Pedagogic Model for Teaching of Technology to Special Education Students
Almost thirty years ago, the American federal government passed an act mandating the availability of a free and appropriate public education for all handicapped children. In 1990, this act was updated and reformed as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which itself was reformed in 1997. At each step, the goal was to make education more equitable and more accessible to those with special educational needs. During the last presidential term, the “No Child Left Behind” Act attempted to assure that individuals with disabilities were increasingly mainstreamed and assured of high educational results. All of these legislative mandates were aimed at insuring that children with disabilities were not defrauded of the public education which has become the birthright of all American children. The latest reforms to IDEA, for example, provided sweeping reforms which not only expanded the classification of special needs students but also addressed the needs of homeless and minority children, and the integration of social services and the school district. (Altshuler & Kopels, 2002)
No Child Left Behind was unique, however, in that it established mandatory educational goals applicable both to disabled and non-disabled students, and that it instituted strict standardized testing to force schools into compliance with these rules of achievement. No Child Left Behind also mandated punitive measures for schools, administers, and teachers whose students failed to reach these goals. Of course, in addition to the legislative mandates passed down by the supreme federal government, there also exists a pressing moral obligation to provide a fitting education for special needs students and a parallel obligation to provide training for their teachers. With these pressures mounting against the school districts, this is the perfect time to bring a new focus on scientific methods and the necessity of re-educating teachers so that they will be best prepared to teach the new generation of Americans.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
The purpose of this study is to explore, identify, design, implement and evaluate a unique approach to enhancing pedagogy, learning, and assessment of classified special needs students. The Pedagogy for Understanding program will work towards integrating the various hierarchies of a school system through education and direction, and to train teachers in a pedagogy for understanding designed (a) to create a constructionist learning environment, and (b) to positively effect special needs student outcome in the environment. This new design, entitled the Pedagogy for Understanding will be evaluated through statistically significant growth for identified special needs students.
A further purpose is to analyze this process of integration, training, and outcome through a scientific rubric, presenting it (as much as possible with such a subjective subject) as evidence regarding the flaws and merits of current school systems and pedagogies.
There are, per force, two competing theoretical perspectives which frame this work. The first and most philosophically important is that of the constructionist perspective on education. Constructivism suggests that all learning is constructed by the learner, rather than imparted by the teacher. In order to construct true understanding rather than merely regurgitating information, students must understand the processes which lead to that understanding and be equipped to apply them in novel situations so that they can glean understanding and learning from experience even in the absence of an authoritarian teacher or a classroom environment. Constructivism seems particularly important for children with special needs and/or learning disabilities, because they are likely to have problems with retaining information and functioning within the authoritarian classroom. Only a framework for understanding can help them be adaptive enough to circumvent their own disabilities to gain true understanding. Because constructivism is focused on constructing understanding rather than repeating information, it often rejects grades and standardized testing as a method of evaluation, preferring the use of portfolios and individual evaluation. This is where the second, competing theoretical perspective must emerge.
This study has as its goal the creation and implementation of a curriculum to function within the American school system which, since the implementation of No Child Left Behind, has a legal obligation to provide high standardized test scores for all of its students. This conflicts with many of the basic practices of traditional constructionist teaching. Therefore the goal of this study is to combine the theoretical superiority of constructionist teaching with the practical necessities of the No Child Left Behind Act. This can be done by using constructionist theory to teach for understanding both of subject mastery and of test taking skills, teaching children to think creatively and analytically about tests as they would think about any other problem. No Child Left Behind is not, however, merely an obstacle to be overcome before a good constructionist classroom can be created. It also has important theoretical underpinnings which it shares with previous legislation such as IDEA. The theoretical underpinning of No Child Left Behind which is vital to the theories of this study is that every child (regardless of special needs or disabilities) deserves a good education and fair, equitous treatment. Seeking not to devalue alternate learning styles and seeking to accommodate both ability and disability provides a vital moral element to the constructionist classroom.
Constructivism as a Theoretical Framework for Pedagogy for Understanding
Many of the basic ideas of the Pedagogy for Understanding are not in themselves unique. What is unique is the application of these idea to special needs children in the technological classroom. Pedagogy for Understanding draws heavily both from theoretical constructionist theory and from the priority application of constructivism to classrooms.
The theories of constructivism have become widely accepted in the theoretical aspects of pedagogy, which is to say that they are frequently taught in schools and understood by academics. Like most schools of thought, constructionist theory is varied in its incarnations, and has become wrapped up with a number of theoretical offshoots and some extreme applications. For example, some constructivists may suggest such things as abandoning all hierarchies within the classroom and allowing for entirely student-led and self-evaluated learning environments. (This might not be a bad idea in theory, but it would not be feasible within the current political and social environment or the modern school system) It is possible that the identification of these radical suggestions with constructivism have actually hindered the adoption and study of more mundane constructionist approaches within the educational system.
Constructivism was so labeled relatively recently, the theoretical foundation for it stretches back into prehistory. Constructivist-like theories of mind and pedagogy can be seen evolving throughout the world history of the humanities, in the disciplines of sociology and philosophy, anthropology and mythology, psychology and education. (Handley, 1994) The pre-Socratic skeptics in venerable ancient Greece taught a form of constructivism which suggest that learning is founded in activity and cognition. In the influential educational text Meno, Socrates is seen to argue that learning by rote is pointless because individuals already have access apart from the pedagogue to all the true knowledge of the world. The Socratic method of questioning the learner and guiding them into recognizing (constructing) their own understanding is a perfect ancient model for radical constructivism.
Constructivism as a positive educational theory did not spring untouched from ancient Greece to modernity, as some cultural ideas may be thought to have done. In 1710 Giambatista Vica, an educational theorist, was expressing basic ideas of constructivism when he wrote: “one only knows something if one can explain it.” (Hanley, 1994) Meanwhile the often-times conservative Kant claimed that humans are never passive in their reception of knowledge, which indicates a necessary reaction between those who absorb and those who impart knowledge.
Despite these early roots, modern constructivism is most frequently and accurately credited to Piaget, whose child-development theories broke new ground regarding the adaptive process through which children learn to maneuver the world at large. He taught that language helps to define the world, and that the acquirement of language is a social and adaptive process.
Constructivism focuses on equipping the individual student as a learner, rather than merely imparting information. Constructivism remains a pragmatic sort of theory, which proposes that “people create their own meaning and understanding, combining what they already know and believe to be true with new experiences with which they are confronted.” (Plourde & Aliweye, 2003) Rather than directly or passively absorbing the knowledge presented to them by authorities, individuals are always expected to interact with new and existing knowledge to construct synthesized versions of reality from their own experience and interpretations. (There may be a largely unrecognized Hegelian aspect to this theory, which bases rational evolution as a relationship between the thesis, antithesis, and evolving synthesis of ideas, language, culture, and the soul.
Von Glasersfeld would label the most basic forms of constructivism, such as those favored by the Pedagogy for Understanding, as being “trivial” because of their very simple claims: “Knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, not passively received from the environment.” (Dougiamas, 1998) Such trivial constructivism, though, is the bedrock from which Glaserfelds more radical constructivism springs. He continues to state that because knowledge is constructed by the learner, and because no two learners are the same, knowledge itself is not absolute. There is a degree to which knowledge is an illusion, and every individual constructs their own conception of reality which (while susceptible to the demands of “real” or normal reality) does not necessarily align with the normal paradigm. Constructivism does embrace this relativistic and existential approach to reality, but it also holds as a primary value the idea of constraint which enables the thinkers to participate in social interaction and mainstream reality. (Glasersfeld)
One interesting area of constructionist theory is the development of cybernetic constructivism, which is the idea that the human mind develops and learns in the same fashion as a highly advanced computerized “artificial” intelligence. Cybernetic constructivism is slightly related to behaviorism in that it accepts and expands on the idea that animals and machines utilize loosely analogous forms of communication and control. In both cases the storage and processing of information and knowledge become based upon feedback loops, adaptive trial-and-error, and microscopic binary differences (the switches in a computer processor with are controlled by binary on-or-off code line up to the neurons firing). (Brier, 1992) In both cases the product is guided in its actions by constraints and has a need to reach equilibrium. (Glasersfeld, 1992) While cybernetics are far too complex to be adequately addressed here, it is important to note that the link between the thinking machine and the thinking child has implications for the use of technology in the classroom.
Constructivism is a vital part of the Pedagogy for Understanding presented here. Technology, more than many prior pedagogical tools, provides both strong incentive and strong support for a student learning to “cross the bridge from being dependent to becoming more independent learners” (Snider & Badgett, 1995). This bridge is the main gateway into constructionist learning, and the point to which all students should be traveling. Students should be provided with opportunities to test and apply their ideas in a scientific fashion, to look at concepts from many points-of-view, and mix information with performance. Students who become independent learners and demonstrate understanding can evaluate new ideas with reasoning and using evidence; they can independently inquire into problems using productive and rational strategies, they can produce high quality work products, and hopefully they will come to understand that the reaching of external standards are a positive goal and an indication of good performance.
At all times, in the constructionist framework, this use of rational strategy to inquire into problems and the combination of theory with practice are vital to the educational process. It is for this reason that the Pedagogy for Understanding is inseparable from constructivism. There are at least three vital areas in which Pedagogy for Understanding depends on constructivism, and these line up with the three dimensions of constructivism put forth by Phillips (1995).
The first is the active process, which suggests that all activity is social, individual, mental, or physical. Recognizing that these fields of activity are interrelated and can each be used to absorb and express knowledge is particularly important in a special needs classroom where some students may be limited in one or more of these areas and yet gifted in another.
The second point is that the social process helps students to understand and interact with the difference between individual knowledge construction and general human knowledge. In the Pedagogy for Understanding, the social aspect of the classroom and the teacher-student relationship is important in helping the student both develop an intimate understanding (e.g. individual knowledge) and be able to express that in terms of general human knowledge (for example, through test-taking).
Finally, constructivism is concerned with the creative process and the issue as to whether knowledge is constructed internally or imposed. Pedagogy for Understanding seeks to help students construct inner knowledge through rational experimentation, in part because many special needs students have difficulty absorbing knowledge which is imposed from external sources. Internal understanding is formed through interaction with others, through conversation and through sharing interpretations and understandings. (Schwandt & McCarty, 2000). Social interaction is the main key to cognitive development and true understanding (Vygotsky, 1978).
Pedagogy for Understanding works on developing such social interaction not only within the classroom but also between teachers and support staff who may be able to help them understand how to work with special needs students. In some cases Pedagogy for Understanding may also be able to develop social-like interactions between students and their technology. As Hacking (1999) point out, “interactions do not just happen. They happen within matrices, which include many obvious social elements and many obvious material ones.” (p. 31).
While Pedagogy for Understanding as applied to special needs students is relatively unique to this study, its has a strong applied theoretical ancestor in the Harvard-born studies on Project Zero. (Stone-Wiske, 1998) Project Zero, which sprung from Schwandt’s and McCarty’s (2000) thesis regarding constructivism as the overall belief that the mind is active in the creation of knowledge. This project created spin-offs at various universities and school systems, including one interesting study on “Teaching for Understanding” at an International Baccalaureate school in Florida, (Graffam, 2003) which will be discussed in more detail later. There are two significant differences between the Pedagogy for Understanding as explained here and Harvard-inspired Teaching for Understanding. The most obvious is that the latter primarily focused its programs on gifted and high-achieving students, while this study focuses on special needs and low-achieving students. This in itself may be a tribute to the influence of No Child Left Behind, for it blurs the borders between what is appropriate for gifted and for disabled children. Such a blur is appropriate because both gifted and special needs students function outside the normal range, and need more intensive training to succeed at their highest level. In a more semantic sense, Harvard tended to focus on how teachers taught for understanding, while Pedagogy for Understanding puts much more focus on the role of the pedagogue as both a receiver and a transmitter of knowledge, and may focuses more on training teachers to train children than it does on direct intervention with children.
Some of the theories behind Project Zero which carry over to Pedagogy for Understanding are quite significant and slightly different than mere constructivism, because it combines theories of understanding with theories of construction. According to Graffam (2003), “When working from a pedagogy of understanding, we supply students with an environment that welcomes the uses of cognitive tools, encouraging active engagement with different kinds of cognitive devices…. The TfU framework is purposely metadisciplinary, and learners are encouraged to focus on the thinking within a discipline, not just the discipline itself. They are encouraged to discover the usefulness of the disciplines, not just that they exist.” In terms of applying this pedagogy to special needs students in the fields of technology, this is a call towards the use of that technology to function as a cognitive device, and to be both practical as a discipline (vocational training is always useful for students who may not be seeking advanced degrees) and also as a practice which may be thought about and thought through.
Theoretical Input of No Child Left Behind While the general constructionist consensus, and possibly many elements of this paper, will critique the requirements of IDEA and (more particularly) the No Child Left Behind Act, there is still a significant degree to which these legislations provide an important theoretical grounding which must be taken into account. The most valuable contribution of the No Child Left Behind Act to education in America (other than the few billion dollars or so of federal funding which was promised to the states) was the idea that schools should be accountable for their educational output, and for their success (or failure) at educating children. A second extremely valuable theoretical point made by both these laws was that special needs students must be included in the school’s efforts to assure high quality educational outcome for all students. The mere assignation of a “special education” label can no longer be enough to remove a child’s success or failure from the limelight of societal scrutiny and from an evaluation of the educational system. What Bush would call the “soft bigotry of low exectations” (West & Peterson, 2004) is reprimanded, or at least shoved under the carpet, by No Child Left Behind’s insistence on standardized expectations which require all students regardless of ethnicity, gender, or disability, to achieve to the same high levels. (This strength is also, sadly, part of the intrinsic weakness of the bill, due to some ill-conceived applications of the principals so endorsed)
Under Bush’s law, every state is required to put into place a set of strict age-appropriate standards per grade, and design a detailed testing plan to assure those standards are met. Schools are then held responsible to assure that yearly progress is made in each category of learner until 100% proficiency is reached by the year 2014. According to the original rules, there was no categories of students who were not required to take standardized proficiency tests, so that the scores of severely retarded individuals were counted along with the scores of normal and gifted children. (Some leeway has since been granted whereby a very small percentage of the most severely disabled can take alternative tests)
At first glance (and maybe even at third) this may seem like a pointless exercise in inclusivity, as one can never expect the most profoundly disabled children to perform on standardized tests to an age appropriate level. Yet on second look one may see how including special needs students in standardized testing assures that they are noticed by the country and the law, and that the school system does not merely use special education as a dumping ground for students that might bring down average test rates. As the a recent magazine article explained the situation, “Students with disabilities have the same right to be included in state standards, assessments, and accountability systems as all other children. Otherwise, it’s impossible to know how they’re performing or how well public schools are serving their needs.” (Olson, 2004) Of course, the key here is that No Child Left Behind calls for states to both evaluate and monitor the way in which they work with special needs students, and goes on to mandate that they have high expectations held of them so that they can learn to achieve at a normal-like level.
The theoretical importance of holding schools accountable for their outcome is important both to the Pedagogy for Understanding and to the No Child Left Behind Act. The issue of standardized nationwide testing aside, one of the goals of the Pedagogy for Understanding is to test students regularly to show the development of reasoning skills and reflex, both of which are highly scrutinized on traditional standardized tests. These regular tests in the Pedagogy are designed to monitor the conditions of the children and their learning processes so that they can be scientifically coded and comprehended. The idea of applying such scientific analysis nationally is inspirational in that it appears to be a rational search for insight into the development of education, socioeconomic and curriculum-based differences, and progress. Additionally, the importance of using some form of objective standard so as to analyze the progress of the system towards full educational support for all children is very much in tune with the Pedagogy for Understanding’s focus on the use of science and rational thought in the classroom. The importance of school accountability is a major focus of West and Peterson’s 2004 research, which shows that schools which are held accountable for student success inevitably show overall improvement in the quality of education which children receive.
The inclusion of special needs students in this accountability and the assurance that special needs students will be encouraged to reach high standards is important for the Pedagogy of Understanding as well (both on a theoretical and a practical level), and yet it is something which may have been often denied prior to No Child Left Behind. When accountability for schools was first implemented in Texas, special education rolls nearly doubled within four years and the majority of new placements were black and hispanic. It seems unlikely that twice the usual number of students suddenly became learning disabled, and this instead implies that accountability might in many cases cause schools to “dump” low-achieving (but not disabled) children into special education categories. “The numbers stopped climbing after state rules were changed to add the test scores of students with disabilities into the accountability mix.” (Viadero, 2004) So it appears that the inclusion of special needs students is vital in order to protect the status of special education. Just as important, however, is the theoretical aspect of this push, which is focused on the idea that special needs students are (in most cases) capable of achieving as much as the average student if they are taught and encouraged properly. Obviously a severely mentally retarded child will never be able to function academically as well as a gifted child, nor should he or she be expected to do so, but most children with special needs are not mentally retarded. In fact, one of the main operational definitions of a severe learning disability is that it is the gap between achievement and potential. Striving to bridge that gap should be the goal of special education, and to this theory (even if not necessarily to the specifics of No Child Left Behind) the Pedagogy for Understanding is indebted.
At its most essential level, the hypotheses for this research is simply that the design and application of the Pedagogy for Understanding program, leading to more integrated and constructionist classrooms, will result in higher test scores and a better learning experience. Of course this is an oversimplification, to some degree. There are essentially three smaller hypotheses integrated into this overarching hypothesis, each of which deserves some clarification. If any one of these three were to fail to be true, then the entirety of the hypothesis will be demonstrably untrue upon evaluation, even if independently the majority of its supports would have stood.
The immediate goal of the Pedagogy for Understanding program focuses on training and connection building between teachers, administration, and support staff. Here the operational hypothesis is that educating the adults in the school system, such as teachers and administrators, and instructing them in pedagogical methods and theory will encourage them to apply these things in their classroom. Likewise the operational hypothesis suggests that working to create support networks will encourage teachers to use these networks and to seek aid, intelligence, and support for their teaching goals in these networks. The success of the other steps of the hypothesis depends on the success in this one.
If the teachers and support staff do not respond well to training and critique, and do not change their classroom practices, then it is impossible to think that the Pedagogy for Understanding will have any success in changing student outcomes. Likewise if the establishments of networks fails, so that mentoring and social support among teachers, administrators, and special educators is not established, then results cannot be expected regardless of whether or not the theories embodied in the Pedagogy for Understanding framework are entirely correct and (had they been established) capable of reinvigorating classrooms and test scores.
The secondary goal is to create a positive constructionist learning situation, in which students can learn rational thinking skills, good subject comprehension as demonstrated through performance, and become truly comfortable and familiar with technology. The hypothesis here is that if teachers attempt to create such an environment, their attempts will be successful. However, it is possible that for a variety of reasons the teachers may fail to adequately create the sort of environment indicated in Pedagogy for Technology. There would be many possible points of failure outside of teacher or support staff control. For example, parental involvement might be such that the program could not be fully carried, even if the teachers are on board. Students transferring in and out of the program, difficulty in acquiring and maintaining the equipment necessary might arise, and so forth. Additionally, teachers who are very excited about the training and the network might still turn out to be very poor at applying what they have learned. This stage (the link between teacher effort and the creation of a positive environment) seems unlikely to fail, but still needs to be mentioned. It is especially relevant in terms of time frames — it is possible that teacher training and networking will take so long to complete that they will not have adequate remaining time in the school year to implement it in the classroom for a sufficient length of time to truly effect change in the students.
The final goal of Pedagogy for Understanding is to be able to test and to scientifically measure the success of the program. The hypothesis suggests that teacher training and the creation of a constructionist learning situation will result in better student achievement. However, this might fail to be true for a number of reasons which were not necessarily related to widespread flaws in the system. For example, it seems possible that students will actually have increased knowledge and increased understanding, and yet fail to show this on a standardized test. Despite the fact that improved testing is one of the stated goals, increases in understanding which do not immediately manifest in increased test-taking skills still show an improvement over the production of students who have both poor understanding and poor test skills. It is also possible that a mere one year of program application will be insufficient to provoke true change. Regardless, if the other two criteria are met (with adequate teacher involvement and classroom environment creation) and this part of the hypothesis falls through, it will likely indicate significant flaws in the Pedagogy for Understanding program design itself.
In conclusion, the hypothesis to be tested in this study has three distinct parts, which lead to a single conclusion. The design of Pedagogy for Understanding, if properly transmitted to teachers, administrators and support staff, and fully implemented in the classroom environment, should over sufficient time positively effect student outcome both in terms of comprehension and standardized testing performance.
Importance of the Study
This study is both timely and necessary. Today the school system is failing in many ways, despite (and in some cases even because of) all the recent attention focused on it by the No Child Left Behind Act. In itself, this act has mandated changes and been unable to provide them. The school system is consistently failing both general education and special needs students. These failings stem from every level of the system, from management to curriculum development. Perhaps the greatest failing comes in the system’s failure to adequately integrate science and technology into the classroom, so that today’s public schools function as if decades of progress and research had bypassed them.
The picture that emerges from these disparate failures is a grim one. It portrays a school system that is not designed to integrate special education, and rather than moving towards changing the system to allow the integration of special needs students this system is attempting to haphazardly slap special education like a patch onto its other functions. While there are experts on special education involved, such as teachers and special education directors, they are apparently not the ones in charge of overseeing most special needs students. These students are failed at every level, by management and principals, by unprepared teachers, inadequate curriculum, and unintegral technology. This calls for an overall shift in pedagogical theory towards integrating all of these levels into a coherent whole. It also calls for the creation of a consistent guiding pedagogical theory which can be easily used to explain and integrate new advances, new curriculums, and new practices while maintaining its ability to reach all students regardless of ability or disability. Such a program is precisely what is proposed by the pedagogy for understanding presented here.
Failures of the No Child Left Behind Act
Like its predecessors, the No Child Left Behind Act sought to increase the possibilities available to each child in the system, and to better the overall educational output of each school. It is because of this inspiring set of goals that this legislation was one of the theoretical underpinnings of the Pedagogy for Understanding program. (Coupled, of course, with the punitive measures invoked against any school or program that isn’t pinned on the act’s guidelines) Despite these high and inspirational ideals, it appears the No Child Left Behind may not have significantly improved schools, and may even have had negative effects. That such a positive attempt at school accountability is failing should be seen as indication that more than just standards are needed — it is also necessary to create a new pedagogy capable of meeting those standards (as much as is humanly possible).
Some of the problems which educators report for No Child Left Behind seem predictable. For example, about 80-84% of teachers believe that special education students should be excused from standardized testing, and only 20-26% of special education teachers believe that their students are capable of meeting state proficiency demands. Most teachers (82%) believe that special education students should be taught the content from their own outlined IEPs (individualized education plans), rather than being forced to focus on passing state content tests. (McCabe, 2004) There are a wide variety of reasons why teachers would have this complaint about standardized testing (many of which will be covered in more detail later). There are, however, many other significant problems with No Child Left Behind that might be slightly less obvious, and which need to find resolution. The Pedagogy for Understanding program may be able to help with many, though not all, of these issues.
One of the more significant unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind system was a sudden narrowing in curriculum focus. Achievement tests generally only test a small range of achievements, such as basic reading and math, and may leave out other extremely valuable elements of achievement such as artistic, musical, athletic, or technological ability, or the ability to synthesize and consider multiple disciplines. The focus is on low-order thinking skills, with only a few medium to higher-order skills tossed in (such as essay writing). (Popham, 2003) Schools which are threatened by punitive accountability measures may discard valuable untested curriculum content (including computer and technology classes which are at the root of this study!) in favor of repeated drilling and test-taking skill classes. (Amrein and Berliner, 2003) Pedagogy for Understanding cannot totally escape this problem as long as tests do count as such a significant part of the funding of schools. However, it can possibly help with the problem by creating networks between subjects and integrating the test taking skill learning into other categories of learning (such as technological studies). At the very least it is certain that this study is important because of the pressing need to develop some design which models a way to combine preparing students for tests with a wide spread curriculum.
Another (presumably) unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind has been a drastic upswing in schools listed as “failing.” Many schools with solid achievement scores, high graduation rates, and decent national assessments are still being listed as failing. The Center for Assessment suggests that 75% of American schools will fail to pass muster, and that may go up to 85% or even 90% in some states. (Fletcher, 2003) This is especially punishing to small schools where random fluctuations in class makeup can skew results and in very diverse schools. However, the issue of failure is problematic even for many of the best schools in America. For example, New Hampshire has the best mathematics and reading scores in the country, as of 2002. And yet the next year almost a third of its schools were designated as failing according to the No Child Left Behind Act. “as the testing continues, there will be strong cohorts of students in some years which will set levels that following classes cannot surpass despite the diligent efforts of teachers…Nowhere is the lack of realism more apparent than in the requirement that 100% of students in a school reach the “proficient” level by 2014.” (Newkirk, 2004) That the failing label can be applied so liberally is a problem for many schools, because schools which do fail risk loosing federal money and loosing many students to private and charter schools. (Newkirk, 2004) This label can destroy a system. “Ultimately, the state could take over the school, change its management, or disband it altogether.” (Mathis, 2003) Regarding the failing label, it is uncertain that studies such as this one can save the system from its weight, but if it shows a way to help special education students gradually improve, it may drag a few more schools out of the morass of failure.
No Child Left Behind’s greatest flaw may be that the high stakes testing environment may preclude actual understanding. Amrein and Berliner (2003), “Considered the scores on the high-stakes tests along with the scores on other tests. If all scores went up, they concluded that learning was taking place. If only the high-stakes scores went up, they concluded that test preparation and curriculum narrowing were taking place. They found that scores on the other tests were not related to scores on high-stakes tests. Thus the basic assumption that high-stakes systems lead to improved learning must be suspect at least.” This indicates that teaching to tests does not actually improve the understanding of the students. What may or may not be surprising to some is the fact that while social indicators such as graduation rates and job preparedness are dropping, the rates at which children are succeeding at taking national standardized tests has increased ever so slightly in math and reading (though not science) since the 1970s. (NCES, 2002) The question must be, then, whether teaching for understanding can improve the test scores of the students. This is part of the question to be answered in the following study.
Failures in Achievement and School Environment
Today, throughout America, schools are consistently failing in their duty to fully and properly educate students, and this problem is heightened for special needs students. According to a recent study of former special needs students after graduation, about 40% will remain single and unemployed throughout their adult life span, often relying on the grace of family to care for them.(Wells, Sandefur, & Hogan, 2003) As might be predicted, of the 60 remaining percent many (if not most) are not able to attend college or any form of professional or vocational training after public school. Additionally, there is an unexplainable gap between the disability groups, according to Wells’ 2003 research team. “Young men and women with mobility and sensory disabilities are more likely than those with learning disabilities to pursue at least some postsecondary education,” which may be at least partly due to the nature of academic schooling. Wells goes on to say that those with learning disabilities, as opposed to physical disabilities, have more difficulty learning and retaining knowledge. Many colleges are not willing to make extensive accommodations for students with learning disabilities, so it seems apparent that the primary public schools will have to discover ways to encourage special needs kids to develop the learning techniques they will need to succeed in later life.
A national analysis of school graduates and young adults finds that a significant number are extremely to moderately ill-equipped to function in society. “According to U.S. manufacturers, 40% of all 17-year-olds do not have the math skills and 60% lack the reading skills to hold down a production job at a manufacturing company.” (C.E.R., 1998) Other indicators of literacy and thinking skills also showed a severe lack.
Yet the issue is more severe than the news that special needs children are having difficulty accessing greater education or getting good jobs; the real issue at stake here is that the education which they receive at the earlier stages is in itself not meeting minimum criteria, especially for the most vulnerable special needs students.
Schools are not equipping each student with the desire to learn and the ability to succeed. There are two ways to analyze this problem. First, one may look into the actual knowledge and discernment gained by those who have “successfully” gone through the system. Secondly, one ought to look at how many people the system has failed. This later indicator is particularly of interest in Georgia, which, when last indicated, had the lowest overall graduation rate in the nation (54%), and the only state to have provided diplomas for less than a third of its Hispanic population. Nationwide, no state graduates more than three quarters of its minority population, or less than 60% of its white population. The greatest disparity exists in Wisconsin, which has one of the two highest rates of white graduation (92%) and the lowest rate of black graduation (40%). These statistics point not only to a racist (and thus innately un-egalitarian) system, but also to the system’s generalized inability to nurture all of its students; even among the highest performing schools for whites, no school graduates 100% of its students. (Greene, 2002)
According to the No Child Left Behind statistics, black students showed a 94% failure rate, while Hispanics registered a 68% failure rate. Students who received free and reduced-price lunches showed a 56% failure rate. (Rose 2002)
African-Americans are significantly over-represented among special education placements and also make up the bulk of the black minority. (Weinstein et al., 2004) It appears that minorities of all sorts, special education students and racial minorities alike, are being sidelines and treated to an inferior education.
All in all these statistics point to a grim reality, in which the public education system is failing not only to pass standardized tests with consistency, but also to consistently educated its students. Training children so that they can graduate, and even more importantly teaching children so that they will be capable of functioning as adults in the real world, is something that should be foremost in the minds of schools. The Pedagogy for Understanding, more than many other programs, understands that ability to think and function is just as important as ability to score well on tests, and that the first will generally eventually lead to the latter. This study is vital because it may provide important experimental backing to constructionist and rational educational ideas and begin to move the system back towards goals of understanding and fluency.
Failures in the Hierarchy and Placement Systems
It would be overly convenient to lay the blame for these problems on the students themselves who might be too foolish or too disabled to comprehend the material presented to them, or even to blame it on the teachers who fail to teach for comprehension. However, it may be more accurate to consider the role which the administration and the system itself plays in discouraging good teaching. This is evident in the management hierarchy, in teacher training, in the placement of special needs students, and even in the curriculum and technology established by the school district. In the end, it seems the very philosophy of most American education is fatally flawed, and needs to be reworked according to a more rational and scientific plan, and a true pedagogy for understanding.
The role which management often plays or fails to play in the education (or lack thereof) of special needs students is illustrated in Bays’ 2001 (b) research which showed that school districts consistently understaff management positions for special needs students or delegate responsibility for their treatment to inexperienced and untrained general education managers. Special education directors who answered statewide surveys (in Virginia) reported that 52% of building principals held sole responsibility for supervising and evaluating special education teachers, while an additional 22% of principals share that responsibility with assistants or supervisors, whole only 7% of the responsibility was maintained by individuals trained in special education, and only 19% of the responsibility was shared between special education directors and general principals. Moreover, special education directors listed themselves as spending only about 6.5 hours a week training with or observing new teachers. (Bays, 2001b)
These facts, correlated with the failure of the system to provided results, indicate that untrained staff are often making the final decisions on the care and education of special needs students, and that training for special needs pedagogy must be multilateral.
A similar concern evolves in the area of teacher training. Teachers who are going to be working in general education classrooms have traditionally not been educated in the full range of subjects required for skillful special needs pedagogy. A basic understanding of physical and psychological pathology is vital to the special needs educator, as are basic techniques for working with special needs children without worsening their situations. In addition to requiring a unique body of knowledge of medical and psychological treatment, special needs students are often best served by different teaching and control techniques than average students. These are not skills which one can legitimately expect from long-time general education or subject-specific teachers, and even though increasingly all teachers are being required to learn more about special education, failing to specialize in the discipline would still leave one lacking (and there are certainly thousands of older teachers who have not had any such training).
Yet despite the fact that general education teachers often do not know what to do with special needs students, the implications of the No Child Left Behind law encourage mainstreaming special needs students into general education classes. Even before recent legal changes trends had pushed more and more students with special educational needs into the mainstream. (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988). About 70% of all special education students after IDEA spent substantial time in general education settings and at least 26% spent the majority of their time in such classes. (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1990) While extremely recent statistics are hard to come by, it appear the number of special needs students either mainstreamed or expelled from the educational process is ever increasing. As long ago as 1991 Officials of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs indicate that over half of students with disability were being placed into regular classes at least for science and mathematics. (U.S. Department of Education, 1991). Current trends seem to suggests a continued increase in this number, and in fact the No Child Left Behind Law is relatively explicit in its suggestions that special needs children be integrated into the mainstream as much as possible. “Now, the assumption is that most students with disabilities will participate in the general education curriculum and reach the “proficient” level on state tests.” (Goldstein, 2004)
General Education teachers cannot be expected to transition flawlessly to special needs students, and so it seems likely that the presence special needs students in the classroom will have on of three ends: the special students may be neglected in favor of the majority and fall farther behind. ” the majority may be neglected and not pushed academically for fear of surpassing the capabilities of the disabled student or out of the need to devote much more time to the disabled individual in order to keep the whole class proceeding at the same pace to the same conclusion; the third option is that the teacher can be re-trained so that he or she is capable of handling both special needs children, average children, and exceptionally gifted children within the same classroom and with the same approach so that truly no child is excluded. This latter option is by far the best, and highlights the need to rework the system so that teachers are trained in special needs care and also in the care of their general education requirements.
Proper placement of children is also a significant issue. Of course the placement of special needs children within the general education population might be considered part of the problem, but even beyond that fundamental tendency of modern “equal” education, there are many more obvious areas in the diagnoses of special needs students which have been problematic. Special needs students are often being placed in general education classes when they perhaps ought not be, and yet at the same time many children are being defined as learning disabled when they are actually experiencing other problems.
