The theme for this month’s articles centers around external factors – the things external to us that can or do impact us one way or another.
Being an educator who happens to be autistic and non-verbal, I’m going to explore a controversial topic for some – accommodations in educational contexts.
For the purposes of this article, accommodations refer to helping a single person with a specific disability or multiple disabilities. The educational contexts we’ll consider are PreK-12 (USA) and their analogs throughout the world.
When I went through primary and secondary schools, in the US during the 1970s and 1980s, there were no accommodations for students like me. Instructional delivery was offered via a one-size-fits-all approach. Students either got it, or they didn’t. Memorize the multiplication tables, or not; it didn’t quite matter.
My generation was one of the last to experience wholesale social promotion, so it didn’t actually matter if we got it or not – it was on to the next grade regardless of one’s efforts or knowledge base.
I didn’t realize the extent of the problem until the first semester of college. My roommate, a middle linebacker from Cleveland, was functionally illiterate. When I was helping him with some assignments, I asked how it was that he could graduate high school not knowing how to read. He said that a lot of folks had helped him along the way, but in recognizing his talents on the football field, no one wanted to interrupt his progress to the National Football League. Sadly, he, like me, was injured in that first football season. Happily, he, like me, made it out and is thriving.
But a lot has changed since the mid to late 1980’s. In the US, DSM V and the many educational laws passed since then have produced a regime where certain students ask for and receive individualized educational programs that schools and teachers must follow. IEPs have their benefits as well as their problems. This story from the Atlantic illustrates the mess that the system has become over this issue.
“Being an actually autistic educator, I have a different view of the problem; and thus, the solution.”
Being an actually autistic educator, I have a different view of the problem; and thus, the solution. A solution will always elude us when the problem isn’t defined properly.
If the goal is to ensure that every eligible child receives a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE) in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE),” then why not focus on the last phrase of the goal in finding a solution to the problem of how best to educate the neurodiverse mind? Why not focus on the “unrestricting” the environment?
In my opinion, the solutions offered in achieving the least restrictions on the classroom environment focus on only one side of the equation. There’s no balance. Parents and schools are offered a few choices depending on where they live and the resources available to their local school district. The more affluent the district, the more options available. Students in the less affluent districts will struggle to receive an appropriate education; with some being shipped across town – wasting everyone’s valuable time.
The balance, the solution, in our case can be found in our past, in our old one-room schoolhouses.
It’s also a solution that’s been a feature of classes that teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) for many years. But the solution isn’t often found in the mainstream classroom.
The solution is known as differentiated instruction. What’s that, you ask? Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) have described it thus, “the core of the classroom practice of differentiation is the modification of four curriculum-related elements – content (what students learn), process (how do students make sense of the information and ideas), product (how they show what they’ve learned), and affect (the climate or tone in the learning environment) – which are based on three categories of student needs and variances – readiness, interest, and learning profile.”
Bosker (2005) adopted a broader approach, defining differentiation as adapting “aspects” of education (such as student grouping, learning goals, teaching time, or instructional strategy) to “differences” between students (primarily regarding performance and readiness, but also, for example, regarding intelligence, personality, or motivation).
Roy, Guay, and Valois (2013) described differentiated instruction as “an approach by which teaching is varied and adapted to match students’ abilities using systematic procedures for academic progress monitoring and data-based decision-making.”
With differentiated instruction, the teacher primarily coordinates time, space, and activities, rather than provides information. The pacing varies based on students’ needs. The goal is to help students become self-directed and self-reliant learners, first sharing, then assuming the responsibility for their learning.
Each of these definitions stresses the adaptation of aspects of instruction to differences between students. The goals of instruction remain the same. The learning outcomes remain the same. The difference? The acknowledgement that there is no single path to the goal, that each student will arrive at the goal in a slightly different way – and that’s perfectly fine. How this looks in practice is both complex and simple – but it takes a bit of effort and planning on the teacher’s part.
Figure 1 – Differentiation skill hierarchy, from van Geel, M., Keuning, T., Frèrejean, J., Dolmans, D., van Merriënboer, J., & Visscher, A. J. (2019). Capturing the complexity of differentiated instruction.
School effectiveness and school improvement, 30(1), 51-67.
For every instruction activity, shown in Figure 1 (above), the teacher deliberately provides instruction matching the students’ level of achievement and instructional needs.
The instructional needs are determined when the lesson is designed and prepared. However, the teacher also uses the acquired insights about students’ prior knowledge (e.g., during the introduction of the lesson) and the information they continuously acquire by monitoring student progress (e.g., by asking questions and observing student behavior) in order to specifically match instruction with students’ estimated levels of achievement, prior knowledge, and/or level of understanding.
Instruction is explicitly focused on reaching the (adjusted) lesson goal with the students at whom the instruction is aimed.
Furthermore, lesson content, instruction material, and the applied strategies align with previous instruction. Although the teacher deliberately planned instruction, they stimulate students’ self-regulation towards meeting the goals and provide them with options and opportunities to choose from, redirecting them when necessary. In this way, the teacher’s role is more akin to that of the shepherd than of the orator or conductor.
To accomplish these goals, teachers must know their students.
