Jack, a special education teacher in a Cambridge Massachusetts, elementary school, is showing his colleagues one of his student’s projects, a miniature pond habitat, at their weekly team meeting. Jack notes that the student, Mary, who has mental retardation, reported seeing a bug in the habitat she built, though he remains skeptical. He’s seen no sign of it and questions whether, given the severity of Mary’s disability, she is capable of such close concentration and observation.
Jack’s colleagues—who include Mary’s classroom teacher and the school science, media, and technology specialists—review the sentences on habitats Mary has composed, using a word bank, and study her habitat intently. Sure enough, one of them spots the insect. This discovery shifts their assessment of Mary’s capabilities, and they take it into account as they plan the next step in developing her scientific thinking.
Such close, collaborative analysis of student work—a hallmark of many EDC professional development projects—is proving especially powerful in inclusive education, according to the staff of Project ASSIST (All Students in Supported Inquiry-based Science with Technology). This EDC project, designed to raise the science skills and thinking of all students, has collaborated with teams from three Cambridge schools to develop a professional development model that focuses on student work as the basis for curriculum planning and inclusive practice.
As one participant comments, focusing on student work has helped teachers see students with disabilities in a new light: “I think so often when we are looking at students’ IEPs [individual education plans], we look at the students’ weaknesses, but with this process, we really look at the strengths of the students.”
Initially funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education, Project ASSIST makes inquiry-based science learning available to every student in the class by integrating a range of school resources, including professional expertise, technology, media, and time. For special education staff, the opportunity to develop the science curriculum alongside colleagues is both rare and eye-opening. As one special education teacher observes, “I didn’t know that these are the expectations you have for students. I always pulled kids out, worked with them in this other setting, and had my own little curriculum and expectations. But it never really aligned with what the greater goals were.”
The collaborative process helps teachers draw connections between those larger goals and the abilities of individual students—with and without disabilities, according to Project Director Lori DiGisi. “Project ASSIST is built around an assessment of the curriculum,” explains DiGisi. “By looking at the work students have done, teachers can evaluate the curriculum and ask whether students are getting the concepts that are in the frameworks.”
At the heart of Project ASSIST is the action reflection process, a carefully structured, time-limited discussion format that focuses on the work of three students chosen by their classroom teacher to represent the range of students in his or her class. One of the three is “typical” for the age and grade, one has an IEP developed by the special education teacher, and the third is a student whom the teacher sees as “at risk” for a learning or behavioral disability.
Together, the teachers and specialists engage in repeated—usually weekly—cycles of the action reflection process. Teachers share student work from three points in the unit—a pretest, a midpoint assessment, and a final assessment—so the discussion focuses on student learning over time. Led by a facilitator, the group relies on two tools devised by Judith Zorfass and DiGisi—a protocol for analyzing student work and an action reflection tool for documenting the team’s work. Each session is designed to last about 45 minutes.
For example, the team looking at Mary’s work has met throughout the unit to deliberate on how to design her inquiry-based study of habitats. Early on, the special education teacher expressed concern about not overstimulating Mary, suggesting, “Maybe we could take her—with others, in small, rotating groups—out of the classroom and into my work area, a format she’s accustomed to and where she’s less likely to be impulsive.”
The classroom teacher liked this idea. When the special educator proposed making a book for Mary, “taking pictures and adding repetitive text so she could follow along,” the media specialist went a step further: “How about getting a tape recorder, so she could listen even if you’re not there?” Through give and take, the team decided to have Mary create a model habitat in the context of specific goals: to develop her content knowledge, build her observational and inquiry skills, and expand her language use and scientific vocabulary.
Teachers report that Project ASSIST’s action reflection process is producing a deeper and more fruitful collaboration among the team members. A special education teacher highlights why the process works so well: “Just having the right people at the table to address the teacher’s question, I think that’s really important. If we want more ideas about special education, the specialist is there. If we need help understanding a science concept, the science person is there. If we want more technology, the tech person is there.”
The results are also visible in the quality of student work. In one classroom, Tim, an at-risk student, demonstrated remarkable advances in understanding anatomy. In the pretest, he explained that bones are not living because “if they were living they would need organs and we would not be able to control them.” By the midpoint test, he assuredly wrote that “bones grow, need calcium, are hard, and [are] not dry.”
In the final assessment, Tim wrote, among other things, “Bones are used for protection, structure, shape, movement, and come together in two kinds of joints, hinge and ball-and-socket. Bones are living … the marrow produces red and white blood cells … it makes about 2.3 million red blood cells a second.” Tim had gone from seeing bones as inanimate objects to recognizing their vital role in a healthy body.
Tim’s increasingly sophisticated grasp of anatomy bears out a finding of the Project ASSIST teachers: The action reflection process often leads them to focus on ensuring deep student understanding of one or two concepts in the unit, rather than on covering all the unit concepts in a more superficial way.
After a qualitative review of all nine sets of student assessments over the course of one science unit, a school science specialist remarked, “The students have learned more in science—they wrote more, drew more, and labeled more. They seemed to gain ownership of the scientific language of some science ideas.” Quantitative studies found, on average that student scores rose nearly a whole point on a scale of 1 to 4 in tests of how well students expressed science knowledge in writing and drawing. Researchers also found that all students (typical, IEP, and at risk) gained ownership of science language and ideas at about the same rate.
There is also evidence that Project ASSIST has had a lasting effect on the Cambridge schools involved in the initial phase—and ripple effects at other schools. Several of the Cambridge teachers have gone on to publish articles in leading educational journals and to give presentations about their experience with the action reflection process. Indeed, in some places the process is coming to be known as the “Lin Tucker process,” after one of the Cambridge science development specialists who has given several national presentations about the process.
Today, the Cambridge teachers “truly own” the action reflection process, says DiGisi. “It’s part of teachers’ professional days. Science teachers now routinely look at student work to assess their own teaching.” New facilitators are being trained, and the process is embedded in the professional development work in science across the district.
At EDC, the findings from Project ASSIST are informing the development of the LINK*US project, which focuses on using technology, media, and materials to support students with disabilities in a range of disciplines. And the action reflection process website will continue to offer a wealth of tools, research data, and other assistance in bringing the process into schools.
Originally published on June 1, 2000