies to students struggling with reading could enhance their comprehension skills.

This involves cueing the class to think about the text in a verbal way. For example, having students look at the title and say it in other words, or getting them to suggest questions the text might answer. 

“We do a lot of this when we're reading a book; let's say about Little Red Hen,” Munro said.

“We say to the kids imagine you were there, what might have happened one or two minutes earlier? What might happen in five minutes time? What do you think the goose is thinking? What do you think the rabbit is thinking?

“And so we’re really encouraging the children to act on their imagery.

“We need to have them imagine events in pictures and we need to have them imagining their experiences changing.

“We need to have them inferring what might happen when they're reading because inferring is essentially an imagery thinking process.

“In other words I'm cueing them to recall their meta-cognition as readers to know how to work through the text.

“So through this cueing I can have the students gradually form knowledge of the text and this is what happens: I stimulated their experiential knowledge, action knowledge, abstract knowledge, emotional knowledge and cultural knowledge.

“So that's looking at each aspect of their knowledge and we know from all the work in educational psychology that people learn first through actions, then through images, then through more abstract symbolic systems."

What teachers can do

Munro said teachers needed to make their teaching accommodating and accessible for students who are otherwise going to be alienated.

“I believe it's our job to optimise the future learning options for every child,” Munro said.

Munro also said students are not on one continuum and all have different needs. 

“The reality is that each of the exceptional learners can and does learn.

“I really believe we need a model that doesn't involve individual differences of putting kids on an individual linear scale. But that looks at what they're doing in their brains in order to learn.

“When I can unpack how they go about learning and particularly how they go about knowing, because knowing is the critical thing, I'm much more able to differentiate my pedagogy, the curriculum, the classroom climate and the school culture.”

What school leaders can do

“For school leaders what I believe is missing in how we accommodate students who learn differently is an explicit model of learning as knowledge enhancement,” Munro said.

“If we're going to seriously and authentically help kids who have difficulty learning from regular teaching to be successful, school leaders need to do act.

“School leaders need to actually engage in dialogue about how to modify and fine tune teaching practices and how to allow these students to be successful.”

Munro asked the school leaders in the audience; how do teachers in your school think and see the exceptional learners in their classrooms?

“I mean how often in your school do your teachers during a staff meeting or a PD session actually talk about the assumptions that they're making?

“What I'm pushing here is that the professional knowledge of leaders and teachers is critical for lowering the boundaries to inclusion. And I want to argue that the network model of learning gives us a systematic framework for doing this."

The 2019 ACEL National Disability Summit brought together leaders from Australia and New Zealand to discuss the importance of quality education access for all students.

The two-day event featured international and locally renowned keynote speakers including Bree Jimenez, Michael Milton, Ian “Lofty” Fulton and Dr Denise Powell.