Category Archives: educational assistant

What’s in “Education for All” Besides the Concept of Universal Design?


Part 3 of “Education for All”

Education for All was written by a collection of administrators and professors lightly seasoned with a teacher.  It is a collection of good ideas for clarifying the strengths and needs of students and working out ways to teach them well.  Making the best use of it will require taking time to read it carefully and make note of the most useful ideas.  Some teachers may find the ideas too time consuming.  Not every idea is practical in every classroom, especially if there is only one teacher, but in principle, the ideas are promising.  Here is a brief guide.

As I noted in a previous post, the writers failed to make their point about Universal Design but they did a nice job of demonstrating differentiation in the second chapter.  They go on to make lots of useful suggestions for basic approaches to teaching.  Unfortunately, as you will find throughout the book, the suggestions are general; to get something specific and especially concrete that can go from book to classroom, you will have to turn to other books.  Some are mentioned in the bibliography, but they are not distinguished from the purely academic.  This may seem a trivial point but for a teacher hoarding every minute, the time involved in sieving a bibliography for nuggets of usefulness can be too much.

The writers do refer to a great teaching method, but one I wouldn’t normally recommend for K to 6 students.  The Expert Panel calls it Problem Based Approach (p. 17).  They haven’t quite grasped the concept of Ill-Structured-Problem-Based Solving they are actually trying to describe.  It is effective but needs careful design, firmness and support in order to work.  There is a reason it started with Harvard and the innovative McMaster medical school and not in someone’s grade 4 class.

The chapter on Assessment and Evaluation of students with Special Education Needs is useful for both the new teacher who is unfamiliar with the steps required in getting help outside the classroom for students and any teacher who has been confused by the red tape involved.  I have tried to create some charts to help teachers track steps and required information, but referring to this section would also prove useful.  For the charts, please see the post EDUCATION FOR ALL:  Stuff to Help Teachers in the next post.

Developing Learning Profiles: Know your Students

There are lots more charts in the next chapter to help teachers develop learning profiles of their students and the classroom.  I have adapted them somewhat to make them easier to download and use.  In the next post I will explain and offer the charts.  The one thing the ministry does not provide but strongly suggests is questionnaires for parents and children.  These are things teachers have not been trained to create.  I am working on some and will make them available but I strongly suggest teachers sit down with their own divisions and create their own.  My designs might be useful as a starting or discussion point.  The parent questionnaires might stay the same for all grades but student questionnaires will need modification for most grades.  Students may need some explanations about the questionnaires; doing it as part of a unit on data gathering as an authentic activity to demonstrate real life applications might be an effective way of killing two birds with one stone..

And Then We Get to the Part about Teaching in the Inclusive Classroom

Education for All spends three chapters outlining potential challenges for students in acquiring literacy and numeracy skills and ways of anticipating those difficulties.  This is probably the most useful part of the book.    A chart identifies these challenges and strategies for meeting the challenges.  The suggestions are excellent but abstract; busy teachers need concrete suggestions that can be applied immediately.  On the other hand, it is a good starting point for thinking about meeting these challenges.

Teachers would undoubtedly have been grateful for a list of books which had concrete methods, blackline masters and even lesson plans relevant to specific grades and subjects which met Education for All’s criteria.  For example, I have found the following three books invaluable: When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12 by Kylene Beers; I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani and Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom by Susan Winebrenner. In today’s inclusive classroom, I would add Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom, also by Susan Winebrenner.  I don’t know what books I would add for numeracy, but the teachers guides to many recent textbooks do offer excellent suggestions for accommodations.  These books, however, are favourites of this intermediate elementary teacher.  Primary teachers would have others.

Accommodations and Modifications: What’s the Difference?

A good explanation of the differences between accommodations and modifications and a detailed chart of many accommodations a teacher might make is provided in Chapter Nine.  A teacher might find it worthwhile to photocopy the chart and put it with the materials used to create lesson plans; it is a good general source of ideas.  A word of caution to teachers: if you are accommodating four students and modifying lessons for three more in addition to being a good (not a walk on water) teacher you may find yourself putting in extra hours every day.

You Say Syllabus, I Say Curriculum; Either Way There is a Lot of Work to Do!

For each subject, Ontario’s Ministry of Education sets out in broad strokes an outline of expected knowledge and skills outcomes.  They do not provide a detailed syllabus (or curriculum, depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside) with texts to use in order to reach those goals.  As a result, teachers end up reinventing the wheel.  In the primary and junior grades there are usually math texts with good to excellent teacher guides that the inexperienced teacher can follow.

