Tag Archives: special education

A practical health curriculum

Injury - face plant into the concrete floor on...

Injury – face plant into the concrete floor on our way home (Photo credit: Lee Turner)

While I am the last person to want to add to teachers’ work load, I do think it is time to teach a real health curriculum, starting in kindergarten.  We are facing difficulties with our health system and it is likely to get worse.  I have been surprised by how little people understand about dealing with minor illnesses and injuries; as our aging population increases, we will have more patients with increasing health needs.  We can’t avoid the need for medical professionals to treat serious illnesses but we can learn to recognise what is serious and what isn’t and how to reduce the load on doctors and hospitals.  People need to understand how their bodies function, especially to keep them well.  They need to know how to support their body’s effort to keep them well and how to recognise the seriousness of an illness or injury and how to respond.   And they need to know how infants and the elderly differ in their health needs.

I have done some research and discovered that much of the curriculum could be covered not only in health classes, but some science and even (economic) geography.  It would require some reshaping of the curriculum but, for example, cells are how human beings are constructed, sometimes repaired, attacked by bacteria and viruses and healed.  A biology curriculum would have to go further than just teaching cells, but the teaching of how cells operate in bodies may actually help improve retention of cell biology.

Ontario’s grade 1 to 8 curriculum is primarily concerned with making healthy choices:

Health Curriculum Grades 1 to 8

Healthy Eating.

Personal Safety and Injury Prevention.

Substance Use, Addictions, and Related Behaviours.

Growth and Development

Integration of Mental Health

This is good, but not enough.  A more thoroughly developed curriculum would empower our future citizens in taking responsibility for their own health.

I live in a city where a lot of people bicycle.  I have noticed that very few cyclists realise that they come under the same laws and regulations as cars.  There are some allowances made for parking bikes and occasionally they are allowed (the permission is posted clearly) to enter a road blocked to cars.  There are many bike lanes.

English: Graph of adult cyclist head injuries ...

English: Graph of adult cyclist head injuries versus helmet use in New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Driving a car without lights and using a cellphone while driving are both illegal here.  Recently a young woman was hit by a car as she cycled on the wrong side of the road at night without lights and while texting.  The local media did say the driver of the car was not charged but they did not make it clear how many violations this woman was guilty of.  In addition, she was not wearing a helmet.  Helmets are mandatory here for children (not adults) but many children and adults wear them sitting improperly on their heads, on top of caps or not firmly secured.  A great waste of money.

Carelessness causes accidents... Accidents slo...

Carelessness causes accidents… Accidents slow up production. – NARA – 535274 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a kid, the police used to come to the school to talk to us about road safety – as pedestrians and cyclists.  While many of us might have ignored the advice, at least we knew that what we were doing was either dangerous or illegal.  That program no longer exists.  Fire departments have trailers designed to teach fire safety and public health nurses used to come to school to teach personal hygiene and how to use a toothbrush.  These programs not only made an impression but it broadened students’ horizons to recognise what some of the resources in their community were.

I realise that changes need to be made to the way our health care is delivered and medical professionals are taking steps to streamline care without making it less effective.  That is not my field, however.  What I am proposing is that we educate our citizenry in how to care for themselves and when they need to seek professional help.

Including mental health is perhaps not more than a gesture as treatment is

Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

available only to those are seriously ill or who have enough money to pay for care.  Perhaps a country of people who understand mental illness, believe it can be treated and are aware of what mental illness costs in productivity are might decide that mental health also needs funding.

What I propose is a curriculum starting in grade one and largely delivered by the end of grade ten. My next post will give a detailed outline of the proposed health curriculum.

Related articles

3D thought experiment to understand the construction of the brain.

Thought Experiment Three: Vat.

(Photo credit: Sinead Fenton)

I find trying to create a 3D image of the brain in my head a tad difficult.  The diagrams in books are still two-dimensional however skilled the artist.  Pictures of cross sections don’t seem to help me.  The mathematically talented can probably visualise it, but I need something more.

This works for me as a thought experiment:  blow up a balloon and partly fill it with pale pink jelly whipped with milk or cream.  The jelly should

A Twisted Family Tradition ~ The Lime Jello Brain

A Twisted Family Tradition ~ The Lime Jello Brain (Photo credit: hurleygurley)

English: A cranberry jello salad made in a rin...

English: A cranberry jello salad made in a ring mold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

be a little short on gelatine so it cannot hold much shape unsupported.  Take a large blob of chocolate on a stick.  How large?  It should be about 2/3 of the

Mousse au chocolat (sur fond transparent)

Mousse au chocolat (sur fond transparent) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

volume of the jelly;  err on the side of being more.   Chocolate mousse would be better for authenticity but less practical.  Ideally the chocolate should be grey, but this grey chocolate is unattractive.

