November 1, 1996
As schools learn more about how stuents with special needs learn best--and include an increasing number of them in regular classrooms--teachers face the challenge of designing activities tailored to their diverse needs. Technology can help individualize teaching and learning, though its effective use requires careful planning and design.
As part of the Pathways for Learning Project, we at the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology have been working with teams of teachers from a suburban school district in New York to develop and implement technology-enhanced activities for classrooms that include students with learning disabilities. Funded by the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education, we are helping Pathways teachers adapt classroom activities to individual students' interests, abilities, and needs.
At the district's middle school, students use multimedia tool software (such as Storybook Weaver Deluxe by MECC) to compose adventure stories using pictures, sounds, and words. The purpose is to enhance writing development for all students, including those with learning disabilities for whom writing is particularly problematic. The multimedia authoring process--in which students create a peice of artwork and then write about it--helps learning-disabled students focus on their writing. The artwork provides an anchor for what they want to write. Yet while the software is a facilitator, teachers found they needed to adapt the learning environment in the following ways to include the learning-disabled students.
Adapting learning objectives.
While the basic educational goals are the same for all students, teachers needed to adjust specific learning objectives for students with special needs. The general goal in the multimedia composing activity was for students to tell an adventure story. While the objective for most students was to write a well-rounded narrative that included the elements of an adventure (e.g., suspense, a surprise twist), a few students who had difficulties expressing their thoughts in writing focused on forming paragraphs, sequencing events, and other mechanics. One child had such difficulty focusing his attention that this became his learning goal, and completing a simple task his learning objective.
In some instances the modification may focus on the way students carry out a particular activity. Several students had specific strengths in expressing their thoughts orally, but had difficulty writing. They were given the option of dictating their adventure stories into a tape recorder or directly to a teacher who would transcribe them. The transcripts were considered first drafts, which students later edited for content, organization, and mechanics. Students built on their particular strengths (telling stories orally) to work alongside their peers on composing and editing an adventure story. They created interesting narratives and learned about the elements of an adventure story, as well as paragraphing and sequencing of events.
An important task for teachers who work with diverse learners is to continually assess students' performance. A multimedia tool not only illuminates the process of composition, but makes its assessment easier. Students can print out their work every day, and in that way create daily records of what they are doing; teachers can tell at a glance whether and how they are progressing. The more teachers know about their students' interest, abilities, and needs--and the progress they make--the better able they will be to create individualized learning activities that keep the curriculum challenging and the expectations high for everyone.
Originally published in Scholastic's Electronic Learning Magazine