November 14, 2017

In Inclusive Classrooms, Differences Can Be Strengths

EDC’s Babette Moeller works to improve mathematics education for all students.

“The core principle I bring to my work is inclusivity,” says Babette Moeller.

It was the late 1980s, and Babette Moeller was interested in a new technology that was gaining steam in educational circles: electronic messaging. She wanted to learn whether this new tool could be used to promote the exchange of ideas in science class.

Moeller began recruiting local schools for a research study. To her surprise, one of the schools interested in this approach was a school for the deaf, which thought e-mail could be used to help students practice literacy skills.

Moeller had never worked with any students with disabilities before. She learned that many deaf students struggled to learn to read and write, which also made mastery of core subjects such as science difficult. But after watching students successfully use e-mail to discuss what they were learning in their earth science class, she had a new outlook on what she wanted to do with her career.

“This project ignited my interest in working with students with disabilities,” she recalls. “It was fascinating to work with people who learn differently.”

The experience also taught Moeller a valuable lesson about education: all learners benefit when a curriculum is designed for a range of learning styles and abilities.

“The core principle I bring to my work is inclusivity,” she says. “If you design for students who are at the margins, then you actually create an intervention that is more inclusive of everyone."

Moeller has been applying the idea of inclusivity to her curriculum development and research work ever since. It is at the center of her efforts to use technology to broaden educational opportunities for students with disabilities and to prepare students with disabilities for careers in STEM fields. It is also a core tenet of her Math For All program, which teaches elementary teachers how to adapt their instruction so that all students—including those with disabilities—can receive a high-quality education.

Inclusivity is also important to Moeller because it challenges educators’ perceptions about what students with disabilities can do. Too often she has seen disability treated only as a disadvantage in the classroom.

But, says Moeller, “Sometimes what we perceive as a disability ends up being a strength.” As an example, she points to Gary Vermeij, an evolutionary biologist who has been blind since age three. Vermeij studies seashells by touch—a unique method that has led to significant discoveries about how sea creatures have evolved over millennia. In 1992, Vermeij was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant.

“He has made discoveries that scientists who could see never made,” says Moeller. “People with disabilities bring many strengths and interesting perspectives. They have to overcome obstacles every day and so are often good problem solvers.”

In her work with mathematics teachers, many of whom teach in inclusive classrooms, Moeller advises them to give students multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge.

“An open-ended question such as, ‘Show me some different ways to model the problem 2 + 4 = 6’ offers all students a number of ways to show the relationship between the addends and the sum,” she says. “Some students may use manipulatives to solve this problem; others may use a number line. But asking a procedural question like “What is 2 + 4?” only calls for one answer.”

Teaching in an inclusive setting is not simple, says Moeller. Through her work, she gives educators the tools to gain a deeper understanding of what their students’ strengths are and to use that knowledge to build lessons that better meet those students’ needs.

Moeller is confident that students with disabilities now have more, and better, educational opportunities than they did 30 years ago. She sees it in the schools she visits and also in the attitudes of the teachers with whom she works. But her goal of full inclusivity is still far in the distance.

“We’ve learned that students with disabilities can succeed in the classroom,” she says. “But they still need advocates.”