Difficulty in placement may arrive due to confusion as to what constitutes special needs (see definitions below for further discussion) in addition to many instances of misplacement. For example, children whose first language is something other than English have often been misdiagnosed as having learning disorders due to their inability to function in English at the same level as their contemporaries. About 6.3 million children (5-17 years old) in America do not speak English at home as of 1990, and many of those may at some point be at risk of being misdiagnosed with a learning disability. (Kopels, 1999) Of course the 1997/1999 revisions to IDEA encourage schools to evaluate students in their native language, but practically this is not always done.
Children who are socially maladaptive or who have emotional difficulties stemming from abuse or parental conflict in the home may also be falsely misdiagnosed due to inability to focus, desire to act out, and a great store of barely restrained anger which may translate into lack of cooperation with the learning program. Creating close communication between social workers, doctors, parents, teachers, experts and students may hold the key to creating a true pedagogy for understanding and is vital to any successful constructionist reworking of the pedagogic model.
Another vital category in which the pedagogical model for students appears to be lacking is that of curriculum. For example, a study by Parmar and Cawly (1993) found significant problems in teacher’s manuals from three major elementary science textbooks which were supposedly geared towards working with both mainstreamed and special education issues. The textbooks did not provide instructions or recommendations for working with all categories as defined by the various federal laws (many that some categories of disabled students would be, as it were, left behind). The instructions for special needs students that were included were often not applicable to the very groups they targeted, or were inappropriate for those disabilities.
Moreover, the recommendations for each category of disability were not consistent, so that the pedagogy which emerged from the instructions was self-contradictory and highly erratic. This tends to indicate that the very curriculum being embraced by schools may be dangerous to its students.
Failure to Integrate Science and Technology
The final concern in regards to specific contribution of the system to the failure of its students is the issue of technology education. This is an absolutely vital area for special needs students in particular, both because they may be less likely to be able to pick up on technology without school intervention and because as students with special challenges they will be most in need of technology that can counteract those disabilities in the real world. “The person who is not technologically literate, in our world, is not a fully educated person.” (Hunter, 1992, 26) Three points stand out here: technology is often being used erratically and with no clear contribution to the learning experience and technology is not being actively used to promote systematic learning, additionally technology education is often irrelevant to real-world situations. Each of these is a problem which must be addressed at the beginning of any discussion of the application of a pedagogic model to the teaching of technology.
The first significant issue at hand is the erratic use of technology within most school systems. According to a 2003 article by Melanie Kingham and Henry Williams, more than 90% of schools had some kind of access to the Internet. This seems to be a good number, until one reads a little further to discover that “only 26% of elementary teachers involved their students in Internet based activities [and] 92% of these activities involved downloading research information. Only 8% involved more interactive applications, such as e-mail, web publishing, simulations, and problem-solving.” (Kingham & Williams, 2003) This means that only 2% of teachers involve their students in basic interaction with the Internet. Considering the degree to which the Internet is integrated with daily adult and professional life, this is an astonishing and shamefully low percentage. The article goes on to explain that only a minority of classrooms take advantage of the Internet even so far as having teachers use the Internet to aid students, and very few allow students to construct projects and have self-directed experiential interaction with the Internet. (Kingham) To make matters worse, many teachers are still penalizing students who do use computers or the Internet at home by requiring that papers not use online sources, or even that they be handwritten instead of typed.
A consistent, yet frightening, pattern emerges with schools that do have training in technology: within the general classroom technology is absent or even penalized, and then students are taken to special “computer labs” or “technology classes” where they are taught computer skills divorced from practical in-class application. Such a pattern exists in the Waterbury School district which will be profiled in this study, at which technology classes are separate from general education. This is very dangerous, according to a constructionist perspective, because it creates a situation in which learning is divorced from experience. Merely knowing a little about computers does not replace the understanding that computers can be useful and are actually an integral part of a modern thinking life.
Learning about technology instead of learning with technology runs counter to constructionist theories. Additionally, it runs counter to good sense regarding the way in which technology functions in our world. Unless the learning about computers has a constructionist bent and is focused on teaching children how to think about computers and how to intuitively find their way around new programs and new systems, then anything a young child can be taught about computers now is likely to be hopelessly outdated by the time they are old enough to leave school. For example, drilling children in the syntax of BASIC or DOS (as was done in some early technology courses, and similar practices continue today) is unlikely to be particularly useful in fifteen years, though on the contrary if children were to explore the theories of how object-oriented programming works in a mixture of real or modeled settings they may actually begin to learn the flow of future programming languages. However, in general if children are spending time with computers just for the sake of being around them, and are not actually being taught how to incorporate technology into their school experiences, then they will likely fail to learn either.
The greatest failure in the area of technology, however, is the failure of schools and programmers alike to realize the incredible possibility of technology to educate. Most computer programs used in the school environment have one of three purposes: they may be practical (such as word processors, calculators, library indexes and internet browsers), or they are just for fun and to give kids experience using computers (various games), or they are basic drill-style games such as Mathbusters which reward children for right answers. These may all be useful things for technology to accomplish, but they fail to live up to its true pedagogical potential.
Rather than running mere repetitious drills, educational games could be used to create multilayered open-ended educational play, in which the learner’s experiences and choices taught real-life lessons and facts within a realistic and experiential setting. Such immersive games (similar to the addictive Everquest game, or Maxi’s Sims, could teach about anything from geography and historical events and politics and culture (in an Everquest-like world) or human behavior models (in a Sims-like world).
Consider the writings of Joel Foreman, (2003) who suggests that students learn about gothic architecture by exploring fully rendered 3-D simulations of cathedrals, study the complicated work of nursing and medicine by running simulations of hospital ward management or of an actual night on an ambulance, or analyze group dynamics and botany through multiplayer journeys into a simulated jungle or other landscape. Immersive environments, which could range from accurate simulations of various time periods to role-playing models of psychological interaction, could train students in a game-like environment throughout their lives. “The video game has already won the leisure time of many students. The scenario I have described above suggests that the video game, when furnished with pedagogical power, will also eventually win the instructional marketplace.” (Foreman, 2003, 22) Flight simulators have already proven to be extremely useful and reliable as a way of training pilots, and it seems reasonable to expect that other simulations would prove invaluable in training other students as well.
Of course, this sort of use of technology is still in the future (not because it is technically impossible now, for it is no more complex than many existing games) but because these sort of educational immersive platforms are not yet being marketed sufficiently. Yet the very fact that the educational system is not demanding and seeking out such products, and that they are so wildly ignored when they spring into being, shows a failing on the part of the system. Many current computer games could be used for educational purposes, including simulators of evolutionary growth and development among species, various historical simulation games, and even some 3-D model environments. Yet these are generally not being used to teach. The question then must be: why?
Failure to Recognize The Problem
Perhaps the most painful failure of the school system is its failure to recognize the source of these problems. Many of the solutions proposed have very little to do with the real issues at hand. It is because the solutions proposed do not match the problem that acts such as No Child Left Behind which were meant to help students may often end up hindering them, and creating a barrier to true change. The study is important because it addresses the problems in a scientific light, focusing not on merely requiring more out of already beleaguered students and teachers, but actually giving them the tools for change.
Scope of the Study
Ideally such a study would be performed over the course of several years, across the entire spectrum of classes and at multiple schools within a given area; certainly if the research conducted leans heavily towards an affirmation of the hypothesis that will be precisely what is suggested. In the meantime, however, the scope must be relatively more limited for ease of performance and evaluation.
This program of Pedagogy for Understanding will be implement (with the gracious assistance of the District Superintendent) at the Waterbury WHAT? School, and take place over the course of a single school year. The study will cover the training of specific teachers in the field of technology education. Specific selected special education teachers and general education teachers will also be selected to receive some additional training and to cooperate in networking and monitoring skills.
The administration, technology education teachers, and some special and general education teachers will all fall under the scope of this program, as will a collection of special needs students from technology classrooms. Some of these collected students will function as a secondary control group and be part of the study only while within the technology education classroom, while the final grouping stands to gain the most and is undergoing treatment both at the technology classroom and continued support through teacher networks when attending general (or special) education classes.
When it comes to providing care for individual children, and to adapting the educational environment to best fit a specific child’s learning needs, it seems unlikely that an array of labels and definitions will improve the quality of that education. In individual cases, what is most important is no doubt the specific abilities and disabilities of the specific student. Unfortunately, at the level of school-wide policy, let alone at the level of state or federal policy toward education, individual students cannot be taken into consideration. If a consistent district-wide or nationwide approach to education is to be established (the desirability of which may be debatable, but not at this juncture), then there is a degree to which it is important that categories of treatment be delineated, and that every aspect of the educational process be clearly defined. Of course, no definition can be complete. Most prior legislation has been corrupted by inappropriate interpretation of its terms, to such a degree that the National Council on Disability reports that every single state is out of compliance with IDEA requirements in some fashion (National Council on Disability, 2000), and repeated legislative changes have been necessitated by the need to refine terms. For the sake of this work, then, both the vital importance of legal definitions and the more practical importance of standard colloquial definitions will be clarified and expanded upon.
Special Needs Students
Under federal law, as embodied in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), special needs students are defined as any student with one of eleven basic categories of disability, including any health or mental disability which impairs the child’s ability to function within the classroom setting on a social or academic level. Some of these categories overlap, such as listing deaf students and students with hearing limitations in separate categories. A more rational approach, such as that proposed by D’Alonzo (1966) could divide all of these categories into five basic subgroups.
The first subgroup would be those students typified by vision and hearing defects. This can include physical blindness or deafness, or situations in which the individual receives information from his or her sensory organs, but is incapable of accurately processing it within the brain. Under federal law, several groups that would fall under this category. The first of these categories is deafness-blindness, which is a combination of hearing and visual impairment which generally results in significant difficulty in communication and the need for unique educational treatment. The second is deafness, which is a severe hearing loss. The fourth, includes all hearing impairments other than total deafness, including fluctuating hearing. The eleventh IDEA classification, should also be included: visual impairment and blindness, consisting of any visual impairment that was either untreatable or persisted despite attempted correction such as glasses.
The second basic grouping is mental retardation, which includes such problems as Down Syndrome. Mental retardation is included as the fifth IDEA category, described as difficulty in developing adaptive behavior and an IQ under 70. Autism could also be argued to fall under this grouping, though depending on the child’s IQ they might also be considered “environmentally disadvantaged” or to have “emotional and social maladjustment.” Autism was granted federal protection in 1990 with the authorization of IDEA.
The third basic group is emotional and social maladjustment. This is represented as several different categories under IDEA. The third IDEA listing is emotional disturbance, which can include a wide variety of psychiatric disorders, and is defined in the law as “An inability to learn; build or maintain satisfactory, interpersonal relationships; inappropriate behavior or feelings; pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, over a long period and to a marked degree.” (1975 P.L. 94-142) Under IDEA the generalized category of “Other health impairments” was expanded in 1997 to explicitly include children with ADD and ADHD, due to a tendency by schools to exclude them from special education classes.
The fourth basic group is that of the environmentally disadvantaged, which seems to be a catchall including students from all backgrounds who exhibit environmentally-attributed learning disabilities. One assumes this would be covered under the ninth category under the original Education for All Handicapped Children Act was that of specific learning disabilities, defined as: “Disorder of one or more of basic psychology process that may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do math.” (1975 P.L. 94-142) Learning disabilities are in a separate category from retardation, and are defined at least in part by the difference between performance and potential (as based on individual IQ). Speech/language impairments, such as stuttering or muteness made up the tenth category of IDEA and might also be included here. The 1997 amendments to IDEA changed the law to include developmental delays, which included any significant delay in “Physical, cognitive, communication, social/emotional, or adaptive development.” (1997 P.L. 105-17)
The final grouping would be physical handicaps, which includes any physical difficulty which requires educational accommodations. These disabilities are also listed federally. Orthopedic impairment (lameness) is listed in IDEA as requiring special education, along with a generalized “Other health impairments…[defined as] Limited strength, vitality or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems.” (1975 P.L. 94-142)
In 1990, the IDEA added a category for any traumatic brain injury which caused disabilities or psychosocial problems.
D’Alonzo (1966) and the federal government both point out that a distinction must be made between the learning disabled and those who were merely slow learners. Among the important issues addressed in IDEA regarding public education was the treatment of students with severe learning disabilities, which need to be addressed differently than physical or behavioral problems. IDEA defines severe learning disabilities as a psychological processing deficit accompanied by, or leading to, “severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and academic achievement.” (Warner et al., 2002) IDEA further specifies that learning disabilities cannot be the result of mental retardation, which would lead to the use of minimum IQ scores below which an individual student would be considered not to be displaying a learning disability. (Warner et al., 2002) Students with substandard IQs who were below the cut-off for being considered retarded would be given access to many special education programs, but students whose IQ scores were neither high enough to be considered “learning disabled” when they struggled with academics, nor low enough to be considered “retarded” might be cut off from special education altogether and forced to struggle on in the mainstream.
Because this way of defining learning disabilities seemed somewhat counterintuitive to many educators, for many years it remained largely unimplemented. Before 1990, only about 4% of states used intelligence criteria in defining severe learning disabilities (Frankenberger & Fronzaglio, 1991). The nineties showed a significant increase in the number of states limiting learning disability classifications on the base of intelligence, so that recent surveys show that approximately 26% of states include intelligence in definitions for severe learning disabilities (C. D. Mercer, Jordan, Allsopp, & Mercer, 1996), while a full 98% do include the “discrepancy criteria” as at least a stared part of their eligibility criteria, though many of those do not operationalize this statement. (C. D. Mercer, Jordan, Allsopp, & Mercer, 1996)
There are some problems, however, with discrepancy criteria for determining learning disabilities. Several studies have shown numerous problems attached to using IQ scores to diagnose learning disabilities (Francis, Espy, Rourke, & Fletcher, 1991; Lyon, 1989). This is especially true for minority students who tend to have lower IQ scores when comparing equally achieving students (Braden, 1987; McLeskey, Waldron, & Wornhoff, 1990); this discrepancy has generally been blamed on test cultural biases, but may nonetheless skew diagnoses of learning disabilities. Discrepancy-based methods, both those based on simple differences and IQ scores, and those based on regression methods from grade-level deviations or expectancy formulas, have been targeted by many researchers for critique. (Fletcher, Francis, Rourke, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 1992; Heath & Kush, 1991; Reynolds, 1990; Shaywitz, Fletcher, Holahan, & Shaywitz, 1992)
One of the best arguments against discrepancy-based evaluation has been its significant lack of external validity. For example, discrepancy formulas applied to cases of reading disabilities have not correlated with the phonological processing deficits that scientists believe to be at the root of reading disability. (Fletcher, Espy, Francis, Rourke, & Shaywitz, 1989; Fletcher et al., 1992; Fletcher et al., 1994; Stanovich & Siegel, 1994) Many experts suggest using alternative methods to determine disability.
This is significant to the issue of definition, because it shows that legal definitions and those which best fit the practical concerns of students and school districts are not always entirely in sync. In fact, two separate studies have shown that schools and educational teams consistently evaluate students based on criteria that are at odds with discrepancy-based criteria. (Payette & Clarizio, 1994; MacMillan, Gresham, and Bocian, 1998) Macmillan’s recent study, which took place over five school districts, showed that less than half of the students classified with learning disabilities would have met state or federal criteria, and many other students who would have met those criteria were not so classified. Low absolute achievement tended to be the consistent criteria actually used by schools. (MacMillan et al., 1998) Yet using low achievement as the standard has its own perils, such as confusing environmental or personal issues which might need social intervention (such as poverty, abuse, or lack of motivation) with actual learning disabilities which require academic intervention, and the difficulty of drawing the line between a natural bell-curve.
The classification of special education students is made even more difficult by the controversial nature of certain disabilities, such as ADD. Many parents and social critics have difficulty accepting ADD/ADHD as a real disability, and in some cases this can lead to difficulty in diagnosis and referral. (James M. Kauffman; Kathleen McGee; Michele Brigham, 2004) While the difference between a deaf and hearing child is very evident, the difference between a child with clinical ADD and a normal child who has been raised with poor impulse control or a rebellious nature may be more difficult to ascertain, increasing the difficulty of adequately providing services to many students whose learning difficulties lie in a behavioral or psychological/emotional disability.
It seems possible that strict definitions of “special needs” and “disability” may be difficult to come by, without standardizing practical application to legislative theory. For the sake of this following work, “special needs” refers to any student who has been referred for nonstandard educational intervention by the school system, whether that be participation within a special education program, the application of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) within the general population, or other specific accommodations. References to “disability,” on the other hand, will be reserved strictly for students with particular diagnoses, and where possible those diagnoses will be included as well (such as specifying “learning disability” or “physical disability”).
Special vs. General Education
The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Later reauthorized as IDEA) established the right of all disabled children to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), which was to be provided in the least-restrictive environment possible. This protected disabled children both from being denied access to schools, and also indicated that placing them in restrictive environments such as state homes or insane asylums (which, tragically, in earlier years had been common practice for even such mild disabilities as epilepsy). Discriminatory placements were prevented, as much as possible, by the creation of multidisciplinary teams including doctors or other experts, teachers and guardians who could evaluate individual situations. These teams are responsible for the creation of an individualized education programs (IEP) for each student requiring specialized services.
Special education hence refers to any classroom setting or special service provided to special needs students as part of their IEP. General education refers to the standard curriculum of the school system, which is not subject individualized programs for each student. There is however some degree of overlap between these definitions. Special education most obviously takes place within special education classrooms, in which each student has special needs and is dealt with (at least ideally) on an individual level in keeping with their particular needs. General education takes place (always) within the general classroom with general curriculum. Increasingly, however, special needs students are being placed in general education classrooms, and teachers who are not trained in special education are being required to adapt general curriculum to accommodate special needs students, which may or may not include providing them with specific accommodations.
As a rule, when special education is referenced in the literature it refers specifically to education occurring in a special education classroom. However, special education should be more accurately defined as any accommodation made to the general curriculum for the purpose of better educating special needs students. This broader definition is particularly important in terms of understanding the Waterbury School District, in which technology education is used in some cases as a pullout subject for special needs students who are otherwise being educated in general classes, in some cases used for general education classes that include special needs students, and in some cases a pullout subject for special needs students who are otherwise participating in exclusively special education classes.
In attempting to form a new theory of pedagogy for understanding, nothing seems more important than assuring that this new theory will work both in theory and in practice, and that it has been validated by study and practice. For this reason, science becomes one of the more important terms necessary to define.
Science” can mean either a body of existent knowledge or a method of approach to a given situation. Additionally, science may be either pure and rhetorical, or applied. As an approach, it implies the use of the scientific method, which functions by forming an educated hypothesis based on the prior body of scientific knowledge, and creating an experiment which in its conclusion will either prove or disprove the hypothesis. Some fields of scientific inquiry suggest that the ideal experiment tests to see if a hypothesis can be disproven, because one simple example of disproof dismisses a claim, while many examples of proof may not entirely prove the point. (One metaphor frequently used by this field of thought is the idea that one black swan disproves the hypothesis that all swans are white, but fifteen white swans cannot prove that no black swans exist) However, in the field of special education, it is sometimes difficult to find a “falsifiable” hypothesis, and the scientific researcher in this field may have to resign themselves to merely proving that a given idea is capable of working well within the field. At the very least, however, a scientific approach mandates the creation of hypotheses and their rigorous testing.
Science as a body of knowledge is also important for special education, because there is a great deal of research on child development, the medical elements of disability, and various psychological training methods which is often not applied to the educational setting. Applying existing scientific knowledge (which often can be more rigorously proven) to the special education classroom, or to the treatment of special needs students, can provide a more scientific approach.
Finally, science may be either rhetorical (such as knowledge regarding how neurons create mood states) or applied (such as using neurological knowledge to create medicine to treat psychological issues), and this applies both to science as a body of knowledge and to the hypothesis that is confirmed or denied by research.
Within the constructionist paradigm, science is particularly vital to the educational process because the methodology of science undergirds the entirety of the construction of knowledge. In the Pedagogy for Understanding framework, the goal is for students to develop a sophisticated ability to theorize, justify, and judge the world around them. In essence, the Pedagogy for Understanding is a pedagogy for the scientific method, training students in the age-old tradition of contextual probing from hypothesis to observation to explanation.
In conclusion, then, science must be defined both as an approach to understanding and as a body of knowledge. When one says, then, that science must be applied to teaching within the classroom, the advocate is speaking both of the application of prior knowledge and the generation of new understanding to the pedagogical method. Likewise, to scientifically teach students is to grant to them both scientifically verifiable information, and also to train them in scientific methods of understanding and inquiry.
Technology, as a concept, refers to the mechanical or physical inventions that are the fruits of science. Almost everything we use in daily life is to some degree technological, from school busses to air conditioning units to calculators and electric pencil sharpeners. However, generally when the argument is made to include more technology in a given field, the reference is specifically to newer technology such as computers or very new medical treatments such as biorhythm therapy. Within the scope of this work, technology has three specific aspects: the first is technology used by teachers as a pedagogical or diagnostic aid, the second is technology which is used by students as part of the learning process, and the third is technology used as a subject for learning in itself. So when one speaks of using technology in the classroom, it is important to see that there are multiple ways in which technology is vital.
First, technology for teaching would include such devices as digital databases for grades and assignments, computerized assessment tools to aid the teacher in working with special needs students, and more traditional technological applications such as using projection screens to go through lesson notes or slide shows. Technology can also be used to link teachers to each other and to the administration and support staff, so that a child’s files and work can be easily traded between interested parties, so that teachers can call for instant advice or back-up from a qualified expert, or so that directors and administrators can easily keep tabs on classroom activities and behaviors. Technology in the teacher’s hands is important because it may help them to do a better job teaching, and it also models the use of technology for students.
Secondly, technology for learning is vital, though frequently unexplored. Technology for learning would be described as anything which the student uses to further their educational pursuits. The internet would be one perfect example, as it can be used for research or to play interactive educational games. Other examples might include drill games such as Mathbusters and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, or even better role-playing and exploratory games that teach the children real-world concepts. The potential of such learning technology has been addressed above.
Finally, learning technology is somewhat different from using technology to learn or to teach. Technology as a subject is the focus on the way in which technology is created and utilized such as learning about binary code, how computers and routers work, or the basic functions of programming. It may also focus on training in popular forms of technology such as how to use a specific operating system, word processor, or search engine. This may be separate from using the technology to learn other subjects, as it focuses more on the interaction between the child and the machine than the interaction between the child and the game for which the machine is just a medium.
Throughout, when referring to technology in the classroom, if a specific use of technology is implied, that will be made as explicit as possible. Generally, however, it seems important that all three uses of technology be incorporated into the classroom, and when speaking of technology in the classroom all three are usually indicated.
Education today is in a state of crisis, caught between competing social demands. On the one hand educators need to raise the standardized scores of their students and conform to the federal mandates, but on the other hand the true job of an educator is to help their students understand the subject. Yet these mandates often have little to do with the actual work of engendering understanding in students, and may not actually represent a substantial achievement in and of themselves. The need to balance these two is something which plagues the modern school system. Though in a natural environment understanding would naturally express itself as performance, and the possession of understanding would lend itself to the ability to display that knowledge when tested, this does not necessarily occur in the school environment. Because schools tend to narrow the curriculum and substitute test-taking skills for the development of real understanding, as opposed to letting those skills develop naturally from understanding, it is often the case that understanding never develops.
As if this terrible and unnecessary conflict between test-taking and understanding were not destructive enough, special needs students face additional problems. Those with special needs are being mainstreamed into the same curriculum as general education students, and many teachers are not familiar with how to teach to special needs students. Whether or not special needs students are capable of approaching general education content, they certainly need a certain finesse and theoretical knowledge from their teacher regarding the treatment of and pedagogy for their special needs. These special needs students face a triple challenge then. First they must deal with the effects of their disability. Secondly they deal with the inability of their general education teachers to knowledgeably and professionally handle that disability. Finally they must struggle through a system than is focused not on assuring they grow to the best of their ability and have the greatest understanding of the subjects involved, but on trying to prepare them to take tests for performance, regardless of whether those standardized tests would be capable of properly displaying the complexity of the knowledge and understanding which many exceptional children have.
One of the central theses of the Pedagogy for Understanding is to design a way for schools to overcome the gap between tests and understanding, so that students may be trained towards understanding at every level, and that this understanding itself will build test taking skills. Only when understanding is placed first will positive test results arise naturally. The second theses is that understanding itself will only arise out of a constructionist classroom that encourages evaluation, experimentation, and interaction with the material.
Both these goals — understanding and performance, are dependent on procedure, and the function by which the Pedagogy for Understanding must proceed is that of working at the level of the instructor and his or her supporting parties such as administrators, special education experts, and paraprofessionals. This network must be guided to focus around the needs of the individuals. Each student needs a consistent environment in which teachers, administrators, social workers, and so forth are all in agreement procedurally and socially, so that a consistent educational plan may prevail. Students deserve to function in an environment in which their needs are understood and appreciated by all involved. For this to happen, however, teachers must also be operating in an environment where their needs are recognized and honored. Teachers deserve to be tested for understanding of their subjects so they will not be helplessly lost in the classroom, and they deserve to be guided into a pedagogical style which is beneficial for themselves and their students. Teachers who are not capable of teaching for understanding may need not to teach — however, those that are capable need to be supported. Providing training in special education and a strong network of support for these capable teachers is a vital part of the Pedagogy for Understanding, and certainly that which sets it apart from many other constructionist learning guides. Where research in the past has explored the results of creating constructionist or cooperative classrooms and monitoring the results on students, it has seldom focused on the potential of creating constructionist teachers and monitoring the results on classrooms.
In conclusion, then, the goal of this work is to explore the ramifications of teacher re-education and supervision in the creation of a constructionist classroom, and the ability of such supervision to help students be better equipped both to understand the material at hand and to demonstrate that understand in the face of mandatory standardized testing.
CHAPTER TWO: LITERATURE REVIEW
You still have the Literature Review and Bibliography I sent you, right? It’s on my other computer, and I can’t access it until my housemate comes home next week. I know you wanted this as soon as possible, though. When she gets back I’ll put the entire thing together in copy perfect format with page numbers and proper page divisions and so forth and resend it to you.
CHAPTER THREE: METHODOLOGY
Much has been made of the importance of a scientific approach to education, and the importance of applying reason and research to the educational process. If one were to move from that theoretical perspective into a research mode that was based on speculation and prior reading, the result would be hardly worthy of mention. So it is very important that in the application of the Pedagogy for Understanding, all participants –especially the researcher– focus on appropriate methodology and the pursuit of scientific evidence and support for the hypothesis. Prior research provides some support for the idea that a constructionist classroom setting will provide superior results for all students involved, and that focusing on creating stronger interpersonal and social bonds will simultaneously stimulate the spontaneous generation of student success, even apart fro significant curricular changes (as per the literature review). Yet showing the link between hierarchical and student social bonding, the creation of a constructionist and yet test-centered learning environment, and the end result of student achievement and understanding remains a central concern which can only be addressed scientifically.
The process of testing this hypothesis is necessarily a complicated and time-consuming one. Before the school environment and teacher training can hope to show any sorts of results for students, it is absolutely necessary that students be allowed to exist and learn within that environment for a significant amount of time. Results cannot be expected overnight. To complicate matters even more, teachers may require an adjustment period which can be expected to lengthen the minimum amount of time invested in the project. It seems that, at the least, an entire school year will be necessary to show results in either a qualitative or statistical fashion. Because of the scope of the project, planning and structure become significant, as early mistakes could easily jeopardize the entire procedure. In order to proceed in an orderly and scientific fashion, it is important to follow a very specific plan which outlines the stages of research. (see diagram i)
As I was putting this together in its final format I realized that I don’t have the scan I made of your original program-flow diagram with me. That’s also on my housemate’s laptop. I had begun the dissertation working on that computer while this one was sent away for repairs. I’ll get that scan from her and put it in the final version I send to you next week.
As the reader will observe, there are four basic stages within the preparation and performance of this research. Each is vital in its implementation and design. These four stages are: the design of the intervention, which is to say the formulation of the practical implications of the Pedagogy for Understanding; the development of a delivery plan, in which the mode of practical application is arranged; the delivery of this intervention, which is the bulk of the research process and covers all the time in which interactions with students, teachers, and support staff take place; the assessment of impact, which in some instances coexists with the intervention delivery, and is the stage at which results are collected and analyzed.
The first stage, in which the intervention is designed, is time-consuming and yet relatively straightforward. There are three important tasks to be undertaken at this point: the assessment of standing literature and theory pursuant to the creation of specific curricular and classroom goals, the preparation of materials and presentations aimed at teachers and support staff, and the research and development of assessment tools.
In the creation of specific curricular and classroom goals, the process of performing a literature review was supplemented with private interviews with the administration, special education director, and the two technical education teachers who would be most affected by the program. While the literature provided very valuable insights into the theory and goals of a constructionist special education classroom, and formed the basis of the Pedagogy for Understanding, early stage conferences with individuals who would later be responsible for implementing this theory helped to provide a certain reality-check. Specific goals that emerged from this stage focused on creating more co-operative classrooms while preserving sufficient social control to prevent conflict between students, providing experimentation and performance-focused learning experiences and more peer-to-peer information sharing, the encouraging of critical thinking skills and the support of alternative learning strategies, and the integrated teaching of test-taking strategies. In support of these goals, the creation of student learning portfolios and individualized learning plans emerged as important elements.
Materials and presentations aimed at evaluating and educating the teachers focused on a three pronged approach, dealing both with pedagogical theory, information and discussion on practical application, and exercises in team-building. It seemed important not to overload teachers with information and demands, and yet to present them with enough tools and support to make the transition work for their classrooms. At this stage the decision was made to attempt to model a co-operative classroom for the teachers, and present this information (as much as possible) in a constructionist fashion. Reading was kept at a minimum to avoid overload, and presentations were designed to take no more than half of the total training time. Especially important was the idea of providing time for teachers to communicate with each other and with support staff regarding the individual needs of specific students, particularly those with special needs which might otherwise be overlooked or not consistently treated.
In researching and developing assessment tools, there was a need to balance objective and subjective measures. The idea of creating a scientifically supported approach to pedagogy seemed to demand scientific and quantitative measurements, assessment which could involve hard facts and numbers, as opposed to teacher, student, or researcher opinion or subjective observation. On the other hand, constructionist theory and past research had indicated that many quantitative measures, such as achievement tests or any form of standardized testing often shortchanged students or misrepresented actual achievement. Subjective observation of growth in knowledge or achievement of specific educational goals might actually provide a more accurate picture. At this stage the decision was made to incorporate both standardized and personalized measurements.
This was also the point at which the necessary subject make-up was determined which would hopefully give the least biased results. Because individual teacher failure or success could easily undermine the entire project, it was determined that at least two technology teachers were necessary, each with a separate set of students, so that the difference between teacher success and program success could be evaluated more easily. Each technology teacher worked with students pulled from regular classes for brief intervals. Four teachers whose students were sent to these pullout sessions would be chosen to participate in the study (two for each technology teacher) and asked to provide further constructionist teaching. Additionally, four more teachers whose students were sent to these pullout sessions would be selected whose students would be given the same tests but without additional constructionist teaching. This would help monitor the degree to which a single pullout class which worked on the Pedagogy for Understanding method could influence results of those whose daily environment was not constructionist. Finally, each of the technology teachers was asked to conduct at least two of their daily technology sessions using the methods they had used prior to this year. A total of four teachers whose students attended these traditional sessions were selected to have their students tested as well, as a final control group.
The second stage of research, the development of a delivery plan, involves a measure of political positioning. Unlike some studies, which focus directly on intervening at the classroom level, Pedagogy for Understanding focuses on intervening at the level of the pedagogue. This necessitates that, rather than merely finding a willing teacher to run the experiment, the researcher must find an administrator willing to subject an entire portion of his school to such an experiment. In order to assure that this would happen, the researcher approached the school board directly, presenting the Pedagogy for Understanding as a scientifically-based research project which had the potential to significantly raise student scores on national achievement tests. This approach was aided by political connections, which assumably will not skew the results at the school level, but did provide a valuable introduction to the system. The delivery plan depended on administration and the special education director meeting with selected teachers for two weeks at the beginning of the school year (before students began arriving) and then remaining in frequent contact with the researcher and each other through regular scheduled conferences. The program is delivered to students via teachers, who in this sense constitute the direct subjects of the experiment.
The third stage of research, the delivery of the intervention, consisted of actual training with the teachers and consistent supervision and conferencing with teachers and focus groups in order to assure transference to the students. This stage, though comprising the bulk of the project, requires the least theoretical or planning work.
The final stage, that of assessing impact has two components. Gathering results is an ongoing process throughout stage three, consisting of the implementation of the research assessment tools in terms of standardized-type testing and subject interviews. Analyzing those results and drawing conclusions is only possible after the experiment draws to a close at the end of the school year.
The participants in a study such as this are vital to its success and their personal achievements and failures cannot be separated entirely from the validity or failure of the study. Due to the often highly political nature of the school system and the potential for career-damaging ramifications of any critical analysis, and further due to the significant privacy issues at stake morally and legally when dealing with minor students, all names have been changed to protect the identity of the school and of the individual participants in this study. It should be further noted that the legal rights of the students precluded the researcher from accessing their personal or medical files. Because the behavior and education of special needs students is intimately connected to the nature of their disability, this might prove a slight disadvantage in analyzing classroom treatment and behavioral issues. Some of the children being dealt with had obvious diagnoses, and in some cases the children or their parents or teachers were able to tell me without privacy breach the nature of their disability (for example, being informed that a given child was deaf or had cerebral palsy was not particularly privileged information, while the exact diagnoses of mental disorders was). Where student disabilities are referred to by name, such as in the case of autistic or ADD students, any such diagnoses should be considered to be the assumption of the researcher without necessarily reflecting medical diagnoses.
