Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Access to Learning - Breaking Down Barriers

Inclusion is about increasing participation for
all children and adults.  It is about supporting
schools to become more responsive to the
diversity of children's backgrounds, interests,
experiences, knowledge and skills.
(Tony Booth and Mel Ainscow)

Inclusion is about belonging and to facilitate belonging for all we must be intentional about access. This means we need to think beyond compensating for physical/motor or sensory-perceptual impairments (i.e., overcoming barriers related to lack of mobility or difficulty with manipulation and management of objects or overcoming barriers tied to visual or hearing impairments) when we think about access. We need to expand our scope to think in terms of access to learning.  This involves going beyond our belief that we are providing the opportunity to learn to breaking down barriers that may exist for students to actively participate in the process of learning.

Traditionally, we have tried to break down these barriers through a separate "special education" system, believing that we could create access to learning through creating environments tailored to the unique needs of the students who do not fit in to the system as it stands now.  Over time, we have focused on a combination of fixing, remediating or compensating for the impairment or deficit perceived to be within the student.  The goal of this approach is to help the student to be better  so able to function in society as it is right now. 

Although there are obvious issues with this approach, it is important not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater".  Specialized services to that focus on overcoming these barriers are an important aspect of a continuum of supports and services.  Without specialized supports and services we are doomed to a one-size-fits-all approach that results in turning impairments in to disabilities and creates barriers to the student engaging in the process of learning.  It is important to examine the physiological impairments that might exist for a student in the learning process and remediate, intervene and/or compensate appropriately.  Special education has made great progress in this area. So much progress, in fact, that we are now able to imagine a continuum of properly allocated supports and services that are flexible and responsive rather than all-encompassing special education placements. 

Barriers Related to Physiological Diversity

Bottom line is that no matter how far we progress with inclusive education, it will continue to be important to consider access barriers tied to physiological differences. Aside from physical/motor and sensory-perceptual barriers, we must also look at cognitive, social-emotional, and an expanding definition of sensory-perceptual barriers to include sensory regulation and literacy-print barriers. 

Cognitive barriers that we can work to reduce include barriers related to (1) listening and reading comprehension, (2) the ability to express ideas through speaking or writing, (3) mathematical thinking and reasoning, (4) organizational/executive functioning skills.  Much of the work that we do in breaking down these barriers and ensuring students have access to learning is tied to timely and focused interventions, teaching of strategies that will help the student overcome these barriers and providing supports so the student can engage in the learning the process (example: step-by-step process outline for the student who has difficulty with organization).  Access to learning tied to students who have cognitive impairments is an area that really requires another post (or maybe several) so I'm not going to go too far in to it right now except to say that we still have a lot to discover in this area.

In the book The Learning Tree: Overcoming Learning Disabilities from the Ground Up, Greenspan and Greenspan propose that "intelligence is the progressive transformation of our emotions to produce more mature thinking abilities.  Said another way, each transformation builds higher levels of thinking and intelligence into a view of the world where each sense and emotion is strongly developed and integrated with the rest.  With this information, therapists and parents can help a child with learning problems."  By understanding this developmental process, we are better able to address social/emotional barriers to participation and learning that may exist as we are able to target and teach strategies or provide supports at an appropriate developmental level.  The steps in this process are (1) attention, (2) engagement and trust, (3) interactions and communication, (4) problem solving, (5) meaningful use of ideas, (6) logical thinking, (7) multi-casual thinking, (8) comparative and grey area thinking, and (9) reflective thinking.  This speaks to the importance of attention, engagement and trust in order for students to use the thinking skills that will allow them access to learning

Sensory/perceptual barriers include barriers linked to (1) processing sounds, (2) processing visual/spatial information, (3) processing motor sequences, and (4) regulation of sensations.  It is important for us to be aware of the physiological barriers that may exist so that "impairments" do not turn in to "disabilities" because we set up the curriculum (environment, materials, methods and assessment) in a way that inhibits learning.  For example, students who have print-based "disabilities" are not able to access information in textbook if it is provided only in a hard copy.  If it is provided digitally, they are able to use software to listen to the text rather than read it.  This allows them access to learning