It’s our thought experiment, so chocolate mousse is fine.  Cut a few holes in the blob, then insert it into the balloon and finish filling the balloon with the pink jelly.  Some of the pink

English: Drawings of the cerebral cortex.

English: Drawings of the cerebral cortex. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

jelly will fill the holes in the chocolate.

Now coat the balloon in chocolate.  Again, chocolate mouse would be closer to the right texture but impractical. Your choice.  Mould papier-mâché around the balloon and allow to set.

Human cerebral cortex, Brain MRI, Coronal slic...

Human cerebral cortex, Brain MRI, Coronal slices of a hemisphere with gray/white (yellow) and pial (red) surfaces overlaid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine that you can dissolve the balloon, just leaving the jelly, chocolate and papier-mâché.  The papier-mâché is the skull; the thin coating of chocolate is the cerebral cortex and made up of grey matter, neurons. Notice how the wrinkling in the picture below increases considerably the area of the cerebral cortex and therefore the volume as well.   The pale pink jelly is the white matter, largely made up of myelinated axons. The chunk of chocolate in

the middle is the cerebellum, cerebellar and cerebrum, mainly made up of grey matter, except where the jelly fills the holes.  The stick is the part of the spine that uses grey matter.  Of course, the dried papier-mâché is the skull.


brains! (Photo credit: cloois)

It all looks delicious, what a shame about  the papier-mâché skull.  You could try to carefully cut away the skull, pick up the brain and put it on the plate.  Oops, the brain collapses under its own weight.  I hope the plate was right beside the skull, ready to catch the brain.


Rainbow-Jello-Cut-2004-Jul-30 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This thought experiment helped me understand why brains often bruise on the opposite side from where the head was struck.  I also realised how white matter can be effective as a transmitter of messages as it seems to be everywhere that the grey matter isn’t.

If you are interested in making a brain dessert, there are brain moulds around or use a ring-shaped jelly mould, fill in the hole with chocolate mousse and gently cover with almost set jelly.  Cover the whole thing with chocolate mousse and la voilà, an educational treat!

Two Animal Fables About Education: The Dangers of Metaphors!

There is a fable often told at teachers’ workshops and conferences, especially if the topic is exceptional children.  Exceptional is teacher speak for children who are either two deviations above or below the norm on an IQ test, students with learning disabilities or students with emotional or physical disabilities.

The Fable of the Animal School is told below.  It is a ridiculous fable for reasons I will explain afterwards.  Then I will tell an alternative fable.  Enjoy.

The Animal School: A Fable

by George Reavis

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

Does this fable have a moral?


The intention of George Reavis was undoubtedly to suggest that teachers should recognise student’s strengths and not push them in their areas of weaknesses beyond what they are capable of doing.

Unfortunately, by comparing animal to animal who have things they can do and things they cannot do at all, Reeves does a disservice to all but the most handicapped of students.  It suggests to many people that students should not be pushed at all in their areas of weakness.  I disagree with that.

Let me propose an alternate fable.

A Tale of Two Bunny Schools

Flossie and Saucy went to the same Bunny School.  Flossie was an amazing runner.  She won all the races at her school and sometimes the races against all the district schools.  She was weak at finding herbs and grasses and other good things to eat, especially when they were scarce but needed.

Her brother, Saucy, wasn’t much of a runner for a bunny, but he excelled at finding things to eat.  In fact, if it was good for a bunny to eat, Saucy would be sure to find it first.  Not only that, but Saucy could sniff a poisonous plant out before anyone got close enough to want to eat it.

Their teacher had read Reeves’ fable and applied the moral she thought she had learned.  Flossie was coached to greater heights, jumping and running.  Although she did take gathering lessons, she was not pushed to do better.  Sometimes her mark was bumped up … just a little.

Saucy, on the other hand, not only excelled at gathering, but was gaining his own little following on Twitter.  His followers were looking for tips on his success but Saucy really didn’t have any; he was just good.  Of course, running was the worst part of his day.  He would see Flossie bounding away and get discouraged.  To improve his self esteem, he was praised for any slight improvement and got marks that were almost as good as Flossie’s.

They graduated with good marks and went out into the world.  One day Saucy was out nibbling on herbs when a fox spotted him and gave chase.  Saucy bolted for his burrow but the fox easily caught up with him and Saucy was dinner.

Flossie missed him and his knowledge about where to eat.  Over a period of time, Flossie became malnourished because she couldn’t find the right foods for her athletic body.  One day as she was grazing, the same fox spotted her.  Saucy had been so delicious that the fox was thrilled to see another yummy bunny.  Flossie bolted for the burrow but her body was no longer strong enough to sustain the speed she needed.  The fox, on the other hand, had been well nourished by eating Saucy and soon caught her.  Too bad she was mainly skin and bones.

