Inclusive Futures: Three Conversations

Summary of my keynote delivered at iPad Accessibility Summit, South Africa, October 2020.

Grateful to Julie Penrose for creating this visual sketch note of the themes I covered in my keynote :)

Conversation #1

Inclusion: The Universal and The Individual

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of visiting a public library that had a reputation for being a beacon of forward thinking accessibility. I went on a tour with the director of the library who showed, in one area of the library, the book scanning devices for visitors to check out books. There were different scanning devices for visitors depending on their access needs — one of the devices was designed for those with vision needs, one for those with physical access needs, one that was positioned low to the ground, one was in a quiet room for those who wanted to scan their books in a less busy space, and so on.

From a universal design standpoint, a question rises up: why not just create a single device that meets the needs of all users? And then, a follow-up question: is such device even possible? You could point to a device like the iPad, a single device that seeks to be universally accessible for many different needs — vision, hearing, physical access, learning and so on. My contention here is that inclusive design is not necessarily about designing the perfect device or learning condition or social structure that can do everything for everybody, but that it is a feedback dialogue between the ‘individual’ and the ‘universal’. To explicate this further, we should consider how this situation presents in the classroom.

I sometimes talk about what I call the ‘Individual Universal Paradox’. Here’s how it looks in the classroom:

The point of the above scenario is not to deride whole class group instruction, nor it is to hold up highly personalised individual instruction as the preferred mode of learning, but rather it is to highlight the necessary feedback dialogue between the individual and the universal. Both states are contingent upon each other to form an authentically inclusive learning environment.

Consider how you navigate this balance between the universal and the individual in your classroom, and beyond your classroom.

For me, inclusion is the point of greatest accessibility between the universal and the individual. No absolutes, only dialogue.

Conversation #2

Universal Design for Learning: Strengths and Interests

My refrain for the past fifteen years in autism education has been that it is through tapping into the strengths and interests of our students that universal design can find its highest elevation. Only this past week I had the opportunity to be reminded again about the role that this sort of approach plays in peoples lives far beyond the classroom. I met, over the internet, a musician in his sixties from England who I have struck up a correspondence with. He mentioned how difficult he found learning numeracy during his school years, but then how in his twenties when he was getting into music composition and film making he suddenly began to learn and master the mathematical concepts he found so impossible a decade earlier. He put this down to how he was exploring numeracy through his passions, through music and film making, how his brain was creating models of representation, analogies, of mathematical ideas in ways that now made sense to him.

This is not a surprise, of course — like the old adage says, that which we learn with pleasure we never forget; or, said another way for our purposes here, that which we learn with pleasure can maximise our comprehesion of other connecting concepts too. Strengths and interests based approaches are not uncommon these days, it has become a staple of pedagogy and psychology that helping a student to focus on and accentuate their learning strengths and areas of interest is a better way to help them improve on their areas of need rather than a deficit approach that seeks more explicit rote remediation. However, it is a point of contention in dialogues I have with colleagues about how far to incorporate a strengths and interests approach into classroom practice: should Minecraft really be used to explore literacy concepts? Should Pokémon or Doctor Who or a love of fishing or cooking or unicorns really be embedded in the curriculum? My colleagues who pose these questions then flag their position that school should be about broadening interests, about students maturing and generalising the scope of what they can do by putting personal interests behind them.

Now, I could draw a huge range of examples and anecdotes from my teaching career that show why I am a passionate advocate for incorporating strengths and interests into the curriculum (I often say that strengths and interests are my strength and interest), but what if we just for a moment cast our mind back to the musician I mentioned earlier — he is an example of someone who went through a school experience where his strengths and interests were not incorporated into his maths education, and his comprehension and confidence suffered as a result. What would his school experience have been if he was taught maths through music? Of course, our question here might be, how would a teacher even know that this was a way he might best learn?

The answer to this question is my answer to the considerations above: the point of using a student’s strengths and interests in the classroom is not for the opportunity to play video games or paint curriculum in the colours of pop culture — rather, it is a way for us to build rapport with the student, and it is through this rapport that we establish optimal relational conditions for learning and comprehension. The teacher who takes the time to learn how much you love music is also the teacher who knows that getting you to pluck a guitar string at particular points is a sure way to teach you about fractions. To know what a student is interested in is to gain a window into their personal model of learning receptivity.

Consider how you incorporate student strengths and interests into the classroom while also preparing them for broader experiences.

For me, rapport building is at the heart of universal design for learning.

Conversation #3

Technology and our Best Humanity

Like many in the technology arena, I am a big fan of Tristan Harris and the work he and others are doing at the Centre for Humane Technology. It is impossible to talk about technology in education these days without explicitly taking an ethical position on the role it plays in the wellbeing and development of our children. My position is that we need to look for how technology brings out our best humanity and incorporate that into our education; as well, we need to teach our students how to recognise when technology is downgrading our humanity and how to avoid those instances.

Luckily, working in the accessibility space of technology makes it very easy to identify ways that our humanity is enhanced by technology. Not even specific to the accessibility space, a quick survey of some examples of terrific educational technology use that come to mind — students creating tours of their school in Minecraft to act as virtual social stories for new students who will soon be attending that school; students learning to code apps for diabetes health alerts; students creating 3D models of extinct animals to explore and learn about them in new ways; students delivering amazing live creative music performances, and more.

These days I consider three main categories of learning that I feel enhance our humanity through technology: those learning experiences that access and contribute to culture; learning experiences that allow students to observe and experience nature; and learning experiences that help students to become, and remain, hooked on humans. What do I mean by these categories:

Accessing and contributing to culture is fairly self explanatory: reading, listening to audiobooks, observing art, creating art, philosophy, all those learning practices that engage deeply with the cultural symbols that illuminate our world.

What about observing and experiencing nature: more difficult to do during a global pandemic, but remember how wonderful it is to take students on nature walks where they create sketches of flora and fauna in the area, or lessons where students observe animal behaviour and then learn to code those behaviours into video game physics (again back to strengths and interests), or engaging in virtual reality spaces that explore global vegetation and ecology in immersive ways.

Helping students to become hooked on humans is another way of saying how important it is to remind students of the real people that exist outside of their own heads. It can be increasingly hard to remember this when interactions with others often take place via their avatar on a screen or their name on the side of a text window: so, we need learning experiences that foster play in real world social situations, collaborative projects with peers that establish deep levels of dialogue and compromise and resilience, and the opportunity to interview others, to talk with family and community members and learn from them.

Consider how you use technology to upgrade the human experience and inspire students to connect and contribute to the world.

For me, it all starts with accessibility.

www.theuniversalsandpit.org

Image of me wearing a Tiger mascot head, holding an iPad, in a school garden near a chicken coop.

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Craig Smith

Project Manager, Autism Educator, Learning Designer, Sound Artist, Author + Creator.