Updated: Jun 24
By Debbie Taub
Recently, I have been struck by the number of stories in my newsfeeds about many science-related topics: the amazing new scientific discoveries being made, “anti-vaxxers,” science deniers, and concerns that an almost single-minded focus on assessment has turned schools into dreary factories that impede students’ creative and critical thinking skills. All of these thoughts have been bouncing around in my head where they meld with my focus on students with extensive learning needs (SELN), bringing me to the conclusion that science education is more important than ever for all students, especially SELN.
Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms Get Very Little Science
Yet, we have research that shows SELN get very little science (both in terms of time and content), with one study showing that there were only eleven research articles on how to teach science to this population, and ten of those articles had “science” examples that focused only on personal and social perspectives of science, such as hand washing as germ theory and recycling . Many teachers of SELN, who teach in segregated settings, have told me that they only “really” teach science in the three grades that are assessed by large-scale assessments! We would be horrified to walk into a general education classroom and find that the students only have one opportunity every 3-4 years to learn about science. How much are they missing out on, and how can we ever expect them to build on previous skills?
Students in segregated settings tend to have very limited opportunities to learn deep or even broad science content because science instruction is so often reduced to such general topics, like self care and recycling. How many lost opportunities to spark the interest of a student! We could be asking engaging and essential questions, such as “Is diversity important?” and “How does information move?” There are so many branches of science and so many exciting questions that could engage students, and yet we are limiting most SELN to infinitesimal components of it because those are perceived as the “most functional.”
What About Functional Skills?
I have trained thousands of teachers across the country, and I hear about functional skills a lot. So, let’s talk about “functional skills.” Functional skills were originally conceptualized as those skills that were necessary for daily living. I am in no way arguing that hand washing and recycling aren’t important parts of daily living. However, we are thinking way too small! I don’t know about you, but my daily life is filled with cause and effect questions and problem solving opportunities. Each of these requires that I take what I know already, consider what I don’t know, and then make a prediction about what should happen. And, as much as I hate to admit it, my days are all too often filled with mistakes. Science is all about inquiry, critical thinking, and learning from your mistakes! What could be more functional than that? Science is about taking all of the information you have already, making a prediction about “what if,” and then testing that prediction over and over to see what happens. It is about using your results to rethink your prediction and then trying again. Science is about knowing what questions to ask as much as it is about looking for answers, and when you think about it, isn’t that one of the most functional skills we could provide our students—especially those who struggle?
Other functional skills that are already embedded in science instruction are various self-determination skills. Some important self-determination skills include goal setting, decision making, problem solving, knowing when to ask for help, knowing how and where to get help, and evaluating one’s own learning. Michael Wehmeyer and Susan Palmer showed that students with special needs who had more self-determination skills had better employment, financial independence, access to health and other benefits, and were more independent than their peers with fewer self-determination skills . But guess what? David T. Conley has identified these skills as important to college and career readiness for all students, not just students with special needs . Conley identifies four key areas needed for individuals to be ready for college and careers post-secondary school: cognitive strategies, content, academic behaviors, and contextual skills and awareness. It is important to note that college and career readiness does not mean that a student, any student, is ready to independently function on a job; rather, these individuals have the skills, knowledge, and habits to participate in career training or to begin a post-secondary program without needing remedial courses. Jacqui Kearns, Harold Kleinert, Beth Harrison, Kathy Sheppard-Jones, Meada Hall, and Melissa Jones wrote a paper about what “college and career ready” means for SELN and compared it to the Conley research . Here is a screenshot of a slide that sums up their findings:
It is clear that there are very similar skills and concepts that all students need in order to be successful after high school. These skills are most effectively addressed in inclusive settings, and many of them are most effectively taught using inclusive cooperative learning and inquiry-based instruction. Think about the lack of opportunities for practicing social skills in lecture-based classes or in classes where the only strong communication model comes from the teacher. Now imagine those same opportunities in an inclusive, inquiry-based, cooperative learning classroom. There‘s a big difference, not only in opportunities but also in the motivation, content, and performance expectations between the two. Science is active. It requires people to ask questions, do experiments, and then learn from those experiments. The process of “doing” science has countless opportunities to practice those functional skills.
Self-Determination and Science Instruction Don’t Have To Be Mutually Exclusive
While self-determination skills can be taught in any content area, the essential understandings that are the foundation of all science fields are critical thinking and problem solving. Additionally, asking questions and inquiry-based instruction are absolutely geared toward cooperative learning. Making science instruction an ideal context for weaving academic and self-determination skills is vital for post-secondary success. Plus, who doesn’t want to explore the role of diversity in organisms or even ideas? All students are excited to examine all the different ways information can move, whether through nerves, electrons, computers, phones, etc. There are questions and opportunities to explore everywhere. There are opportunities to include all students everywhere. And there is a universe out there that needs discovering.
Let’s not limit students’ opportunities by reducing science to hand washing and recycling. Let’s provide inquiry-based, inclusive science instruction that builds critical thinking and self-determination skills. And then let’s see how far students go.
Deborah Taub, Ph.D., is a published author who conducts research, training, and technical assistance around ensuring equitable opportunities to learn for all students, including those with significant and complex needs. Dr. Taub collaborates on projects to support universally designed and accessible standards-based instruction for all students. She works with Project TIES as a technical assistance specialist on moving students with significant cognitive disabilities to more inclusive contexts.