The Cousins’ Bunny School

 Meanwhile a few fields over, Peter and Juanita, the cousins of Flossie and Saucy, went to another school.  Peter, like Flossie, was a good runner and not good at gathering.  Juanita shared Saucy’s skill set: a great finder of food, but slow moving for a bunny.

Their teacher had a different philosophy.  Perhaps she had never read the fable.  She recognized that people have different talents and weaknesses but she believed that every adult needed certain knowledge and skills.  Before she planned her teaching, she asked herself the purpose of the curriculum.  The answer was that running was to escape predators and  gathering was to keep the body nourished to stay healthy and eventually reproduce.

She encouraged Juanita’s talents in gathering and tried to find ways of enriching and challenging her.  At the same time, she insisted that Juanita practice running and jumping daily.  She taught her effective ruses such as dodging, quick turns, finding thick thickets to hide in, staying very still and assessing the situation.  While Juanita would never run as fast as her brother, she became competent and knew ways to compensate for less speed.

Peter received similar instruction in running to Juanita, but because he had a talent for it, he improved faster.  His teacher insisted that he learn what foods he needed to keep his body healthy and where he could find them.  Sometimes he got extra help from Juanita until he knew where to find food in their area.  He was never as good as Juanita, but he could feed himself.

They graduated.  Juanita had become competent enough as an athlete to enjoy games with her brother, especially if she could use tactics as well as running.  Peter enjoyed going on food hunts with her.  He was pleased on the rare occasion when he found an herb that she had missed.  Occasionally predators spotted them but they always escaped.  The predators gave up in the end and went over a few fields were they had heard the bunnies were easier to catch.

One day, Juanita and Peter were saddened to hear that their cousins had been eaten.  They were distracted from their sorrow, however, by bunnies who had heard of their skills and were visiting to assess them (favorably) as potential mates.

Inclusive Education in Practice

Those Parents Have Not Complained

Would you want your child to be in a grade seven class of thirty if twenty-five of those students had been identified as having special needs.  Would you want your child in that class if she had been identified as having special needs?  Would you want her in it if her first language were not English?  Would you want her in it if she were a regular, ordinary student?  No matter which way you look at it, a class with these demographics isn’t good for any student and yet …

A colleague of mine recently observed that in one intermediate school, the two grade seven regular English classes were predominantly special education students.  By predominantly, I mean that roughly twenty-five out of twenty-eight or twenty-nine in one class and half the students in the other class were identified or about to be identified as students with special needs.  By students with special needs I mean are students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems.  Gifted students are probably not included.

What Kind of Special Needs and What Kind of Support?

The students in these two classes receive some support through a special education teacher joining their class on a regular basis, usually for Language Arts and math.  This teacher provides support to more than the grade seven classes; in fact she probably provides support for all the grade seven and eight classes, so she cannot be available quarter time, much less full time, to support special needs students in any class.  For many students, the time allotted for support may be sufficient, for others it won’t be.

Each child identified has been identified as having a particular need; this is why they are called special needs children.  In the twenty-five may be students with ADD, ADHD, psychological and behavioral problems, physical learning disabilities and gifted students. [for informal definitions see below]  Not only does one size not fit all, but each child has an appropriately individualized program the teacher is required to follow.

Imagine a teacher teaching a class where twenty-five students need special education support.  Yes, when there are two of you (the classroom teacher and the special education support teacher) it isn’t so daunting, but there are thirty students.  The classroom teacher has responsibility for the five regular students as well as the rest.  Try to imagine what this class would be like.

Now try to imagine what it is like when the subject teacher is alone, trying to teach geography, complete with graphs – or history, with the need to read non-fiction.  Where will the support be then?  How will students respond?  Will they be able to learn in a class of that size with so many other students competing for help?

What is the Model for this Style of Class?   Education for All

The school cited states that these children’s needs are met following the inclusive model set out by the 2006 Expert Panel report on Special Education, Education for All.  For my comments, summaries and charts derived from Education for All, go to the tag or category marked Education for All on this site.  The point of the document was that by following the concept developed by the architectural community of universal design, almost all students can be taught in an inclusive classroom.

The point of the inclusive classroom is to integrate children with exceptional needs into classrooms of regular children.  Instead, in this example, regular kids are being integrated into classrooms of exceptional children.  Only those students who are gifted are exempted from being integrated with regular students or having regular students integrated with them.

Profile of Grade Seven Section of the School

This particular school states that it has a “Junior/Intermediate system LD class for students who have been identified with severe learning disabilities.”  This would account for the larger percentage of identified students in the regular classes. In this school there are six grade seven classes, a normal sort of number for a middle school.  You are probably wondering why there are so many identified students (teacher talk for students with special needs) in the two classes.

Of the six classes in this grade seven cohort only two  have students with learning difficulties integrated into their class.  Some of you may doing the math:  If one assumes that each class has thirty students and there are twenty-five identified students in one class and half of another class is identified i.e. fifteen, students, that makes forty students out of one hundred and eighty (6 classes X 30 students) who have learning difficulties of some sort or another.  (Not speaking English does not count as a learning disability although it does disqualify you from being gifted.)

