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Too frequently, dichotomies have polarized and paralyzed educational practice. Examples of manufactured, unproductive, and even harmful dichotomies abound (the table below summarizes three such debates). While these dichotomies, debates, and disagreements may be based on sound independent opinions, research, and evidence, the ideologically rigid positions of adults are not productive for students. Students deserve, demand, and require better. If we hope to ensure high levels of learning for all (and, we can and we must), then we can no longer succumb to the “Tyranny of OR” – we must embrace the “Genius of And” (Collins, 2001).

We must unencumber ourselves from dogmatic denials about the relative contributions of varying points of view. Student learning, not dogma, must drive our work. The explicit expectation of Response to Intervention (RTI) is that every student learns – that every child receives that time and differentiated supports required to progress toward college and career readiness upon high school graduation. We believe that RTI is best understood and operationalized as a verb – if students are not currently responding adequately to core instruction and supplemental interventions, schools must alter supports so that high levels of learning occur. This will likely necessitate shifts from entrenched ideological positions. Not all students learn at the same rate or in the same manner. Many students may, for example, adequately respond to whole language approaches to reading instruction, while other students will require explicit supports in analytic phonics to be successful; done well and integrated with authentic reading, all students will derive some benefit from phonics approaches (NRP, 2002).

In the table below, I define a few of the most common and destructive dichotomies in education. There are others (e.g., academic or/and behavioral supports, phonics or/and whole language, explicit direct instruction or/and inquiry-based instruction, structured writing process or/and writer’s workshop, specially designed academic instruction in English (SDAIE) or/and systematic English language development), that I will explore in the future, but this blog focuses on two significant debates.

 

Manufactured Dichotomies in Education

OR AND
General Education or Special Education General and special education staff must seamlessly collaborate to meet the needs of all students. Students in special education must receive supports from general education staff. Students in general education must have access to the expertise of special education staff, as needed. Supports should be provided by staff based on skills and expertise to students based on need. This practice is allowed and encouraged within the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004).
Steps to Consider Inclusive models have always been consistent with providing the least restrictive environment in which students with special needs receive support. With reduced numbers of staff to meet the needs of students, and with the commitment to meet all students’ needs blessedly at an all-time high, we simply cannot afford to continue to partition personnel and students between general and special education. To maximize supports for all students and meet student needs, we provide supports to groups comprised of students with and without IEPs, based on their diagnosed needs, and in the case of a student with an IEP, based on written goals. The staff member providing the support is the one most qualified, whether or not a special educator. Special education staff still writes goals, consulting with other participating staff members on student performance. Students with special needs also practice social skills goals; students without IEPs receive timely supports. Assistants who may be assigned to a single student can receive professional development to provide small group academic supports – the focus of the small group is an academic goal of the one-on-one assistant’s student; this student is a member of the group; this student practices the social and behavioral goals that are often written in the IEP; and other students with similar academic needs receive timely supports. We must flexibly utilize all staff, and we must provide targeted, timely supports to students based on need, not label.
Procedural Mathematics or Conceptual Mathematics One part of the mathematics debate is the efficacy of procedural (algorithmic or step-by-step approaches for deductively solving math problems) approaches versus more conceptual (inquiry-based or constructivist approaches for inductively solving math problems) approaches. We recommend the middle ground (Hiebert, 1999). All lessons should attend to conceptual underpinnings (e.g., drawing on Concrete-Representational-Abstract techniques) and all lessons should have clear procedures and expectations. The development of fluency with operation and computation and the development of conceptual knowledge are compatible and should be equally valued. In fact, the development of conceptual and procedural awareness is mutually reinforcing (Rittle-Johnson, Siegler, Alibali, 2001; Wurman & Wilson, 2012).
Steps to Consider To ensure that students possess both the procedural and conceptual knowledge necessary to apply mathematics, we must focus our content. Nations in which students significantly outperform US students, even when controlling on demographic variables, include less than one-fourth the number of mathematics topics in a given grade. The result is sufficient time to deeply learn number sense concepts (using tangible and visual supports), attain automaticity (not simply fluency) with computational procedures, and apply mathematics in various strands and to various situations. Staff must simply be given time to define the topics that should represent a focused grade or course curriculum and craft assessments from which instruction can be backwards planned and which can inform future instruction and interventions. Mastery of both procedural and conceptual is necessary to problem solve and think critically in mathematics. Once ideological divisions are resolved, we must focus curriculum to efficiently blend these elements of the content.

 

We too often seek truths and direction from extreme points of view. These points of view may have originally derived from the successful experiences of educators who helped students achieve high levels of learning. These points of view may have grown into theories developed from successes in the specific contexts. Unfortunately, these theories were then adopted as programs to be used with all students in all settings. As programs, they typically excluded thinking that was not highly consistent with their primary point of view. Whereas these approaches began from contextualized theories developed from productive practices, they became more-ideological practices that were applied in alternative contexts or for purposes not originally intended by the theory. Meanwhile, a competing idea also based on best practice led to a theory that led to a program that excluded competing views, and polarizations developed.

To meet the challenge of ALL students learning at high levels and to build a successful and sustainable RTI model, we must:

  • Embrace the Genius of And, and beware the Tyranny of Or – most often, students are well-served by a blend of great ideas from seemingly dichotomous points of view.
  • Let student needs and evidence of learning drive your decisions. When every single student is adequately responding to instruction and intervention, then the approaches of educators have been proven to be sound. When this is not the case, and there are not many situations in which every single student is well-served, then we must examine any and all ideas that may yield greater results. No program works at all times, in all domains, for all students. We owe it to students to broaden our perspectives.

The Genius of And is most obviously related to RTI when defining tiers of support and the roles of different “types” of staff.

 

In a robust and successful RTI model, all staff participate in ensuring that all students learn at high levels. Staff titles and student labels do not drive decisions – staff strength and student needs inform the model. Moreover, students are not in tiers – intensities and types of supports are in tiers. With reduced numbers of staff to meet the needs of students, and with the commitment to meet all students’ needs blessedly at an all-time high, we simply cannot afford to continue to partition personnel and students between general and special education. To maximize supports for all students and meet student needs, we provide supports to groups comprised of students with and without IEPs, based on diagnosed needs, and in the case of a student with an IEP, based on written goals. The staff member providing the support is the one most qualified, whether or not a special educator. Special education staff still writes goals, consulting with other participating staff members on student performance.

For example, assistants who may be assigned to a single student can receive professional development to provide small group academic supports – the focus of the small group is an academic goal of the one-on-one assistant’s student; this student is a member of the group; this student practices the social and behavioral goals that are often written in the IEP; and other students with similar academic needs receive timely supports. A student may have an IEP, they may be an English learner, they may be Title 1, they may have a 504 plan; but they are a student first. Therefore, they have access to tiered supports just like any and every other student.

The challenge of ensuring that all students graduate ready for college or a skilled career is too daunting and critically important to succumb to the “Tyranny of OR.” Response to Intervention is the best, most research-based framework for meeting the challenge, and Response to Intervention will require a creative and flexible problem solving orientation that mandates that we embrace the “Genius of And.”

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