My experience with assistive technology early in my career was limited. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) when I started teaching there wasn’t the range of options available in terms of assistive technology, and 2) the culture surrounding learning disabilities was very different than it is now.
In terms of number one, there is not really a lot to say. When I started, we still did attendance on paper and sent it down to the office — this seems crazy to me now! If a student needed help — and there really were not that many, it seemed — they were sent to the Learning Resource Room. I can remember the names of most of the students from my first year of teaching, but I honestly am not sure I can name one student who needed any sort of academic intervention.
In reflection, the fact that so few students needed intervention I think speaks to the second reason: the culture surrounding learning needs. It wasn’t that there weren’t students who didn’t NEED extra help — it’s just that we did not recognize it, or we assumed it was a problem on the part of a student’s effort. As I write this, I realize I sound like a heartless teacher who just wasn’t sensitive to any student needs. I promise, this is not so! It just… was different. If a student didn’t have work done, it was not because they struggled, but because they were being lazy, or procrastinating. I’m not sure when our way of thinking about learning needs started to change — to be honest, I had not even thought about the way I used to view these issues until I started my research this week. But, it has changed — significantly! I am much more aware of student strengths and weaknesses, and work to give students choice in how they demonstrate their knowledge – certainly a much more constructivist perspective.
In the context of 1998, this seems to match the behaviorist teaching practices that reflected my early career. For as creative as I thought I was at the time, school was still just a space where ultimately, students needed to reflect the discrete learnings that I, and the government of Saskatchewan, decided were important. If someone could not do that, it was because they were not trying hard enough.
I compare this perspective to the way in which I view education today, and I kind of want to go back and apologize to those kids in my early career who struggled. Yes there were probably many who were lazy and procrastinating, but if today’s numbers are average, there were many students who lacked the skills necessary to complete the outcomes, and who lacked the voice and knowledge to advocate for what they needed.
Further, rather than looking at students from a deficit perspective, I now recognize the fact that the curriculum, and education in general, privileges certain ways of knowing over others. Instead of looking at students as problematic, I am much more critical of the space we are in and the outcomes we value, and how those spaces and outcomes may not align with the identity of my students. This perspective is much more in line with the principles of Universal Design for Learning, another concept that was new to me. CAST, the nonprofit education research and development organization that created the Universal Design for Learning framework, identifies the main goals of UDL:
“to support learners to become “expert learners” who are, each in their own way, purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal driven. UDL aims to change the design of the environment rather than to change the learner. When environments are intentionally designed to reduce barriers, all learners can engage in rigorous, meaningful learning.”
UDL is such an excellent example of growth mindset, as opposed to deficit thinking. As one of our readings identifies, the goal is to eliminate “barriers from the learning environment” (2), rather than focusing on a student’s disabilities. I think back to a conversation I had with a group of colleagues earlier this year. We were talking about a student that was unwilling to speak in public. The curriculum called for a formal multimedia presentation. Our discussion centered around how the ELA curriculum privileges (via the more extensive indicators) these formal speaking outcomes, as opposed to informal conversation and storytelling. This privileging is a reflection of the curriculum’s colonial structure, and the conversation certainly made me rethink the way I was asking students to respond. However, it’s such a fine line to tread. How can I value different ways of knowing and yet still prepare students to exist in the dominant discourse of our world?
This was a topic that came up in our assistive technology communication discussion. Jacquie asked a really important question: are we using assistive technology to force our students to fit into our curriculum?
We need to ask ourselves, what is our purpose in using assistive technologies? What are we valuing? Universal Design for Learning would suggest again that we go back and examine the curriculum, and see what the deficits are. This would be a better place to start, rather than focusing on our students’ deficits. However, this demands a significant shift in paradigm. Everything I do in the classroom starts with the curriculum, and the curricular outcomes. I work backwards from those curricular outcomes to plan my units and engage my students. However, I suppose a critical examination of the curriculum does not necessarily mean that it cannot still be my guide. What it does mean is that I need to spend more time examining the ways in which the curriculum privileges certain ways of knowing, and then deciding how to mitigate that privilege.
In doing this work, some of the assistive technologies may no longer be needed in the same way. However, if they are needed, Sue Cramner discusses the important role teachers play in how they implement technology in the classroom. She notes that AT has been used as an after the fact fix, and this practice has led to “the reproduction of exclusionary practices” (327). She talks about the importance of “develop[ing] inclusive digital pedagogy” (327). This, I would say, is my biggest takeaway from my learnings regarding assistive technology. Rather than using AT as an afterthought, I need to first critically examine the curriculum for what I’m asking my students to do, then anticipate the needs of a range of learners, and finally, implement technology that will allow students to demonstrate their learning in a manner that best reflects their skills.