Hammers and Screwdrivers: One Approach to Accommodations and Design
"He's so quiet." "I think he knows the answers, I wish he would just talk more in class." "He never raises his hand in class." "He never volunteers to work at the board." "His handwriting needs work.""He's got a lot of cursive work to improve, does he practice at home?""I can't always read what he writes, so he loses points if I can't read it." "He's so shy." ...the comments on nearly every report card I can remember and/or every parent-teacher conference as a young student in school.
I was reminded of these teachers' comments recently during an interaction in a presentation I was facilitating on UDL and then again in a subsequent meeting, during which I was speaking about accommodations. A few notions immediately came to mind: relevancy, universal design, and accommodations. Relevancy: When I think about what I've done to earn a living for the past 18 years, I snicker a bit, regarding those teacher's comments. For nearly two decades I've been speaking to both live and virtual audiences out of my passion for education and to put food on the table. During that same time in my career, I can't recall more than one handful of times I've ever had to handwrite anything for professional purposes, besides my signature of course. The relevancy of what was important to those teachers at the time, and the fact that I lost points for my handwriting, turned out to have very little to no relevancy to my professional life, yet they were items I was being measured against year after year. The rhetorical question I propose is, "Were those teachers assessing things that were relevant to my becoming an independently successful adult?" Something I talk about nearly every time the topic of education is at hand, is the idea that we frequently measure or assess one component of a task that is impeding the subsequent component, when what's truly relevant is that subsequent component. One of my favorite quotes from David Rose; "Every single test is first a test of engagement, secondly a test of reading, and then perhaps a test on the content itself."
Universal Design: I wasn't shy. I've never thought of myself as shy anyway. I did prefer to speak when I had something to say, not just to demonstrate that I knew the answer. I also preferred to work on my own and in a way, perhaps, different than the way I was "supposed" to work in order to show my understanding. I knew that I despised the sound and feel of pencil lead on paper, and I knew that I could/would have shown a lot more of what I understood had there been a couple other options for responding available to me. While it's not always easy, we might find out things about some of our students that we didn't know existed by reflecting on our instruction and honestly asking ourselves whether we offer options for students to show us what they really understand.
Accommodations: There are many kinds of hammers and there are, of course, equally varying types of screwdrivers. There are rubber mallets, ball-pein hammers, multi-pound sledge hammers, etc. There are phillips head, flat head, torx, star head, and a multitude of other screwdrivers. I might be really familiar and comfortable with a hammer, or even three different types of hammers, but that doesn't mean that I can use any of those three to drive in a torx head screw. Instead, I might just have to figure out what a torx head screwdriver is, borrow one and then learn to use it. As teachers, we frequently instruct utilizing the methods and materials for engagement, presentation, and response that we tend to, ourselves prefer. That's a really difficult habit to break, even for some of the very best teachers. What this can ultimately mean is that we tend to be slightly better than chance at choosing the appropriate accommodations for our students, unless we utilize objective forms of determination. Finding the right accommodation usually necessitates the systematic and trialing of several different things with fidelity before deciding upon the most appropriate accommodation for that student. This, of course, is dependent on the particular time and setting, for that task at hand. That can seem daunting, to say the least. The PATINS Lending Library is where you can borrow items to trial and the PATINS Specialists who can help you implement those trials. The next time you might be writing an IEP, struggling with a student, or sitting in a case conference and you want to recommend an accommodation, spend just a few moments considering why you're recommending it. Is it because it's the accommodation that you're most familiar with or that you have at your fingertips, or is it truly the correct accommodation for that student in that environment for that task? Let us help you get your hands on a torx-head screwdriver and perhaps show you some ways it can be used.