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Inclusion: From Least Restrictive Environments to Most Accessible Learning

In the Innovators Mindset MOOC podcast this week, we are focusing on the final part of George Couros's book and moving forward with innovation measuring innovation beyond simple numbers. I just wanted to reflect a little on my journey with inclusion in my classroom and what I would like it to be.

One of the first courses in my 2 year certification program at UW-Madison was Individuals with Disabilities. It was taught by the great Alice Udvari-Solner. The focus of the course was on the "why" of inclusion not simply from a legal perspective but a moral one.  The primary focus of the course was providing future educators strategies to design instruction to reach all learners.  By the end of the course, we realized was that the way we approach instruction for students with disabilities is the way we should approach instruction for all students. She forced us to confront how sometimes labels hide abilities and good grades can hide challenges.

That was 18 years ago. Nine years ago I began co-teaching in a fully inclusive freshman physical science course.   Freshman entering the high school actually had 3 options for science.  These were physical science, biology, and honors biology.  Just by looking at these three options, I imagine you can guess that the freshman population divided along certain ability lines into those three course.  While physical science was a fully inclusive environment, it ended up being a course in which those students were in the course because they needed some form of remediation before moving on to biology or because it was deemed they would not have enough science credits to graduate if it was not included as a part of their high school program due to the “difficulty” of the courses beyond biology.  If you read a sense of judgement here, there is a bit but the design of the course options created a course in which the populations became self-selecting. This course no longer exists.

Three years ago I began co teaching physics. This was not a mandate which came from administration. It was a course design that was proposed with my co-teacher extraordinaire Andelee Espinosa. The goal of our effort was to make this “difficult content” accessible to all learners.  This was not about creating a course only for students who were in jeopardy of not having enough science credits to graduate.  The goal was to remove barriers that prevented all learners from gaining access to content.

As educators we believe in the importance and relevance of our content. If we believe in our content, why wouldn't we be excited to remove those barriers. This excitement is what lead Andelee and I to take this challenge on before any thought of mandating it of us. At our high school we have two levels at which can take introductory physics.  They can choose to take AP Physics 1 or Physics (this includes one section of co-taught.) Having taught both courses, I have actually found that the range of ability to reach mastery in physics classes is not that much different than my AP classes.  So while the AP level may average higher performance, the range of ability to reach course outcomes is not nearly as wide in physics as in AP.  I would argue that so many of the outcomes in AP Physics as defined by College Board are irrelevant to a typical student that the they produce inherent barriers to achievement. But, that’s more of an AP rant.  I think I’ll let that go for this post.

Looking back to 18 years ago when I first learned the term “inclusive classroom”, I can’t believe that some teachers are still hesitant to embrace inclusion as best practice. I would have hoped by now we would have moved beyond inclusion as a point of contention.  It is my wish today that we no longer argue over what is the “least restrictive environment” for a learner but how can we design “most accessible learning opportunities” for each student within our classrooms.   

By rejecting the idea of inclusion in a classroom, a teacher is denying students access to knowledge and experiences.  Now, giving students access to the classroom is not the same as making the learning accessible. That's where the importance of input from special educators comes in. As a content teacher, I have expertise in my content and some ways to deliver it. Special education teachers have expertise in what types of barriers ALL students might have to accessing content and strategies that can work on a case by case basis. They understand that there is not a one size fits all method. We need to move away from the fallacy that in a co taught classroom an observer would not be able to differentiate between content teacher and special education teacher. This view diminishes the roles of both the content teachers and the certified special educator. These instructors are certified for a reason. They are experts in their fields and should be valued for what they can bring to the classroom.  Andelee wrote a great post about it here, so I won’t belabor the point.

But to get back to the larger point. All teachers already teach in an environment that is inclusive of learners with different abilities.  All of their students have different strengths and challenges. Educators who don't see this are ignoring a simple truth. I don’t say this to diminish the real challenges that students with identified disabilities face. I point it out to say that good educators are experimenting with strategies to reach all learners. Having a special education instructor with the background knowledge of how to help reach diverse learners is a collaboration all teachers should be welcoming with open arms.

When designing instruction for students with disabilities, an IEP is a powerful document. It is a document which outlines strengths, challenges, goals, observations, in addition to aspirations. I have often heard personalized learning as thinking about every student having an IEP. That's a good first step but in many cases an IEP is an unwieldy document for students and content teachers. I've been impressed by case managers who have moved this design by creating student led IEP meetings where students can start moving to own their IEPs.  In personalized learning environments, all students have a profile they own, understand, and advocate from. In all of our classrooms, knowing the strengths and challenges of each students will help make us design the most accessible learning opportunities.  I think we’d be surprised to see how much benefit we can do for our students without identified learning disabilities by instituting some of these accessibility options. Andelee helped open my eyes to many of these including multiple representations, note outlines for lectures, and hard copies of digital activities.

I am not pretending to be a great innovator who has the ability to reach all of my students. I am not. But I'm trying. I recognize that there is a benefit for all students to have exposure to my content. Most importantly though, I have a great partner in special education who I lean on heavily to make the content accessible to all students especially those who may feel like they don't belong in a physics course because it may have been deemed too difficult for them.

In the end though, this is another step towards viewing are learners as whole people, not simply their grades or identified disability. We need to go beyond those identifiers and dig a little deeper.

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