Opportunity Barriers

There are also barriers that cannot be eliminated simply by providing a service, support or intervention that targets a physiological difference in a student.  We need to also consider opportunity barriers.  These are the barriers that are imposed by the people in the educational environment and/or system.  This idea is summarized in the book Index for Inclusion: Developing Learning and Participation in Schools:
Learning and participation are impeded when children encounter 'barriers'.  These can occur in an interaction with any aspect of a school: its buildings and physical arrangements; school organization, cultures and policies; the relationship between and amongst children and adults; and approaches to teaching and learning. Barriers may be found, too, outside the boundaries of the school within families and communities, and within national and international events and policies. But we may have to resist the temptation to see barriers to learning and participation only in places that lie outside our responsibility, where we have little power to act. While we should be concerned about all barriers, our attempts to remove school barriers should focus on those that staff, children and their families can do something about, especially when they work together.
Identifying barriers to learning and participation is not about pointing at what is wrong with a school.  Inclusion is a never-ending process which involves the progressive discovery and removal of limits to participation and learning. Uncovering barriers and devising plans to reduce them, in a spirit of open collaboration, are always positive moves. 
My writing of this blog centers mostly on student with complex learning differences and disabilities. At other times it addresses other areas of the "disability continuum".  I recognize that I do not address the bigger picture of student diversity that extends beyond disability explicitly but it is in examining these organizational barriers that we can extend the inclusion conversation to this larger picture and move towards thinking of a single education system with a continuum of supports and services  where we acknowledge, respond to and celebrate diversity. 

Organizational barriers may be tied to (1) policy and practice, (2) knowledge and skills, and/or (3) attitudes, personal history and beliefs.  A continued movement towards inclusive schooling requires intentional exploration and action around these barriers.  Alberta Education released the Indicators of Inclusive Education: Continuing the Conversation document earlier this year.  There is a tool in this document titled "Getting to the Root of the Problem".  This tool starts by identifying a challenge/problem and then thinking through the influencing factors related to that challenge by asking "why" questions until a team arrives at the systemic root of the problem.  This process would really give insight in to organizational barriers.

Policy barriers are barriers that exist due to legislated or regulated procedures, while practice barriers are ones linked to conventions that have become common beliefs.  Practice barriers are tied to "the way things have always been done".  They are practices that nobody really questions.  Perhaps the biggest policy barrier that exists in this area is the division of  "special" and "general" education and the rooting of the "special education" system in the medical model of diagnose and fix. 
"The idea that educational difficulties can be resolved by labeling children and then intervening individually has considerable limitations. Seeing the 'deficiencies' or impairments of children as the main cause of their educational difficulties, deflects us from barriers in all other aspects of settings and systems and obscures difficulties experienced by children without a label.  It encourages children to be seen through the lens of 'deficiency' rather than as whole people who may be subjected to a range of exclusionary pressures." (Source: Indicators of Inclusive Education: Continuing the Conversation)
Knowledge and skill barriers refer to a lack of information and support for a teacher on how to actually break down barriers to learning for diverse students. One could argue that this is closely tied to the division of special and general education. Traditionally, if a student was unable to do the work as it was laid out in the general education classroom with minimal disruption to the planning and delivery process or other students, they were removed so that curriculum delivery could be tailored to what was perceived to be either a need for a different curriculum all together or, at the very least, a different way of presenting that curriculum. This results in general and special education teachers having two different skill sets and is perpetuated by post secondary institutions that have separate degree programs for special and general education teachers. More important than the reason is having the professional learning and collaborative teaching structures that will serve to break down current knowledge and skill barriers.  It requires acknowledging the fact that addressing diversity in today's classroom should not be done in isolation.

Finally, we need to look within ourselves and consider what aspects of our personal history, beliefs and attitudes create barriers to student learning.  We need to analyze if we really start from a place of presumption of competence and if we really are doing whatever it takes. Given how integrated technology is in our lives, it may be time to really unpack Dave Edyburn's concept of "naked cognition" and deeply consider the doors to learning that could be opened up for students who are currently falling prey to the "achievement gap".  Learning is not just about mastering artificially created curriculum content.  It is also about agency and each student's sense of efficacy as a learner.  A student without this sense of efficacy does not have access to learning.

As educators, we should step back from time to time and reflect on the social construct of the system we work within. Is it possible that we have defined cognition and learning in the middle of trying to creating an education system that will work for the adults teaching in it but actually serves to make some students believe they are not, and will never be, learners?  Is it worth considering that the people who create and design education are the people who have been successful in the system as it stands now?  Is it worth going a step further and thinking about this in reference to the entire human service system (see the article The Human Service System: Pyramid or Circle, Emma van der Klift and Norman Kunc on this)? Is it worth considering that much of the educational research that we base "best practices" on excludes specific populations of students?  And if that is the case, what impact does that have on the student both now and in the future? 

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