The regularly meeting focus and discussion group included two important administrational figures, both of whom would prove to have a significant impact on the outcome of the project. The first of these may be pseudonymously named Richard Ford, the school principal. The second is Shirley White-Watson, the special education director. The personality and ideology of these two powerful individuals affected both the over-all progress of the research and the ability of the other team members to bring up issues and concerns and reach valid conclusions.
Richard Ford is a large, physically intimidating man, whose authority over the school seems relatively unquestioned. His physical and political strength are wrapped up in a calm and professional demeanor, which neither invites questioning nor comes across as particularly forceful. He tends to smooth over conflict, and yet generally enforces his will. Ford is very dedicated to maintaining order and control within the school environment, and may be considered something of a disciplinarian. There appeared to be a certain degree of resentment towards the Pedagogy for Understanding program from his direction, which seemed to stem from the school-board’s topdown suggestion that he participate. In meetings he tends to take center stage where possible, though his own views on special education and classroom style are eclectic and tend to incoherency. Ford, at times, aptly demonstrated the need for administrators to be familiar with the needs of special education students.
Shirley White-Watson is a more diminutive, steel-haired woman with a large briefcase and a busy schedule. She is politically conscious and acutely aware of legal requirements regarding equal access and treatment for special education students and the importance of the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind. Her work in overseeing the integration of significantly disabled children into the general education setting has occasionally put her at odds with teachers. When questioned she appears knowledgeable about special education, and politically idealistic regarding the ability of special needs students to function in the general education setting. Despite this idealism, her busy schedule occasionally interfered with attendance at meetings, and she appeared to feel awkward when placed in a position to be providing hands-on or theoretical training to teachers. White-Watson seems more at home in administrative and theoretical than in practical settings, an observation which suggests that her ability to educate teachers and administrators regarding adequate pedagogy for special needs students could be lacking. Her organizational skills, however, appeared to be excellent.
Teachers total of fourteen teachers across three grade levels had something to do with this study. Of those, only six were actively involved in intervention delivery, and the other eight and their students were merely control elements. Two of these were technology teachers who worked in the computer lab and did special pullout classes across all grade levels. These two may be called Jim Vickerol and Annie Franklin. Two of the other teachers, Fran Holler and John Chess, worked with second grade students while the other two, Ellen Strickland and Max Hewick, worked with third grade students.
The two technology teachers tended to work on opposite sides of the computer lab, but occasionally switched positions or classes. Vickerol dealt more often with students whose special needs came to some extreme, and had done some research on special education and technology. He ran one pullout session populated largely by low-functioning special education students from a non-mainstreamed class which was also attended by a few pullout students from general education classes. Vickerol also had a special session for gifted students in which included two very high functioning autistic children who had an affinity for computers. Vickerol’s experience and intelligence made him a particular asset to the program, and his willingness to participate was part of the reason why this school was chosen. Despite (or perhaps because of) his experience, however, Vickerol tended to be somewhat disillusioned both with the integration of special education students and with the general school environment. Lack of funding and the high student-teacher ratio were both major concerns for him. Vickerol’s background was in computers before he turned to education, which gave him an edge in the technology field.
Franklin, on the other hand, was not particularly knowledgeable regarding special needs students or about the workings of technology, and tended to be flustered by both. Prior to the program’s beginning, she had a much higher rate of sending special needs students to the principal or to time-out than did Vickerol. In meetings Franklin tended to be very meek and shy, being both unlikely to vocalize her problems and eager to please. In the classroom he had a tendency to hover over students, flitting back and forth between stations and frequently wringing her hands or shutting computers down which had manifested unexpected problems. Her strong points were in her nurturing and caring approach to students, and her rapport with many of the general education children. She had not been approached regarding this program prior to Ford’s approval of it, and initially reported a great deal of intrepidation regarding learning a new style of teaching.
Among the other four general education teachers, there was also a noticeable difference between those who volunteered to be a part of the study and those who were selected for inclusion by the researcher and Ford on the basis of providing a good counterpoint (in terms of grade level, pullout classes attended, and number of special education students) to those who did volunteer.
John Chess, a second grade teacher, was the second in the school to volunteer, citing as his reason a desire to learn more about how to deal with the influx of special education students. Chess is a slightly built, soft spoken native of California who appears to have an excellent rapport with his students and a strong creative flair. He is an experienced teacher with ten years under his belt working at various grade levels in three school districts. He had never before worked in a constructionist classroom setting and was not familiar with the theories involved, though he had occasionally heard about the values of discussion or experiment-based classes. Chess had very little training with special needs students, and described his recent experience with a more integrated classroom as spiraling out of control and distracting from his ability to deal with general education students. Regardless of his negative impression of working with special needs students, he presented himself as eager to learn and dedicated to doing whatever was suggested to prevent his class from falling behind. Chess has a bachelors degree in English, and a minor in theater design.
Fran Holler, also a second grade teacher, had the most experience of any of the teachers, with almost thirty years in the same school district and approaching retirement in the next few years. She had never heard of constructivism and reacted somewhat negatively to the invitation to participate in this research. Holler is gruff and relatively private woman whose experience has created a tendency to hold bulwarked preconceptions and to quickly pidgeon-hole both students and new ideas. She considers “running a tight ship” to be the only way to deal with “bad kids,” such as certain of the behaviorally challenged special needs students in her class, but is both compassionate and patient with slow learners who apply themselves. The majority of her children seem to appreciate both her warm hugs and her firm, no-nonsense approach. Nonetheless, Ford has expressed some concern regarding her “old school” approach to discipline and her inexperience with special needs students. Holler holds a bachelors degree and a masters in English.
The first volunteer from the school was Ellen Strickland, a 26-year-old teacher of the third grade, who has apparently been anxiously awaiting the chance to run a more co-operative and holistic classroom. This is only Ellen’s second year at the school, and she does not appear to have as much social support and input as many of the other teachers involved. Despite that set-back, Ellen appears to be the subject most likely to work well within the Pedagogy for Understanding framework. She has had limited training with special education students, but her background in pedagogical theory (apparently having done her senior project on co-operative classroom management and the frontier school house) puts her in a good position to approach this program of study. Strickland had a degree in the humanities in addition to her teacher’s certification studies, and had pursued a course of independent study of English and history.
Max Hewick, a third grade teacher, is a boisterous and outspoken individual with a strong theoretical streak. As perhaps the only self-identified Republican of the focus groups, he provides an interesting counterpoint in favor of No Child Left Behind and a back-to-the-basics approach. While not having certification or a history of academic study in special education, Hewick claims to have a great deal of knowledge regarding special needs students and “teaching to the bottom line.” He reports subscribing to several teaching magazines and always attempts to apply the latest techniques in his classrooms, sometimes in what appears to be a relatively random combination. If there were one quote indicative of Hewick approach to teaching, it would be this one from one of the first group meetings: “all students are special needs.”
Hewick had a major in Education and a minor in psychology.
The four teachers whose students attended Pedagogy for Understanding-based technology classes but received no other special treatment will be called as follows: Joe Smith, John Silver, Jill Song, and Jane Sims. The four teachers whose students were in no way involved in alternate teaching practices related to this study will be called as follows:
Sam Nice, Sue Nichols, Sandy Nox, and Sarah Nashville.
It would be impractical to spend a paragraph on every student from every one of these four classrooms. Even with access to records on which students had been diagnoses with special needs, it would still be difficult to give a good overview of each special needs student. Because of the difficulty of performing good case studies on every one of the children, three weeks into the year three children from each class (including six children from each of the two technical pullout classes) were chosen to represent the progress and opinions of the classrooms. Two from each class were chosen by the focus group as representing special needs students, and one as being a good example of a “general education” student. Two students were chosen by their teachers in each of the “control group” classrooms (one special needs, one general education), for a total of twenty monitored students who participated in some way in either Vickerol’s and Franklin’s Pedagogy for Understanding-based technology classrooms, and eight more whose participation in the program was limited to occasional interviews and tests. In all, twenty-eight students participated in some form of personal monitoring. All twelve classrooms participated in anonymous standardized-type testing, for a total of two hundred and twenty students taking standardized tests (sixty-nine from the four special classes, seventy-one who merely attended special technology classes, and eighty who received no intervention) A complete overview of students, whether or not they received intervention, their grade level and age, general teacher, technology class teacher, and special needs status is presented in diagram 2.2
Diagram 3.2 — Monitored Student List
2nd / 8 years
Frank 1/Vick 3
2nd / 6 years
2nd / 7 years
2nd / 6 years
2nd / 9 years
Frank 2/Vick 3
2nd / 7 yrs
2nd / 8 years
2nd / 7 years
2nd / 6 years
2nd / 6 years
1st / 5 yrs
1st / 6 years
1st / 6 years
1st / 4 years
3rd / 7 years
3rd / 7 years
Vick 1 & 4
3rd / 9 years
Vick1 & 4 or 3
3rd / 7 years
Vick 2 & 4
3rd / 8 years
Vick 2 & 3
3rd / 7 years
3rd / 7 years
Vick 5 & 3
3rd / 8 years
3rd / 8 years
3rd / 7 years
3rd / 7 years
3rd / 8 years
4th / 9 years
Vick 8 & 3
4th / 9 years
These twenty-eight students represented a wide range of special needs, including physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and emotional-behavioral disorders. In addition to the 16 special needs students who were under personal monitoring from the beginning of the year onward, there were 39 additional students in these classes with individualized education plans (IEPs), indicating an additional 39 special needs students present in the classroom. When calculating the results on standardized tests, these 55 students were considered as representing the special needs community. With the exception of Hack (on whose case a decision was still pending at the end of the year) the five students who were diagnosed with some form of special need or applied for new accommodations or IEPs during the course of the research were dropped from statistical consideration when comparing the progress of special needs students vs. general education students.
While the researcher was not given direct access to diagnoses or specific information regarding the disabilities of students, in most cases at least a tentative diagnosis or a category of disability was evident. Perhaps the most difficult areas included discriminating between emotional behavioral disorders and behavioral problems stemming from some other form of disability, and discriminating between physical problems stemming from mental problems and vice versa. Diagram 2.3 shows an approximate summary of the learning problems faced by the individual students monitored, and diagram iv shows an approximate summary of the overall special needs population in the classrooms.
Some skewing of the data most likely exists among students that were not being directly monitored, considering that informal diagnoses was made on the basis of observation or interviews over only a few class sessions. Comparing the number of combination disorders observed in monitored students compared to those observed in unmonitored students, it seems likely that more students have combination disorders than these diagrams suggest, and that EBD occurs with ADHD and mental retardation or autism more frequently than the numbers suggest.
Diagram 3.3 — Monitored Student Disabilities
Uncertain. Possibly autism, retardation, and lack of motor control
ADHD with emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD)
ADHD with EBD, possible autism or retardation.
Retardation, some physical disability and lack of motor control
Deaf with difficulty speaking
ADD/ADHD with EBD, possible mental illness such a bipolar or schizophrenia.
ADD/ADHD with EBD, mild autism
High functioning autism
High functioning autism
Isaac physical disability, in a wheelchair
ADD/ADHD and EBD
Diagram 3.4 — Class Disability Dispersal
BLIND or DEAF
LEARNING DISABLED / ADHD
RETARD… / AUTISM
Information for assessment is gathered in three ways: through interviews with monitored parties and with the focus and planning groups, through direct observation of the classroom environment and student performance, and through the administration of sample achievement tests designed to predict the results of national standardized tests. The first two sources of information are subjective, and the later quantitative.
There are three sorts of interviews, which are reported somewhat differently. The first sort are relatively informal, consisting of regular conversations with (and between) teachers and support staff, both in and out of the focus groups, regarding the development of the classroom environment. General impressions, concerns, and developments will all be journaled over the course of these meetings, culminating in a personal subjective report by the researcher on the teacher’s history with the program. Additionally, teachers will be asked to take three short surveys regarding classroom environment, control, and curricular development. The three occasions for such survey will be near the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. (A closely related survey will also be given prior to the beginning of the school year for comparison) These surveys ask the teachers to rate the degree to which their classroom environment conforms to the pedagogy for understanding model, and additionally ask a number of separate questions regarding environment and pedagogy to determine the actual extent and deviation from the model. They will also be asked to rate their enthusiasm for the program and the degree to which they attempt to apply it in the program. All surveys will be based on a simple Licker scale (one to five, with one being the least conformist and five being the most). This will allow a numerical degree of classroom environmental conformity to the model to be correlated with the success or failure of students in that classroom, in addition to the more subjective researcher appraisal. (See Appendix I for sample teacher surveys)
Teachers will also be interviewed regarding the progress of their students. These interviews will informally take place within the focus group setting and individually where warranted to understand the progress of monitored students. In addition to informal subjective interviews, teachers will be interviewed regarding student progress and presented with a request to complete short quarterly appraisals of the students in their class who are being monitored. These appraisals are also based on a simple Licker scale, with a score of one representing a student who has achieved significantly less than expected relative to their ability, three representing a student who has achieved approximately what could be expected relative to their ability, and five representing a student who has achieved significantly more than would be expected with their ability level. (See Appendix I for samples surveys) This allows for a very straightforward comparison between classroom environment and extraordinary or sub-ordinary achievement in students. On these same appraisals teachers will also be asked to rate students on a Licker scale relative to their general education peer groups, with one being significantly ahead of expected age-level development and education, and five representing a student significantly ahead of their grade-level. This allows students to be compared both relative to their classmates and relative to their ability, and having both scores comparable (and on the same scale) with classroom environment scores. (Once again, see Appendix I for samples surveys)
The final interviews conducted will be with students. Because the majority of monitored students are both particularly young and in possession of significant learning disabilities, expecting them to report their experiences on a Licker scale is not likely to yield particularly insightful responses. Monitored students will be interviewed independently at least three times during the year, and questioned regarding both their own conception of their academic achievement and ability, and their impression of the classroom environment.
Direct observation constitutes a significant portion of the subjective analysis. All classes, including those that are not actively participating in the pedagogy for understanding program, will be visited at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year for direct observation. On these occasions the degree to which the class is conducted according to the principles of the pedagogy for understanding model will be recorded by the researcher on two separate scales. Both classes that are actively involved in the program and those that serve as controls of some sort will be visited, as even a class that does not actively participate might integrate certain constructionist elements, and the awareness of those elements will strengthen comparisons. The first of these scales will be a point-based scale, in which the researcher will record how many of the six basic elements of a pedagogy for understanding classroom are utilized, and how many fifteen minute periods within a given day demonstrate constructionist tendencies (at the end of each fifteen minutes one mark is given to each of the elements utilized. These scores, added together, are then divided by the total number of 15 minute intervals monitored). These elements are: experimentation or reason-based “constructed” learning and/or test-preparation, understanding demonstrated through performance and interaction, recognition and encouragement of alternative learning methods, student monitored or directed learning, teaching to each individual child’s level, and integration of technological learning or activities in the classroom (such as referring back to things done in the computer lab, using multimedia presentations, giving class assignments to be used in the computer lab, etc.). Assuming at least one class is following the method, classrooms can then be compared to one another on a Likert-type scale with the most constructionist class being a standard five, and the least a standard one. If no class appears to be adequately presenting the pedagogy for understanding model, then an arbitrary (but reasonable) score will be selected as the ideal high.
Classes that are actively participating may be visited more often so as to gain a subjective understanding of the teacher’s progress and to point out areas in which further development is necessary. Direct observation of student performance will also be carried out, so that the development of personal, as well as academic, skills may be observed as much as possible. Student ability to perform specific tasks and interact in the classroom at a standard grade-level will be noted quarterly and at the beginning and end of the year. This note will be based on several separate measures, determined both through teacher (and focus group) reports, self-reporting and performance in interviews, and through direct observation. As with the other areas, this will again be recorded by the researcher on a one-to-five Licker type scale, with zero being more than two grade levels behind, one being two grade levels behind, two being approximately one grade level behind, three being at approximately grade level, and four and five being one and two grades above grade level, respectively. Ability will be scored in six distinct areas: social interaction, reading skills, mathematical skills, technical (computer) skills, artistic skills, and motor skills.
Because a great deal of the focus of the modern school system surrounds standardized testing, the affects of this program on standardized testing are vital. Sample tests will be obtained from the testing organization responsible for administering the nationally mandated standardized tests to this school, so as to most closely approximate future test results. Sample tests from the grade level which they have just completed will be administered to students at the beginning of the year and sample tests from this years grade level will be administered at the end of the year. Significant changes in test scores between the beginning and the end of the year may be attributed to the classroom environment.
Research Procedures and Pilot Testing
The scope of this project was such that research was a time consuming and convoluted process. The earliest research was performed at the two-week long training period, in which the researcher was able to gain a working knowledge of the teachers and administration involved, and begin to formulate an understanding of the challenges and potential their individual contributions would pose. The second important stage of research was the application of early sample achievement tests, and the first contact with students selected for monitoring. After that, phases of research tended to occupy the same basic time interval. Over the course of the year the researcher sat in on an hour or so of each of the four main classes at least once a week, so as to provide guidance and advice. Additionally, for one entire day at the beginning, middle, and end of the year the researcher attended the classes in order to evaluate them according to prearranged scoring systems. A similar arrangement was made with the tech classes, with classes audited on a biweekly basis, and scored on three separate occasions. Weekly focus group meetings between the researcher, all the teachers actively involved, and the administration and support staff were arranged and monitored as part of the research, both students and teachers were also interviewed on monthly (in the primary four classes) or bimonthly basis, and a total of three interviews were performed in which responses were coded for analysis purposes. At the end of the year, achievement tests were administered once more, and final interviews conducted. Each step of the process is independently important to the research, and general details regarding each are relevant to any discussion of the project.
The training sessions lasted a little under two weeks, with a total of eight meetings in which the researcher met with Mr. Ford, Ms. White-Watson, and the six teachers who would be formally involved. At the first meeting, the theories and purpose behind Pedagogy for Understanding was introduced, and all participants were questioned regarding their familiarity with constructivism as a theory and their level of interest and/or commitment in applying it to their classrooms. This served to establish a baseline for evaluating the first leg of the hypothesis, namely that educating educators regarding the pedagogy for understanding would encourage them to apply it in their classrooms. The degree of difference of opinion between the first and last of these two-week meetings helped to show to what degree school faculty may become excited and committed to such a program. In addition to discussing prior familiarity with the concepts involved, this first meeting gave an overview of the basic theories behind the pedagogy for understanding and its practical classroom application, and fielded questions from all members of the focus group regarding the execution of the program.
The second and third meeting were both spent in discussion and experimentation regarding the general classroom application of the Pedagogy for Understanding. These meetings further served to highlight potential problem areas, such as lack of administrational support for a more relaxed classroom environment, and the resistance of some teachers to the ideas presented.
The fourth and fifth meetings both concerned the way in which this Pedagogy for Understanding dealt with special education students. Teachers were urged to share their emotions and opinions regarding dealing with special education students, and the researcher attempted to foster communication between teachers and the special education director regarding teaching strategies that might fall within the realm of a pedagogy for understanding, and regarding the comprehension, treatment, and accommodations necessary for special needs students. Round table discussions and question and answer periods between the special education director and the other staff both became useful tools. At the end of this segment teachers were asked to report the degree to which they felt more prepared to deal with special education students than before, and the degree to which they felt supported by this new network between teachers and support staff. This section gave subjective insight into difficulties which might arise in trying to build a network between administrators and teachers on the front lines, and also highlighted the need for such functioning networks.
The sixth and seventh classes were largely dedicated to discussion and exploration of the pedagogy for understanding. Training methods included role-play and the development of scenarios and lesson plans, and further discussion of the nature and importance of the focus group. This carried over to the final and eighth day, at which point the teachers and support staff were once again quizzed on their understanding of the pedagogy for understanding framework, their interest and their willingness to apply it to the classroom, and their degree of support for the program. The eighth day also saw the selection of students to be monitored and the brief discussion between teachers, the special education director, the administration and the researcher regarding student privacy rights, the divulging of private medical information, and the degree to which teachers were (or should be) free to discuss student problems with outside parties.
There were three unique goals in observing the classroom settings: monitoring teacher effort, monitoring resulting environment, and monitoring student learning. In the second and third week of school, all twelve classes were monitored for an entire day in order to observe the degree to which they adhere to the Pedagogy for Understanding framework. This is the first of the observations which is analyzed as the beginning point for the classrooms. Extensive note-taking is accompanied by analyzation on the aforementioned instrumentation scale. Here teacher effort and resulting environment are both measured. Additionally, on this day the selected students to be monitored will be scored (according to grade level) in the six target areas, based on their classroom performance and on short interviews conducted during throughout the day. On this first visit, no comments or suggestions should be made, to avoid skewing the results. Other than to ask permission to draw students aside or to see a piece of work, the researcher is purely an auditor. A similar process is done immediately proceeding winter and summer breaks.
For the targeted classes, however observation cannot end with a single day of coding and analysis. Continued presence in the classroom on a weekly or biweekly basis is necessary to monitor the degree to which teachers maintain or attempt to maintain an appropriate environment for understanding. Quick discussions with students should be able to show whether or not teachers alter their styles while under observation. Assuming they do not, regular observation allows for an instinctual and subjective understanding of the organic process being undergone at the school. When observing on a regular basis, the researcher may quietly conference with a teacher regarding the idea way to handle incidents with special needs students or confusion regarding the demands of the pedagogy for understanding. Such intervention is especially necessary during the early months of the program as teachers are still learning the new style of pedagogy. By the second semester such intervention is practiced only sporadically, even when teachers consistently fail to use pedagogy for understanding methods. Such a tapering-off of advice and intervention should reasonably approximate the way that teachers being given special guidance from a special education director or mentor might expect such help to taper off.
Throughout the year, observation must be accompanied with notes and recording of the classroom environment’s development and the development of individual students within that environment. Understanding the dynamic of the individual classes may prove to be the difference between being able to accurately interpret the more objective data received as final results.
Observing Technical Classes
The technology classes taught by Vickerol and Franklin are attended twice weekly for about an hour at a time by various classes which take time out of their schedule to come together to the class. Vickerol’s special needs computer-based physical therapy class, which meets once weekly and consists of students from many grade levels, and his gifted-students technology class (which also meets once weekly and includes several grade levels) are the two exceptions. In monitoring the technical classes, the same basic analytical structure is used as with the general education classes, with the exception that all of Vickerol’s Pedagogy for Understanding classes (except the two once-weekly pull out classes) will be combined for statistical purposes into a single class, as will Franklin’s. Both of their teaching styles are consistent enough between classes that this only makes sense.
In addition to observing the technical classes, the researcher provided some new programs and suggestions for application, including a program designed to simulate the rules of an achievement test and to help guide students through the process of taking such a test. Encouraging Franklin and Vickerol to communicate with the teachers whose classes were brought it and gear the daily computer lessons towards that teacher’s subject matter was also a part of the observation of technical classes.
One valuable difference between observing the technology classes and observing the regular classes was the ease at which student achievement could be monitored. Merely by walking around the room and looking over student’s shoulders it was possible to ascertain the speed and accuracy with which they grasped concepts. Separate observations were made of students here regarding reading, mathematical, technical, artistic and motor skills which were compared to those made in their regular classes. Where these differed significantly, further investigation was warranted so that students could be accurately analyzed at the beginning, middle, and end of the year in terms of development rate and lag.
Weekly Focus Meeting
The weekly focus meetings are not a significant part of the objective research, and while they form a portion of the subjective analysis of teacher and student progress, this is not their primary function. The weekly focus meetings are primarily vital in assuring that the intervention succeeds in intervening. This is where the network of support for teachers, of information regarding both the pedagogic method and ways of dealing with special needs children can be gathered, and where teachers can meet to exchange ideas and issues both with each other, with the administration, and with the researcher. Without these meetings, it would not be possible to say that teachers were being truly educated in dealing with their students or in the method, or that a network of support existed
There were a total of thirty-two weekly meetings, each lasting between one and three hours, and each unique in content. Some semblance of order was imposed by the researcher in laying out the agenda for each meeting. The basic agenda was as follows:
Roll call and social niceties
Hand outs, presentation, and discussion for topic of the night. This topic was chosen by the researcher based on issues observed that week in the various classrooms, or brought to attention at the last meeting. Surveys when needed for research purposes.
Open the floor for any new questions and concerns regarding the program or the handling of special needs students. The former was answered by the researcher or the fellow students, the later by the special education director (when she attended) or discussed at large.
Discuss progress of individual special needs students who may have been struggling or otherwise brought to the attention of the focus group.
Wrap up and possible selection of new topic of the night for the next meeting, field any suggestions for change of venue or time to accommodate scheduling difficulties or general desire for a new environment.
As may be expected, the weekly meetings varied significantly. As the group got more comfortable together, meetings more frequently took place at locations off school property, such as a nearby coffee shop or restaurant, and occasionally adjourned at the school only to move informally to another location. According to materials passed out in the first two-week training period, each weekly meeting was going to run about an hour and a half, and personal classroom issues which took longer to resolve would be dealt with separately. Two group members did in fact make a habit of excusing themselves right at the hour or hour and a half mark whenever they were not actively involved in the moment’s discussion — namely Principal Ford and Ms. Holler. Unfortunately, special education director White-Watson frequently failed to attend meetings, which by the second semester had become such a consistent issue that the researcher and Vickerol worked together to find another individual trained in special education administration and teaching (Ms. Aloe Gray) who agreed to come in on a biweekly basis to help field group questions.
Three times through the course of the year teachers were given surveys regarding the degree to which they agreed with the pedagogy for understanding model and the degree to which they implemented it in their classrooms, the extent to which they found the focus groups useful, and further questions along this line (as explained in the instrumentation).
Once a quarter teachers were asked to come to the weekly meeting with short but detailed appraisals of all their special education and problem students, and (for the sake of my research) the one general education student being monitored in each class. These appraisals were used as the basis for a quarterly meeting between the technology and general education teachers who both worked with individual students (for example Franklin, Chess, and Vickerol all met to discuss Dillon, while only Franklin and Chess needed to meet to discuss Peter). Parents, social workers, special education directors, doctors (where applicable), and other individuals who might have insight into the situation were also invited. To preserve the privacy of the students, the researcher did not attend these meetings without parental invitation, but did ask that these conference groups submit scaled appraisals of age/grade level development and ability to function in the six target areas.
Ironically, the existence of these meetings for Hack, who was originally just a general education student being used to monitor the effects of the system on gifted or average children, ended in his parents and doctors becoming convinced he had special needs) These meetings were vital to the creation of the social support networks which are so important to the pedagogy for understanding, but did not necessarily always generate objective information which could be used to test its success.
In some ways student interviews were both the most difficult and potentially rewarding aspects of the research design. Because so many of the students had significant disabilities of one sort or another, it was not feasible to have a set design for these interviews which would be consistent from case to case. Student interviews were in many ways no more formal than a long, friendly talk — or in some cases a long, friendly companionship with a little less talking involved. These interviews were as informal as possible, in an attempt to set the student at ease, and took place in the environment most likely to make the student comfortable and talkative. For example, the boy being called Nathanyel had developed a significant attachment to his teacher and would throw fits whenever she left him alone or failed to pay attention to him. Understandably, then, he was always interviewed with her present, despite the chance that her presence might skew his answers regarding classroom environment. On the other hand, the boy being called Erik detested his general education teaching and preferred to be in Vickerol’s class or in the music room where he would wait after school to be picked up. When interviewed in the lunch room, he scored about three grade levels lower than when scored in his own comfort zone. (Incidentally, this environmental factor needs to be taken into account when viewing his “improvement” scores because the first interview took place in Vickerol’s room, while the other recorded ones took place in his own comfort zone)
Interviews focused on three separate areas. The first issue was making the students comfortable, and this was often combined with a further interest in observing areas of competency and incompetency. Questions about school work, friends, and family were important during this stage of the interview. The second stage was to gain a student impression of the classroom environment and their own academic success or failure, and the reasons behind it. The final issue was to clarify their side of the story regarding reports of misbehavior, difficulties in subjects or general areas, and emotional or behavioral disorders. (For example, when discussing issues of social conflict or fits with many of the EBD children, any number reported that they sometimes just lost their tempers, or they didn’t remember, or that they were just angry. Likewise discussing classroom difficulty with ADHD children frequently found reports along the lines of “I get bored” or “I hate sitting still.” When an exceptional case occurs, as when Erik reported that the reason he didn’t want to listen anymore in math time was because he’d finished his workbook the first week and was tired of erasing the answers, this illustrates a need to apply different evaluative standards)
Teachers who are not an active part of the pedagogy for understanding group are still important in terms of a control group. Therefore it is necessary to perform a series of interviews with these teachers. Interviews will be scheduled on a quarterly basis, to take place outside of school hours, and should take more than an hour at a time. The first interview establishes teaching style, familiarity with constructionist, and other opening details. It is also necessary to use this interview to establish teacher-reported assessments of the monitored children in their classroom. The second and third interviews also deal with teaching style, familiarity with the pedagogy for understanding program (to determine if cross-pollination of ideas is happening among teachers), and to receive further assessments of the monitored children. The final interview involves a final discussion regarding the monitored children in their classroom and a final report regarding teaching style and classroom environment.
At no point in interviewing non-participating teachers is any advice offered or coaching or assistance provided, even as a minor sidenote (such as explaining what the pedagogy for understanding approach to given problems may be)
Sample testing will be conducted at the beginning and end of the year as described in instrumentation. The actual conduction of the tests is in itself not a significant part of the research design, and it will be up to the individual teachers to arrange time for these tests and to structure the environment so that it will be most like the environment in which their particular students will take the actual nationally standardized tests. Results will be reported to the researcher both in terms of overall class statistics, statistics for students with IEPs, and statistics for the two or three monitored students.
Data Analysis great deal more data will be collected than needs to be analyzed in the final stages, and assuming that a proper sorting of data is done throughout the year there should be relatively coherent sets of data remaining. In analyzing the remaining data, it is important to focus on the three legs of the hypothesis, so that any final failure can be properly attributed and any final success properly recognized.
Educating Faculty and Created Constructivist Classrooms
The first leg of the hypothesis is that which suggests that educating teachers and administrative and support faculty on the importance of pedagogy for understanding and on the creation of strong support networks will encourage teachers to create constructionist classrooms and to seek aid, intelligence, and support for their teaching goals from these networks. In order to illustrate that this is true, there needs to be a demonstrable link between educating teachers regarding the pedagogy for understanding and having them think positively of it and attempt to adopt it. Additionally, this leg suggests that teachers who are educated in the pedagogy for understanding are more likely to attempt constructionist teaching in their classrooms and to seek out support from others, while those who are mildly exposed to it (even, for example, through attending a computer lab in which constructionist teaching is used) will be slightly more likely to apply it, while those who are never exposed to it will be the least likely.
In order to test this, it is necessary to compare the opening self-reports from all teachers at the beginning of the year regarding their familiarity with and affection for the pedagogy for understanding method with their continued reports throughout the year. If mainly the teachers involved with the program show an increased understanding of the program and an increased desire to implement it in their class room (or show an increase in implementing it), then it would appear that this method does encourage teachers to attempt to create a constructionist classroom. Either an increase in interest and commitment or a consistently high level of interest and commitment both to the program and the network will serve to imply that the first level of intervention is successful. Analyzing this data should be rather straightforward, considering that all three (or four) self-reporting surveys are based on the same Licker scale, and any change should therefore be apparent.
These self-reports (from the surveys and quizzes given to all teachers on a regular basis) must be compared to subjective observations, such as notes and minutes from focus group discussions or classroom behaviors if there appears to be a discrepancy. It is remotely possible that a teacher would claim on paper to be enthusiastic but then in conversation consistently express resentment or doubt regarding the program. Both deserve to be noted, and in the case of a discrepancy the researcher should note this in the tables and in the writing of the article.
Creation of a Positive Constructivist Learning Situation.
The second leg of the hypothesis suggests that teacher training and teacher enthusiasm will result in the creation of a constructivist learning situation. It is possible that such a situation could arise despite a teacher’s lack of enthusiasm, or fail to materialize for an enthusiastic teacher who was unskilled at fostering such an environment. To answer this question, there are two subquestions that must be answers: First, are constructivist classrooms emerging and is there a correlation between training and the emergence of such a classroom? Secondly, is there any correlation between teacher enthusiasm for the project and the emergence of a constructivist classroom.
There are three sources of data on whether or not these classrooms are emerging. The first is teacher self-report, which is based on Licker scales arranged so that in all cases a score of one points away from the pedagogy for understanding model and a score of five pointe strongly towards it. Averaging the middle and last self-reported Licker scores (and abandoning early scores so that we see where the class has gone instead of where it many have started prior to training), one can see whether or not a constructivist classroom is generally indicated by teacher self-report. The second source of data is observational, and a Likert-type score has been assigned to each classroom’s environment using the same scale. Once again averaging the Licker scores, it is evident whether or not a constructivist classroom is indicated through observation. Finally, student reports may be referenced as confirmation that teacher and observer reports are accurate to the daily environment of the classroom. Assuming there is some consistency between the teacher and observer and student responses, the emergence (or lack thereof) of classes operating on a pedagogy for understanding framework should be evident. If teachers who are involved in the program have higher scores for more constructivist classrooms, and teachers who are merely associated with the program are still slightly higher than those who have nothing to do with it, then a very strong case exists to suggest that training results in application.