Forty students distributed through six classes would thin them out a bit and make for more inclusive classrooms.  There would be about six or seven special needs students in each class.  Obviously they would have to be distributed with regard to their particular needs, the talents and qualifications of the classroom teachers and the profile of each class.   More special needs teachers would be required but it would put an end to the ghettoization of the regular English classes.  But wait a bit … out of the six grade seven classes in this school only two are eligible to receive special needs children.

Why are only Two out of the Six Grade Seven Classes Inclusive?

French Immersion and Special Education Support

First there are three French Immersion classes.  Students can’t expect special education support in Ontario’s FI classes. There are no special education teachers certified to teach in French and therefore there is no support or, more accurately: there is no support provided for FI and therefore there are no special education teachers certified to teach in French.  For other reasons, please see my post: French Immersion: Is It Accessible to All Students? I am sure the school boards will say there is no money for it.  To find out where the money isn’t going, see my post: Is French Immersion a Money Maker for School Boards?

Students with learning disabilities and their parents are likely to be told by their grade six teachers or principals that these educators will not support the child going into French Immersion.  This is counter to the principle that ANY child can succeed as well in FI as they could in the regular program IF they have the same level of support as they would in the regular program.  As I have pointed out before, in most boards across the country, support for special needs students in French Immersion is not provided.  French Immersion students succeed, move into the regular program or their parents pay for tutoring.  If you are a fan of social Darwinism, French Immersion is an excellent place to see it in play.

The Academically Gifted Already Have Special Education Support

(and a class ceiling of 25)

The fourth class of the six is the academically gifted class.  Two or three students in the gifted class may have learning disabilities or behavioral problems, but as long as their primary exceptionality is giftedness, they are eligible for the class.  These students traditionally do not get any support outside the class since the assumption is that as the teacher is a specialist in special education, she will undoubtedly know how to handle other exceptionalities.  She does her own support for any special needs children or learns very quickly.  Did I mention that these classes are capped at twenty-five students?

I have pointed out in earlier posts Gifted and “Education for All” and Commentary on “Education for All” that although the inclusive classroom is mandated as the default placement for all special needs students, somehow administrators processing the gifted have missed the memo.  Please see 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.

What is Inclusive about the Inclusive Classroom?

So, when we take four classes away from the six enrolled, there are only two left to become inclusive classrooms.  Someone please tell me what or who is being included here?

I am not sure what it says about the children, their parents, their community, their school or their teachers.  What it does say about our school system is that appearance of being politically correct or following the latest educational wave is more important than pedagogy that works. One has to question the thinking of administrators who allow system classes if the children are going to be integrated into regular classrooms.  When they do the math, isn’t it obvious that what will happen is essentially reverse integration i.e. the integration of regular students into classrooms of identified students among whom are children with “severe” learning disabilities”?

Below is the section of the Ontario Education Act that deals specifically with the maximum number of students who may be in any Special Education Class, including the gifted classes.  The ceiling ranges from six to twenty-five.  The unlucky souls integrated into the inclusive classrooms under the flags of equity and political correctness are in classes exceeding the twenty-five.  In fact, regular intermediate classes have almost always been larger than twenty-five in spite of the fact that even twenty years ago teachers and administrators knew that these classes were heavily larded with students with special needs, behavioral issues or carrying the extra load of learning English as a second language.

Those Parents Have Not Complained

That these identified students, some with severe learning disabilities, are being taught in classes larger than allowed for the gifted is a disgrace.  It is more than a disgrace.  If you analysed the makeup of race, gender, socio-economic class and religion, you would find it very different from those in French Immersion or Gifted classes at the Intermediate level.  It is discriminatory.  It is laziness and cowardice on the part of administrators who prefer to do the politically expedient thing rather than the pedagogically sound.

Why is nothing done about it?  As a principal once said to me in a similar context:  “Those parents have not complained.”  And that, gentle reader, is the essence of how many, if not most, educational decisions are made.

[DEFINITIONS (education students, a caveat – these are informal definitions!):

ADD = attention deficit disorder: a learning difficulty where a child or adult is unable to select one thing to pay attention to.  One parent calls it shiny object syndrome, in that the child may really want to focus on homework but is distracted by his own thoughts “I wonder if Fred is going to be away tomorrow”, objects such as a blunt pencil he decides needs sharpening or people he wants to watch or speak to.  These are all shiny i.e. distracting objects.

ADHD = attention deficit hyperactive disorder: a similar learning difficulty as ADD with the added complication of a need to move frequently, sometimes constantly.  Now the child is not only a distraction to himself but to others.