The ministry is also creating Targeted Implementation and Planning Supports for Revised Mathematics (TIPS) that is available to grades 7 to 10 teacher at the moment. It is worth taking the time to figure out. The grade 7 and 8 teachers whose contracts are negotiated by the Elementary Teachers Federation will have to look under the Secondary section of the Education web site.  Nothing similar has been done for the elementary grades.

Aside from math, textbooks are rare in the primary and junior grades.  English textbooks don’t exist in grade 7 or 8.  It used to be that curriculum consultants created a model curriculum that reflected the goals of the ministry.  I still treasure my history binder from the board that I have interleaved with my notes, overheads and photocopied pictures.  However, budget cuts have put an end to curriculum consultants who have the time to do more than workshops on changes to the curriculum.

That being the case, the Ontario teacher is now expected to create the course that will result in the proposed outcomes, and the accommodations and modifications. At the same time she is dealing with more duties and has less help because there are fewer specialists such as teacher librarians.  Teachers in schools where there is another teacher with the same grade would be smart to team up with each other.  With careful co-operation, teachers may reduce their workload to half the planning, half the returning items to the literacy and numeracy resource room, half the time spent photocopying and a better chance of getting home in time for a game of Ultimate Frisbee or to chill with a good book.

Who Does the Work?

The principal is listed under people who will share responsibility with the teacher for inclusive education.  While a teacher may hope for the ideal principal on page 113, the reality is more likely to be a politician who has to watch her back; with tact and diplomacy teachers may get the facilitation needed to implement inclusive education. Principals who come close to that supportive, collegial ideal should be cherished. Teachers such as the Special Education teachers (the name changes regularly) who provide support in the classroom are not likely to be there for times other than language skills or math.  Classroom teachers might consider switching subjects (such as history, geography and science) which make use of literacy or numeracy skills occasionally with language arts or math time slots.  It would be an effective way to support these skills across the curriculum.

Notice that the principal shares responsibility and the special education teacher will provide support but the burden of work and responsibility rests on the shoulders of the classroom teacher.

Computer Assisted Technology

The document addresses computer assisted technology.  While it has useful things to say about it, the most important things are not said.  First, a child will frequently have to wait until the next school year to receive any technology he or she needs.   In the meantime it will be the parents and teacher who will be improvising and trying to keep the child’s spirits up.

Secondly, all technology requires a learning period; initially the student will learn quickly but then start to slow.  Although this is normal, it is discouraging; a student will get frustrated and want to quit.  The teacher should check to make sure everything is working properly and then work with the parents to encourage the student to keep going.  The assistive technology won’t prove really useful until it becomes a tool to do something else, not an end in itself. If you have read Outliers, you will know that mastery of any skill takes many hours of conscious practice.  Parents and teachers will have to resist pressure from the student to let them give up the new aid.  Things Take Time.

Tools for Implementing Inclusive Classrooms

It is fashionable in the educational world to talk about Professional Learning Communities and this document is not any different.  When I picked myself off the floor where I was rolling around laughing at the concept of having the time for a professional learning community, I indulged myself with the fantasy.  I think that the only thing better for a teacher than a professional learning community is personal time.  One of the difficulties (besides time) is that a professional community involving a principal who will eventually assess a teacher might inhibit frank discussions.  That being said, teachers who do have the time and opportunity for a real PLC should go for it.

The writers take five pages to suggest that Professional Development is a Good Thing.  All levels of education, including universities, should be involved and teachers should have plenty of opportunity to learn the skills needed for the inclusive classroom.  Unfortunately, they didn’t mention where the money is coming from.

Finally, the writers make 12 recommendations that should be read and considered by those who have the power to make them happen.  Parents should read them and trustees should read them and administrators should read them.  If inclusive education has any hope of working, these recommendations, practical professional development and, yes, professional learning communities need to happen.  Successful change does not happen by saying, “make it so”.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

NEXT POST: Giftedness & Education for All August 21

FINAL POST: Help for Teachers: Charts taken from, modified and created from Education for All August 26

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“Education for All” and the Myth of Universal Design


Part 2 of Education for All

Universal Design in Architecture

Universal design is a concept that has come to us from architecture.  Architects noticed that as the handicapped were increasingly accommodated not only by retrofitting buildings, but by designing buildings from scratch to meet the needs of the handicapped, a curious thing was happening: the general public was also benefiting from the designs.

The wheelchair ramps worked well for cyclists and parents with children in strollers.  The lower wash basins and levered handles made life easier for small children.  Even the subtitles on television have proven a boon in places such as noisy hospital waiting rooms.  And who hasn’t hit the big blue button with their elbow or their foot when trying to wrangle too many packages through a heavy door?  In fact, the accommodations that many of us thought would be expensive extras for the few have proven to be welcome improvements in the lives of many.