To analyze the correlation between enthusiasm and application, it is only necessary to compare the teacher’s self-reported enthusiasm Likert-type score to the combined self-reported and observed Likert-type score derived by finding an average of the other two. If more enthusiastic teachers create classrooms more in line with the framework, then that demonstrates a link between intent and success in the creation of constructivist classrooms.
In addition to comparing enthusiasm and training to the successful creation of a constructivist classroom, it is also necessary at this point to rank the teachers and classrooms in terms of most in tune with the program to least in tune with the program. If a difference emerges between enthusiasm and application or between training and application (which is to say that if some of the more enthusiastic or trained teachers fail to create a more constructivist classroom) then the actual creation of a successful constructivist classroom will be given double weight in terms of evaluating how in-tune a given teacher is, but a half weight will be given to both extensive enthusiasm or training. That is to say that if an untrained teacher was particularly enthusiastic they would be rated as slightly more in-tune with the program than an untrained and unenthusiastic teacher, regardless of results, and that if results were equal between two teachers the more enthusiastic or more trained will be higher ranked, and so forth. Some ties are acceptable.
This category of results is certainly the most important, and deserves the most analysis. The hypothesis suggests that under the pedagogy for understanding program, students will understand and learn more, be able to display this understanding as performance, and further more receive better scores on standardized test measures. Additionally, this growth in student understanding and performance should be directly linked to the degree to which his or her teacher(s) are invested in the program. So it is important to analyze student growth and results from both a subjective and an objective stance. Additionally it is important to compare student results in relationship to the classes adherence to the pedagogy for understanding model, in relationship to the teacher’s participation in the training program (if that is a separate issue), and compare them within the class itself to see if certain categories of children show more positive (or negative) growth than others under this system.
The first step in performing this analysis is subjective. Each monitored student had regular assessments performed through observation, interviews, and teacher assessment which compared their grade level abilities on a Likert-type scale in six distinct areas. To begin the analysis of this data, it is necessary to determine a single Likert-type score for each of the six areas to represent their achievement at the beginning of the year, the middle of the year, and the end of the year. Because of the unique situation faced by each child and the subjective nature of the scoring, this cannot be done with a single formula. It would be oversimplifying the situation, for example, to suggest that observation and interviews should be equally weighted with teacher assessment, because in some cases students were very much shut down around strangers or when performing tasks outside of their normal routine and might not have performed to their best ability when being independently observed or interviewed. On the other hand, to give far more weight to teacher assessments might ignore situations in which teachers were poor judges of student understanding or disagreed on a topic. (For example, Erik’s teacher gave him a poor assessment in math skills at the midyear assessment because he was refusing to continue work in his book, even though interviews and further analysis showed this to be a result of advanced mathematical skills leading to boredom. This case is the exception, but considering that this one case represents 50% of the monitored special needs pool for that specific class, and 12.5% of the monitored pool in all four classes, the difficulty of making any missteps with such a small sample size become clear) So subjectivity necessarily comes into play, with an arbitrary Licker score drawn from observation and assessment assigned to each student to represent quarterly changes in grade-level comparison.
Total student loss or gain between the end and the beginning of the year must then be calculated for each class, both for individual students, for only special needs students, and for combined students. Classes with the greatest student gain show the greatest subjective success, and may be ranked accordingly. The correlation between classes that are most in tune with the program and classes that show the greatest student success can then be drawn. Small flukes dependent on an individual child’s success or failure may need to be excused, but in general this should provide a relatively reasonable picture.
For the sample tests a similar process may be performed. Comparing achievement tests for the prior grade taken at the beginning of the year with achievement tests for the prior grade taken at the end of the year should render a net gain or loss of performance measured in grade levels. These results for the individually monitored children should be compared to the subjectively determined results to see if understanding has managed to translate into test-taking performance. Additionally, results for entire classes and segments of classes (e.g. all the special needs students) should be compared across classrooms to determine if there is a correlation between positive results and teacher participation, training, and enthusiasm.
A positive correlation between higher test scores and class participation in the pedagogy for understanding program should indicate that the program has been successful in raising scores. A positive correlation between high subjective understanding scores and program participation shows that the program has been successful in raising understanding. If one of these correlation is made and not the other, it indicates a partial (but not complete) failure of the program. For example, if students show increased measurements of understanding but not increased test scores, this shows that the program does foster better learning but not better testing. If there is only a partial correlation between participation in the program and better results (e.g. If only one or two teachers in the program show better results), data for the other two legs of the hypothesis may need to be reexamined, or further explanation sought.
Assumptions of the Study
There are a number of rather significant assumptions being made in this research. The first is a dependence on the self-reporting of teachers and their transparency when being observed. The second is an assumption regarding the representative nature of the student sample, which may or may not be justified. The third set of assumptions deals with the degree to which unenthusiastic teachers and faculty can be drafted into a program and give reliable results stemming from the nature of that program, and the degree to which teachers in the control categories are immune to influence from a program being instigated in their school system and from being affected by the very process of monitoring.
The issue of self-reporting is a significant one, because of the degree to which teacher’s reports of class room environment (and the performance which they put on when being actively observed) determine the classes conformation to the pedagogy for understanding framework and hence are used to determine whether such conformation creates student success. Because three of the six teachers taking primary roles in the program were not volunteers and because the two main administrators involved in the program were not particularly enthusiastic about it, there was a degree to which the researcher ran the risk of experience a shammed, or incomplete compliance with the program. It was difficult to be certain to what degree these teachers would report an unrealistically high level of compliance. Such a sham might not even be intentional — while teachers might intentionally misrepresent their attempts to apply the program to their classroom, they might also honestly overestimate the degree to which the program was applied because, to them, it seemed as if they had gone overboard in applying a nonsensical program, but to someone who was committed to the program they would have seemed to have done very little. Observation of the classroom is designed to combat this tendency, however teachers might apply more of the program principles when being observed than they would otherwise, either out of a conscious wish to impress or deceive or a subconscious reflex which recalled the principles to mind more strongly when in the presence of the one who installed those principles. So the degree to which non-volunteering or hesitant teachers truly applied the program to their classrooms, and the degree to which uncommitted support staff managed to sabotage the program, may be impossible to calculate entirely. Because there is no other option, it must be assumed that self-reporting and observation combined present a fair picture of the scenario within each classroom.
The second assumption, that the monitored students accurately represent student experience, is also difficult to prove. Though the two special needs students chosen from each of the primary classes did represent 40-50% of the special needs population in those classes, and the one special needs student from the other classes would represent a full 20-25% of the special needs population, this does not assure that these one or two students are representative of the full range of learning needs and issues. A program that works exceptionally well with ADHD or a high functioning autistic child may completely fail a deaf or severely retarded child, both for different reasons. Where possible students were chosen to be representative of the general special needs make-up of the school, but also chosen (in many cases) in hopes that they could communicate with the researcher. Additionally, the one general education student from each classroom might very well not represent the rest of the class, being in most cases only 5-7% of the class make-up. The use of any two or three students to represent the success or failure of an entire classroom may or may not be valid. However, to avoid dealing with individually assessing scores of special needs students or about two hundred general education students, some oversimplification is necessary. While a single student represent half or even 100% of each class’s special needs representation and about 13% of the total program’s success or failure rate, and hence just one child is capable of seriously skewing results, it must be assumed that the success or failure of this handful is representative of the success and failure of the whole.
The degree to which non-volunteer teachers and faculty can accurately represent the program must be assumed to be significant if the research is to be completed successfully, and by the same token it must be assumed that teachers who are not exposed to the program are not influenced by it or by the act of being monitored. The former assumption is related to the idea of self-reporting and observation issues, and is tested for to some degree. The latter assumption, though casually screened for in questions regarding the pedagogy for understanding or constructivist framework and presented to non-primary teachers, is somewhat more serious. There are two sets of control teachers, those who observe the program in action with their children in one of the technology classes (who can be assumed to have some level of transference and whose children are a sort of bastardized part of the central study) and those who do not observe the program in action from the inside at any point but may still observe it as an occurrence within their school. The degree to which “control” teachers might notice positive effects in program classes and adopt their methods is difficult to judge, and might skew results. Also, the very act of monitoring these control classes with regular visits, student and teacher interviews, and sample achievement tests, might give the teachers a sense of accountability and a sense of pressure which they did not otherwise face. That in itself could theoretically prove to be a statistically significant issue. However, because this effect cannot be fully explored or prevented, it must be assumed to be minimal in the analysis of data.
Perhaps the most obvious observation, and yet at the same time one of the less likely to be mentioned in most educational study reports is the fact that the scientific validity of social science research is assumed, not proven. Both “subjective” measures like self reporting and conclusions drawn from observation (and-based entirely on past experience and research) are somewhat obviously a little less than hard science. Yet even the more objective goal of comparing test results assumes that the social and emotional attributes of test taking are not such that they create a measure of social error which is unacceptable in a pure science. There is an implicit assumption in this work that there is great validity in the pseudoscientific approach which views the social sciences as a natural realm for numerical studies based not just on hard facts but also on more personal and social issues.
Limitations of the Study
The study was limited by a number of factors, and its implications are also somewhat limited. Limitations included a less-than-enthusiastic staff of faculty and teachers, significant lack of funding and insufficient technology supplies, lack of research assistant to help monitor all students and classes, a lack of complete network creation, and an overly small scale. While the study is capable of showing the potential of the pedagogy for understanding, it is not as encompassing as a study would be that included an entire school system and took place over the course of two or three years.
The lack of enthusiasm from faculty and teachers meant that those teachers who were enthusiastic did not necessarily have all the support they needed to make the pedagogy for understanding’s network truly successful, and so the study may be somewhat limited in its ability to reflect the effects which a strong support network would have on teacher and student development. That the special education director, in particular, was not strongly on board would tend to limit the degree of applicability of the study to a system where the special education director (who is an integral part of the plan) was highly accessible and enthusiastic about the program.
The lack of funding for classrooms and for technology was also significant. The Pedagogy for understanding calls for the integration of technology into every phase of the teaching experience and this could not be done without providing enough computers for every student within the classroom. Even in the computer lab students often had to work in teams or take turns. This limits the effectiveness of this study to show what the extensive technological training called for in this program could actually provide for students. The problem with lack of funding is related, because ideally teachers would have had more supplies and tools at their disposal than they did, including training seminars and the availability of more specialists to work with individual students. The Pedagogy for Understanding program suggests the use of these methods, but cannot provide funds for them, and so obviously this study does not indicate how successful the program might be with these required funds.
As the “Assumptions” section indicates, one of the potential weaknesses of this program was the degree to which self-reporting and only occasional monitoring could lead to incomplete reports of the classroom environment. In terms of assuring the accuracy of this program, one considerable limitation was the lack of research assistants who could provide complete monitoring of the students and the classrooms. With more assistance, it would have been possible to monitor and guide all of the classrooms and also to provide in-depth analysis of each individual student participating in the program. One of the limitations, then, of this study was the inability to fully measure any existing student growth which was not reflect in the standardized tests, ot to fully measure the extent of teacher compliance with the program.
Another limitation of the study was the lack of complete network creation. In an ideal pedagogy for understanding program, the supporting network would include not only administrative figures such as the principal and special education director, but also influential figures outside the school system. For example, a student’s parents, social worker, doctor, and possibly even their pastor or religious leader, should all be included in discussion of the students progress and in treatment plans. This is related to the way IDEA mandated IEP conferences are often conducted now, with the significant differences that currently the conferences are not particularly regular or particularly concerned with daily regulation of classroom activities. Additionally, the in-school networks for this children failed to cover all of their activities. The study was groundbreaking in the way it connected special education directors both with primary teachers and with special session teachers, and encouraged them to work together. However, ideally it would have also included music and physical education teachers, as well as such miscellaneous faculty as lunch and playground attendants and providing a more active role for classroom assistants.
Such a network is really essential to the full application of a pedagogy for understanding, because it cuts to the heart of the (frequently present) problem of mainstreaming special needs children, which is that the general system does not know how to handle them and that teachers have no support for teaching such students. In this case, the creation of that network was somewhat limited by the less-than-enthusiastic support of the administration and special education director, the limited number of teachers who could be drafted into the program, and privacy concerns in regards to the students which limited the researcher’s ability to gain approval to contact parents and doctors or command their presence at meetings. While this does not invalidate the network building which did exist, it certainly does present a certain limitation to the degree to which any evidence which this study produces (or fails to produce) illustrates the full potential of strong network building. That remains to be tested.
The final real limitation on this study was the particularly small scale of the program. This is related to the assumption that a few students can represent an entire special needs population. While that assumption can be made with a degree of safety, the small size of the samples do remain a limiting factor, especially when attempting a more detailed approach to analysis. If there were many more subjects involved, it might be easier to separate personal issues from significant trends, and vise versa. Though this study is made more relevant to today’s integrative world by its narrow focus on special needs students within the community schools (and with how this can be aided), it is also made more difficult by the fact that it does take place in mainstreamed classrooms where the majority of children do not have special needs and therefore the special needs population available to analyze within each classroom, is relatively small.
For all its complicated data collection techniques and time consuming intervention process, at the most basic level this research is simple: create a program of intervention, implement it to the greatest degree possible, and through achievement testing and through direct observation measure the effects of that implementation.
The creation of the program drew from a variety of sources with a very wide focus. Certain elements, such as the need for better educational software or the cooperation of a very broad network of individuals, would eventually be reduced in practice by the demands of the situation. The width of the program’s focus at that point, which focused on training teachers how to best operate and network within the constraints of reality, would prove a saving grace. The Pedagogy for Understanding, as an intervention, was aimed at students through teachers, a complex and comprehensive approach which, if applied at large, would assure intervention in not just one classroom of students but in the many successive generations to pass through a given teacher’s class.
The program created involved the cooperation and commitment of many individuals, including teachers and administrative staff, and while in some ways this may have been a weakness it, in others, assured that the results were realistic. The need to involve actual members of the educational professions assured that the implementation of the program was not some sort of ivory-tower experiment, but a true exploration of how such a program could function in the working school environment. While inability to entirely micromanage the lives of teachers or to be absolutely sure that they were truthful and consistent with their work may have slightly decreased the absolute scientific accuracy of the program, it was a fair exchange for the benefit of working with self-directed and truly human subjects. It is part of the theoretical grounding for this work that individual humans have a measure of choice in the construction of their knowledge and their application of that knowledge, and so working with responsible subjects who were cooperatively working towards a positive final outcome was an ideological necessity.
In the gathering and analysis of results, the theoretical grounding of the work became once more evident. The pedagogy for understanding method calls for teaching students how to make rational gains in understanding by using a scientific approach to knowledge and learning. In many ways, that is not only the heart of what students need to be taught, but also the heart of how one should study the subject of teaching students. This research design strives to balance the more traditional case-study approach of many past subjective educational studies with a more scientific approach which seeks to gain concrete numbers (such as those provided by achievement-assessing standardized tests) and correlate those in search of an answer. Yet either way, the answer must be based in both in the objective and the subjective, in scientific fact and in personal experiences between teachers, students, and the system at large. This research attempts to balance those demands through sustaining a very broad focus that takes both subjective and objective measurements of success, on multiple levels, and then synthesizing these rationally when writing up the study results.
CHAPTER FOUR: RESEARCH RESULTS
The research for this program went largely according to plan, though life always throws a few surprises into the best laid plans. (Minor changes to the research design included retesting the student being called Erik and including two sets of scores in the results, one for his primary teacher and one for his technology teacher, and the need to interview a couple of the students outside the classroom when they were either suspended or transferred from the school). The results were somewhat mixed, with the program not performing as well for all of its teachers as had been hoped, but on the whole it was very successful. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the degree of enthusiasm and eventual success seen among teachers who were privileged to observe the workings of constructivist technology programs without being required to implement the principles in their own classrooms. In the final analysis, classes which participated in the program had an average 28% of a grade level increase on standardized tests at the end of the year, while classes with observing teachers had an average 11% increase, and the control group had only a 4% increase. Meanwhile monitored students in the program had an average 42% of a grade level increase in functioning, while students from onlooking classes had a 17% increase, and students from the control group actually dropped 12% of a grade level, showing decreased grade-appropriate learning. Just as exciting, these trends held for both general education and special needs students in the program, with special needs students showing an average 38% of a grade level increase in functioning, and 26% of a grade level improvement on their standardized scores. Additionally, if one only included the two truly enthusiastic members of the team, Chess and Strickland, this increase went up to 70% of a grade level functioning change and 50% of a grade level standardized change.
An astute reader will notice that these particularly high scores for the top half of the program teachers points to the one failing of the program — half of the program teachers made no truly significant change in their students. However, these two dead weights were also unenthusiastic and uncooperative, and do not truly show the potential of the program. It is for that precise reason that a three leg hypothesis was so necessary in the development of this program, so that the correlation between enthusiasm, environment, and success could be made. The failure of some program members does not imply that the program has only “hit or miss” success or only a 50% randomized success, but it does suggest that in order to succeed one must be dedicated to the program.
The following research results are divided into three sections, each devoted to studying one of the three legs of the hypothesis, to discover its functioning within the classroom. The first leg explores the degree to which team training succeeds in inspiring teachers and infusing them with the enthusiasm necessary to succeed. Unfortunately, it appears that this leg only functions well if the teachers have volunteered and are willing to participate — the two “drafted” members never gain much enthusiasm, and the administrational support members also fail in this respect. The second leg explores the relationship between enthusiasm and the creation of a constructivist environment, and predictably finds that good enthusiasm does correlate with the creation of such an environment. However, this leg also finds that participation in the program is also a strong indicator that an individual will create a constructivist classroom, so that both raw enthusiasm and training must be necessary. The third leg explores the success of the students, and the relationship between their classroom placement and this success. This section finds that students in the program are on average more successful than students outside of it, but teacher enthusiasm is a stronger predictor of success than mere inclusion. Success is greatest when teachers are motivated team members, good when they are very motivated non-team members, possible for unmotivated team members, but unlikely for nonconstructivist non-team members.
The First Leg (or “If you train them, they will teach…”)
If there was one specific area in which the writer of this work would have to express disappointment, it would be the lack of full commitment from the teachers and the administration involved. There was some degree to which the first leg of this hypothesis became shaky, threatening to bring down the entire program with it. A careful analysis of the data here is necessary to best understand what went wrong, and what went right, about retraining the teachers in a pedagogy for understanding and in creating a network of support for them.
In the Beginning
The first signs of trouble within the faculty network came even before the first focus group meetings. As explained earlier, the program’s implementation was arranged above the head of principal Ford, and while he remained throughout a relatively “good sport” (in his words) about the subject, there was a degree of tension existent subsequent to that political slight. This tension played itself out in the early focus group meetings, in which Ford proved occasionally belligerent and tended to subtly encourage the drafted teachers to hostility towards the program. Close minutes of the early meetings record him apologizing to the teachers for distracting them from the “real work of teaching,” and frequently interjecting modifying instructions which slightly subverted those given by the researcher in regards to program conduct. (For example, he pointed out that co-operative or experiential learning experienced didn’t mean the teachers should “let the kids push you around or decide everything for you. It’s still your class.” This may have been true to some extent, but its timing and tone tended to indicate that teachers should not encourage truly co-directed learning and should maintain a more authoritarian stance)
Ford was hardly presenting the only early warning signs, and alone it is unlikely that he would have caused significant damage to the program. However, additionally Ms. White-Watson, the special education director, expressed concerns about the program “segregating” special needs students in a way incompatible with No Child Left Behind (which it does not), and frequently refused to give significant input to the proceedings. There appeared to be some concern that talking to teachers about how to work specifically with the special needs students in the classroom might encourage them to handle their cases differently than those of normal children, and threaten the mainstreaming process.
The teachers did not present a unified front in the early meetings. Both Holler and Hewick appeared to resent spending such significant time out of their pre-term preparation time in classes and meetings, and as a result brought some hostility to the meetings. Research notes from these meetings indicated a very clear sense of squaring off between Vickerol and Strickland (on the one hand) and Holler and Hewick on the other, with Chess and Franklin caught somewhere in-between.
Despite these early warning signs, and the frustrations that seemed to exist in the early meetings, the training period proceeded relatively well. It appeared that all of the teachers (except possibly Franklin, who tended to keep to herself) gained a relatively fair understanding of the system, and would at least consider implementing it. By the end of the pre-term training, it appeared that a relatively stable network had been developed between the researcher, teachers, and administrative/support staff.
The network appeared to have developed some natural leadership in addition to Ford’s position of political power and the researcher’s position as program manager. There seemed to be two additional poles of power, one under Vickerol (to whom both Strickland, Chess, and Franklin went to with concerns and questions) and one under Hewick. Vickerol tended to support the program and to be relatively liberal in outlook. Hewick was a vocal supporter of No Child Left Behind, which often gained him the support of White-Whatson, and simultaneously of a more authoritarian classroom, which tended to bring Holler onto his side (though she opposed integrated classrooms). As far as a network leader (other than the researcher), however, Vickerol was by far the most prominent and even Ford would occasionally defer to him.
In many ways the development of these power-positions was positive because it showed a natural growth in leadership from within the school system, as opposed to having leadership entirely imposed from outside. On the other hand, the greatest failure in this segment of meetings was the degeneration of a fourth day meeting into a rather heated and less-than-detached debate between White-Whatson and Hewick on the one side and Vickerol and Holler on the other (with Strickland caught in the middle) regarding the merits of No Child Left Behind and the integration of disabled and behaviorally challenging students into the regular classroom. It became necessary to institute a “talking stick” rule so as to organize discussion and focus on the topic at hand. Discussion of using the talking stick (a physical fetish which grants the one holding it the right to speak and requires all others to be quiet) as a method of classroom control was, however, insightful. The responses of the various parties to this spectacle, both regarding their positions in the argument and their mode of dealing with conflict, did merit note as a research opportunity, as it provided great insight into the actor’s personalities and dedication to the cause, but was nonetheless somewhat humiliating for all.
Regardless of failures, the first week was a particularly valuable time because it allowed for the development of this network, and also set the stage for how the classrooms would be conducted. Learning communication styles for future interviews and observations was one vital side-effect of the early training process, as was an introduction to the way that each teacher approached pedagogy when not obliged to participate in this program. It was during these early meetings that a sense of the teachers as individuals emerged (something of this sense was recorded in Chapter Three in the subject descriptions), and that understandings were reached regarding the degree of interference and the degree of support that would be accepted by all. The interviews and surveys conducted at the beginning and end of this first training session are included below in the continued analysis of the individual teachers and their enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for the program.
The Administration’s Position
As the research methodology required, all members of the focus group/network were regularly analyzed through observation and also given regular surveys to determine the degree to which they supported and attempted to implement the pedagogy for understanding program. Administration was no exception.
Ford, as the principal, may have been the most influential of the administrational figures. Yet his scores on the opening surveys, and the continued surveys given throughout the year, were mediocre at best. At the beginning of these sessions, he claimed to be passingly familiar with constructivism (a 3 on the Likert-scored survey), yet he only answered one of the three questions about constructivism properly. He accurately pointed out that constructivism suggests that students take on more responsibility for their own learning in a constructivist classroom. He wrongly suggested that constructivist mainly think that knowledge is mainly gained from positive and negative reinforcement of learned behaviors, and also wrongly thought that constructivism was based on “doing away with core subjects like math and reading, in favor of holistic social topics.” Ford also claimed to be quite familiar (a 4 on the survey scale) with special needs students and the legislation and treatment surrounding them, and yet he only answered two out of the three questions regarding special education students correctly. In his wrong answer he suggested that autism was typified by an inability to concentrate for long periods of time and a constant desire for new input and stimulation, and that teachers for autistic students might want to introduce new and exciting tasks, schedules, and seating arrangements frequently, rather than stick to a strict schedule. Autistic children actually tend to become fixated on tasks and objects, and can become extremely upset and disoriented when faced with unexpected change. Ford did properly identify ADHD as usually not being a “clinical description of children who consistently or chronically misbehave or have low achievement,” and also accurately noted that it was not true that “The No Child Left Behind law mandates that all students take the same standardized tests: this means it is inappropriate to use different teaching methods for different students, or make specific accommodations for students in the classroom.”
These results showed an original lack of complete knowledge which justified the idea that Ford needed a support network and further training in order to fully understand the needs of special needs students (particularly since his school did have a surprisingly high number of autistic children in it, and he apparently had no idea what a diagnosis of autism implied). Despite this fact, his initial responses did not particularly show support for the program. In the three questions regarding interest, commitment, and confidence in the pedagogy for understanding program, Ford scored low (2) on interest, only middling (3) on commitment, and low (2) on confidence for the program. In regards to the building of a social network of teachers he seemed slightly more dedicated to the idea, scoring a three on enthusiasm and four on the idea that such a network (if applied school wide) would improve teacher functioning.
Ford’s enthusiasm fluctuated somewhat over the course of the year. By the beginning of the school year he still scored a two in interest, but had gone up to a “3.5” (in his own handwritten note) on commitment and a three in confidence. For the idea of the social network, however, he dropped to three both in enthusiasm and in the idea that it would work. By midyear he scored threes in interest, and fours in commitment and confidence. Unfortunately, at the end of the year he had dropped his interest and commitment to two (which, he said in an interview, he meant to indicate that he would not be continuing the program in the coming year, even though in both categories he increased his belief that it would work to a four. This lack of commitment and interest in the face of a belief that the program would work seems to be indicative (as per his spoken comments) of the fact that the regular meetings and the increasing demands of dedicated teachers like Vickerol for more funding and better support were seen as sufficiently burdensome that the “slight increases [he would] anticipate are not worth the expense and effort,” and not something he would be willing to suggest to the school board.
From notes taken in many meetings, it appears that Ford’s lack of interest and dedication stemmed from three sources. First, he was (perhaps understandably) miffed at having this program “dumped” on his school system, and the sense that certain individuals (namely Vickerol and the researcher) had seen fit to go over his head to have it approved by the superintendent of the school district. Secondly, Ford was concerned that radically reworking the traditional pedagogy would end up bringing negative press to the school, even if scores went up slightly, because it would be seen as a weakening of the “academic rigor” of the school’s core subjects, and the “discipline and safety” of the school system in terms of controlling more “out of control” special needs students. Finally, Ford did not approve of the way in which this program brought to light the under-funding and outdated hardware with which his computer teachers had to make due, or the general lack of funding, supplies, and paraprofessionals which plagued many of the classrooms.
Ms. White-Watson, the special education director, had her own set of issues to be faced at the beginning of the year. As the primary force between the recent dissolution of several special education classes and the relocation of their students into mainstreamed classes, she faced a certain backlash from some of the teachers who had difficulty dealing with problematic special needs students, and at the same time considered this program to pose some potential threat to the schools compliance with the No Child Left Behind legislation. From her consistent vocalized complaints about scheduling difficulties and overwhelming paperwork (and her habit of bringing folders of paperwork with her to meetings and working on them while there), she also gave the impression of being frustrated with the program’s demands on her time. Nonetheless, she did seem to support the idea of focusing more on special needs students in the classroom and on creating networks for teachers to compare experiences and learn more about teaching for special needs students.
White-Whatson’s original tests scores showed her to be a little less than fully educated on the meaning of constructivism, with only one out of three answered correctly. (She thought that constructivists did not give more responsibility to students, confused them with behaviorists, but did not think they did away with core subjects) To her credit, she both considered herself to be knowledgeable about special education and managed to have mainly correct answers to all three questions, though she indicated some hesitation on whether or not the No Child Left Behind legislation indicated that special needs students ought not receive different classroom practices. She indicated verbally that while some accommodations were appropriate, having completely segregated teaching styles was inappropriate, and gave a response of three as to whether that question was true or false. Also to her credit, after the end of the two-week training session she accurately answered a related set of three questions about constructivism and about special needs students, indicating that she did pay some measure of attention during the meetings despite keeping busy with paperwork. Tested once more during the year (near winter break — she was unavailable for follow up testing in the spring), she properly answered two out of three questions in both areas, though she improperly reported that “any student who chronically achieves near the bottom of his class, seldom completes his or her homework, and has difficulty comprehending complex ideas has a learning disability and should be reported as special needs.” This was an odd lapse for her to make, and it is difficult to say whether this represents an error in reading the question or an actual misconception regarding the nature of learning disabilities.
White-Whatson was unfortunately not entirely committed to the program, something which came across even more in her actions than in her self-reporting. On the first survey, she reported being not at all interested in or dedicated to implementing constructivism in the classroom, and not at all convinced it would work. (She scored ones across the board there) She was however pretty enthusiastic about the idea of building networks for the teachers (scoring 4) and equally convinced that such network building would work. Encouragingly, after she became better educated in what constructivism actually was, she became slightly more interested (3) in seeing it implemented, though her dedication remained low (2) and her assurance that it would work was also low (2). Her opinions on network building did not change then, though by midterm she was one point less enthusiastic about network building and less sure that it would work, even those her belief that constructivism would work in the classroom had raised by one point while the others remained equal.
White-Whatson voted most clearly, however, with her feet. By the second semester she was seldom attending meetings, and was not particularly active in them when she did attend. Though she was consistently polite about her absences, it appeared that her other work obligations interfered significantly with her ability to make meetings. In the final interview conducted with her, over lunch in her own office, White-Whatson noted that while she was sure that a strong network between teachers and a good working relationship between special education directors and the teachers would likely prove invaluable to the students, it was simply not feasible for her to deal with each teacher and student on an individual basis. If, she said, “I had an army of assistants, I would assign trained special needs evaluators to every single teacher and child and have them work with them regarding every step of the curriculum. I don’t have an army though. There’s just me, and I have my hands full running programs in three schools. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more.”
Because of the importance of having a network member that was versed in special education and willing to work with the teachers and administration, it was arranged that a special education expert from a private school attend the meetings during the second semester. Ms. Aloe Gray went through several early training session alone with the researcher and Vickerol (who volunteered to help recreate the environment of the earlier meetings) before taking her place among the focus group. At her first meeting she took the same test the other teachers had taken at the beginning of their time (regarding familiarity with constructivism) and accurately reported that she was very familiar with both special education and constructivist theory. In addition to getting all six of the trial questions accurately answered, she also showed her expertise in interviews and involvement. In her survey she reported being very interested in and dedicated to implementing constructivist principles and creating a strong network, and expressed strong conviction that both measures would work to change the outcomes for the students. These convictions stayed strong (all fives) throughout the study, though she was tested twice more.
In conclusion, the original administrators involved were significantly less than enthusiastic, which may have acted against the success of the program. Bringing in a substitute for the special education director may have helped to stabilize the program and allow the administrations lack of enthusiasm to have as little negative impact as possible. However, this lack of institutional support must be considered as a possible cause for some of the failures of the program.
The Technology Teachers
The pedagogy for understanding program attempts to create a strong relationship between technology education and provoking multisubject understanding in the student. The theory suggests that using constructivist teaching in a technology education setting can not only help the students learn about technology, but also help the student learn how to learn — that is, to teach them understanding-forming techniques which will carry over into all their life experiences. This goal appeared to be fully grasped by only one of the technology teachers.
Technology in this school district was taught almost exclusively within a large computer-lab area (arguably two areas, divided by a multi-windowed wall and a wide door frame) by two teachers, Vickerol and Franklin. Franklin, who worked primarily with younger kids, carried much of the responsibility for introducing technology to children, while Vickerol taught slightly more advanced skills and also worked with special pullout classes for the severely disabled and (separately) for the gifted. This is an important thing to note, because Vickerol’s past experience teaching technology to the disabled even before the time of integration gave him a great deal of insight into the process of integrating special needs students into the classroom. (Though, for the record, he continued to believe that special needs students should be taught separately by special education teachers with specific training in the child’s method of communication and learning). He was an outspoken advocate for more funding for the school technology section and other academically important activities.
Vickerol was by far one of the more enthusiastic members going into the project. His early test scores showed an strong self-reported familiarity with constructivism (4 on the scale), appropriate responses to questions about constructivism, and a great deal of interest and commitment (5 and 4, respectively) to the program, in addition to a firm (4) belief that the program would help students. He was also knowledgeable about special needs students, and though he only reported himself modestly as a relatively knowledgeable (4) about special education, he answered all the questions regarding special needs students appropriately. Going into the program he was also very enthusiastic (5) about network building and its potential for success (4).
Within the two-week training period, his enthusiasm about the program remained unshaken and in fact his commitment increased to a self-reported five on the scale. However, his enthusiasm about network building and his belief that it would help students was somewhat decreased to being four and three, respectively. He explained that after seeing how poorly everyone was interacting, he was not sure that the network would ever be more than another bureaucratic waste of time. By midyear, however, his enthusiasm had once again increased, possibly because of the strong relationships he was building with team-members Strickland and (the newly joined) Aloe Gray. By the end of the year, prior to seeing results from the tests, he expressed extreme satisfaction with his own experience with the program, scoring fives across all categories except the belief that network building would work, in which area he recorded a three which he directly specified was a reference to the inability of certain team members to work together. At this last interview, the notebooks record him as saying that the program was “rock solid,” but that “some of the team members are flakes.” He worried that the inability of Hewick, in particular, to “even pretend to encourage rational thought” in his students would serve to discredit the program in the eyes of the administration and in the final test results. Despite his occasional pessimism about fellow teachers, Vickerol over all presented a very positive approach to the program and was consistently one of its biggest proponents.