Diagnosis of both disorders is through checklists completed by people who see the child the most.  There is some controversy about giving drugs such as Ritalin to these children.  My own observation is that children who really suffer from these disorders are greatly relieved by the effect of the drugs.  Many specialists in special education feel that the new focus provided by a drug should be used to teach strategies to deal with ADD or ADHD so there is a chance of the child being able to cope without the drugs.

Depending on the expert these difficulties may be classed as behavioral or learning disorders; it really doesn’t matter so long as the problem is identified accurately and treated properly.  With consistent help these children can learn ways to deal with their disorder and improve their behavior if it has created behavioral problems.  They do not have to be out of control but they do need sympathetic help to learn appropriate techniques.

Whatever strategy is used, a psychologist and pediatrician must be consulted to discuss the pros and cons of the approaches.  In Ontario, the approach to using drugs is conservative and carefully tested.  No teacher should suggest using drugs but they are within their purview to advise that a parent should consider discussing the possibility of ADD or ADHD with a specialist such as an educational psychologist.  Teachers see hundreds of children in the course of their careers and often become good informal diagnosticians based on their experience.  Their suggestion to pursue certain concerns is usually well founded.

Psychological and behavioral problems can vary from diagnosed and treated illnesses to students regularly misbehaving in class to the point of disrupting lessons or work. What falls under the mandate of the health system and what is the concern of the school system varies depending on budgets and governments.  In the best of possible worlds schools and mental health workers co-ordinate their efforts in the interests of the children but for the moment, the schools seem to be taking responsibility for sicker children than twenty years ago.

Children with physical disabilities who need physical help usually have an educational assistant to help with things like lifting, toileting and physiotherapy.  For the most part, they fit into regular school life with little difficulty once the necessary architectural adaptations have been made.

Students with learning disabilities, by definition, are of average or above average intelligence.  They may have difficulties such as dyslexia (difficulty with reading), dysgraphia (difficulty writing by hand) or dyspraxia (poor motor skills)]

[More Comments

This example is not unique in demonstrating system indifference to regular intermediate students; see my post, “Education for All” and the Myth of Universal Design where I refer to an intermediate classroom of 34 students in another school in another year.  Again it was a class of regular students studying in English.  In that case I don’t know how many were special needs students or how many students were learning English as second language.

One or two classes in a school system or a province are not proof of systemic problems. However, they are an example of what can happen and has happened when every child’s education is not a priority.

The problem is probably less severe in the primary grades before students are siphoned off into the gifted program and when only some students are segregated in the French Immersion program.  In the primary grades there will be a smaller learning gap between regular students and those lagging developmentally or with learning disabilities.  As the children grow, however, the gap in learning grows until some students will fall as much as two grades or more behind.  A regular grade seven teacher will inevitably be facing a class with some students working at levels as low as grade five or even lower.  There may also be English as Second Language students whose math may be at a grade seven level or above but are not yet able to read, write or speak fluently in English].

Education Act

R.R.O. 1990, REGULATION 298

Consolidation Period: From May 31, 2009 to the e-Laws currency date.

Last amendment: O. Reg. 206/09.


31. The maximum enrolment in a special education class shall depend upon the extent of the exceptionalities of the pupils in the class and the special education services that are available to the teacher, but in no case shall the enrolment in a self-contained class exceed,

(a) in a class for pupils who are emotionally disturbed or socially maladjusted, for pupils who have severe learning disabilities, or for pupils who are younger than compulsory school age and have impaired hearing, eight pupils;

(b) in a class for pupils who are blind, for pupils who are deaf, for pupils who have developmental disabilities, or for pupils with speech and language disorders, ten pupils;

(c) in a class for pupils who are hard of hearing, for pupils with limited vision, or for pupils with orthopaedic or other physical handicaps, twelve pupils;

(d) in a class for pupils who have mild intellectual disabilities, twelve pupils in the primary division and sixteen pupils in the junior and intermediate divisions;

(e) in an elementary school class for pupils who are gifted,

(i) twenty pupils, if the class consists only of pupils in the primary division,

(ii) twenty-three pupils, if the class includes at least one pupil in the primary division and at least one pupil in the junior division or intermediate division, and

(iii) twenty-five pupils, if the class consists only of pupils in the junior division or intermediate division;

(f) in a class for aphasic or autistic pupils, or for pupils with multiple handicaps for whom no one handicap is dominant, six pupils; and

(g) on and after the 1st day of September, 1982, in a class for exceptional pupils consisting of pupils with different exceptionalities, sixteen pupils. R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 298, s. 31; O. Reg. 191/04, s. 10; O. Reg. 29/08, s. 4; O. Reg. 297/08, s. 1.

