RTI Action Network

Becoming the Humble Expert: The Essential RTI Role

By: W. David Tilly III, Ph.D.Published: April 30, 2008
Topics: Leadership, Progress Monitoring

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It sounds like it ought to work. It makes sense. It works in medicine. So it should work in education as well. But it doesn’t, according to a large body of research conducted over the past 30 years. Prescribing effective interventions based on measured student characteristics, that is. Many students have received less-than-effective instruction based on these practices, and we need to stop perpetuating them if things are going to improve.

Let me explain. For years we have spent much time and energy assessing things about students with the assumption that knowing about these “things” will inform what and how to instruct. The “things” I am referring to here fall into a number of different categories, but all reflect characteristics innate to our kids. So, for example, something we might assess is preferred learning style. Is my daughter a visual learner (learns best through information taken in through their eyes)? Perhaps my niece is a kinesthetic learner (learns best via tactile input). Or perhaps my grandson is an auditory learner (best processes information taken in through the ears). The assumption here is that after assessing the student’s modality we will then be able to match appropriate intervention strategies to their preferred modalities.

Another “thing” we might assess is a student’s processing style. So for example, is the student a simultaneous or sequential processor of information? Specific tests of these characteristics have been devised and again, specific interventions have been prescribed based on the findings. The list of internal student characteristics that we can measure approaches infinity. Even the mild disability categories in the IDEA law have been used over the year to prescribe specific types of interventions. We used to hear things like “students with learning disabilities need a multisensory approach to instruction” or “students with mild mental retardation learn things very slowly, so we must limit the amount we select for each lesson and teach them slower” and the list goes on.

The thing that all of these assessment-to-intervention practices have in common is that there is little to no evidence to suggest that they work.  These “matching treatment to student characteristics” approaches have become part of education’s folklore.  And we’ve used them for many years, despite knowing that they really didn’t work, because we didn’t have a viable alternative.  Now we do.  It is called Response to Intervention (RTI).  And to take advantage of it, we all must become Humble Experts.

Nearly everyone involved with students who struggle learning are experts.  Parents are the paramount experts about their children.  General education teachers are experts on the school’s curriculum and instructional practices and on students.  Special educators and related service professional (e.g., School Psychologists, Speech-Language Pathologists, etc.) are experts in assessment and remediation.  We are all experts!  Despite our expert status, however, we all must demonstrate a certain amount of humility about what we do and do not know.  No matter how many years of training and experience we have, we cannot predict with certainty what is going to work instructionally for a student prior to trying it.  That does not mean our collective expertise is worthless, it means that we must assess the things most related to effective interventions (e.g., student SKILLS, instructional and curricular variables), take our best guess based on our collective wisdom, and monitor the student’s progress using technically adequate progress monitoring measures.  We must be expert enough to evaluate the student’s progress over time and humble enough to change our instruction based on the student’s learning trajectory.  When we do these things, we become Humble Experts and indeed, we become the experts in the schools with the highest likelihood of ultimately selecting the curriculum and instruction that will work for the student.

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Read what others had to say...

I agree that we should be humble experts and understand that we do not know everything that will work for a student. I like the fact that the article talked about different learning styles and how educators need to understand and differentiate at times to meet the needs of various students learning style. In which, not only way of learning will fit for all students. The article also discussed that RTI can be a positive change towards providing and learning about what is the best learning approach for a student. In which this is a way to be a humble expert that takes a look at the whole studen

Response to Nirmala
It is absolutely critical that teachers know their students! We completely agree here. The reality of the issue, however, if one looks from a research-based perspective is that no matter what theoretical framework one comes from (behavioral, neurodevelopmental etc.) we do not have tools with sufficient precision to prescribe with certainty effective interventions. Learning is a complex interaction between many factors and not all students learn the same way(s). Therefore, we must do our best assessing up front and be willing to monitor student progress over time to measure treatment effect

School Psychologist
Nirmala, It sounds like you've seen learning gains in your own students on interventions based around Dr. Levine's theoretical categories. I think that Dr. Tilly was saying that even though we may be confident in a certain theoretical framework, we still need to collect frequent, reliable, valid progress data on each individual student. You may be on to something promising with Dr. Levine's framework. On what measures have you seen student progress?

Special Educator
I agree that a skill based teaching/learning program would be the most beneficial for all children. I would like to refer you to the book 'A Mind At A Time' by Dr. Mel Levine. In this he mentions the eight neurodevelopmental systems and the preskills on which skills should be built. Assessments which are done on this basis will yield the correct profile of the child.Following this a suitable program can be drawn up for each child.It is very important for us as teachers to know the child intimately not only as a student but also as a person.

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