Franklin, on the other hand, seemed to be relatively apathetic to the entire affair, though (as Vickerol pointed out) it might be more fair to characterize her as “deeply confused” by its requirements and implications. At the beginning of the program she accurately characterized herself as not at all familiar (1) with constructivism, and answered all the questions about it with a three rating (a “not sure” answer). She also reported being somewhat unfamiliar with special needs students, and got two out of the three answers wrong, and admitted to not knowing what autism really meant practically. She tended towards noncommittal answers in all of her surveys, throughout her time in the program, scoring threes almost without fail. On questions of knowledge she did make some progress as the year progressed, and came to the point where she was able to get two out of three answers correct on both the constructivist theory questions and the special education questions by the end of the year. (At the end of the year she still mistakenly thought that constructivism taught that “social pressure cannot be used to encourage or force children into learning” and that “though individual cases may vary, cerebral palsy is a physical disease which is like multiple sclerosis in that it is almost never associated with brain damage.”)
Franklin’s noncommittal approach to the program was matched by her almost mousy nature in meetings. She would occasionally speak up to express confusion, or seek help in figuring out how to apply what was being taught in the classroom. However, in general she seemed to be trying very hard (and often not succeeding) in absorbing the ideas of this new pedagogy. Franklin very seldom got caught up in the occasional fiery debates that swept through meetings, and even in interviews it was difficult to get her to strongly state her position or feelings on any relevant topic. While it would be a mistake to suggest that she was devoid of passion or emotional sense (she could apparently get quite worked up about issues at home, as a few accidentally overheard phone calls illustrated), this more extravagant side of her personality was usually kept separate from her work. Unfortunately, the most telling quote from Franklin’s interviews would have to be this one: “I think I’m trying to apply the program, but Vickerol tells me I don’t know what the program is. He might be right, because it doesn’t seem real or practical to me. Things don’t work like that in the real world, so I don’t know what to do.”
It can be seen that even in the technology department, lines were quickly being drawn in the sand between those who were enthusiastic about the program and those that were not. On the one hand this provided an excellent opportunity to analyze how the program worked with faculty who were less than enthusiastic about applying it. On the other hand, the need to include non-program-oriented teachers was the reason that control classes had been included, and it was frustrating to see the primary research fields threatening to fold before they blossomed. Luckily for the technology classes, Franklin and Vickerol already had a strong working relationship (partly because he was the only one who knew a lot about the functioning of computers and was frequently called over to her class to fix things which had gone wrong) and there was some degree to which this network had the potential to allow some of Vickerol’s enthusiasm to bleed over into her work.
The General Education Teachers
These lines drawn in the sand extended far past the technology teachers. By the time early training was finished, it was clear that the teachers had been roughly divided into four camps: the dissenters within the program who were not enthusiastic about it, the warriors within the program who were very enthusiastic about it, the onlookers who were outside the program but had some limited access to it, and the outsiders who were both outside the program and isolated from any environment in which it would be practiced. These four classes of teachers not only had significant differences in their positions about the theoretical and practical nature of what had been propose, they appeared to also have some significant differences in knowledgeability and commitment to the program (where applicable).
The dissenters among the program general education teachers were Hewick and Holler. Their reasons were somewhat different, though they appeared to bond over their joint distaste for being involved. Hewick, who was the more theoretically inclined of the two, believed that constructivism was a “liberal, politically correct jumble of -pardon the expression- bull*****.” (sic) It was his feeling that knowledge is absolute, and that while it remotely possible that students have to disassemble and reassemble that knowledge in order to get it into their psyches, this did not change the fact that knowledge was transmitted through pedagogy, not “caught like a virus or created like a game of make-believe.” While he expressed willingness to add some constructivist elements to his teaching “in the name of science” and for the sake of the experiment, he reported very strong beliefs that this introduced elements were not beneficial for his students and he suggested that he would not be willing to use them exclusively.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his steadfast ideological opposition to constructivism and his belief that he was “very knowledgeable” (5) about constructivism, Hewick had some misconceptions about what the philosophy implied. While he accurately recognized that constructivism was not identical to behaviorism, he was also under the impression that it decreased student responsibility and involved the abolition of core subjects. On the second and third surveys he also reported himself as being very knowledgeable about constructivism, and yet he also answered certain of the questions incorrectly on both of those exams. In the second exam, after two weeks of training in constructivist pedagogy for understanding, Hewick still somehow thought it was very true that “Constructivism teaches that students make up, or construct, their own individual truth with out any reference to outside truths or experiences, and that all truths are equally valid. The true constructivist teacher will not try to make all the children in the class believe the same truths about a subject. This is why constructivists often disagree with standardized testing.”
Hewick false association between constructivism and social/moral relativism, seemed to pose a consistent problem for him, and no doubt had something to do with the face that he was not at all (1) interested in implementing constructivist teaching styles in his classroom, and while he expressed a degree of willingness to do so in the pursuit of scientific evidence regarding it, he as not very dedicated to implementing it in the face of trouble (3). He also did not think constructivism would work in the classroom. (1) These impressions changed little over the course of the year.
Hewick, who believed strongly in the importance of integrating special needs students and “making them live up to the same standards as everyone else,” considered himself to be very knowledgeable about special needs (5). He did accurately recognize that the survey’s description of autism was extremely false. However, he thought that ADHD was in fact a clinical description of children who chronically misbehave and have low achievement (whether this was a scientific or political stance is uncertain) and that No Child Left Behind means it is inappropriate to use different teaching methods for different students. While he was somewhat enthusiastic (4) about the idea of network building at the beginning of the year, he was unsure (3) whether it would be successful in helping students, and by the end of the two-week training period he was indifferent (3) about the very idea. Hewick self-reported knowledge of special needs experienced no change over the course of the year, though his scores in properly answering questions about special needs situations gradually increased.
If one were to summarize Hewick general enthusiasm level over the course of the program, one would have to say that he was unenthusiastic but cooperatively resigned and that he did make some cognitive effort to learn about the program with the intention of applying what he learned. This stood in contrast to Ms. Holler, who was both unenthusiastic and somewhat bullish about cooperating. She described herself as being “too old of a dog to learn new tricks” and continued to assert that she had been teaching long enough to know what she was doing. There was a certain sense about Ms. Holler of affront and even outrage that she had been selected to participate “at her age” in what she seemed to consider a rudimentary training program. She frequently explained that she had been teaching since some of her colleagues were in diapers, and that she had never been accused before of being an ineffectual teacher. As the old guard of traditional pedagogy, Mrs. Holler tended to be a force to be reckoned with. That said, she did seem interested in learning more about special needs students, and expressed some verbal enthusiasm for learning new techniques to work with them. She explained that she was a very good teacher for “normal kids,” but that she didn’t know how to deal with “the profoundly disturbed” children that the school district was now requiring her to teach.
Her willingness to cooperate at all stemmed from a deep-seated (though not overwhelming) frustration with her inability to bring the class into order when dealing with disruptive or learning disabled students. Apparently this was the second year in which she had Bobby in her classroom, and in one of the early sessions she described her deeply seated ambivalence about holding him back. He had learned almost nothing, she reported, “and I am not even sure he is capable of learning anything,” and yet he was so extremely disruptive that she had considered passing him just to assure that she did not have to deal with him again the next year. This experience, in addition to her deep concerns about some of the upcoming 3rd graders, prompted her to expend at least some energy attempting to learn what was presented in areas dealing specifically with special needs students. Her pride in her own abilities (warranted or not) seemed to center mainly around working with general education students.
Coming into the program Holler reported not knowing much about constructivism (she rated her knowledge as a 2), and drove this point by answering two of the questions indecisively (with 3s) and the last one regarding “doing away with core subjects” with an uncertain negative (4) which she verbally explained as expressing more of a sincere hope than a possession of knowledge. She also reported not knowing much about special education and special need students (another 2), which to some degree she belied by answering questions about autism and ADHD correctly. (She was however mistaken regarding her interpretation of the No Child Left Behind mandates, something which she was both surprised and relieved to discover) Her enthusiasm for implementing constructivism, and her dedication to it, and her assurance that it would work were all scored as an undecided three on the first test, which she later attributed to not knowing what constructivism was. By the end of the two-week training period she had dropped her interest in constructivism to straight twos, being not very invested in its theories. Incidentally she did express (outside the survey) slightly more enthusiasm for using modified constructivist techniques exclusively with her special needs students who “learn differently” and might have trouble with “real teaching.” She was considerably more enthusiastic about network building (5) and convinced that it would help her to function as a teacher and help her students learn (4). This enthusiasm waned slightly (going to 4 and 3, respectively) after the training sessions when it appeared that White-Whatson would be providing less help than was expected, but reappeared after even one session with the educational Aloe Gray. (Going up to 4 and 4, and ending the year at 5 and 4) as she reported a far greater comfort in her classrooms dealings with special needs children after some training.
Though Holler and Hewick had different sets of problems with the program, in both cases the dissension focused around constructivism and a change in pedagogy styles rather than around the building of faculty networks which (despite the time involved) both thought had great potential so long as they were being fully implemented with knowledgeable supporting staff. Hewick spoke of the importance of teachers providing support for each other, while Holler spoke glowingly of the increased communication between herself and Bobby’s special therapy-session and technology teacher, Vickerol.
On the other side of the coin were the pair of general education teachers (somewhat facetiously) dubbed the warrior vanguard. This pair were both enthusiastic about the program and willing to cooperate in their own learning experiences and network building exercises. Perhaps the most dedicated of these two was Ms. Strickland, who actually have a strong grounding in constructivism. She cited herself as being very knowledgeable about it (5), and consistently answered any questions about it correctly, in addition to bringing further theoretical input on constructivism into the classroom. In discussions she would frequently quote important theorists regarding constructivism, and her grasp of its history, importance, and relevance was extremely valuable. She reported in interviews having always hoped she would be able to participate in creating a holistic and constructivist classroom, and she scored herself as very enthusiastic, dedicated and optimistic regarding the program. Despite experiencing some difficulties over the course of the year with one particularly disruptive pair of students, her enthusiasm and optimism never waned. She also originally had unbridled enthusiasm and optimism regarding the network building, though this waned slightly as the year went on, dropping to a four around midterm under the stress of White-Whatson’s defection and some of the issues arising from her contact with Hack’s parents. However, this enthusiasm returned by the year’s end as the addition of Aloe Gray to the team really began to make a difference, and she became more assertive with the parents involved. (In regards to special needs students, Strickland had rated herself as only moderately familiar with their needs  but had correctly answered all of the questions asked — by the end of the year she scored herself as a five).
Strickland enthusiasm for network building showed in the close relationship she developed with Vickerol and Chess (and later with Gray), and her attempts to reach out to parents, doctors, social workers, and the like. Of all the teachers she was the most dedicated to developing networking outside of the program in addition to the network relationships within it.
She was also one of the teachers most likely to do outside research on a given topic and bring the results back to the focus group in order to help herself and her team-mates. For example, when Holler began to have significant problems with the student who called himself Roach (not his given name, but the nickname he preferred to use –its significance was such that it is relevant to the study), Strickland did some research into the issues at stake and even went so far as to help Holler properly involve social workers in his case. Going this extra step for every student, not just the ones in her own class, really served to set Strickland’s dedication apart.
While both were dedicated to the program, Strickland’s outgoing social orientation was somewhat different from Chess’s approach to the program, which was far more laid back. Chess reported a great deal of interest and enthusiasm in (5), dedication to (4), and optimism regarding (4) the program. However, he was a sufficiently quiet and relaxed individual that he was unlikely to get loudly involved in the discussions and debates that often swept over the focus group. His soft-spoken nature was originally assumed by the researcher to be a lack of emotional and social investment in the network building process which belied his reported enthusiasm for networking (4) and certainty that such networks would help teacher situations (4). However, this assumption was proven wrong as his quiet conviction began to surface. When encouraged to speak, Chess was generally insightful and entirely on track with the pedagogy for understanding program. His questions and comments tended to be worthwhile, and he frequently raised legitimate concerns. Chess’s unassuming manner came across in his self-scoring, which was often overly modest. He reported himself as being totally unfamiliar with special needs students or constructivism (both scored one) at the beginning of the year, even though he was able to accurately answer two of the three questions in the area of special needs, and one in the area of constructivism, he at least reported not knowing the other answers in each case and did not answer incorrectly. By the end of the year Chess was able to (still modestly) report a far greater knowledge (3) of constructivism and special needs students, and to answer all six of the test questions correctly. His belief in the principles of the program remained relatively undaunted over the course of the program, though his certainty that it would work for students decreased very slightly (by a self-created fraction of a point) towards the end of the year.
The onlooking teachers actually tended to show more change in their opinions over the course of the year as they observed the progress (or lack thereof) in their own students who participated in pedagogy for understanding classes, or overheard news about the program from other teachers. At the beginning of the year, none of the onlooking teachers had any practical experience with the pedagogy for understanding program. Smith and Sims had some familiarity with constructivism, though neither considered themselves to use it extensively in the classroom. Neither Song nor Silver expressed any significant knowledge of constructivism. This showed some change over the course of the year, as through her experience watching Vickerol through the door in Ms. Franklin’s room (an amusing twist to the experiment) Song became considerably more knowledgeable about constructivism (going from a 1 to a 4) and had actually become somewhat enthusiastic about the potential of applying it in her own classroom. Smith had a slight drop in his enthusiasm for constructivism after witnessing what he called the “debacle of poor dear Mrs. Franklin over-run with children,” though he did seem to continue to think that constructivism presented the best explanation for human learning. Silver showed a very slight positive change from observing Vickerol, who he said “made it look easier than it was..” Sims actually had an unusual pattern of response to constructivism over the course of the year, being both mildly knowledgeable (3) and merely indifferent to its use (3) at the beginning of the year. Toward midterm she had a brief flare of interest, being somewhat enthusiastic (4) about its uses, while maintaining her same self-rated knowledge base. By the end of the year, however, that enthusiasm had dropped to below its early-year level (down to 2). This may be accounted for by a failed attempt to mimic elements of the pedagogy for understanding program in her own classroom without the backing of a social network or any sort of external training and support. It may also be due to the fact that during this short failed experiment with constructivism one of her students stabbed another one with safety scissors.
The control group teachers who were not actively involved in the pedagogy for understanding program in any way did display varying degrees of awareness of the program’s existence and (independently) of the meaning and nature of constructivism. Nice and Nichols both listed themselves as being passingly familiar with constructivism (3), and each backed it up with one or two right answers about the subject on every survey/test. Nox professed to an absolute ignorance of constructivism on her first survey (1) and answered noncommittally to each follow-up question. By the midterm she had bothered to look up constructivism (according to her interview she first looked it up in the dictionary and then spoke to Vickerol about it briefly), and recording knowing a very little about it (2), in addition to getting one of the answers right. At the end of the year she had the same results. Nashville, however, was extremely familiar with constructivism (gave herself a 5) and consistently answered questions regarding it correctly. In interviews she reported that she “shouldn’t know more about it than Sue [Nichols], but I guess I paid attention in class.”
Among those onlooking teachers, as among the “control” group who has nothing to do with the program, there were mixed levels of knowledge regarding special education students. A couple of the teachers, namely Smith, Song, and Nashville, claimed to be very familiar with special needs issues. Of these, only Nashville had double certification in general education and special education, though all three had taken some classes on teaching for special needs students. Silver, Nichols, Nice and Nox all reported themselves as being passingly familiar with special needs issues (3), and only Sims reported being relatively unfamiliar with special needs issues (2).
It was somewhat unfortunate that Nashville, who was familiar with both constructivism and pedagogy for special needs students, could not have participated in the pedagogy for understanding program. The decision had been made a while before her interviews were in to only include second and third grade teachers in the primary program, and only use other grades as comparisons when there were no more relevant second and third grade classes. At that point it seemed best to keep her entirely out of the pedagogy for understanding classes to avoid involving an outside teacher in the program. However, he presence among the control groups could serve to show where the difference might lie between merely educating teachers about constructivism and special needs and involving them in a pedagogy for understanding program.
Unlike with the primary program teachers where there was a definite generation gap between those who were familiar with constructivist theory or special needs pedagogy, the divisions between the knowledgeable and the unknowlegable among these two groups of teachers showed few hard boundaries. These differences did not seem directly linked to age, gender, or any other outside factor — both Nashville, who had specialized in special education before going into general education, and Sims, who had no background with special needs at all, were relatively young teachers. Likewise Smith, who had done some reading on constructivism, was significantly older than both Nox who had not and Nashville who had.
Diagram 4.1 displays the enthusiasm-survey results for each of the faculty meeting of the course of the program, and records any change or development. (The three or four scores in each category are preterm, first term, midterm, and final scores, respectively) Diagram 4.2 is an ordered ranking of the teachers and faculty members involved, based on their stated and observed rates of knowledge, enthusiasm, dedication, and faith in the program.
Diagram 4.1 — Overview of Teacher Relationships to the Program
A score of three represents indifference or a “don’t know” answer, with less than three representing antipathy or a wrong answer, and more than three representing enthusiasm or a right answer.
NAME knowledge of construct.. (x0) construct…questions x0) knowledge of special needs questions program enthusism dedication optimism network enthusism optimism avg observed enthusiasm rated (x2) Overall
Changes Final Averages Ford 3
2.73 W.W. 3
1.00 Gray 4.5
4.95 All Admin 3.75 3.6-4.45 3.87 3.25 3.9-3.1-3.47 Vickerol 4
4.61 Franklin 1
3.12 Tech Teachers 3.25 3.92 3.25 3.58 3.83 3.56 3.81 3.74 Chess 1
4.5 Holler 2
3.14 Strickland 5
4.83 Hewick 5
Teachers 3.625 3.02 3.5-4.02 3.33 4.05
3.44 3.55 Table Continued on Next Page
Diagram 4.1 Continued: Non-Program Teacher Responses knowledge of constructivism (x0) constructivism questions x0) knowledge of special needs questions
Positively view Con- structivsm
Diagram 4.2 — Program Teachers Ranked by Enthusiasm
A score of three represents relative indifference, with less than three representing antipathy and more than three representing support or enthusiasm.
Avg. Self-reported Program & Network Enthusiasm Scores
Enthusiasm Score from Observation
Average of All Indicators
Non-Program Teachers Ranked by Positive Views of Constructivism
Avg Self-Reported Enthusiasm for Constructivism
Enthusiasm for Constructivism as seen in Observation
There are a number of very interested phenomena to be observed in these charts. First, it should be noticed that in the beginning of the program there was almost unanimous enthusiasm about the creation of a supportive network. The average score regarding enthusiasm and faith in the network before the first preterm meeting was a steady four, and not a single member thought poorly of that basic idea. However, about half of the focus group members suffered a significant drop in the degree to which they believed in the teacher-faculty network over the course of the pre-term training meetings. This drop cut across the general dissenter-supporter clique lines to include Vickerol, Hewick, Holler and Ford. At the end of the intensive pre-term meetings, the average score regarding enthusiasm for the focus group had gone down about a third of a point. This was indicative of some of the serious clashes that occurred during these intensive meetings. In private interviews during the end of the pre-term meetings, even those who self-reported great faith in the idea of a network (such as Strickland who maintained a score of five, and White-Watson who also did not drop her score) expressed concern that the team would not come together and be truly helpful. Even more interestingly, those who had kept faith during the pre-term meetings (Strickland, Chess, and White-Watson) seemed to lose it in the early months of the first term. Their high expectations were apparently not met, and by the end of the midterm evaluations of the network had dropped among those very individuals that had previously held out hope for it. Yet at the same time, its evaluations were rising among those who had lost hope earlier, and the four who had suffered an earlier dip apparently found that things were not as bad as they had feared. In the final count, though Ford and Vickerol both slightly reduced the faith they put in this network, the average evaluation of the network was precisely where it had been at the beginning of the year. This continued enthusiasm seems to indicate that the network building aspect of the program was, at least, satisfactory to those involved — while most of them thought it could be improved, it still reached the positive expectations which had been set at the beginning of the year.
Enthusiasm for the program of pedagogy itself, on the other hand, remained almost curiously stable between the beginning of the first term and the end of the last. Other than Strickland’s momentary lapse of faith around mid-term, at which her self-reporting scale (but not her observed enthusiasm) dropped a half point and then rebounded, no teacher’s had an average self-reported enthusiasm level change more than a third of a point. Likewise, no teacher’s observational enthusiasm rating changed by more than a half point from the beginning of the first term to the end of the last (with the exception of Chess, whose observed rating increased not so much because of a particular change in his enthusiasm but because the observer became increasingly capable of reading his subtle attitude clues). This is curious because it implies that the individual teacher’s experiences over the course of the year — their failures or successes in the classroom — had very little impact on their impression of the program. This could mean one of two things: either the teachers may have been so stubborn that they refused to see the success or failure of their point-of-view and therefore did not change it, or the teachers’ preconceptions about the program acted as self-fulfilling prophecies and their enthusiasm or apathy dictated results to such a degree that their opinions of the program were confirmed. One instance of a teacher who did have a drastic reversal in enthusiasm levels after experimenting with changes in pedagogy style was Ms. Sims, who lost all enthusiasm in constructivist teaching styles after having a very bad experience trying to apply it in her classroom. The difference between Sims’ negative reaction to attempting constructivism and failing her student Nathanyel, and, (for example) Hewick lack of reaction to having even moderate attempts at constructivism yield great rewards with both Billy and Erik is somewhat puzzling. This difference might be related to personal issues or to the severity of the specific situations (having an autistic student excel in math may not be as emotionally affective as having one student stab another). Alternately it might have to do with the peer interactions present in each case; Hewick would have been dealing with a greater degree of cognitive dissonance and may have had an interest in preserving his position in the focus group and saving face, while Sims had no support network to help her in dealing with Nathanyel’s issues.
One thing is very clear coming out of this section of the research analysis — there is an obvious ranking of enthusiasm vs. apathy and even antipathy, as seen in Diagram 4.2. It appears that the first leg of the hypothesis met with mixed results. Obviously not every teacher who went through the training procedures and operated under the mantle of the pedagogy for understanding program was enthusiastic about it or dedicated to its success. This raises the possibility that the students of those teachers will fail not because the program itself is flawed but because the teachers involved were unwilling to cooperate. On the other hand, part of the theory of the pedagogy for understanding is that the program itself will help to encourage even unenthusiastic teachers to create a positive constructivism environment. Whether or not the six program teachers succeed in that is the topic for the next section. The ranking system designed in this section will be invaluable in interpreting and placing the results of the next.
Leg Two: Did the Classroom Environment Work?
The basic thesis of the second leg of the story claims that if teachers care to do so they can create a valid environment for the pedagogy for understanding program. Knowing whether or not this step is successfully achieved is absolutely central to understanding the final results. For this reason all the classes are carefully observed to see whether or not they are operating according to the principles of the program, and teachers are also interviewed regarding their classroom environment, so that student success can be correlated with classroom environment.
The Technology Classrooms: Vickerol and Franklin
There were significant differences between the two technology classrooms, though both of them tended to be more successfully constructivist-based than the general classrooms where teachers had to worry more about applying specific curriculum. Franklin’s tended to be focused on specific projects and skill bases, which were generally not taught in a particularly constructivist fashion. This class used playing games as a reward for good behavior, and seldom as an end in themselves. Vickerol, on the other hand, tended to focus on encouraging children to explore different areas of technology, using games as a way of learning, and focusing not so much on specific task-related skills as on gaining intuitive understandings of the technology involved. Of these two approaches, Vickerol’s was certainly the most in tune with the pedagogy for understanding method. In both cases, the technology teachers use of constructivism in the classroom was an important contributor to the overall constructivist experience of the students. In some cases, a technology teacher using constructivism could make all the difference for a student or even for a teacher who was not involved in constructivism. The technology teachers, because their jobs were easier and because they saw every network teach daily, stood as examples of the program and as a living connection between teachers. The importance of their application of constructivism cannot be overestimated.
Of all the classrooms studied, Vickerol’s was probably the only one that had some form of constructivist learning going on at all time, as many students would come straight in and immediately begin working on their individualized projects. On average, Vickerol self-reported adherence to the program in his classroom of around 4.75 on a one to five scale, adding that his main limitation was lack of time with the students and his inability to interact more physically with his students. Vickerol says that his greatest asset as a teacher in the pedagogy for understanding program is the ability to use talented students to help in the teaching process, which allows him to help entire classes at once, even when they are working at different levels. His lists his special pullout advanced classes, which generally include several students from each class in the school, as provided an opportunity to take advanced students to whole new levels in personal sessions while allowing them to help teach their fellow students in the general classes.
Though Vickerol will occasionally sit down and explain to his students how to do something in particular (as on the first day of class where he spent almost the entire period insuring everyone knew how to turn computers on and off and sign in, or when he walks classes through signing onto the Internet), in general learning is entirely student directed and controlled, and Vickerol functions not as a boss but as an expert on call to help with problems and give guidance. In teaching technology, Vickerol would present the students with challenges, leave them alone with the computers to figure out how to meet those challenges (often with the help of their peers), and then give advice or aid as requested. For example, when Strickland’s class came in one day towards midterm, her four teams were working on four different subjects. One was doing very simple programming, one learning more about using graphics programs, one about using Word, and one about using the Internet. The first team (which happened to include all students who were also in Vickerol’s advanced class) had been given the challenge of creating four individual programs (one each) that could administer short, three question, multiple choice tests and return a score grading those responses. Vickerol was on hand to provide programming terms and books where needed. The second team had been told to take a picture on the desktop and make their own version of it using one of the graphics programs. Vickerol walked them through all the different graphics programs (Paint and a generic Adobe Photoshop type replacement called “Gimp”) and gave them a variety of ideas and sample pictures about what could be done to the image, including drawing another version by hand, manipulating the colors, stretching it out of proportion, or cutting it out and mixing it with another picture. He was then on call to answer questions about how that could be done, though most of the time the students actually asked one another instead. A similar challenge was given to the Word students, who were told to make a table listing the various teams and their members, and pick the best font and color to match each team. Once again, Vickerol was handy to answer questions about how to change fonts of make tables, but usually his answers were not precise (such as “click on this button”) but encouraged children to think about how computers usually worked and develop an instinctual sense of the programs (with answers such as, “What menu do you usually use to change fonts… all right, do you see anything near the font section that might change colors?… that’s right — see, you know how to do this!”)
As might be expected, Vikerol scored very well on the observational rating of his class. Constructivist activity was observed in his classroom in sixteen out of the sixteen observed fifteen minute intervals, and an average of 3.5 elements of constructivist learning were present in each interval. The elements most commonly present were experimentation and reason-based learning, recognition and encouragement of alternative learning methods, teaching to individual skill bases, and of course the integration of technology and general education classroom material. Demonstrating knowledge through performance and interaction was the foremost way of knowledge demonstration, as test were not generally used, but such demonstrations were not necessarily daily.
Both Vickerol and Franklin, as teachers in computer lab classes, necessarily employ somewhat experimental and hands-on teaching techniques, even apart from the pedagogy for understanding program. Franklin, perhaps having taken a cue from Vickerol’s adaptation of the program, also operates on a weekly schedule. The first day she generally spends half the class explaining the day’s project. She generally plays a sort of “follow the leader” style, in which she walks the students through the exact steps they will need to follow to do the project. Sample projects include the creation of a worksheet in Word, the creation of a specific image in Paint, or completing a “web quest” online. After that half hour, students are given half an hour to complete the project according to her example, and Franklin goes around the room making sure that everyone finishes successfully. Those that failed in some respect gain extra help. Though there is a half hour allotted to finishing the project, for most students the projects are finished and in the case of talented students like Susanna they may even be completed before the teacher is done with her step-by-step explanation. Once a project is finished and has been printed out (Franklin always gives orders that the final result be printed out with name, class, and time signature on it), students are allowed to play games. During this half hour is also when Franklin provides special tutoring for special needs students, or helps them play with the unique therapy games.
On the second day, students have the chance to work more on their projects, which in the meantime have been looked over and graded by Franklin. During the first thirty minutes of this period, Franklin helps anyone who is still having trouble with their assignment, and expects the remainder of the class to correct the problems marked with their papers. For those who are truly finished, the class time can be spent playing games, working on new independent projects, or tutoring the less experienced members of the classroom. The last half hour of the second session is dedicated to performance and evaluation, as each student shows off their project to the class and explains how it was done.
In theory, this works by allowing the entire class to work on challenging programs at once, while providing them the information necessary to succeed at these projects. In practice, it often seemed to consist of nothing more than a fluttery Ms. Franklin creating a project while everyone looked on, and then fluttering from desk to desk re-creating the project for each individual student while telling them how it was done. Some of the brighter and more able students quickly picked up on her method and would either ask further questions or hurry ahead to game time. Some of the more challenged students, on the other hand, would use this occasion to engage in behavior problems.
Franklin rated herself (predictably) as a three on the one-to-five scale of how fully the program was integrated in one’s classroom. This had some bearing on the reality of her class. In judging the frequency of constructivist activities, the researcher observed an average of 1.6 elements of constructivism present per fifteen minute interval, and overall some elements of the pedagogy for understanding program were visible in roughly ten out of the sixteen class intervals, for a percentage of 62.5% program compliance.
The General Education Teachers: the Dissenters
In the previous section on program enthusiasm, two teachers emerged as a sort of clique of dissension. It would be expected then, that their classrooms would fail to live up to program standards and would fail in creating a constructivist class environment in keeping with the pedagogy for understanding program. This was largely true. At the same time, there were elements of constructivism present, and understanding the degree to which these classes became, and failed to become, a functioning part of the pedagogy for understanding program is necessary.
Hewick was the least enthusiastic about the program, and this carried through in his classroom style. Ironically, he seemed to think that he was conducting himself in concordance with the program, and claimed a score of four out of five on the degree to which he implemented the program in his classroom. When actually observed, he used some pedagogy for understanding methods in only seven of the eighteen class intervals, scoring only a 39% compliance. Additionally, even when using those principals he had a very low frequency (number of principals applied simultaneously or consistently), used only two individual elements within three intervals.
Hewick had his classroom time divided into five sections: reading, math, science, social studies, and work time. His forays into constructivism were almost entirely limited to work time. He did receive observational points for having students conduct a “mini lab” in science where they spent about ten minutes running a small experiment and another five writing the results. Another small constructivist move he made outside the work period was to have an open student discussion in reading time (about fifteen minutes long) in which students could pose and answer questions about aspects of the book, and become involved with the literature. Once a week he would have a show-and-tell time where students gave three to five-minute oral reports which he described as “understanding demonstrated through performance, just like the handout says.” These reports usually dealt with one of the subjects in the class on which the student had chosen to do independent home research. Other than these three gestures, Hewick four main subject sections ran on very authoritarian terms based on repetition, work sheets, and memorization. He tended to teach to a level slightly above that of the lowest student, and then deal with anyone who was falling behind during tutoring sessions. There were no measures taken for gifted children.
During work time was when Hewick made the most concessions to being a part of the program. He had students work on tutoring one another for about thirty minutes, and also used that time to provide individual tutoring to children who were falling behind. The tutoring he provided was generally geared in an accurate fashion to the child’s individual level, and did seem to deal reasonably with disabilities. He worked with some students on developing strategies to help them study and absorb classroom material, and with others he went directly into what he felt they needed to know. In addition to the scheduled work time where students taught one another or worked on individualized plans, Hewick also occasionally had certain children go aside during a period (such as reading or math) and either work alone or provide tutoring to one another.
One such pair was Billy (who had cerebral palsy with some cognitive damage) and Erik (very high functioning autism with some behavioral issues). Erik, who excelled in math, had generally been finishing his work within minutes of being assigned to it, and had begun having behavioral issues during the math section. Hewick assigned him to spend fifteen minutes of math s supposedly learning about people skills, empathy, and interaction by providing tutoring to Billy. These sessions were often uncomfortably amusing to watch, as Erik often became very flustered and would violently nod his head at Billy and chant “learn! learn! learn!” However, the occupation did decrease his tendency to wander around the classroom or sing outloud during math.
All in all, Hewick ability to create a compassionate and rational environment for the pedagogy of understanding program seemed to be rather lacking. Vickerol in particular expressed frustration that of all the teachers he worked with (including those outside the program), Hewick was the least cooperative about providing him with real classroom-oriented projects he could work on in the technology lab. Hewick, it appears, tended to want to use the lab either as a recreational and game event or like a research library where the only goal would be to get information from the Internet. Despite frequent discussions about how merely having peer tutoring and occasional nods in the direction of the program (like having mini labs) was not sufficient, he persisted in limiting any experimental teaching to special work sessions and student tutoring. He reported that this should be good enough, and that anything more required a complete overhaul of the educational setting. As he said in a somewhat nonsensical moment of resistance, “You don’t have the authority to recreate the school system — you can’t do it. You’re not Attila the Hun, you can’t make mountains of heads — I’m doing you a favor being here at all.”
Holler was slightly less openly resistant, and her sheer refusal to cooperate was linked (it seemed) to a deep-seated inability to come to terms with the methods of a pedagogy for understanding. She rated herself as a two on her compliance for the first term, and a three on her compliance during the second, even though she and Hewick actually had the approximately the same percentage of time spent on constructivist-type activity (39%), and she actually seemed to do a better job applying some of the principles beyond just the idea of students working together and teachers having individual time with students.