See also:

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 Posts:

Why this is Everyone’s Problem

Other Models, Better but Not Necessarily the Best

Gifted and “Education for All”

Part 4:  Education for All
and the Academically Talented Child

Before I start, I would like to comment on the notion that many people hold – even some teachers – that gifted children will do well no matter what and do not have special needs.  A child who is capable of working two years above her chronological peers will be bored in a regular classroom and may look for ways to alleviate her boredom.  One may be to see how much she can get away with in terms of poor behaviour or not doing homework or beating the system.  Another might be to challenge the teacher on knowledge, procedure and any minutiae of school rules.  Some students will take pleasure in figuring out how to be absent as long as possible without being caught.  This may include everything from day-dreaming and reading books under the desk to playing hookey, disappearing off to the washroom and working the holes in the absentee system.

The students who decide to play by the rules may do their best to conform; this includes not doing much better than their peers and playing down their abilities.  Either way, the students are not being themselves academically and being something you are not is stressful.  There has been a lot written on the effects of stress so I will not go into the details of the potential ill effects such as dropping out, drug abuse and depression.  Stress caused by this kind of frustration should be distinguished from healthy stress created by challenge students believe they can meet with serious effort and thought.

So yes, the academically talented student does have special needs that should be met.  Gretzky wasn’t left to play hockey with boys his age who weren’t as good as him on the theory that he was so good he would do well anyway.  All students need to be nurtured and have their needs met as much as we reasonably can.  Academic talent needs it as much as athletic talent.

The purpose of Education for All is to promote the inclusive classroom.  The concept of the inclusive classroom is that all children who can be taught in the regular classroom, should be.  These children include most exceptional or special needs children and gifted children are included in the definition of exceptional. Ontario ministry requires that the default placement of children identified as exceptional be the regular classroom.   (see Inclusive Education in Practice)  If the Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) chooses to place the child elsewhere, a written explanation is required.

Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom: the Default Placement

This creates difficulties for many children with special needs and gifted children are no exception.  Most boards have three ways of providing for the academically talented child: the first is the default, placing her in a regular classroom.  A skilled teacher, trained in teaching bright children and especially in techniques such as compacting the curriculum and contracts would be successful if the child in question was a good independent worker and thirsty to learn.  Not all gifted children are either.

There are two or three advantages to this method.  The first one is that the child may continue to attend the home school and make friends with children within walking distance.   I believe that this is very important to children and necessary to the growth of their independence.  My observations as the parent of three (now grown) children have brought home to me how important it is to children to have friends within walking distance.

The child’s capacity to work independently and propose her own projects will have the opportunity to develop in a regular classroom.   Many gifted children are weaker in one academic area than another; being in a regular classroom would allow them to work with fellow students and perhaps turn to them for help on occasion.

There are often bright children who haven’t been identified as gifted who might benefit from compacting the curriculum and being allowed to pursue a subject in greater depth.  The gifted child in the classroom may open the opportunity of enrichment to these classmates as planning for a handful of motivated students is usually not much more trouble than planning for one.

Finally, one gifted young man told me that when he started to work in the real world he felt frustrated because ordinary people couldn’t think as fast as he could.  He understood that it was his problem and made every effort to be courteous while he learned to adapt.  The problem was that having spent his formative years surrounded by bright schoolmates, parents, siblings and relatives, he hadn’t learned how to deal with all levels of intelligence.  Cultures, religions, ideas, lifestyles – yes – but not a lower level of intelligence.  Being taught in a regular classroom would have given him that skill.  He is still working on it.

Education for All barely discusses the academically talented child in the regular classroom and other options are not discussed at all.  Below are some traditional options and one which would require some flexibility in school organisation but result in providing enrichment for more than the top 2%.


Withdrawal is probably the worst method of providing for academically talented children.  Usually this is done on the basis of a half day or less a week; the student is taken by another teacher for gifted programming.  Many of these students are already aware that they are different.  Being withdrawn from the classroom makes many children feel singled out and will add to a bright student’s sense of being outside the norm.  She will often balk at a withdrawal program and prefer to stay in the class full time.

Although the theory is that the child should not have to make up for work missed in the classroom, the reality is that sometimes the timetable can’t be managed that way or the teacher does not buy into the theory.  If the teacher sees gifted programming as elitist, then she will be less likely to go to the extraordinary effort of co-ordinating classroom work with the withdrawal timetable.  In fairness she is stuck in a catch-22 situation: the student should not miss learning experiences in the key academic subjects, nor should he miss out on anything he might regard as fun such as gym or art.  One should forgive a teacher for believing that all time in her classroom is educationally relevant and occasionally outright fun.

The teacher who does the withdrawal should be a specialist in giftedness, but too often a principal may be tempted to give the job to someone who needs a .2 or .1 position to complete her timetable.  All the teacher needs to be qualified is part 1 of the special education certificate.  There is much less flexibility in staffing today than there was twenty years ago, so shoehorning a teacher into this position is not necessarily indifference or ignorance of the children’s needs but a case of making do with the staff provided.

