How to make our schools more inclusive
Back-to-school season is upon us, again. Those of us who thrived in (or at least survived) our own educational experiences tend to wax nostalgic at this time of year. Whether you are a student, parent or a teacher, this time of year evokes feelings of excitement, hopefulness, anticipation, and perhaps, anxiety. I am no exception as I reflect on my educational journey and the gifts that it has provided me.
I have been profoundly deaf since the age of three. As a deaf child, the best thing that happened to me was being included in regular classes at Scott Robertson School in Edmonton Public in the 1960s. I was invited in, even though I learned in a different way than my classmates. I learned with the aid of technology (in 1965!) through a large hearing aid bolted to my desk with a set of headphones that may have been salvaged from a Second World War bomber.
Flexible learning a 21st century reality
Because I was included, I wanted to include others, so I became a special education teacher. In my opinion phasing out the ‘Opportunity Room’ – the room that isolated so many children with different learning needs – is one of the best things to happen in education.
I am sure that every September each student thinks, “This year is going to be different, this is going to be my year.” While I hope this is true for all students, the drop-out rate alone tells us otherwise. What can we do for 20 per cent of our young people who do not feel included and so drop out of school before graduation?
The traditional image of education is still safely ensconced in the 1950s. Meanwhile, advanced digital technology and the diverse learning needs of today’s students are 21st century realities.
When the two meet – that is, when most people understand that apps and tablets are as much a part of modern learning as textbooks – more students will be engaged and feel included. More students will have the chance to be successful.
As the associate superintendent at Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC), I want to help make sure that the same inclusive philosophy that I benefited from is applied to the many barriers that still exist for children in education.
First, there are the ones of ability and prior accomplishment, both for those who would like to work ahead, and for those who need more time and support to understand.
Second, there are barriers of physical distance, age and interfering work schedules for students who have already dropped out, but who still want to take another stab at completing their diplomas.
And third, there may be significant barriers caused by dated parental expectations of what school ought to look like. We have a generation of students which learns easily through digital media while living with parents whose personal experience demands the sight of a student bent over a book.
Digital material can be a resource to make learning more effective. For example, learners can walk through a distant battlefield after learning from a textbook what happened on it. Together, software and the wired world provide the flexibility to enhance student potential beyond what we as parents and grandparents experienced.
An example is an online version of Grade 9 Science. Some students use it to catch up, while others can get done early, and apply themselves to Grade 10 Science when they are ready, rather than when the semester system says it’s time.
Consider the power of an online resource developed by ADLC called CSI Macbeth. It places the immortal stories in Shakespeare’s famous play within a modern justice-system context so today’s students can connect to it more easily.
No child left behind
Let me be clear that ADLC is only one source of ideas and programming in this new world of adapting school to individual needs. Many school districts have wholeheartedly embraced the potential of flexible learning under an Alberta Education framework that makes it a system-wide priority. This is a collaborative rather than a competitive effort for the benefit of Alberta students.
But because we still leave 20 per cent of students behind, I want to encourage teachers, learners, parents – indeed all Albertans who have a stake in educational success – to recognize, value, and take advantage of our 21st century capabilities.
By Cam Oulton
Cam Oulton is Assistant Superintendent of Alberta Distance Learning Centre, which serves students from grades 1-12 across the province with over 60,000 course enrollments in the current year.