Like Hewick and many of the other teachers at this school, Holler had four primary sections of the day (reading, math, science and social studies). In both the math and reading sections she attempted to involve students as performers and as co-creators of knowledge by having one or two students a day serve as “little teachers” and teach a fifteen minute section of the class to the other students. During these four sessions, between 25-50% of the time was spent busy work like penmanship practice, worksheets, and journaling. While students were involved in busy work, Holler could take aside those who were struggling and give them extra attention.
When Holler was first observed she was trying to integrate constructivist and rational ideas into her science and social studies classes very awkwardly, encouraging students to “reason out” ideas and hypothesis “like a scientist would. What have we learned about how scientists reason?… do you think you could think like that?” In theory this might have had some good results in encouraging children to think analytically, however as the presentation proceeded the students appeared to be increasingly lost. After several focus groups on how to teach science as part of the pedagogy for understanding, (the goal is not to tell children how to think, it is to put them in situations that help them develop those thinking skills) she actually improved the science section to include experiments and exercising of the scientific method. Each student had a notebook in which they had to keep notes, charts, and observations about the experiments, and in class she taught about how research studies were performed. The class performed several studies over the year, including an experiment to see whether or not fish and flowers would change color if you changed their diet, if different types of water made tadpoles turn into frogs at different speeds, and a variety of experiments with simple chemicals (like vinegar and baking soda). Working on these science projects usually took up between fifteen and thirty minutes a day (the projects often took weeks to complete), after which students returned to their desk for short talks, reading, and worksheets about science.
Holler attempted to recognize and respect children’s different approaches to some degree. For example, when Roach and Bobby were very well behaved, she would let them have math time in the science corner where they would count the insects and try to figure out simple problems such as how many insects there would be if the mama bug had a certain number of babies, or if the frog ate too many of them, and so forth. Roach got to be in charge of keeping track of the bugs, and while this eventually caused some minor problems (he wanted to starve the frogs, which were Bobby’s favorites) it did seem to help his practical math applications. On the other hand, Holler tended to have rigid behavioral expectations from her students and (while she would work extensively with individuals during private tutoring time) there was a degree to which she either wrote-off a student and adopted a laissez-faire approach to their education, or expected them to perform in a certain fashion and to a certain standard.
As can be seen from these class analyses, both Holler and Hewick were not entirely in tune with the program, but both did adopt elements of it into their personal classes. In both cases, the teachers suggested that they could not have a more constructivist environment because it would (in Hewick words) “have the rascals running all over us.” While Holler seemed to do relatively well with science time, she considered student-teaching time to be very difficult to control and said that “if the students had their way everyone would just be playing with bugs instead of working.” Hewick, meanwhile, complained extensively about the way that student tutoring time was always out of control, and that children were talking and playing together instead of working together. The degree to which this was a problem in the program (as these two suggested) or a problem with their individual classroom control and their inability to grasp the difference between lazy teaching and student-led teaching, can only be determined by comparing their experiences to those of more successful program-oriented teachers.
General Education Teachers: the Warrior Vanguard
Though Hewick and Holler may have made it appear that the program was failing, the other two students gave hope that the program could work. Chess represented a relatively conservative approach to positively applying the pedagogy for understanding framework. He focused on exploration in science and social studies, and on student teaching in math and English. He also tended to use a pseudo-socratic method while doing special session tutoring. All this fit relatively well into the four-session model (though in his case he added an extra, short fifth session for arts and crafts). Strickland, on the other hand, went all out in the creation of a progam-compliant classroom, going well beyond what was expected. She completely reorganized the usual teaching methods and class arrangement, and redesigned the curriculum to focus on experimentation and exploration, student accountability and cooperation, and gearing the task to the student. Strickland was the only one of the four teachers who brought a computer into her classroom, and also the only one to fully take advantage of the potential of the technology lab as an asset to her class. Chess’s self reported application level was a modest three, and his observed level a four, with approximately 60% of classroom time running on a constructivist model and an average of two constructivist elements being applied per fifteen minute interval. Strickland self-reported and observed application level was a full five, with 83% of the class being run on totally constructivist elements (the only exception being three fifteen minute intervals in which Strickland addressed the class straight on, provided evaluations and instructions, and so forth), and an average of four of the six constructivist elements in evidence in every fifteen minute interval. Both 60% and 83% of class time are good scores, considering that they do not measure the degree to which one applies the program but the actual amount of time in which that application is visible. While there were many differences in Chess’s classroom and Strickland’s, the former being more laid back and normal and the later more perfect and revolutionary, either one would qualify as being a legitimate expression of the pedagogy for understanding. A further exploration of their class arrangements might be valuable, however.
In Chess’s classroom reading and math classes are conducted in the morning. For his math section, he usually begins by having a student come forward and teach a short lesson on the current section of the textbook. After the student is done making their presentation, Chess helps them with a question and answer period, and adds his own insights to that presentation. Subsequently students are given reading and worksheets, and Chess elects the next student (or pair of students) who will be teaching a lesson in two days. (The student who will be teaching tomorrow is already preparing). That student will have the rest of the math class this day and the next to prepare for their section, and may have special help from Chess. For the reading section, a similar process is used. At the beginning of the section, students present yesterday’s “question of the day,” and direct a discussion of today’s reading, including vocabulary words and content. Then Chess has the students take turns reading last night’s assigned pages from their book for the year (Peter Pan). Subsequently, he uses examples from those pages to teach grammar, spelling, and reading comprehension tools. Students are given worksheets or other material having to do with the book to work on, while two students are selected to teach tomorrow’s “question of the day.” After reading and math, there is a short arts and crafts period before students break for lunch.
In the afternoon, Chess teaches either science or social studies, rotating between the subjects so that he has an extended learning period. This is his experimental session, in which students are required to think analytically, develop research skills, and learn from objects and reference works. For example, in science he ran a series of experiments to figure out where rain came from. Students came up with hypotheses and tested them in the lab and in the library, where research on precipitation finally led to the hypothesis that water will turn into rain. This was tested in an aquarium, where precipitation was seem to occur. The entire search for an answer was driven by student curiosity, but guided by Chess. Similar methods worked in social studies, where Chess brought in historical movies, books, and antiques as conversation starters and research pieces. In addition to researching these issues, students are expected to display their findings as completed projects and research reports. Various projects have included writing an illustrated book about the history of farming, creating an informercial for rain, and putting on short skits about the holocaust and the revolutionary war. Chess also frequently designs computer-lab extensions on his science and social studies, but unfortunately his students have had difficulty getting enough time free in Franklin’s class to complete them. In order to keep the class orderly, Chess usually breaks the students up into research groups of three or four students, which change with each new project. During this period Chess also takes certain children aside for special tutoring in math and reading, as necessary, and makes himself available to work with individual research groups.
At the end of the day, after everything is put away, Chess runs a twenty minute “test taking secrets” section, in which he and his students study how standardized tests work, what makes them accurate (and not accurate), how to take them well, and what sorts of things should be studied for them. Chess emphasizes critical thinking and analysis skills, in addition to learning to understand the format and function of a test. He reported that the idea of studying test-taking as a subject had never occurred to him before, but in our increasingly standardized world seemed like a good life skill. Students involve the tests on an academic and even sociological level (discussing what role tests play in society), and also on an experimental level. Kids work on making up their own standardized tests, and then comparing them to the real ones to see what kinds of questions they should and should not expect.
If Strickland shows how easy it can be to make the change to a constructivist classroom, Strickland really shows how beautifully complex one can make it if one tries. Strickland described her program as being inspired by the novel Ender’s Game, in which mere children are entrusted with the fate of the galaxy. This inspiration was evident in the way she divided her class at the beginning of the year into four competing teams, originally labeled the Red, Yellow, Green and Blue teams. (Once the groups had compiled enough “rank points” to prove they could function together as a team, they were allowed to choose a name for their team. Blue eventually became the Coyotes, Yellow the Super-Mice, Red the extravagantly named Space Invaders of Dragon Army Z, and Green chose for itself the moniker “The Best Team”) Each team had four students, which left two students unteamed. Strickland created an “Itsy Bitsy Polka Dot” team for these two, and put in it Darma (who had been left deaf and crippled from a serious illness) and Min (ESL) — this team took turns pairing up with the other teams or being dealt with separately by Strickland.
These four teams worked separately on different projects and learning tasks throughout the day, and worked together for tutoring exercises and presentations. The small knit groups were designed to give children the maximum support and individual attention, while creating in the teams a sense of interest and responsibility for their fellow students’ progress. Competition was fierce as the students competed for a variety of small prizes and the final incentive of a trip for their team to an amusement park. (In addition to the winning team, the individual in class who had made the most personal advancement would be going on the trip) However, cooperation between the teams was also common, as prizes and points were offered both for teams that excelled at tutoring and for class-wide achievements and improvements. (For example, if the entire class reached a certain place by midterms, they would be acknowledged with a day-long pizza, ice cream and games party) The greatest glory, of course, went to the team leader — leaders were voted into power once every other week, and were in charge of making sure no one in the team fell behind personally, and that the whole team was “ship shape, orderly, and planning on winning.” According to the rules, no one was allowed to vote for themselves, and ties were decided by the teacher. Some teams rotated leaders relatively frequently, such as the Blue team where the students agreed (after a long and startling political conversation about one of their reading selections) to pull the leaders out of a hat, and Green team which almost always tied. Others were relatively stable, with one or two dominant students.
Teams were roughly based on scholastic level, each with its own strengths. Red Team (who later became the Space Invaders of Dragon Army Z) were all strong in math and science, though some had difficulty with reading. This was Hack’s team, in that he was either the team leader or the “power behind the throne” every time. Red Team also included the high-functioning autism Jack, who brought a bit of social chaos and a calculator-like brain to the group. Originally Red Team had trouble when two of its members went to Vickerol’s “gifted” class for an hour on Wednesday mornings and one went to his special therapy class later Wednesday afternoon. Some discussion, however, arranged for the entire team to attend the gifted class together. Yellow team, who became the Super-Mice, were generally the more sociable and well behaved of the students with relatively grade-average skills, though their numbers included one learning disabled reader. Green team (later the Best Team) included two ADHD kids (including Alexxi) and its activities tended to focus on frequent changes and good levels of stimulation and multitasking. Blue team, the Coyotes, were all exceptionally strong readers, though a few of them struggled with math. The Blues did more advanced book study and presentations than the other teams. Of course, the Itsy Bitsy Polka Dot team dealt mainly with communication issues, and eventually emerged as artistically talented students. As might be guessed, this mild but diverse tracking allowed each group to have special attention in their areas of deficit, and also to be challenged at their areas of strength, something that merely having a “special needs” time of class might not have accomplished.
The classroom itself was set up very differently than most rooms. The students desks (to which their chairs were attached) were pulled into four square formations, with the desks placed next to each other to form one large table-like center, with their legs bound to one another so that the entire set of desks had to be moved together. Each set of desks had been painted the team colors (apparently Strickland was later charged for the cost of removing that paint), and had in the center an office bell of a specific tone. Whenever teams were supposed to return to their desks, Strickland would ring a large cowbell on her desk. The students all scrambled to their desks as quickly as possible. When all four members were there with their heads down, the leader rang the team bell — the fastest three teams won points. Bells were also rung when a team knew the answer to a question, or needed some sort of attention. In addition to these “star bases,” there were five “learning stations” set up around the room. The “Command Center” at the teacher’s desk housed an older clamshell Apple laptop that students could use for activities. The “Reading Rook” in the back corner had a couch and several bookshelves enclosing it, and a host of research and fiction books. The “Mad Scientist Laboratory” was a table and a couple shelves near one wall where science time was conducted. There were usually plants, small animals in cages, or test tubes over there, in addition to the spooky mad scientist posters and decorations. The “Time Machine” in another corner was a history area with maps, historical objects, and books. The “Art Arena” was the final section, where paint and clay and colored pencils could be used for projects. Strickland changed and adapted theses stations almost daily, arranging them to provide learning environments that would include all the tools and clues her children would need to solve the challenges she presented them with. Usually by the time the students arrive she had already been there for an hour or so preparing for them.
Strickland used these teams and stations to the utmost advantage, using them both to aid the student in learning and to equip them to teach others. For example, walking into an average class session early of the second term, the researcher found all the students sitting at the desks with their heads down, waiting for their assignments. Strickland called out the name of the former Yellow team, and the whole table popped alert. They had been the first to their seats, the researcher was informed, and so got their assignments first. “All right Super Mice! When I give the count I want everyone to go to the Time Machine. You’ll find a rusty object there. Be very careful with it. Try to figure out the five Ws — who made it, what it is, where it was used, and why was it made? You’ll each find a hint in an envelope on your seats there, just to get you started. You can also look through the encyclopedias and books there. I want everyone to write their ideas down in their notebooks, and then the team needs to vote on which ideas are the best. When you’ve decided, Team Leader rings the bell.” The object was a farm implement of some sort, though (later in the day) when Green team got around to it they decided it had been a torture device or medieval weapon. On other occasions the Time Machine brought artifacts such as a thirteen star American flag, thumb screws, pottery, statues, old books, and newspapers from the 1940s. Each artifact was first explored for the five Ws, and then for deeper historical significance.
Returning to the sample morning, Strickland next called out Red Teams’ orders, “All right, Space Invaders of Dragon Army Z — are you awake?… You’re off to go to the Laboratory. You’ll find a stack of note cards there with questions on them. I want you to figure out the answer, but also figure out the steps to reaching the solution. Write down all the steps. All the problems have something in common, what is it? You’d better make sure you know, because in half an hour you’re going to have to teach green team how to recognize and answer questions like this.” (They were all science problems that could be solved by complicated research or simple mathematical approaches) Her next orders were to Green Team, and were simpler. “Yo, Best Team! Good job keeping your heads down, let’s see if we can keep it up… Go to the Art Area and wait for me, and don’t touch anything!” (They would eventually be working on models of their favorite characters from the books they had been reading) The final instructions: “Coyotes, get to the Reading Rook. I want you to come up with twenty multiple choice questions and three essay questions about the Harry Potter book so I know whether or not the Space Invaders read it. Make sure you write down the answers too. Remember what we said about good and bad test questions.”
Stations switched between four and six times during the day, in addition to teacher-led sessions three times a day in which all the teams got together for a classroom wide discussion, activity, or the occasional lecture. Teams would also occasionally join up together, as when the Space Invaders had special math and science tutoring sessions for their classmates, the Coyotes held story time and poetry readings, or the other two teams had history or art presentations. Additionally, there were occasionally special weeks were the four teams abandoned their usual station hopping and worked together on a significant project, such as the class drama presentation (every team had to write one act of a four act play based on the Harry Potter books, and each team had their own roles in making the drama happen).
It should be evident from this descriptions that this oddly ordered classroom, while not necessarily what had been envisioned in the early stages of the pedagogy for understanding program, succeeded both in providing strong structure for students and a good constructivist environment for exploration, experimentation, and the development of true understanding as demonstrated through performance and interaction.
The Onlookers and the Others
Observing the classes was not a practice limited to the classrooms of the pedagogy for understanding teachers. Teachers who were outside the program also needed to be monitored, so that the degree to which they functioned as a true control, and the degree to which technology classes affected students, could both be analyzed. There were two sets of control teachers: the onlookers who sat in on Vickerol and Franklin’s pedagogy for understanding technology classrooms, and the others who did not. All of the teachers in both categories had lower or equal scores than the lowest scoring teachers in the program, which does to some extent suggest that the pedagogy for understanding program helps to create more constructivist classrooms. However, not all of the teachers had significantly lower scores, and some were very close. For the record, there may have been a certain degree to which non-program classes were scored more leniently than program classes.
Of the four teachers who looked on, three of them adopted (or were already using) some constructivist elements. Smith was familiar with constructivism before the year began, and claimed not to have changed his teaching style due to anything going on in the classrooms around him. He sat in on Franklin’s class, and actually considered it to “typify the worst elements of constructivism gone awry.” All the same, in his own classes he held frequent dialogues with children that focused on teaching thinking and analysis skills, encouraged children to show their understanding through performance, and had a “study time” at the end of class where students were assigned to work in teams (a mild form of tutoring, because the teams paired advanced and low level students) while he took low-achieving students aside for special tutoring. Elements of constructivism showed up about three and a half times an hour, and 33% of his class intervals included constructivist activity.
Song, on the other hand, started the year off with a particularly low knowledge of constructivism, and put a great deal of effort into learning more about it. From speaking to Vickerol and Franklin she was referred to Strickland, and observed that class once for an hour while her children were at P.E. Subsequently she began to integrate a number of constructivist techniques into her classroom, primarily in the areas of science and reading. She worked with experimentation and analysis, and also with student-directed learning and tutoring. One important aspect that she adapted from Strickland was the use of work stations at which groups of students could gather for projects, and the development of cooperative competitive teams (though Song alternated the members on hers every few weeks). Vickerol (and Susanna, her general education student who was in Vickerol’s advanced class) encouraged her to bring more technology into the classroom, and when she put out a call for donations she received two used PCs from families. These were used for additional reading and math training. While some elements of constructivism were missing from her classroom, she did manage to use constructivist elements in approximately one third of her daily intervals.
Sims was the third onlooking teacher who used constructivist elements to some degree. Hers was a unique case because she began the year using very few constructivist measures, but very quickly became interested in it and began to use a number of methods she had observed in Vickerol’s classroom. Her methods included extensive one-on-one mentoring, teaching from artifacts, personalized attention and goal-setting, and exploration as a way of curriculum. However, she a few very bad experiences (explained in more detail below) with it that caused her to cut out all constructivist teaching which she had not committed to the students to continue. So Sims varied between having a full two hours daily of constructivist type learning to only having half an hour — and that half hour dealt almost entirely with computer game playing rather than social or analytical involvement.
Silver, on the other hand, showed no particular interest in constructivism to begin with or to conclude with. Though he did provide some individual tutoring time, and some degree of understanding performance on an occasional basis, his percentage of constructivism was around 11%.
The teachers who did not attend Vickerol and Franklin’s pedagogy for understanding-based computer programs showed less variance between the beginning and end of the year. Most of them knew nothing about constructivism and did not practice it, with the exception of Nashville who had been well-versed in constructivism and special needs students before the beginning of the year.
Nice came the closest (other than Nashville) to implementing anything resembling the pedagogy for understanding program. Nice, like the other district school teachers other than Strickland, had four basic subject sections in the classroom. Just as many of the pedagogy for understanding teachers had chosen to do, Nice kept a fifth period open at the end of the day for special tutoring and individual study, in which students were given handouts, reading, or other busywork. The busywork was not constructivist. However, during this period, and also during certain work sessions in the math and reading periods, Nice took aside the children who needed particular help and worked with them. While his group teaching style was not particularly constructivist, his individual tutoring method was very analysis and interaction based, and qualified as an expression of constructivism. Hence he had an hour out of the day in which he participated in some form of constructivism, for a percentage score of 22%.
Neither Nox nor Nichols even went so far as to have special tutoring sessions for their students, or to use any sort of experimentation or analysis in helping children to reach understanding. While Nox was granted two points (for a percentage of 11%) for using dialogue and thought-provoking discussions in his science and reading teaching, he would not qualify as an even remotely constructivist teacher. At two points during the year it appears that each class had some sort of science experiment going on (at least one frog was dissected, and some plants grown), however these were not student-directed experiments, did not focus around problem solving or the creation and resolution of a thesis — the students seem to have been party to drawn out object lessons and physical examples more than they became actual actors in their own education.
The only teacher not involved in the program who was implementing constructivist type pedagogy was Nashville. While her schedule was not that different than the schedules of other teachers, her style, focus, and environment were all very constructivist. She regularly called on students to explain concepts to the class (rather than just asking them for answers), and had them work on tutoring one another. She also asked many questions of the students, and fielded their questions in return, both modeling and requiring good research techniques from her learners. Nashville employed a “Puzzle of the Day” game where students would be given complicated puzzles of some sort to solve which would generally require the use of math and reading skills, and possibly research skills as well. Her percentage of time in which constructivist activities took place was at 39%, the same as Hewick or Holler’s.
Conclusion Regarding Environment
The second leg of the hypothesis shows approximately what it would be expected to show — that enthusiasm for the pedagogy for understanding program correlates with the successful creation of a classroom environment compatible with that program, and that regardless of the degree of enthusiasm even being in the program at all correlates with the creation of a classroom environment which is closer to the program dictates than mere enthusiasm would have predicted. Diagram 4.3 ranks the teachers in order of their successful creation of a positive classroom environment, based on their over-all Licker scores in this area and also listing the amount of time in which each classroom is involved in constructivist or pedagogy for understanding compatible learning. While the ranking has been done as best as possible, some margin for error exists within the subjective mature of this final ranking. Strickland, for example, was place ahead of Vickerol despite the fact that he had a higher percentage of time involved with constructivist pedagogy because her classroom was more intensely constructivist and because of the greater difficulty inherent in creating a constructivist general education classroom. Likewise Holler is place ahead of Hewick despite the fact that their percentages are equal and her intensity (number of elements present for each of the intervals) is slightly lower because subjective observation also found her classroom to be based more on the real heart of the pedagogy for understanding program (experimentation, the construction of individual understanding, and the ability to show this through performance), where Hewick seemed to focus overmuch on just making students work together or tutor one another. All in all, however, the diagram should give a relatively clear indication of which classrooms are significantly more in tune with the program. The second diagram (4.4), compares the degree to which enthusiasm predicted the creation of a constructivist classroom.
As these tables clearly show, there is a very strong correlation between teacher enthusiasm and the creation of a strong pedagogy for understanding environment. The correlation between the relative enthusiasm rating and the relative environmental rating is nearly perfect, with only two individuals out of the listings one would expect from them. (Sims skews the entire listing by one point, and Nox is also out of place) That the correlation between absolute enthusiasm and environment ratings are not as perfect clearly indicates that while enthusiasm may increase the likelihood of creating a constructivist classrooms, other factors are also extremely important. The entire pedagogy for understanding program, then, can be seen as necessary for the full advancement of constructivist classrooms. Both the building of networks, the administrational support, the type of class, and the degree of required cooperation appear to have had effects on the degree to which both enthusiastic and unenthusiastic teachers managed to make positive learning environments in their classrooms.
Diagram 4.3 — Ranking the Teachers by Classroom Environment
Percentage of Time
Avg. (1 per element)
(higher is better)
44% (later 33%)
15 (later 6)
Sims ranks eight here because for most of the year she maintained this spot. At the beginning before she developed as a constructivist teacher she was lower, and in the last quarter when she lost all enthusiasm she once more decreased in score… It was difficult to know where to put her, as a mere average does not tell the full story. These scores show both midterm and end year.
Diagram 4.4 — Correlation between Enthusiasm and Environment
Correlations are measured by the difference between the teacher’s environment rank and their enthusiasm rank. A difference of zero equals a correlation of 100% “Relative Rank” is rank relative to other program or non-program teachers. Calculating both absolute and relative rank allows the viewer to control for the effects of the program or the type of class.
Absolute Environment Rank
Relative Environment Rank program)
Abs = +1
Abs = 0
Abs = -4
Abs = +8
Rel = -1
Abs = +5
One will recall that Sims had a sudden change in attitude at the very end of the year. Her enthusiasm ranks are hence much lower than her environment ranks because the enthusiasm score averages two occasional scores (one of which was very low for her), while the environment score averages a year.
So this section clearly answers the questions posed by the second leg of the hypothesis, as to whether an intervention aimed at teachers will indeed increase the chances of those teachers making an effective constructivist environment in line with the pedagogy for understanding curriculum in which they were trained. The answer seems to be yes. All teachers emerging from the program did better in creating a constructivist environment than non-program teachers with equal rates of enthusiasm for constructivist or special education pedagogy. So obviously the program works to create constructivist classrooms. Additionally, however, this research suggests that the program can create enthusiasm, as a number of teachers inspired by that program were able to build their own networks (to varying degrees) in which constructivist learning could occur. If the program is functional in encouraging teacher enthusiasm (or at least not decreasing it), and if the program and enthusiasm combine to create classrooms which adhere to the standards of the pedagogy for understanding model, then the only question remaining is whether or not these classrooms are able to truly aid students in the learning process.
Leg Three: Student Learning
The real focus of this entire program has been the illusive goal of increasing student understanding and their ability to demonstrate that understanding both in the real world and (if only to please the pundits) in the world of standardized testing. There are a variety of measures of learning which must all be taken into account in analyzing the presence and nature of student progress. The four main measures are as follows: teacher appraisals which place the students relative to their grade level (a Licker score of three means they are at grade level), observational appraisals which judge the students in multiple areas with similar Licker scores results, student interviews, which are subjective and performed mainly to gain insight, and of course the standardized test at the beginning, midterm, and end of the year. These results need to be analyzed on an individual student basis, on the basis of which classrooms (technology and general education) a student is placed in, and also what sort of learning disabilities the student has. Analyzing all these variables assures that the proper relationship is documented between success and classroom experience. Diagram 4.5 and 4.6 both attempt to make this relationship visible, by displaying the student’s results listed by student name (4.5) and by student class (4.6).
Though of course the numbers are only part of the puzzle presented here, they do show some significant promise. To a very large degree these results show what would have been expected from the enthusiasm and environment results, with teachers who are significantly more in tune with the program having significantly better results from the students. There is a very strong correlation present here between earlier enthusiasm and environment rankings and the ordered ranking of the most successful teachers. While correlating that more clearly is a matter for the research analysis and conclusion, it is worth pointing out here that so far the hypothesis seems to be working relatively well.
One will notice how students who began the year with very similar problems (such as Alexxi and Michael) had drastically different results depending on their teacher’s degree of enthusiasm as listed above, and sometimes even those who were father behind (such as Alexxi) will with the right teacher surpass their peers (as he did with Michael). Of course, certain cases (such as Nathanyel’s, Erik’s, or Roach’s) give space for pause and prove the necessity of more complete case studies to complete the numbers.
Diagram 4.5a — Student Scores by Name. This half of the diagram shows Ms. Franklins’ students. Special needs students have their results highlighted in gray. Students who also attend one of Vickerol’s special sessions have their names highlighted as well.
Reported Comparative Ability
Reported Grade Level
Observed Skill Areas*
(social, reading, math, technology, art, motor skills = average)
3/2.5/2.5/2/3/3=2.8 tot: +.46
1/4/3/4/2.5/3.5 = 3
1/4/3/4/2/3.5 = 2.9
4/2.7/3/2/3/3.5 = 3
3.7/2.7/3.3/2/3/3.5 = 3 total: +.04
2/1/1/3/3/3 = 2
2/1.5/1.5/3/3/3 = 2.17
2.5/2/2/3/3/3 = 2.58 total: +.61
2/3/3.5/4/3/3 = 3.1
2/3/3.5/4.5/3/3 = 3.2
2/3.2/3.6/5/3/3 = 3.3 total:+.36
2/3/2/2/3/2.5 = 2.4
1/2/1.5/1.5/3/2.5 = 1.9
0/2/1/1.5/3/2.5 = 1.7
2/4/3/4/3/2 = 3
2.5/4/4/5/3.5/2.5 = 3.6 total: +.41
Diagram 4.5b — Student Scores by Name. Some numbers explained more fully in the case studies, such as Erik’s multiple notations and Nathanyel’s disclaimer.
Reported Comparative Ability Level
Reported Grade Level
Observed Skill Areas
1/1.5/2/0/3.5/4 = 2
2/2/2.3/0.5/4/4 = 2.5
2.3/2.5/2.5/2/4/4= 2.9 total: +1
1.5/4/4.5/4.5/2/2 = 3.1
2.5/4.2/4.7/5/2.3/2 = 3.4
1.7/2.4/3.8/4/1/2.4=2.6 total: +.85
(/according to Vickerol)
0/2/2/4/4/3 = 2.5
0/3/5/5/5/3 = 3.5
1/3.5/5/6/5/3=3.9 retake: 5 avg:3.5 tot: -0.6 tot:+1.68 avg:+0.18
5/1/1.5/2.5/1/.2 = 1.1
5/1.2/1.6/2.6/1.5/.4 = 1.3 total: +.18
2/3.5/3/2/3/1 = 2.4
2/3/3/3/3/1.5 = 2.6 total:+.04
Nathanyel artificial scores?)
3/2.7/3/3/3/3=3 tot: +.06
1.5/2/2/2/3/3=2.3 tot: +.04
5/3/3/1/3/3=3 tot: +.01
5/1.5/1.5/2.3/1.5/..5=1.3 tot: +0.58
3/3/3/3/3/3 = 3 tot: +.02
Diagram 4.6a — Students Results by Teacher, and Teacher Rankings.
This diagram shows three categories of student results: those for just the special needs students (spec), those the general needs students (gen), and the over-arching score (all). Class ranking
Avg Teacher Score for small Monitored sample
Avg Subjective Monitored
Average Monitored change
Full Class Standard-ized Scores Avg.
Relative & Absolute Rank + Grade Score
Strickland spec: 3.09 gen: 4.75 spec: 2.63 gen: 4.35 all: +1.03 spec: +0.55 gen: +2 all: +1.09 spec: +0.93 gen: +1.42 all: +0.46 spec: +0.60 gen: +0.41
Chess spec:2.68 gen: 3.25 spec: 2.32 gen: 3.18 all: +0.6 spec: +0.4 gen: +1 all: +0.53 spec: +0.46 gen: +0.67 all: +0.41 spec: +0.40 gen: +0.41
Holler spec: 2.06 gen:3.3 spec: 1.36 gen: 2.85 spec: -0.25 gen: 0 spec: -.05 gen: -.12 all: +0.18 spec: +0.16 gen: +.19
Hewick his report, both tests for Erik) spec: 1.85 gen: 2.75 spec: 2.58 gen: 3 spec: +.05 gen: -0.1 all: +0.13 spec: +.18 gen: +.02 all: +.06 spec: -0.10 gen: +0.10
Programmers (average of class average)
Smith spec: 2.5 gen: 2.5 spec: 2.9 gen: 3.2 all: +0.15 spec: +0.3 gen: 0 all: +0.23 spec: +0.46 gen: 0 all: +.04 spec: +.08 gen: +.03
Sims spec: 1.25 gen: 3 spec: 2.4 gen: 3 all: +0.55 spec: +1 gen: +0.1 spec: -0.46 gen: +0.06 all: +0.17 spec: +0.47 gen: +.10
Silver spec: 3 gen: 3 spec: 3.3 gen: 3.09 all: +0.05 spec: 0 gen: +0.1 spec: +0.04 gen: -0.1 spec: -0.02 gen: -0.01
Song spec: 2.75 gen: 3.5 spec: 2.29 gen: 3.53 all: +0.55 spec: +0.5 gen: +0.6 all: +0.49 spec: +0.61 gen: +0.36 all: +0.23 spec: +0.26 gen: +0.21
Nox spec: 2 gen: 3 spec: 2.3 gen: 3 all: +0.03 spec: 0 gen: +0.05 all: +0.03 spec: +0.04 gen: +0.01 spec: +0.01 gen: 0
Nichols spec: 1 gen: 3.5 spec: 1.35 gen: 3.05 spec: -1 gen: +0.5 spec: -1.24 gen: +0.41 spec: -0.33 gen: +.06
Nashville spec: 2.5 gen: 3 spec: 1.4 gen: 3 all: +0.15 spec: +0.20 gen: +0.10 all: +0.30 spec: +0.58 gen: +0.02 all: +0.18 spec: +0.24 gen: +0.15
Nice spec: 3 gen: 2.89 spec: 3.2 gen: 2.9 all: +.03 spec: 0 gen: +.05 all: +.02 spec: -.02 gen: +.04 all: +.01 spec: -.01 gen: +.02
Diagram 4.6b — Student results by Teacher, and Teach Rankings (con).
This diagram shows the results gotten by students of the two technology teachers in their other classes. The exact degree to which the teachers influenced these results is debateable, but in the case studies show appeared to be significant.
Avg Teacher Scoring for Monitored kids
Average Subjective Monitored
AverageChange in Standardized Scores of Associated Classes
Rank (Relative Absolute
Vickerol only using his reports for Erik) progam only: 3.32 all special: 2.65 all general: 3.25
Control: 2.75 prog: 2.96 spec: 2.41 gen: 3.24
Con: 2.2 all: +.40 prog: +0.68 spec: +0.43 gen: +0.38
Con: +0.15 all: +.38 prog: +.86 spec: +.49 gen: +.26
Con: +.16 all: +.23 program: +.52 onlookers: +.22 control: +.18
(as main) prog: 2.67 spec: 2.33 gen: 3.15 con: 3.5 no-share: 2.53 prog: 2.38 spec: 2.14 gen: 3.52 con: 4.01 no-share: 2.4 all: +0.16 prog: +0.22 spec: +0.08 gen: +0.36 con: +0.55 no-share: +.09 all: +0.15 prog: +0.24 spec: +.09 gen: +.23 con: + 0.39 no-shared: +.05 all: +.13 program: +.30 onlookers: +.13 control: +-.02
Vickerol (special classes) AND Franklin prog: 2.4 con: 3.5 prog: 1.75 con: 4.01 all: +0.23 prog: +0.15 con: +0.55 all: +0.32 prog: +0.43 con: +0.39
While case studies were made of each of the monitored students, only a few need particular mention in order to be able to interpret the data as presented. A few exceptional stories stand out among the two and half dozen children as being worthy both of consideration in determining what went wrong with the program for Holler and Hewick (whose results were even worse than their attitudes predicted), and several more in understanding when went right. In particular, certain students failed by the system should be addressed, namely Roach, Hilton, and Nathanyel. Additionally, certain students who did particularly well in some respect should be considered, including Jack and Alexxi.