Withdrawals are usually done on a once a week basis.  In theory, enrichment should relate to and enhance the curriculum but without very close work with the classroom teacher, this would be almost impossible for the withdrawal teacher.  The withdrawal teacher may have several grades at one time and inevitably students with talents varying from the mathematical to the verbal. The compromise is that students end up doing individual projects such as family trees or creating a fantasy land or something else that will allow them to stretch.  In the past, these projects were irrelevant to the assessment of the students’ academic levels.  Perhaps there is closer co-ordination now.

The only truly positive thing I can say about this method is that it allows the child to stay at his home school and in the right circumstances may open the school to the Renzulli method, of which I will write later in this post.

The Congregated (Segregated) Program

This program brings academically talented children together in one classroom.  The criteria varies but the frequent standard is the 98th percentile on an intelligence test or equivalent.  This means that the child tests as higher in academic ability than 98% or 97.999% of all other children.  This can be done with expensive one on one testing with a psychologist trained in testing intelligence or it can be done with a paper and pencil test which can be supervised by anyone.  The choice depends on what is available to school boards.  Most choose the latter but that, unfortunately, leaves them vulnerable to parents who can afford it pursuing the psychologist route if the paper and pencil test does not show their child to be qualified.  (see Another Curious Statistic)This is an inequity in the system that school boards such as the Ottawa Carleton District School Board are aware of and to which they would like to see a solution.

Done properly with trained teachers who are hired by knowledgeable principals, the congregated program can be effective.  The biggest problem is that students who are not used to challenge are often unhappy when they are required to think.  Many programs provide more work or in depth knowledge without requiring students to work their way up on Bloom’s Taxonomy from learning facts and skills to analysis, evaluation and application.  The programs end up being effective only in terms of allowing students to work with their intellectual peers.  If that is all a program does then those who finger gifted programs pejoratively as elitist are justified.

A second problem is that the children usually must attend school at a distance from their own home.  This makes forming friendships within walking distance of home difficult and group work outside of school dependent on parental transport.  Without companions close by, their freedom to explore is restricted and the relaxed friendships bound only by their preferences rather than the availability of parent chauffeurs is impossible until their teens.  By that time, many students will have lost the impetus to take the initiative in their social lives or the will to find transportation besides the parent chauffeur.  I even know of students with university degrees who will not take public transportation.

One family who had four children in gifted programs ended up installing a second phone line just for the children as they needed it to discuss assignments as well as stay in touch with friends.  Friends and family of the parents were unable to get through when there was just one phone in the house.

A third problem is that the children are visibly separate from the rest of the other students.  They are singled out as enrichies or richies and seen as privileged and resented as such.  The best schools make an effort to integrate all the students through sports, drama or music programs to avoid this kind of thing.   A congregated class may reinforce any sense of entitlement the students or their parents might feel thus continuing the circle.

Finally, the younger children in the program must be bussed if the school is not within walking distance.  This adds to the cost of the program, to the length of the child’s day and the isolation from the local community.  Because parents do not belong to the community, their voices at school meetings are concerned primarily with the gifted program.  In one school the parents of these children insisted that they be allowed to go straight to their classrooms from the buses in the morning, as the parents were uncomfortable with their children being on the playground in an inner-city school.  This was in spite of the fact that there were teachers supervising the playground at that hour and that no other children were allowed in their classrooms.  I don’t know whether the other parents ever picked up on the insult to them as their own children were walking past each others’ homes in this inner city on the way to school

The flip side is that parents of gifted children can be energetic in fundraising or willing to donate to school projects.  The other students do benefit from the extras the money provides and in the attention paid to the physical plant when there is a congregated gifted program in place.

Acceleration – Out of Fashion and Now Returning to Fashion

Acceleration was probably the earliest form of handling academically talented children.  People of a certain age will remember the children who skipped a grade.  Sometimes it was done by putting them in the lower grade of a split class and the following year sending them on with the upper grade of the split.  It had the advantages of moving a child ahead academically, but the disadvantage was that the child was no longer with his or her chronological peers.  Sometimes it still did not provide the intellectual challenges needed and sometimes the child might have floundered in areas of weakness.  Usually, these issues were considered in making the decision to accelerate a child.

For many years it was not considered appropriate to accelerate a child for the social reasons raised above.  This got confused by many school boards into the idea that acceleration itself was bad; certainly acceleration in specific subject areas but not others created headaches for teachers in the receiving classes or schools.  The teachers to continue the acceleration might not be available or it might prove difficult to arrange students’ timetables to take more advanced subjects.  Teachers were told not to accelerate students in any subject area – even in mathematics where acceleration is appropriate and necessary to provide enrichment for the talented.  I was even told that teaching above the grade level could be a firing offence.

Recently in Ontario, this kind of thinking has been challenged and acceleration has been reinstituted as legitimate method in providing accomodation for academically talented children in some areas.  This does not mean that we have gone back to skipping children, as the principle that children should be with their age peers still holds.  In most subjects, providing breadth and depth is sufficient challenge for a bright child. In math, some students will need acceleration whether the students are in a congregated gifted or regular classroom.