On the one hand, this knowledge of the students is about knowing their levels of achievement; the level at which they are and the problems they encounter when learning. On the other hand, such knowledge is about knowing the pedagogical needs of the students, their interests, peer relations, how to motivate each of them, and the kind of problem-solving strategies they will understand.
In addition to analyzing student work, teachers can gain insight into these kinds of instructional needs by observing students during class and by asking them questions open-ended questions. In knowing their students, they must also acknowledge the reference point for this assessment / observation – themselves. Thus, teachers must have a deep knowledge of themselves and how their own temperament affects the learning environment and their students.
“ When educating autistic students, this subject matter expertise becomes particularly important; more so as the learners get older. As I identified in my dissertation, older autistic learners often arrive in class more knowledgeable than their teachers.”
In addition to knowing their students and themselves, teachers must be subject matter experts in the subject that they present.
Knowledge about the subject that is being taught is vitally important during all phases of differentiation: for setting proper goals, for connecting to students’ prior knowledge, and for identifying students’ zones of proximal development (ZPD) and adjusting instruction to fit within this ZPD.
Subject-matter knowledge is also essential for making decisions with regard to the use of curriculum materials and classroom supports. For many, this subject-matter knowledge base is often developed during formal teacher training and is later developed on the basis of in-service experience. For autistic educators, who often times find themselves teaching their special interest to others, this expertise is developed over a lifetime of pursuing one’s particular interests.
When educating autistic students, this subject matter expertise becomes particularly important; more so as the learners get older. As I identified in my dissertation, older autistic learners often arrive in class more knowledgeable than their teachers.
A teacher without the emotional intelligence to recognize when a such a situation exists will not be able to appropriately differentiate or personalize the instruction and thus retain the attention of the student. Engagement will cease almost immediately when the student perceives the teacher as inauthentic or unengaging.
This isn’t necessarily the fault of educators, who are often trapped in regimes driven by the legacy Race to the Top (US DoE, 2009) and the current Common Core State Standards (2009). Marshall and Burke (2010) provided a rather detailed analysis as to why Common Core’s focus on national standards would do little to fix deeply ingrained problems and incentive structures within the education system in the US.
All of this has been shouted to the rafters (deaf ears) by individual educators, but many districts are slow to change. Starr (2018) notes, “I would argue that if the goal is to provide more instruction that taps into students’ individual needs and personal interests, then school and district leaders should focus on doing specific things that might actually move the needle, such as making sure: 1) that teachers know their students well; 2) that they assess student learning carefully; 3) that they provide students with rich and diverse materials in a range of media, and 4) that student and teacher assignments are flexible.”
But, Cirasuolo (2019) believes that a proper personalized education will only come via wholesale change, “…consider the fact that the school system compels all children to follow the same curriculum, instead of learning in a way that best suits the individual child. A significant percentage of children come to the system as active learners who have acquired an enormous number of skills in the first four or five years of their lives only to become quickly classified as slow learners or learning disabled because they do not learn in the way that the system teaches. Again, if the system neglects to provide multiple pathways for children to learn, that is not the fault of educators.”
Speaking to the systems aspect of the issue, Tomlinson and Allan (2000) point out that differentiation is not a simple teaching recipe but an innovative way of teaching and learning. Hall (2002) notes that there are different forms, categories, techniques, and strategies that can be used by a teacher, taking into account the profile, the interests, the needs, the skills, the abilities, and the cultural background of their students.
In order for teachers to achieve differentiation, they should use the available tools that support this process. For the past two decades, technological tools have received great attention since it has been proven that they can contribute to improving learning experiences, as long as they are integrated into a proper educational framework.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is considered as a key tool for supporting teachers who adopt differentiated instruction, since it gives students with different learning profiles the opportunity to work at the same level, at the same time, and through possible peer interaction. Additionally, ICT lends itself well to assistive technology like multi-lingual text to speech / speech to text systems, adjustable typesets, or eye-tracking devices that turn the human gaze into a hands-free mouse.
Researchers have argued (1999) that educators who use ICT in their instruction, offer opportunities for active and independent learning, which leads to an increase in students’ engagement. Also, it has been stated that ICT can act as a facilitator of active learning and higher order thinking.
Additionally, the proper educational use of technology has both quantitative and qualitative positive results in comparison with the traditional teaching methods for the neurodiverse learning community. In other words, there is an improvement in student work (qualitative) and academic performance (quantitiative).
One more advantage of using ICT in education is the collaborative learning processes, which can bridge the communication divide that often occurs in a mixed (ND/NT) classroom. This, in turn, leads to social interaction and communication among the students as well as between students and educators. It has also a positive impact on the development of dialogue, the exchange of ideas and negotiation among students (2000), and it improves the relationships between children coming from different cultural environments by increasing the acceptance and understanding (1999). Therefore, we might conclude that ICT can be used as a tool to facilitate the differentiation of curriculum, providing opportunities to adapt the learning content to the needs and abilities of each learner.
With all of this in mind, I hope that you can see that when engaging in conversations about accommodations, the sustainable path forward can be achieved through differentiated instruction. It’s not only the best and most sustainable option for neurodiverse learners, it’s the best path forward for every learner.