In addition to these specific students, comparisons and contrasts should be drawn among these case studies concerning specific issues. ADHD and EBD, the effects of which can be devastating for a constructivist classroom (as both Sims and Holler discovered), can be seen in many of the monitored students, including some who did remarkably well. The difference between achievers and failures may be discernible in the examples of Alexxi, Peter, and Michael as they compare to Roach, Hilton, Jimmy and Natasha. The importance of technology education cannot be understated — it is, after all, at the core of this dissertation. So Vickerol’s influence on his two classes of special kids should be looked at in depth. Sylvia, Helen, Jack, Billy, Bobby and Dillon (and later Isaac) all attended Vickerol’s special needs classes, and for some of them the changes in their behavior and testing can be directly linked to Vickerol’s technology education. Additionally, the way in which Vickerol’s advanced classes affected Erik, Jack, Laura, Susanna and Hack should certainly be explored as well (particularly since two of his advanced kids were themselves special needs). Finally, to keep the case studies rounded, it would be good to look independently at the case of Hack, as one that highlights some of the amusing features of the modern school system and the power of the pedagogy for understanding program.
Case Studies: The Failed Students; Roach, Hilton, and Nathanyel
Roach, Hilton, and Nathanyel all played vibrant and somewhat tragic parts in the drama of this year’s experiment. All three had behavioral disorders, co-morbid with other uncertain problems (their files were privileged, but the researcher was once casually informed that all three files were also very long) including what appeared to be a case of juvenile bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Roach was one of two students whose difficulties were a frequent talking point in focus meetings, and whose eventual removal from his mother’s home was one of the questionable triumphs of the network system built by this program. He was also a significant part of the reason that Holler did not score better in the rankings than she did. Hilton, who was not part of the program, single-handedly knocked Nichols’ student test average below zero as he plummeted through his coursework with very little connection to reality. Nathanyel was responsible for sabotaging Sims attempts to start a truly constructivist classroom while attempting to keep her distracted and busy with his own presence — his attachment disorder would eventually land him in semi-permanent detention. Each had their own issues.
Roach’s case was complicated both by his disability and his home situation. Despite her natural tendency to suspect that behaviorally challenged students were purposefully misbehaving of their own will, Holler tended to think that in Roach’s case he was working to the best of his ability. She consistently gave him threes for average effort. Yet average effort would not be enough to overcome the handicap of starting one’s second grade year unable to read. Roach knew most of the letters in the alphabet, and was able to read and write a few important words. However, at the beginning of the year most of his academic skills were still just above a preschool level. Roach had difficulty speaking clearly, and was easily frightened. While his motor skills were relatively good, he often went into small fits where he would hit his head against the wall, or refuse to talk. Holler moved to increasingly ignoring him when he was not being actively tutored, and this may have contributed to his failure to learn much during the school year. Roach apparently strongly disliked books, being afraid that he would “mess em’p,” and this too interfered with his reading. He did, however, like insects. While his reading stayed very close to the same over the course of the year (he did learn a few more words, eventually, from flash cards and copying), he made a surprising amount of progress in practical math from counting (and even multiplying and dividing) the bugs in the bug jar. His observed skill areas showed a decrease of half a comparative grade level by the end of the year (which is somewhat deceptive in its implications, he actually learned half a grade level of reading — but half a level in a year dropped him the other half below where he “should” be), but a consistency in math which showed him to have absorbed a full grade level.
Unfortunately, his practical applications were not able to carry over to his standardized tests, which had no pictures of bugs or other interesting things, and often asked confusing questions such as “If Sally has five cartons of milk, and she gives two of them away, how many are left?” (The boys answer on a sample test to a question of this format was one. When the researcher later told him his question and its answer, Roach reiterated it as right. Pressed to explain his logic, he rolled his eyes and patiently tried to enunciate the explanation, showing with his fingers as Holler had taught him to do:
Sally got five. [one hand held up] Gave’m two. [he closed one fist around the two fingers, leaving three] Two milk. [he put the three remaining fingers down, showing the two that he held.] Roach got two milk. Give’un to Bobby. [he put down another finger] ONE MILK. No drink two, Roach’ll gonna get sick.” While this showed a unique perspective and a good grasp of basic addition and subtraction (albeit coupled with a complete inability to comprehend the desired answers to standard word-problems), it also defeated his attempts to achieve on standardized tests.
Several of Roach’s behavioral problems put up red flags, including his refusal to wear clean clothes, his tendency to sit under his desk and refuse to come out when he thought he’d done poorly on a task, his fear of bright lights and touching clean or breakable things, and his nervous tendency to stay out of arm’s reach of adults or refusal to come. Many of the symptoms were worse on the first and last days of the week, and peaked after any of his many periods of truancy. Many of these things tended to indicate potential abuse. Additionally, certain facial features and attention problems pointed to possible maternal drug use. Strickland approached the researcher about some of the things she’d heard of him and asked permission to meet him. Consistent attempts to bring his mother to focus meetings or IEP meetings had failed, and as a group it was decided to have a social worker visit his home. Roach was discovered locked in a filthy basement of the duplex while his mother and several unrelated individuals smoked illicit drugs upstairs. He was removed to protective custody, and continued to come to school with his foster siblings. Unfortunately, many of his behaviors worsened after this, possibly from the stress of change. Towards the end of the year they seemed to be easing somewhat, but not before the school and social workers determined that he should be transferred to an institutional school.
To what degree Holler’s failure to make a difference with Roach should be attributed to the failure of the pedagogy for understanding program is difficult to say. Certainly the network, at least, did him a service by helping to remove him from his abusive home. Likewise, his slight gains in math were significant, considering the degree to which his conditions tended to thwart educational attempts. Nonetheless, Roach represents one of the failures of the system to bring performable understanding and aid which does not only move a child from one bad position to another.
Hilton’s story was not unlike Roach’s, though different in the details. He entered the school year already part of the foster care system, though this alone does not account for his problems. (Many other students were also not living with their birth parents) He was afflicted with severe emotional-behavioral problems, including a tendency towards violence when upset. He was often extremely uncooperative, and even openly defiant. As the year progressed he became increasingly intransigent, often given bizarre reasons for his behavior. He refused to do homework or in-class work of any sort, and would prefer to play with one of the many little toys or gadgets he brought with him. When those were removed in an attempt to force him to cooperate, he would either just draw terrible pictures on his paper (if he was feeling down), or try to scare his classmates, or wander around the room (when manic). Truancy became increasingly common, and he would both ignore spoken commands and respond violently to brute force (such as attempting to force him to go to the principal. Hilton was suspended for several weeks for bringing a pocket knife to school and brandishing it near other students. He returned before the end of the year with temporary good resolve, but was soon falling back into his old habits. At the time of this writing, it is believed he will be transferred out of the school district. Like Roach, Hilton did not loose any knowledge in the classroom, and actually scored slightly higher (in grade levels) on the sample proficiency tests than at the beginning of the year — however, he had not kept up with the rest of his peers, and in so doing fell another year behind in his schooling. His teacher, Nichols, was part of the control group, and no network effort was made to help find the root cause of Hilton’s behavioral difficulties or to match his age-appropriate drawing skills with applications that might have educational merit.
In Nathanyel’s case, some of these efforts were made. This little redheaded child, who vaguely resembled the infamous evil doll Chucky, was extremely asocial and quiet around most other children. To adults he was generally polite and responsive, though he could be recalcitrant and even defiant when pushed. There was, however, a certain lovableness about him, and he bonded very quickly with his teacher, Ms. Sims. When Nathanyel was pointed out as a possible candidate for the study, it was assumed that he had a learning disability of some sort due to his relatively well-behaved nature and obvious intelligence. He had great difficulty in spelling, some difficulty in reading and math, and remarkably poor handwriting considering the eye-hand coordination manifest in his talented and realistic drawings.
Nathanyel’s problem, as it would come to light, was the presence of a serious personality disorder. It manifested first as a deep attachment to his teacher, which quickly became strong enough that he would become agitated and even irrational when separated from her. When his class went to pullout sessions (such as Vickerol’s computer lab) he would be beg her to come, and remain jittery and troublesome until returned to class. Nathanyel was eventually banned from the weekly music sessions and ordered to stay in the classroom after breaking several instruments in a rare physical fit. A series of strains and sprains also frequently returned him from P.E. To the classroom, and Sims would occasionally write him notes allowing him to stay away from his pullout sessions for additional tutoring time. Similar behavior was starting to manifest in Vickerol’s class before the boy discovered paint programs on the computer and realized that he could scan in and color his drawings from the computer lab, to print out and bring back to his teacher. Sims would give him special assignments to do “just for me” in the room, and to win her praise he would generally behave while in the process of fulfilling that task.
Nathanyel’s learning gap receded quickly under the frequent tutoring sessions. In the first half of the year Sims had three other children who attended special in-class tutoring sessions with her. Around mid-term one of the students ended up leaving her class, and another complained considerably about the tutoring sessions being embarrassing, to the point that Sims agreed to let them try to go without tutoring. The third student, who had been only slightly behind, had gone on medication for his ADHD and no longer needed special time. While Sims still worked individually with many students, Nathanyel had her full attention for one-on-one tutoring. Yet despite this tutoring, and despite his conversations with the researcher showing a definite leap in math and reading skills, Nathanyel’s standardized scores for midterm plummeted to a level below that of his entry-scores. Though he did well in tutoring sessions, he often did very poorly on tests, which usually left him in tears which only his teacher’s hug could ease. Having heard of Chess’s success with test-training, Sims resolved to spend extra time working with Nathanyel on the ability to pass tests of all sorts.
At the third quarter, Nathanyel refused to come to his monitoring interview without Sims present. Both Sims, Nathanyel, and his classmate Cindy stayed in the classroom during lunch one day for an interview and pizza. This interview and sample test showed Cindy to be experiencing a significant drop in her reading speed and comprehension compared to her age level, and to be struggling with certain concepts the class was learning. Apparently Sims had not noticed before this time, because that lunch she arranged for Cindy to join her and Nathanyel for tutoring sessions. The researcher marked (under social skills, incidentally) that Nathanyel seemed agitated by this prospect, and that he protested that Cindy was already smart enough, though it seemed incidental at the time.
Unfortunately, this agitation was a sign of things to come — according to a later interview with Cindy, Nathanyel confronted her on the playground a week later and convinced her to come behind the janitor house to see a baby bird. (There wasn’t one) There, out of sight, he threatened to kill her cat if she went to the tutoring sessions again. She told him that he didn’t know where she lived, and he responded with her address (possibly discovered in Ms. Sims drawers while she was out of the room? Nathanyel was occasionally left alone in the room while she stepped out). Cindy became agitated and threatened to tell Ms. Sims, to which Nathanyel responded by threatening to kill her baby sister too, if she told. Cindy apparently told him that she would tell and he would go to jail before he could hurt her sister. Apparently at this point there was some exchange regarding whether Ms. Sims would let him go to jail, which culminate in Cindy saying (as she later rephrased it) “She only keeps him late cuz he’s such a dumbie and it’s her job to teach stupid-heads like him” — at which point Nathanyel “went crazy like a monster,” knocked her to the ground, and stabbed her three times with a pair of blunt metal children’s scissors. Her screaming attracted the playground monitors, who dragged him away.
Nathanyel was suspended for most of the remaining year, and subsequently sent to a special class for children who could not be in the main population. When on his return the researcher tracked him down for a final interview and to administer a sample test, he appeared convinced that if he did well enough on the tests that he would be allowed to return to regular classes. His score on the final standardized test showed him to be operating academically, at least, at grade level. Despite that achievement, it will probably be a long time before he is allowed back into mainstreamed classes. Ms. Sims did not go to see him in his new classes, though he has apparently been sending her “love” letters at home which have become increasingly emotional and angry, but –she would add with some rueful pride– show a markedly higher mastery of English than she expected from his previous work. (Sims is not sure where he got her address, and has had to change her phone number).
Subsequent to this debacle her opinion of constructivism dropped significantly. For somewhat understandable reasons, she appears to be blaming the intimate co-operative nature of constructivist teaching for having fostered such an unhealthy student-teacher relationship. The nature of this obscenely odd case study is relevant because it goes a long way in explaining the otherwise inexplicably gap between Sims classroom regularly monitored environment and her average enthusiasm level. The classroom environment only changed towards the end of the school year, and then in moderation so as to avoid punishing the remaining students; her enthusiasm was calculated from an average of her midterm surveys and her final surveys, the later of which were extremely negative as she was under a great deal of pressure regarding the situation with Nathanyel and Cindy.
It would be easy, and over-simplistic, to see these individual case studies as somehow placing the blame for these failed classrooms on the students within them. In some cases, that may be partly true. Nathanyel’s actions were surprising, and they acted to significantly disrupt the teacher’s ability to provide a good learning environment. Likewise, Hilton’s misbehavior single-handedly skewed Nichols results from the positive to the negative, and dropped him to the last rank on the chart. Even Roach’s inability to translate from the practical to the theoretical, and his fear and paranoia concerning tests and books, could be considered their own faults and the reason that Holler (who was unable to actually overcome his negative environment completely) was not able to achieve higher scores.
An analysis that blamed the students would, however, be insufficient. There was not a single on of these student who was beyond all help. Even Nathanyel, who very much took the class into his own hands, ws failed by the school district’s lack of networking. (Sims was inspired by the program, but not in it — she had no access to the network) In fact, the school had Nathanyel listed as special needs for a reason (while the specific diagnosis is classified, later interviews with White-Whatson confirmed that the school was aware that Nathanyel had possibly severe latent behavioral problems). If Sims had been a part of a strong network which included the special education director or other knowledgeable individuals, someone outside the situation could most likely have pointed out that Nathanyel was displaying symptoms of an inappropriate attachment disorder and helped Sims to avoid fueling that disease, while still providing him with the necessary attention and tutoring. There is a reason why unenthusiastic project members such as Hewick and Holler still have better results than equally or slightly more enthusiastic nonmembers, and it seems possibly that this network of peers helping to keep things in perspective may be part of that reason. This network saved Roach from an abusive family, and it could have saved Nathanyel, Cindy, and Sims from the tragedy that struck them.
Hilton no doubt could have benefited from a classroom where his individual issues were dealt with and his skills (such as art) built upon and encouraged. Rather than being discouraged from being active or social (heightening his sense of frustration), he could have been actively involved with challenging and fun projects. It is difficult to guess what would have happened had he been in, for example, Strickland’s class — but students like Jack and Alexxi give some clue. Roach, who was involved in the program, would have benefitted from having a teacher who did not use constructivist learning to merely shrug off students. Roach benefitted immensely from the practical application of math (the “counting bugs” idea was brilliant, and not Holler’s), but he was never given the extra push towards synthesis practice and theory. A teacher who asked more questions and involved him more with other, less unique, perspectives may have been able to help him move from the purely practical into the realm of understanding numbers as symbols. Additionally, if he could have also been engaged on his own level in reading and social studies as he was in math, and if he could have been more socially integrated rather than ostracized to his own constructivist corner, he may have had more tools to survive the transition to a new family and environment. So here there are failures both on the side of the students and on the side of the teachers.
Case Studies: A Few Success Stories
For every monitored student whose story was a disaster, there were at least two whose stories embody the hope that drives the pedagogy for understanding program, the hope that even the most difficult children and the most terrible disabilities can be helped through consistent and rational pedagogy. Both Strickland and Chess found this to be very much the case, as did Song in her flattering mimicry of the program. Strickland’s Red Team (the Space Invaders of Dragon Army Z) and Green Team (later the self-proclaimed “Best Team”), both had significant proportions of special needs students — and yet both were serious competitors in the classroom and functioned above the level one would expect from a team of third grade students Strickland had two monitored special needs kids who both made significant advances, as did her monitored general education student. The average standardize test change for her monitored students was an entire grade level (though Hack’s numbers skewed that average by jaunting up an entire two grades), and not only did both of the monitored special needs students in her class improve their subjective skill areas and overall functioning by full grade levels, both also raised their standardized scores by at least half a grade level. This sort of improvement was average for her class, where over-all special needs students standardized test scores went up by about three-fifths of a grade level and general education students rose about two-fifths.
Jack was a severely autistic child who came to be fondly known as “Straightjacket” by his team-mates because of the pressure suit he frequently wore for comfort. Upon entering the class Jack was obviously capable of high functioning, and possessed age-appropriate math skills when observed under the right conditions. His ability to communicate with the outside world was somewhat impeded, however, and he would occasionally become violent when faced with breaks from his routine or frustrations. Strickland was very worried about how he would deal with the constantly shifting nature of her classroom, and spent some time in the first weeks working with his team-mates to make sure they understood his need for a measure of consistency. Jack was frequently upset in the early days, and occasionally needed time out under in the Cubbyhole (a large box nestled behind the Laboratory shelves that was secluded and dark with pillows and a stuffed bear — it was the calming down spot for Jack, Alexxi, and the second ADHD child, though not all at once.) It was largely for Jack’s benefit that Strickland enforced some of the rules regarding bells and the three teacher times, to help him find schedules in the schedules. He eventually came to understand the more complicated rhythm of her room, and once drew a complicated schematic (with Hack’s help) of how he perceived the patterns to work.
Alexxi, on the Yellow Team, also did particularly well. His reported and observed grade levels increased by an entire grade and his standardized test went up a half grade. Over the course of the year he learned how to truly read for the first time, and also tightened his grasp on math — though that remained shaky. Alexxi came to the program with serious difficulties relating to other students, and a tendency to act out of turn and harm others. At first it appeared that placing him with an equally bouncy teammate may have been a mistake. They often did continue to feed of one another, but at other moments each was able to warn the other against started a trip, and they would act as mutual control agents. Having team-mates that understood his rapid-fire and compulsive multitasking, and a class structured to allow for frequent changes of pace and truly interesting activities, both contributed to building Alexxi’s ability to relate to others and to academics.
One of the most remarkable accomplishments regarding Alexxi is not that he managed to improve his grades — though that in itself was impressive — but that he managed to do so while being slowly weaned from (what was assumably) Ritalin. At the beginning of the year Alexxi had expressed upset about his medication which he claimed gave him headaches, stomach aches, and rashes. Strickland had contacted his parents, and conferences with them and their doctor regarding the prescription. It had apparently been firmly suggested by his previous teacher, but with his new teacher’s support and knowledge the dosage was gradually diminished and then abolished. By the end of the year Alexxi was more in control of himself than he ever had been before, had more friends, and better test scores.
Case Studies: Comparing the ADHD/EBD Kids
ADHD and EBD are in some ways the easiest of special needs to deal with, because they do not leave children physically disabled and incapable of addressing their own bodily needs and functions, nor do they even destroy the brain to such a degree that the child will never be capable of learning. On the contrary, many children with ADHD or EBD are exceptionally bright. Yet this is where these disabilities become very difficult to deal with, because the ADHD or EBD child can be an extremely disruptive (or even, in rare cases like Nathanyel’s, dangerous), defiant, and intelligent trickster child. Today thousands of children are diagnosed with ADHD and most of them are easily handled and perhaps undetectable to the casual observer — most of those chosen to be monitored were not of that sort; the monitored child had to be more obviously a special needs student. The constructivist classroom runs on trust and responsibility, and the effects of extreme ADHD or EBD can be devastating to that trust (as Sims discovered) or merely make it difficult to create (as Holler found). Yet at the same time, many of the students who showed the most advancement within the pedagogy for understanding classrooms were ADHD, because constructivism also focuses on many things that are inherent in the spirit of an ADHD child: freedom, critical thinking (often manifesting to disgruntled parents and teachers as defiance), exploration, and the embrace of experience over the repetition of knowledge. Understanding the difference between forcing an ADHD child into learning (in a constructivist manner or not!) and pointing them in the direction of understanding and releasing their natural energy to hunt it down may be all the difference, and part of the reason why teachers fired up about constructivism have better results than the unenthusiastic, even if the latter have more constructivist structure. The examples of this program’s successful or stable ADHD or EBD children (Alexxi, Peter, Michael, and Natasha) as they compare with the unsuccessful ADHD or EBD students (Roach, Hilton, Nathanyel, and Jimmy) may hopefully give some insight.
Alexxi was already described as part of the first case study. He began the year between one and two years behind, with behavioral problems and mild violent instincts. He improved by an entire grade level, and expressed a half-level improvement in standardized testing. This improvement was due to a flexible schedule and tight social construction of knowledge.
Peter, was a quirky little ADHD pyromaniac whose IEP accommodations literally instructed against sending him home with flammable homework. He entered Chess’ second grade class unable to read and with a poor grasp on writing letters, with at least a two-year grade level gap in English. Nonetheless, he was overall observed to be only a year behind (as if he were entering first grade), because of his better grasp on math, his large spoken vocabulary, and good social and motor skills. While Peter only managed to improve his standardized test skills and overall observational rating by half a grade level before the end of the year, he was significant success because of his impressive jump in reading skills. Peter learned both how to read and write at his own grade level by the end of the year, and even took to reading ahead in his own copy of Peter Pan (which was the class book) and writing about his (new) namesake in his journal. While Peter continued to be bizarrely stubborn about reading things he did not feel like reading, such as assignments and test questions, he developed a fascination with comic books and was beginning to read children’s science fiction and fantasy such as The Black Cauldron. The key to Peter’s success in reading appears to have been Chess’ practice of reading aloud in class (Peter explained in an interview that he had thought all books were either “stupid baby stuff” that was not worth reading, or were too long and “grown-up” and boring to bother with), though he complains about the practice of using his new favorite book to teach grammar. (Peter himself likes to bring out the more embarrassing and exciting aspects of everything; when he first got to teach a section on Peter Pan, he asked everyone to think about whether imaginary food made real “poopie.” His next section asked if it was a good idea to kill people for being grown up.) Aside from his new taste for reading, Peter most likes the science labs, which engage his interest. Like many of the other children in Chess’ class, he can be persuaded to focus on his math worksheets with threats of being held over for tutoring during science time. Peter is good at science, though he often misses out on vitally important small details (such as forgetting to write down measurements, or skipping steps in an experiment) and frequently tries to do things which he is not allowed to do (such as take out the small animals without Chess there, open the cabinets and mix chemicals, or pouring glasses of water into the evaporation-modeling “rain tanks” in order to make the experiment end more successfully), Impulse control remains problematic, but can often be turned into creativity.
Michael, a birdlike five-year-old in Ms. Song’s first grade class, is a jittery fellow who (despite his flightiness) does not appear to have major behavioral problems. Michael ended up with a special needs diagnosis straight out of kindergarten because of the severity of his hyperactivity. He started medication for the first time shortly after coming to Song’s class, which made him seem chronically ready for nap time, but otherwise much easier to handle. It is difficult to say what proportion of his performance jump after that was determined by the drugs and what portion was from good teaching. Michael entered Song’s classroom with no ability to read whatsoever, and no knowledge of the alphabet letters other than a mostly remembered songs of the names of the letters. He was also incapable of anything but the most visible arithmetic, for which he counted on his fingers. In Song’s classroom he received special tutoring in reading both from the teacher and from his student mentor. Additionally, he made much use of the computer which Vickerol and Strickland had encouraged Song to get for her classroom. On it he played a math drill game, a second (more constructivist) puzzle game that required basic math skills to win, and several alphabet-based games that became progressively harder as the year progressed. At the beginning of the year he was challenging letter recognition and letter sound games, which gave way to fill in the blank or “this word begins with” games, and eventually gave way to very simplistic heavily text-based adventure games in which reading and typing were necessary to win (these were related to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book or an old fashioned M.U.D from the previous decades of text-based online role-playing). The desire to challenge the more advanced games naturally fueled a desire to comprehend the reading, and by the end of the year he was functioning with low level reading abilities which — while still a year or so behind his classmates, were approximately two years past his previous level.
Natasha’s success was considerably less striking than those of Peter, Alexxi, or Michael, and it might even be appropriate to consider her a maintainer rather than a success story. On paper she made some improvement. Her “reported grade level” and overall observation both went up half a grade level, and her standardized test score was about a third of a level higher by the year’s end. Unfortunately, in the specific observed skill areas this half-level growth was not similarly documented. Natasha had a great deal of difficulty concentrating in the classroom, and frequently got distracted talking to her friends, fidgeting, and even getting out of her seat. She would often get distracted by playing with her hair. Smith seemed to have difficulty keeping her engaged during regular class time, though she did become eventually interested in the history projects. Once interested, she applied herself quite well, and part of he score increases came from her discovered passion for history. However, despite individual tutoring and special attention from Smith, she merely maintained her reading and math skills at a place at least a grade level behind her peers. She could read, but never became invested in it or willing to concentrate, and her math continued to be plagued by severe sloppiness and inattention to details. (She would occasionally add instead of subtracting, or word problems manage to skip a step. She also had problems carrying when the class began multiplication)
Natasha seemed like an opportunity lost, compared to the way in which other children her age and temperament were being so actively involved in Strickland’s Green or Yellow teams. One could easily imagine how excited and stimulated she would have been involved in any of the historical role-playing, modeling, art project, and performances put on by Yellow or Green, and how a close link between reading and her personal passions could have been developed. Part of Natasha’s problem in class was a lack of interest in the subjects presented for reading, and a lack of connection between math and the real world. (Amusingly, she was at one point heard complaining that multiplication should not be bothered with because one would never need to know or use it as adults. Though she was surprised to find the number of examples that Smith and the other students could give of times multiplication was used in real life, one can imagine that its application to her daily troubles still seemed distant.)
The importance of technology education cannot be understated — it is, after all, at the core of this dissertation. So Vickerol’s influence on his two classes of special kids should be looked at in depth. Sylvia, Helen, Jack, Billy, Bobby and Dillon (and later Isaac) all attended Vickerol’s special needs classes, and for some of them the changes in their behavior and testing can be directly linked to Vickerol’s technology education. Additionally, the way in which Vickerol’s advanced classes affected Erik, Jack, Laura, Susanna and Hack should certainly be explored as well (particularly since two of his advanced kids were themselves special needs). Finally, to keep the case studies rounded, it would be good to look independently at the case of Hack, as one that highlights some of the amusing features of the modern school system and the power of the pedagogy for understanding program.
Jimmy was another ADHD student who failed to materialize any significant change. His scores at the beginning and end of the year were almost exactly identical, except for a small step forward in the technology measurements (an obvious result of being in Vickerol’s technology classes, and proof that when properly stimulated he was able to learn). Jimmy suffered from ADHD and EBD, though his behavioral problems were generally limited to acting out in extraordinary ways in the classroom (he loved making huge scenes out of nothing, merely for the production value). When he discovered that sufficiently large noise-making allowed him to go home from school (during a short suspension) he became drastically worse until Nox discovered that sending him into solitary at the nurse’s office or principal’s office was a far more effective punishment. By the end of the year most of these episodes had been quelled with drugs and through the use of long periods of enforced stillness, and he had turned over to a frustrated, small scale use of violence against paperwork — he would sit in the class most of the day shredding paper. He seldom did homework or significant class work, but somehow seemed to glean enough from his mere presence in class to maintain his test scores at one grade level behind.
During the first several meetings with Jimmy he seemed very distrustful and resentful, and generally refused to look up at the researcher or to answer questions very directly. He would pop up and down from his seat and fidget, generally looking around for some object or other to turn over in his hands. It was noticed that Jimmy was constantly exploring the world around him, picking up everything that came into reach and inspecting it carefully before putting it down again. When given the opportunity, he would also ask questions about it, and could become quite engaged in the discovery process. By the third meeting with him, this method was explored, and the researcher brought to the meeting a variety of small curious items. As soon as he picked one up and started looking at it, the conversation was allowed to switch naturally to the object. He was found to be very capable of caring on rational conversations and asking and answering insightful questions. Being allowed to investigate and engage the new items while caring on the interview helped Jimmy open up enough to discuss his school environment. He reported having a severe hatred for school, and (he explained while turning over a small model of a pirate’s gun) he would love to just “go bang bang and shoot them all.” His main reported problems were extreme boredom, physical pain from sitting still all day long (including pain in his buttocks from sitting, and cramps in his arms and legs from not moving around), and dislike for the light bulbs in his room.
Jimmy’s frustration and anger were far more difficult to watch the more one grew to know and understand him. He had a rapid-fire intellect and great curiosity, which seemed painfully caged in the classroom. The repetitious drilling and mindless busywork of his class was somewhat evident, and his frustration with it closely mirrored what many adults must feel attending jobs in cubicles or factories. In a setting where his naturally tendency to pick up and investigate, his need to learn kinetically, and his great capacity for multitasking could all be used as ways to advance (rather them impede) his learning, he would likely do very well. Watching the frustration of a child like Jimmy puts a new urgency on the need for a pedagogy for understanding program that focuses on using experimentation and the rational (rather than repetitive) learning process.
Roach, Hilton and Nathanyel (whose case studies have proceeded this) are all also examples of EBD children, though the emotional and behavioral disorders they expressed had less in common than those expressed by most of the ADHD children. However, one can see how the same lessons gleaned from Roach and Hilton’s cases at least (the need to involve learning and natural inclination, and the need to move naturally from the physical to the theoretical and back again) apply as well to many of the less extreme cases such as Jimmy’s.
Case Study: The Technology Students
All of the students in this study received special technology training and intervention of some sort — that was the common thread that bound them all together. About half of Franklin’s children showed some improvement in their skill level assessment for technology, regardless of their overall improvement (though a disheartening number who were not also trained by Vickerol show a decrease in their technology skills). In Vickerol’s classes about two-thirds of the students made improvements, and there were no cases of a student making comparative losses in this field. Vickerol’s greatest success, though, lay in the way in which his classes served as spring-boards to success in other areas. It is no coincidence that students who just attended Vickerol’s classes made twice the average positive change in a year that Franklin’s students did, and that if one were to subtract from Franklin’s classes the children who were also attending Vickerol’s special pullout classes that the average positive change would drop to well under one sixth of what Vickerol’s students were doing. This bore true not only for monitored students but for entire classrooms, with the standardized scores of the classrooms which came to Vickerol’s lab being approximately a tenth of a grade level higher than those who came to Franklin’s class. The real proof, however, is in the studies of the children who made up Vickerol’s special needs classes. Students with exceptional physical and educational needs included Sylvia, Helen, Billy, Bobby and Dillon — all of whom found more success in Vickerol’s class. Additionally, Vickerol’s gifted program (which had a number of ADHD and autistic children in it and was based on computer affinity rather than academic level) which included Erik, Jack, Laura, Susanna and Hack is worthy of mentioning.
The special needs students were of course among the most relevant for this work. His special needs classes were generally focused on helping students discover technology that could aid in the development of their communication and motor skills. Children in the class suffered from a variety of ills: nervous system disorders such a cerebral palsy, hearing, speech and sight impediments, brain damage, autism, and retardation. Several paraprofessionals and volunteers helped with the class, and each student worked on different material at their level and cued to helping with their disorder.
Sylvia had cerebral palsy and some accompanying brain damage. As a student in Nashville’s class she was very lucky to have a teacher who understood and sympathized with her problems. She began the year testing and performing at a two grade levels behind (even with prearranged test taking accommodations); by the end of the year she tested about one and four-fifths of a level behind and performed only two levels behind. She made wide-based gains in social adjustment, reading, math, technology, art, and motor skills — the most improvement was in the field of technology. Vickerol had her working on three programs, one of which worked on motor control and was vaguely related to a bowling game (this helped fine-tune her “driving” skills with her tracker-ball operated wheelchair), one of which was a somewhat psychedelic math and reading program, and the final one specially designed to help students practice vocalization and communication.
Helen, who was deaf, came to the special needs class partly because she had difficulty following her teacher in the regular classroom. Because she could read, she often made progress studying and working on a computer. She spent some time working with a program training her in sign language and lip reading. Towards the middle of the year, when she was demonstrating a growing gap with the rest of her classroom, Vickerol created for her a new tool to help her every day studies. This was, essentially, a PDA equipped with voice recognition and speech capabilities. She could type into it and have it read her words outloud to the class, and it would also try to form words out of the sounds it heard and display them on the screen. Training with this device took up a great deal of her time in the class, because it was not particularly easy to use. While Helen did not make overall advancement during the year, the fact that she was able to transfer into an integrated classroom from special needs classes with a trained teacher and not lose step was in itself an achievement.
Billy was another cerebral palsy child. Unlike Sylvia he did not receive as much support in the classroom as would have been ideal, though Hewick generally claimed that he did. Perhaps the most amusing support Billy received was his tutoring sessions — upon being convinced that Erik was actually high functioning in math and was not benefiting from more math drills, Hewick attempted to be “more constructivist” by assigning the autistic child to teach the cerebral palsy victim. While Billy and Erik became very good friends, the spectacle of the one trying to teach the other was generally absurd. Billy did, however, gain significant ground in Vickerol’s class. Here he trained with Sylvia on the rollerball game, and gained a degree of motor control there he had not previously shown. He particularly enjoyed a painting program that allowed him to gain more than a grade level on his observed art skills — the tracking-ball technology of the computer gave him access to artistic freedom his trembling hands could not acquire with paint or markers. He also worked extensively with a reading and voice recognition adventure game that responded to his commands and allowed him to navigate a world of high fantasy by reading and speaking. His familiarity with computers came to be almost grade level, and he was occasionally even found to be giving advice to fellow students about how to open and close programs and navigate the computer system. While his standardized test scores only increased by a fifth, and his overall ability by approximately a tenth, his individual skill areas showed a full half grade improvement.
