Special Education

Near the end of my teacher’s college program, Nipissing put on an assistive learning tools workshop. We were all duly wowed by the latest version of Dragonspeak, the latest in PDAs and how they could be used in learning, and a surprising array of speech, numeracy, literacy and subject specific learning tools. It was an all day seminar, and it really had an impact on me. It also made me question the intent of all of this fantastic equipment.

Over and over, it was targeted at at-risk/below grade students who struggled with whatever the technology was supposed to help them overcome. Dragonspeak, there is no doubt, helps students see language in terms of the written word, but why does it need to be so carefully guarded from the general population? If a student struggling with literacy could use Dragonspeak to gain a foothold on something beyond their reach, couldn’t it just as easily help a group of media students get their ideas down in solid form while they were storyboarding a video? Couldn’t it assist a gifted writer who wants to try a different way of getting over writer’s block? These people aren’t anywhere near failing, but if we’re only using assistive tech to help those failing expectations, I think we’re wasting a valuable opportunity.
Those many learning tools we saw that day impressed upon me just how helpful technology could be in learning, I just didn’t understand why it all had to be so Special focused. Any one of those tools could help anyone learn. Learning isn’t easy, for anyone, it’s a challenge to stay focused, it’s a challenge to make the time and space to write, even if you think of yourself as a writer. It’s a challenge to get work in on time, even if you’re a top student. I watch excellent students in the form of teachers doing their Masters struggling with this very issue all the time.
In my senior year of high school, my grandfather died, our family pet died and shortly thereafter my father was involved in a near-fatal traffic accident. Always a B student (why draw unnecessary attention to yourself), my grades slipped, assignments weren’t handed in and things went from mediocre to worse. My teachers berated me for time management, I was not working “to expectations”. I didn’t tell anyone about what was going on at home, I was trying to hold it (and a shaky family) together as the oldest son. I’d never been special enough to get a special education, and the standard one wasn’t fitting now. I squeaked out of high school and it took me 3 years to get my self together and take another run at it in order to get grade 13 and go to university.
Whenever I have a student, regardless of what their Individual Education Plan does or doesn’t say, suddenly miss work, or class, I don’t start grading them in terms of expectations, I ask myself what’s going on in the other 99% of their lives that has little or nothing to do with my classroom. Sometimes I ask, sometimes they tell me, often they don’t, but I don’t take that as license to grade them to Ministry expectations.
Dealing with the system now as a parent for the first time has only enforced my understanding of how streaming generally works. My son is lucky in having 2 educated, very motivated and able parents who advocate for him strenuously. His challenges at school aren’t overwhelming, but many students face much worse obstacles, and don’t have the support at home to take on the system effectively. On a purely experiential basis, we could as easily stream academic/applied and essential into stable family/broken family/no-visible family, and you’d find a startling correlation between our current “academic” system of measurement and an often ignored key indicator of school success.
Differentiating, student centred learning and assistive technology all aim to produce an education that helps a student on as much of an individual basis as we can manage in a system that often has too many people and not enough money. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have Special Education, it would all be special education, in the meantime, you have to ask yourself, how often have you had grades dictated by a lack of access to assistive technology or poor student performance due to their circumstances beyond school?
Maybe one day education will just be special, but I don’t see that happening as long as we set up static, specific expectations and expect students to achieve them like automatons. An education has surprisingly little to do with building a better person. It’s a biological process, deeply tied to our physical development, circumstances and opportunities, but we still want to assess it as though it were a Victorian industrial process.