Now it sometimes happens that the lessons or ideas of one discipline cross over successfully to another.  A well-made woodworking tool becomes a surgical instrument and leads to an unexpected partnership between the toolmaker and the surgeon.   The sciences of psychology and neurology, the art of religion and the discipline of philosophy discover that more and more often they are saying similar things until a psychiatrist finds himself writing a guide to meditation, a neurologist writes a book on Zen and the Brain and another neurologist explores the importance of emotions and the meaning of consciousness.  The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education is offering collaborative graduate work in areas such as neuroscience.  These developments come from a willingness to explore an unordinary take on things using a combination of imagination, openness to new ideas and critical thinking.

Universal Design and Education

At first blush, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s embrace of universal design might seem to be one of these happy crossovers.  Their idea is that if the curriculum is taught in a way that students with learning disabilities can learn it, then the same method will work for all the students in the class.  The corollary is that with rare exceptions all students should be in the same class because they all can be taught well at the same time.

A Brief Review of Learning Disabilities

To clarify (and those of you who know all about LD should skip the next couple of paragraphs): by definition, a student with a learning disability has average intelligence or above and has a deficit in one or more areas that affect learning.  The student may have difficulty reading but no difficulty with mathematical concepts or may have problems using a pen or pencil to write neatly at a reasonable speed but can write wonderful stories using a computer.   Each person who has a learning disability is different from any other one; the only thing they all have in common is they are all at least as smart as the normal person.

Many students with learning disabilities (or as one student I know puts it: learning differences) only need some simple accommodations to be very successful.  One student may need to have someone else’s notes photocopied for him (because he can’t write fast enough and, at the same time, pay attention to the material being taught), more time on tests, to take fewer courses and have textbooks recorded (because he can’t read fast enough even though his comprehension is excellent).  Another student might need to use a laptop in class and answer some questions in note form.  A third might use a non-programmable calculator for a math test because she can do mathematics but not arithmetic.

As an aside, I must note that these so-called disabilities would hardly have been noticed in another time and place.  In a society where minimal literacy and numeracy was needed, what counted would have been how hard people worked, how well they did their jobs and character.  Few people a hundred years ago would have been expected to do much in school after grade eight and many would not have gone even that far.  I think we should remember that an LD is a very subtle insult to the brain and in the larger scheme of things should not have an impact on our view of the student as a whole.

To return to universal design and education, it would be a great savings in time and money if universal design worked in the classroom.  However, for most LD students it is helpful to have highly structured assignments whereas the intellectually talented profit from open-ended assignments.  Combining high structure and open-endedness in an assignment can be done and I have created assignments that worked for everyone, however they generally took a considerable amount of planning and the most successful one took three teachers to deliver it.  The teacher librarian and the computer teacher participated in the delivery of the project.

While teachers of primary students are guaranteed a maximum of 23 students in their classrooms, teachers of grade seven and eight may have 34 students in theirs.  By the intermediate years, the gap in learning has grown considerably between the weak students and the strong students.  Throw in students who are learning disabled and some who have behavioural problems and a teacher will have her hands full trying to successfully meet everyone’s needs.  Should she try to teach using a single design the equivalent of an architectural ramp or lowered sink, she will find herself with a large group of bored, restless students.

An Example of Universal Design or Differentiation?

The example of Universal Design (P. 12) in Education for All is more like the architectural equivalent of a sign saying UP! at the base of a ramp, ladder, elevator and escalator; a health professional beside the sign would choose the most appropriate way for each individual to ascend and still get their heart rate to an aerobic level.  However, it is a wonderful example of differentiation in teaching a lesson in literature; what it does not explain clearly is how a teacher might handle the differentiation in a class of thirty if some of the students will need the teacher’s guidance for periods of time.  It especially does not address how to deal with students with behavioural challenges in this kind of situation; many of them need direct supervision.

The lay person reading this may assume that an educational assistant would be available but EAs are becoming more and more restricted to students with physical handicaps and are rarely assigned to classrooms anymore.  Administrators might point out that special education teachers are now coming into the classroom to support the regular classroom teachers.  This is true, but they are not available full time to any class so they focus on the three Rs, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

I have a sneaking suspicion that as time goes by, money for special education teachers will be cut until only the very severely affected students will receive support.  The argument will be that since many teachers are now receiving the equivalent of the old Special Education Certificate Part 1 as part of their B. Ed., they will soon be equipped to deal with behavioural, LD and other special education needs.  What the Ministry, administrators, academics and the public will forget is that this kind of teaching not only requires knowledge but also experience and time.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

NEXT POST:  EDUCATION FOR ALL: an analysis of the content.  August 14th

FOURTH POST:  Giftedness and EDUCATION FOR ALL: August 21st

FIFTH POST: Charts for Teachers derived from EDUCATION FOR ALL:  August 26st