Bobby, who suffered from considerable mental retardation with lack of motor control, was particularly endearing in Vickerol’s special needs class because he consistently answered to Billy’s name, and appeared to consider himself to be Billy’s brother because of the similarity in sounds their two names carried. Bobby was an outgoing, friendly child who nonetheless could be very disruptive in his inability to perceive boundaries and rules. In the classroom he worked on math, reading, and color games, on motor skills, and on general computer familiarity. Bobby’s great achievement for the year was the fact that he progressed (with his class) from one grade level to the next. The previous year he had entered second grade with what were essentially the skills one would expect from a kindergarten graduate, and had failed to progress past that point. By the end of this year, he had roughly the skill portfolio of a graduating first grade student (including basic reading skills) and was able to move into the third grade. He also made considerable strides in computer familiarity and navigational skills. Bobby’s greatest joy, and his motivation to learn reading, was a web site called Neopets. This site had virtual animals which children could take care of and feed by doing simple games, and exploring the world. Bobby discovered the site quite by accident when Helen was going there, and become obsessed with a pet called Kau. Vickerol set up software blockers that kept Bobby from following any of the pop up or imbedded ad links, and allowed him to explore the game. The reading and math necessary merely to operate within the site (one had to read to discover what one’s pet wanted, and do simple math to buy and sell food, toys, and other joys) pushed Bobby to the limits. Both Helen and Sylvia helped him through the site, and he eventually learned to read most of the words for himself.
Dillon, whose diagnosis was never clear, tended to be a quiet and even reclusive child who often flew under the radar. Like the others, he attended these special sessions and used similar programs for working on reading. His particular focus in the classroom was on reading skills, and he was most often set to playing with a game that required the recognition and matching of words with the objects the represented. By the end of the year Dillon had developed an ability to read.
All of Vickerol’s special needs children either improved or maintained their over-all grade level standing, which meant that every one learned at least a full year’s worth of general education material. Considering the severity of main of their problems, this represented a significant accomplishment both for the students as individuals and for their teacher. Yet Vickerol was even more proud of his “other special kids” — the gifted class that backed this one and occasionally worked with it. This was the class in which the autistic students Jack and Erik both managed to be operating at significantly above grade level.
Erik was an odd case, because he began the school year passing standardized tests at a fourth grade level and performing in the class room at a second grade level. While he was almost always able to quickly and accurately answer math and technical reading questions (he was more likely to be able to accurately report the number of words and sentences on a page after one read-through than to understand a character’s motivations), he tended to shut down and refuse to participate in the classroom. Instead he would spend all his intense concentration of complex geometrical patterns connecting and reconnecting the blue lines on notebook paper. (He tended to obsess about lined paper or any paper with holes or perforated edges in it, particularly when the holes did not line up precisely with the lines; his ability to work improved drastically with all white paper and with worksheets that were on a computer rather than sloppily laid out on paper) Vickerol had worked with him briefly in second grade in his special needs class, and after discovering that the boy had nearly perfect mathematical and design skills had moved him into the gifted program.
In Hewick class, Erik became increasingly problematic and unable to work as the year progressed. He was especially frustrated by the third grade math workbook, which by the second semester he was refusing to have anything to do with whatsoever, and would throw violently across the room whenever it was put in his hands. In Vickerol’s class, however, he easily ran math programs covering everything from addition to long division, and appeared to be in the process of spontaneously inventing for himself the principles of geometry and algebra which he was not being taught. Erik’s greatest difficulties lay in understanding word problems which frequently puzzled him in their assumptions. Erik was required to spend some time each week doing what he called “school skill school” and working with math and reading programs. Despite his strong motor skills, he tended to dislike play-based games and to prefer those that involved analytical thinking and clean design. The remainder of the week Vickerol worked with him on more advanced applications. He had a music theory and composition program that he would become extremely involved in, and also enjoyed working with the programming language Python, which Vickerol began teaching to all his most advanced students around midyear.
Erik was exceptionally comfortable in Vickerol’s room, and Vickerol reported him as being at least a year ahead of other students (or, rather, he reported him being at least three years ahead in math but sufficiently impeded in the social studies and in fictional or life-based reading comprehension that it averaged out to being only a year or so). His ability to function socially and productively in the computer lab was considerably higher than in the classroom, and it appears that he never had one of his infamous fits there. Hewick, on the other hand, was reporting by the end of the year that Erik was two years behind (a year further than when he entered the class!). In fact, when taking a standardized test in Hewick room at the end of the year, Erik actually scored at the second grade level in both math and reading. Amusingly, a look at his computer-scorable card shows that he stopped the test halfway through, went back and meticulously erased about a quarter of his right answers, and then filled in a different set of bubbles in order to establish a pleasing pattern. The remainder of the test was filled out based on a complicated internal bubble-filling pattern which (according to Vickerol who had asked to see the actual score card after being told of Erik’s failure) was apparently-based loosely on a relationship between the Fibonacci sequence and the opening correct answers for a given section. Erik had also chosen not to complete the essay section, but had filled it with another one of his complex geometrical drawings that went between the ruled lines in the test book and turned them into a strange labyrinth of pencil marks. He was allowed to retake the test in Vickerol’s room, and given strong encouragement to get the answers right, including a monitor who made sure he didn’t fill in the questions before reading them or go back and erase after he had filled in a few more answers and discovered that the pattern was upsetting to him. Erik was able to minimize his pattern-building instincts and complete the test more accurately (scoring at the third grade level in reading and the seventh grade level in math, for a five average) –though Vickerol maintains that there are still strong signs of questions purposefully answered wrong to help maintain some sort of inner sequence.
It is easy to see how in an ordinary classroom Erik’s difficult behavior, especially his strange rages about uneven layout and design and his inability to see past the particulars (such as the shape of the letters on the page or the grain of the paper) to the greater whole, could easily have left him to failure after failure. It was only Vickerol’s intervention that recognized his latent abilities and helped him to discover a clean, digital realm in which the purities of data could grant him direct understanding.
Jack experienced somewhat analogous, if less dramatic, help from Vickerol’s class. Unlike Erik, Jack had a remarkably supportive teacher, and more actual difficulties with the cognitive end of understanding. His case study above illustrates the ways in which Strickland helped him. However, it is also relevant to note that he too took part in both Vickerol’s regular and advanced classes, and that he was often team-members with Erik in that advanced class. His two-grade-level jump in technological understanding was particularly impressing, as it was the subject in which he showed the greatest improvement.
Yet Vickerol’s advanced classes were not just for autistic savants. General education students Laura and Susanna also attended them (though Laura was gifted in her own right, entering school years early); the former made a two grade level advance in technology within this class, and the latter a one year advance. Both also showed improvement in the math and art skills fostered by the class.
Other than Erik, the classes biggest star was the boy who began calling himself Hack. Strickland’s Red team leader began the year rather severely social retarded (though with excellent grades), and continued to have difficulty functioning on the playground and with peers. Yet within his small class team and in Vickerol’s advanced class (where he made Laura and Erik honorary Space Invaders, and eventually had to be strictly forbidden from allowing them to help with his team’s projects because of the degree of unfairness that posed to the other teams), Hack developed into a leader. He also made significant strides beyond his already gifted status in math and computer technology, and by the end of the year was capable of designing web pages and writing simple word-based computer games in Python.
Ironically, Hack’s gifts and Strickland’s creation of strong social networks backfired slightly when his parents came to the conclusion that –like so many of his closest friends– Hack was a special needs student. It was true that as the year passed he had developed severe and occasionally disabling asthma, and that he was physically underdeveloped. It was also true that he had been skipping some classes and events, and deceiving his parents and teachers about it. Apparently he and several other real and honorary team members were repeatedly truant from P.E. classes and field trips, and had also been staying late at school under false pretenses. Hack (most likely with his team’s help, though he claimed to have done it alone) had been forging notes from his parents and from the school, and using them to skip out on classes or stay late. Ironically, he appears to have spent most of his truant times either in the library or in the computer lab. Additionally, Hack had been selling forged notes. As if these issues weren’t enough, Hack had been having far greater problems in his evening activities than previously, where his new social self-image as a leader conflicted with his position as a “mere nerd on the bottom of the totem pole,” and his learned analytical thinking had led to a degree of defiance at home. Both Vickerol and Strickland resisted the idea that Hack was emotionally behaviorally disturbed or had ADHD or borderline autism, and they strongly counseled his parents against medicating him. The decision had still been left unmade at the end of the year, but if he was a special needs student he was certainly very far advanced for his disability, scoring as a fifth or sixth grader on his proficiency exams.
As far as the research goes, it appears that every leg of the hypothesis had somewhat mixed results, but that as a whole the structure stood its tests. Additionally, as the case studies show, this program was a very good and strong match for most of the special needs students in it — in fact, only in Hewick’s class did the majority of the special needs students fail to make a full grade level improvement, though in three quarters of the control classrooms such pandemic failure was evident. That two quarters of the teachers who would ordinarily fail their special education students instead managed to not only pass them but even improve their over-all grade standing is a remarkable achievement. Understanding both why the program worked, and why it did not work in every case, requires going back to the original three pronged hypothesis.
In the first leg, it was discovered that merely training teachers was not enough to create enthusiasm about the program, though it was apparently enough to effect many cosmetic adherence to the program’s demands. However, the first leg also showed that the program was able to inspire some teachers, and even more encouraging it showed that the program was somewhat self replicating — that the teachers it inspired in turn inspired others to participate in similar behavior.
In the second leg, which speculated that trained and enthusiastic teachers would create positive environments, there were more good results. All the enthusiastic teachers (even those who had been merely inspired by the program, or had otherwise heard of constructivism) adeptly created constructivist environments whose adherence to the program was directly comparable with their level of enthusiasm and understanding. Additionally, even those teachers who had been merely trained and remained unenthusiastic did create environments with many of the hallmarks of constructivism.
In the third leg, it became apparent that classrooms which participated in the program had, on average, significantly higher standardized test scores and individually monitored improvement. Classrooms that were inspired by the program also had significantly higher scores, and their individually monitored students did substantially better than those of other classrooms. Yet not all of the program classrooms had such sweeping results — those run by unenthusiastic or uncooperative teachers did have better results than classrooms run by teachers who had never heard of or applied constructivism, but they still fell short both of their fellow program members and of the non-program members who were enthusiastic about the ideas which trickled down to them Diagram 4.7 shows the final results comparing enthusiasm, environment, and success rankings. As the diagram shows, the average difference between a teacher’s enthusiasm (and environment) for the pedagogy for understanding program and their success in raising scores is very small. On average, a teacher who is highly ranked in terms of having the most constructivist classrooms will be within one rank of that level for having the most successful classroom as well. Translating from enthusiasm to success inserts slightly more uncertainty, but still the ranks are relatively stable. In fact, there is never more than a four rank difference between a teacher’s environment or their enthusiasm ranking and their success ranking, which means that the top third of teachers invested in the program will also be the most successful third, and so forth. These results are astonishingly good. All that remains is to discuss the full implications of these numbers and their attending case studies, explain any modifications that may need to be made to the program, and look at recommendations for further research and application.
Diagram 4.7 — Final Results, Comparing Success Rankings Results are based on the rank each teacher held comparative to his or her fellows, both as a function of the absolute (abs) ranking and their rank relative to teachers in the same program group (rel). The Likert scores that led to these ranks are included. (lik)
Enth / Env
Strickland rel= 1 abs= 1 lik=4.75 rel= 1 abs= 1 lik=5 rel= 0 abs= 0 lik= +0.25 rel= 0 abs= 0 lik= 0 rel= 0 abs= 0 lik= +0.25
Chess rel= 2 abs=4 lik=4.57 rel= 2 abs= 2 lik=4.75 rel= 2 abs=2 lik=5 rel=0 abs= +2 lik= 0 rel=0 abs=0 lik= +0.25 rel=0 abs= +2 lik= +0.25
Song rel=2 abs=3 lik=4.35 rel=3 abs=7 lik=3.25 rel= 1 abs=3 lik=4 rel= -1 abs= -4 lik= -1.10 rel= +2 abs= +4 lik= +0.75 rel= +1 abs= 0 lik= -0.35
Nashville rel=1 abs=2 lik=4.7 rel=1 abs=4 lik=3.5 rel= 2 abs=4 lik=4 rel= 0 abs= -2 lik= -1.2 rel= -1 abs= 0 lik=+0.5 rel= -1 abs= -2 lik= -0.7
Sims rel=7 abs=10 lik=3.13 rel=2 abs=6 lik=avg 3 rel=3 abs=5 lik=3 rel= +5 abs= +4 lik= -0.13 rel= -1 abs= +1 lik=0 rel= +4 abs= +5 lik= -0.13
Smith rel=3 abs=5 lik=3.67 rel=4 abs=8 lik=3 rel=4 abs=6 lik=3 rel= -1 abs= -3 lik= -0.67 rel= 0 abs= +2 lik=0 rel= -1 abs= -1 lik= -0.67
Holler rel=3 abs=9 lik=3.17 rel=3 abs=3 lik=3.5 rel=3 abs=7 lik=3 rel= 0 abs= +6 lik= +0.32 rel= 0 abs= -4 lik= -0.5 rel= 0 abs= +2 lik= -0.17
Hewick rel=4 abs=12 lik=2.78 rel=4 abs=5 lik=3.25 rel=4 abs=8 lik=2 rel= 0 abs= +7 lik= +0.47 rel= 0 abs= -3 lik= -1.25 rel= 0 abs= +4 lik= -0.78
Nice rel=4 abs=6 lik=3.3 rel=5 abs=9 lik=2 rel= -1 abs=-3 lik= -1.3 rel=0 abs=0 lik=0 rel= -1 abs= -3 lik=-1.3
Nox rel=5 abs=7 lik=3.25 rel=7 abs=11 lik=1.5 rel=6 abs=10 lik=2 rel= -2 abs=-4 lik=-1.75 rel= +1 abs= +1 lik= +0.5 rel= -1 abs= -3 lik= -1.25
Silver rel=6 abs=8 lik=3.2 rel=6 abs=10 lik=1.5 rel=7 abs=11 lik=1 rel= 0 abs= =2 lik= -1.7 rel= -1 abs= -1 lik=-0.5 rel= -1 abs= -3 lik= -2.2
Nichols rel=8 abs=11 lik=2.9 rel=8 abs=12 lik=1 rel=0 abs=-1 lik= -1.9 rel=0 abs= 0 lik= 0 rel=0 abs= -1 lik= -1.9
Largest Absolute Number Difference the largest gap in ranks between expected and actual rank) rel= 5 (Sims) abs=7 (Hewick) lik= 1.9 rel= 2 (Smith) abs= 4 (holler, song) lik=1.25 (hew) rel= 4 (sims) abs= 5 (sims) lik= 2.2 (silver)
Average Absolute Number Difference
(this will be the number of ranks by which individuals typically vary from what the hypothesis would predict) rel=.8 abs= 2.8 lik=.9 rel=.5 abs= 1.3 lik=.35 rel=.83 abs= 2.2 lik=.83
CHAPTER FIVE: CONCLUSIONS
While the social defection of the many of the team members was somewhat disappointing, in the final analysis the program was remarkably successful. The purpose of this study had been to explore, identify, design, implement and evaluate a unique approach to enhancing pedagogy, learning, and assessment of classified special needs students. In this purpose the program succeeded, and to make its success even sweeter the program has the added benefit of enhancing the learning and assessment of general education and gifted students as well. Integrating the hierarchies of the school system may not have been entirely successful, but where it was successful (as in the close working relationship between special education director Aloe Gray and the three hardline team members, and between Vickerol and Strickland), the results were exceptional. The program succeeded in creating Constructivist learning situations, and where those environments were enthusiastically coordinated they had great success in educating students for understanding. Of course, where they were poorly coordinated, they had less than perfect results, but this is predictable. The scientific analysis of the program, conducted through extensive monitoring and the application of impartial standardized testing, shows that this program has statistically significant positive results.
Of course, certain concerns remain. The failure of the entire team to function together was highly problematic, and where one team member failed the entire team suffered. For example, Strickland and Chess were about equally invested in the program, and yet her special education students made about 0.20 grade levels higher on their standardized tests than his did, and her average grade increase on the tests was 0.05 higher than his. There are multiple possible reasons for this, but one of the more interesting ones suggests that it may be partly a team failure. Strickland’s students attended technology classes with the enthusiastic and dedicated Vickerol, who specialized in technology for the unique learner (both gifted and special needs) while Chess’s students (mainly) went to classes with Franklin. On average, Vickerol’s students standardized scores increase between 0.10 and 0.20 levels more than Franklin’s did, regardless of which program or class they were in outside of his room. It seems possible, then that Chess might have been able to perform at Strickland’s level if he had the same kind of deep-seated support from a technology teacher that she had. After all, Strickland’s heavy use of Vickerol’s help in her classroom is well documented.
The inability of certain unenthusiastic teachers (Holler and Hewick) to move from the mere creation of a pseudo-compliant classroom to the actual full-hearted application of the program was also disturbing, because it had such negative results for their students compared to the more compliant classrooms of their team-mated. Certainly one of the greatest theoretical burdens on this program’s future applications would be to discover a way to push teachers and supporting staff to become more enthusiastic about its application.
Cases such as Nathanyel’s and Erik’s also highlight the importance of discovering some way to “classify” students so that their best work can emerge without creating situations that debilitate them. Strickland’s brilliant approach of dividing up her class based on strengths and compatibilities suggests that such a program might be helpful as a part of all future applications of the pedagogy for understanding program. As the program stood, the need to evaluate and teach to the level of each student was emphasized in training. However, this emphasis did not seem to prepare Hewick to deal with a brilliant student who had extremely altered views of the world, or to equip Holler to discover and understand the strange (but oddly logical) way in which Roach comprehended practical math applications. Additionally, the program may need to go farther in preparing teachers for some of the emotional burdens these students bring with them. Nathanyel, for example, was not part of the program (though his teacher was inspired by it) — yet if he had been, it is uncertain that the program design would have prevented the tragedy that occurred between him and his teacher. Moving to a spot where teachers are capable of classifying and addressing specific cognitive needs, and recognizing where important strengths may lie to adapt to those needs, is an important step for the program. It is possible that this problem could be solved by a closer union between teachers and special education professionals and physicians and psychiatrists, as well.
Further research is needed into the pedagogy for understanding, particularly research focused around the network and teacher-training phases of the program. A great deal of the real work of the program had to be completed in a matter of days as teachers were equipped for their new roles, and it is possible that some of the limitations faced by Holler and Hewick resulted from this rushed procedure, as did the general weakness of the network.
Exploration and Explication of Results
In the previous chapter the results were largely allowed to speak for themselves, with only a minimal level of translation necessary. In bringing this undertaking to a close, however, it seems necessary to look at these results more thoroughly, and to more closely interpret the way in which each leg of the three-part hypothesis played out in real time. Additionally, there are some implications for practice indicated at each step which deserve mention.
First Leg: Issues of Teacher Enthusiasm
Unquestioning enthusiasm is not necessary for the success of a program. Vickerol, for example, was frequently pessimistic about everything involved with this program, and yet his dedication to his students and to the principles of the program itself was one of the driving forces behind its success and propagation. What is important is the sort of enthusiasm that leads to application, to understanding, and ultimately to success. It was the lack of this sort of enthusiasm which plagued much of the administrational staff and three of the teachers.
It was perhaps apathy and comfort even more than antipathy that was a destructive force in the creation of the team. For example, one will notice that Hewick rated himself very highly in terms of his knowledge about special needs and constructivism even when he knew very little about it. The tendency of teachers like Hewick and Holler to be sure that their existing methods already worked perfectly, and their self-assurance that they already knew everything that needed to be known about the issues, led to an underlying callousness towards the intricacies of their students that did not change even when the overlying shape of their classroom did. Later research will show that both Holler and Hewick had classrooms that were more constructivist than Song’s, and yet they had more poor results. The key to this lies in the nature of their natural pedagogical instincts over which the program was a mere screen. Their lack of enthusiasm for the program manifested as an attempt to take some of the methods and place them over a system which was essentially still based on ignoring actual student strengths and weaknesses, failing to encourage rational thought, and preferring repetition over understanding.
This was made evident in the way that Hewick dealt harshly with Erik’s untraditional brilliance, and the way that Holler failed to fully engage and educate Roach. Both cases illustrated not so much a failure to be constructivist as a failure to overcome their early misconceptions and early opinions. For example, early on Hewick incorrectly believed that No Child Left Behind forbid using alternative methods for alternative children. While he spent days learning otherwise, when it came to dealing with the uniquely alternative Erik he continued to try to force the boy into the same mold as his classmates. Hewick justified, for example, forcing Erik to keep working in his hated math notebook by explaining that all the students were working on it and that it would be unhealthy for him to be doing something else. (This is the book Erik, in interviews, complained that he had already done three times. Hewick was apparently requiring him to erase anything written on the page before working on it again, and in interviews justified this practice by saying that Erik wasn’t supposed to draw on the pages ahead of time because they hadn’t learned the material yet) In a similar instance, Hewick spoke of ADHD as a disciplinary problem early on, and continued in the classroom to treat it as an issue to be dealt with on an authoritarian basis rather than adapted as an alternative learning approach. One class observation found him repeatedly sending a child to time-out for minor infractions ranging from swinging his legs in his seat or sitting on his knees instead of his buttocks, to reading ahead in the English workbook when he was supposed to be doing penmanship practice. This focus on control and doing things in the order of the curriculum instead of the order of interest were both things which all team training was not successful in teaching even when the training did convince him to spend more time on constructivist projects.
Meanwhile, positive enthusiasm was based not so much on mere academic admission to the benefits of the program (Smith had this, but applied it in his classroom far less that many others), but on the active attempt to think of new and exciting ways to apply it. Strickland’s advantage over Chess, for example, was not in a significantly deeper commitment to the program, but in her creative way of framing and expressing it to the best benefit of her students.
If the measurements for enthusiasm were to be taken again, it might be found beneficial not just to measure knowledge and self-reported enthusiasm, but also to measure the degree to which the teachers internalize the training and also the degree to which they can externalize it and use it to create new and inspired ideas. For if the measures of enthusiasm had been-based less on knowledge and more on inspiration and internalization, it seems increasingly likely that the measures of enthusiasm would have lined up more accurately with the measures for the creation of a constructivist classroom.
Leg Two: Creating the Classroom
There is little to be said about the measurements for the created classroom, though in retrospect it seems that Holler’s classroom should probably have been ranked below Nashville’s, and that Sims and Song should probably have been placed above Hewick. These five scores were all very close to one another and very subjective. The measurement of the created pedagogy for understanding classroom is in general very difficult to pin down, because there is such a degree to which the genius is in the details. While some activities, such as Strickland’s exploration tables, are obviously a move towards creating the ideal environment, there can also be a degree to which such an environment can be subtly created in the general teaching style, class format, and student expectation. Chess’ class, for example, was in many ways just as strongly based in the program as Strickland’s, and yet a stranger walking into it would not have considered it to be highly unusual as a classroom in the way that Strickland’s was unusual.
The Third Leg: Student Results
Many of these numbers are predictable, given our hypothesis and the enthusiasm and environment rankings. At first glance there seems to be a strong correlation between those the reader will remember as being the most engaged with the program (such as Strickland and the “converted” Song) and those who have the best results and rankings here. Yet some of these results are somewhat puzzling. Nashville, for example, is ranked as number one among the non-program teachers for enthusiasm and environment creation, while Song is ranked second and third, respectively. Yet in the final results, Song’s students show more success on the class-wide standardized tests and her monitored students show more improvement than do Nashville’s. There are a variety of reasons why this might be the case, and it would be difficult to be sure which one was active. Part of the problem might lie in the fact that the special needs students being monitored for Nashville (Sylvia, severe cerebral palsy case) and Song (Michael, ADHD) were not comparable. Sylvia was a much worse case, and it is possible that Nashville could have had better results in her monitored student had been Michael. However, this is too simplistic of an answer, because Song’s students consistently outperform Nashville’s. Another more feasible reason is the fact that Song is teaching first graders and Nashville is teaching fourth graders. It seems quite possible younger children respond more rapidly to intervention. This would, however, require more research to ascertain. A matter of one or two ranks does not invalidate the greater work. According to Diagram 4.7, a certain variation in ranks is to be expected, particularly considering the subjective nature of the monitoring and measuring process.
All in all the results were exceptionally strong in correlating class rankings with teacher enthusiasm and environment-creation, and in showing significant progress through the program. The importance and value of a general half-year improvement for students in the successful pedagogy for understanding cannot be overstated — at such a rate the majority of special needs students in the classrooms (who were generally not more than two grade levels behind) would have been caught up and possibly even ahead of their peers by the time they entered middle school.
With such strong results, it would seem natural that that program be recommended to schools and that it be continued in the school where it began. As a measure the long-term success of such a program, the researcher revisited the school at the beginning of the next fall semester. The results were far from encouraging. As he had intimated, Ford decided to terminate the program after its first year, citing lack of community support. Chess had been “politely but firmly” ordered to return to the traditional curriculum for the following year, and Strickland quit the district after being asked to transfer into a kindergarten classroom where her “excellent work with craft stations and color coded teams would be more appropriate.” Franklin transferred to a sister school where she will be helping to open a new computer lab, and will not be replaced due to “budget concerns.” Computer courses for first grade students are being abolished, and all other classes will attend once a week instead of twice to allow Vickerol to serve all the classes in the building. As part of this new program, Vickerol’s gifted student class is being disbanded, though he has discussed reinstating it as an after school club. His special needs classes are being reduced, and he will have to be more selective in the future how many students he includes. Sims has moved from her apartment, changed her phone number, and transferred to a different school for “personal reasons.”
The news from many of the students is only slightly less drab. Hack’s parents dropped their request to have him classified as having special needs, and he has been placed in an accelerated fifth grade class at a nearby charter school. In the brief interview conducted with him, he asked that news and “condolences” be sent to his former team-mates. He appears to be having difficulty fitting in, and his diminutive size has earned the playground nickname “Bean,” which he wears with odd pride. Chess’ Scott and two of the talented Coyote team members will also be moving into the fourth grade at that school. Nathanyel was returned to the general population, though his teacher has been warned of his behavioral problems and intends to keep him on a short leash. Alexxi and Billy have both been promoted into Nashville’s class, where they hope to do well. Michael will take his place in Chess’s new class. Most of the monitored students are proceeding into the next grade levels. Several students, including Bobby and Hilton, are being moved into primarily special needs classes, which White-Whatsom has grudgingly allowed to be reinstated as long as they focus on continuing children at grade level. Erik has been placed in the general education environment for another year, and his teacher reports him to be below grade level in math functioning and will be starting him with a review of the third grade math workbook — the researcher suggested she consider discussing his case with Vickerol.
It would be tempting to say that these final results show that nothing ever changes in the school system, and that long-term solutions are beyond hope. Yet to a very large degree what it actually demonstrates is the vital need to focus on administration-level change and the building of strong networks. The failure of the network was always the greatest weakness of the program, despite the fact that it was the aspect of the program which many of the teachers found most appealing. One could only expect that if the program finally failed completely it would do so on an administrational level.
Modifications and Future Implementation
The pedagogy for understanding showed significant potential, and its program of intensive network building and teacher training succeeded brilliantly, albeit with certain reservations. Future application is strongly encouraged, with some minor alterations and modifications to the program.
Perhaps the most important modification is the means of implementation and recruitment. Those teachers and administrators who failed to have success or gain true enthusiasm for the class were those who had been “drafted” into it. In the future it would be preferable to provide education regarding the program ahead of time and then give teachers options about their involvement. Of course, any program implementation in the future would also need the full support of the administration to implement it, and this difference could be revolutionary. Additionally, it would be important for any future implementation to include both willing teachers and other support staff. A more complete integration of not only technology teachers but also music teachers, P.E. teachers, and special education teachers and therapists would all be helpful. Additionally it is important that future applications include at least one trained social worker for cases like Roach’s or Nathanyel’s where abuse may be an issue, in addition to medical and psychiatric experts. The idea of a “school board” may need to be reinvigorated and enlarged to represent a council of members who actually deals directly with teachers and students and creates an environment for understanding. Finding ways to increase the cooperation between special education teachers, technology teachers, and teachers in integrated classrooms is paramount to this study, and cannot be ignored in future application.
Equally important is the need to screen teachers in future studies. The majority of the successful teachers were relatively young or had had educational training in special needs and constructivism. A “teacher identification profile” may need to be used to determine what sort of teachers are hired and retained within the pedagogy for understanding program. It would be amiss to suggest that experience is a negative quality, and yet the majority of teachers resisting the program did so due to their own ideology and experience. An ideal teacher will be either already experienced in constructivism or at least ideologically in line with it, or will be fresh enough that they are able to grasp and apply new teaching styles. Ideally these teachers would undergo extensive training in the pedagogy for understanding, perhaps in a classroom environment. It would not be amiss to suggest that future application begin at the college level, and that colleges and universities provide education majors and teachers seeking recertification with classes in constructivist teaching styles, network building, special needs in the general education classroom, technology application for special and general education, and other pedagogy for understanding subjects. Requiring teachers to take two or three of these classes before they were allowed into a pedagogy for understanding classroom, or that they take them concurrently with their teaching, would not be inadvisable.
Suggestions for Further Research
This research naturally suggests two further avenues for research. One is obvious — more study needs to be done on the effects of overall network building, both inside and outside the constructivist framework. What happens if the sort of network necessary to truly sustain a pedagogy for understanding program develops without teachers committed to the program? Does the very slight edge which Holler and Hewick have over teachers who are not in the program and not committed to constructivism reflect the shadowy effects of their constructivist facade, or does it represent a positive effect from the existence of a small network? What would happen if the network were made much bigger and much stronger, without a specific pedagogy? On the same token, albeit from a different side, what happens if individual teachers are trained in pedagogy but do not have a network? Enthusiastic onlooking teachers who observed the program in action had less positive results than those that were enthusiastic within it — but does this represent the effects of the network, or the fact that teachers within the program had training before school began and were able to work on a constructivist model for longer than their observant peers? Training teachers without establishing a strong network would be one way to test this. It would also be interesting to test the effect of just applying a constructivist pullout technology class such as Vickerol’s without any other constructivist teaching (e.g., no Strickland for Song to have gone to for advice) and see to what degree that technology transforms students alone. Finally, it would be wonderful to repeat the same experiment with a longer training period, volunteer administration and all volunteer participants, and more integration between standard and pullout sessions, to see how far the program can succeed when all the team members are entirely on-board.
The other sort of follow-up research that might be interesting would be aimed more directly at the special needs students. Even within a single classroom such as Chess’s, there were some students who made significant progress and others who did not. Why did Dillon gain only fractions of a grade level, while Peter jumped a half a grade and Scott gained a full grade level? Why among the members of Hewick class did Billy gain only 0.1 grade levels on his standardized tests, while Erik could apply himself to show 2 grade level differences? It is possible that the answer is impossible to determine, or that there are very simple and obvious reasons for it. On the other hand, it is also possible that the pedagogy for understanding program is more appropriate for some classes of students than for others. Perhaps ADHD students and children with the potential for high functioning do particularly well with the pedagogy for understanding program while students with brain damage, sensory damage, and cerebral palsy do not. If every student in the classrooms had been monitored it might be possible to see exactly where students failed to progress and which students suffered the most individual progression and regression. This was not done because the focus of the study was on teachers and pedagogy rather than on the precise learning styles of individual special needs categories. However, one can see definite potential for such a study at a later date.
In the final analysis, this program works. Teachers who undergo this program or who are exposed to it are more than twice as likely as unexposed teachers to create a positive constructivist classroom, and their students show an average score increase seven times greater than that of unexposed teachers. Additionally, in comparing the top ranked individuals in terms of enthusiasm and environment to the lowest ranked individuals, one will find the top third of teachers (Strickland, Chess, Nashville, and Song) has five times the average improvement of the bottom two thirds. The average grade level improvement among that top third is 0.33, while among the bottom two thirds it is only.07, and the least enthusiastic third actually shows a slow decrease in grade level scores (-0.01). These numbers are even more impressive when one just considers the special needs students, for whom the top third provides an average 0.38 grade level increase. Students who are in the program unanimously speak of appreciating the constructivist elements of their classroom, and many of their worst behavioral problems evaporate when a setting is provided capable of turning disruption into experimentation and learning.
In this diagram several points need to be mentioned. Students marked with an asterisk (Helen, Laura, and Sylvia) are in control groups which are not being given access to the pedagogy for understanding program, but are participating in one of Vickerol’s special extra pullout sessions. In addition to regular class sessions, which occur twice a week, Vickerol also has two once-a-week special pullout computer classes for selected students. While these are not officially part of the pedagogy for understanding program, they do tend to operate on a more personalized, constructivist standard and may be attended by any student who needs to attend them. The one listed as Vickerol Class 3 is cross-grade-level special needs class for significantly physically disabled individuals which focuses on communication through technology and on fostering motor skills. The one listed as Vickerol Class 4 is also cross-grade-level but is geared towards gifted students and those with advanced computer skills and affinities. The student marked with double asterisks (Hack) was originally chosen because his second grade teacher and the administration suggested he would be good at communicating results, and showing the way a program geared at special needs students might affect a more advanced student. However, part way through the year there was a great deal of discussion as to whether he should be categorized as special needs due to the development of severe asthmatic complications and an increase in delinquency and social maladjustment. Both his teachers Strickland and Vickerol disagreed with such a classification, however his parents and therapist persisted in pushing for it.
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