My own observation is that some elementary teachers are math phobic, not a surprise when you consider that the kind of interests and skills which drew them to young children did not require math.  A teacher’s discomfort with math will make accelerating a few students more difficult, but perhaps this could be taken into consideration in choosing classrooms for talented math students.  This takes us full circle back to the point that the teacher of the inclusive classroom will need training not just in teaching children with behavioural problems and learning difficulties but also academically talented children.

And Now for Something Completely Different: The Renzulli Method

This will be a very brief summary of the concepts developed by Joseph Renzulli.  They do answer concerns about issues such as isolating academically talented children, dealing with children who have some very strong talents but are weaker in other areas, dealing with academically talented children who are not motivated or lack creativity and elitism.  Implementing his ideas would require an enrichment teacher in each school and flexibility in school timetables but enrichment would not be as dependent on testing as it has been.

Renzulli’s model of giftedness rejects conventional concepts of IQ as a sole arbiter of ability.  He considers that its use is best applied as a guideline to determine above average ability.  He reckons that IQ alone does not predict performance and, indeed Terman’s  longitudinal studies of people with high IQs bear that out.  Terman’s subjects did go on to become doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers but they were not the iconoclasts, the paradigm shifters, the great businessmen or politicians of their generation.  The people who were, were bright but not as bright.

So, the first part of Renzulli’s model is above average ability.  The second part is creativity.  Since this is a summary, I will simply comment that studies have shown that intelligence without creativity only takes one so far in solving problems or doing well in general.  Oddly enough, many parents of academically talented students keep their children busy with structured activities to ensure their children make the most of their abilities.  I am rarely believed when I tell them that the research shows that their children would be better off having more unstructured time to play and develop their creativity.  Even a pick up game of soccer or baseball would be better because the children would have to negotiate their teams, rules and referreeing according to the space, number of kids, quality and character of players and equipment.  They would have to be creative in coming up with solutions which everyone could agree to without taking up all of their play time.

The third is task commitment.We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare.  The hare was a gifted runner but the tortoise had task commitment and perhaps a creative enough mind to perceive that the hare’s vanity might slow him down.  We know the tortoise will not have a hope at the Olympic podium because he lacks above average ability in running, but neither will the hare because he lacks task commitment and perhaps the creativity to consider the possible ways in which a tortoise just might beat him.

Below is a copy of the Venn diagram that Renzulli puts together from these three qualities of giftedness.  As you can see, when the three overlap, gifted behaviour occurs.  This is the answer to the many teachers of the gifted who have muttered, “I know wee Johnny is supposed to qualify for this class but I have yet to see any evidence of his gifts”.    I know that this would have reduced one or two of my classes by half, at least in some subjects.

copied from http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/paedagogik/Seminare/moeller02/06hochbegabung/Renzulli.html

For a teacher it would be a satisfying model to work with but as a child’s abilities, creativity and task commitment often vary with the subject, there would be few students who would qualify for full time enrichment.  Renzulli’s answer is a school-wide enrichment model.

The idea is that all children would get some enrichment in their areas of interest; this is where Education for All’s Learning Profiles and Questionnaires would be very useful.  Other tools such as a learning style assessment would prove useful, too.  Using these tools, the students would be placed in multi-grade clusters which would meet regularly (once a week?).  All staff and parents would be encouraged to join these clusters.

There would be more than one level for a student’s involvement in the enrichment model depending on interest – talks or lectures might be sufficient for some students.  Discussion groups for others and further research, model building or other development for others.  There are detailed discussions of how programs are already working and how they might work.  In the end, the model needs to be worked to fit with the school using it.  What does have to be done is to train staff, assign a member of staff to it part or full time, depending on the size of the school and have that person do the two week training course.

There are lots of sites on the Internet about Renzulli’s model, a great number of articles in peer-reviewed journals and books to turn to if you want to know more about this form of enrichment.  It is certainly worth exploring if you want to see as many students as possible develop their talents beyond what they normally would in a regular classroom.  It is worth it if you want to see students of all ages and abilities learn to work together.  It is worth it if you want to see the elitist stigma removed from enrichment and bright children.  It is worth it if you want to keep children in their home school and reduce the financial, social and environmental costs of bussing.

For more information:

For the Zenn diagram demonstrating Renzulli’s model of giftedness


The Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness:  A Developmental Model For Promoting Creative Productivity Joseph S. Renzulli



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

For a summary of long term studies on the academically gifted see


NEXT:  Potentially Useful to Teachers: Charts and Tables Derived from “Education for All”    August 28

Should Elementary Teachers Work Longer Hours And Be Paid Less than Secondary Teachers?  A reply to Olivier’s comment.   September 4

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

“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