As Liberty University professor Lucinda S. Spaulding states, “History demonstrates we must learn from it lest it perpetually repeats; reflection on the past is necessary for a better future.” (p 105).” Research identifies Learning Theories as related to Special Education from past and present efforts to advocate and educate students who have physical or mental challenges. This paper highlights a historical perspective to address a) the treatment of people with disabilities and evolutionary trends in education; (b) changing conceptions of disability as a phenomenon during the 1950’s and today; (c) analysis of Special Education; and (d) the current viewpoints of Special Education.
Evolution of Learning Theories in Relation to Special Education since 1950
In hindsight, individuals with special needs often received notice for reasons of charitable, medical, or social issues (Spaulding, L. S., & Pratt, S. M.; 2015). In the United States, during the 19th and 20th century, the first “special educational programs” were private or residential schools mostly occupied by deaf, blind and / or students in need of “moral development” particularly those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and children considered “at risk” for bad behavior (Wright, 2012; Spaulding, L. S., & Pratt, S. M., 2015). Spaulding, L. S., & Pratt, S. M. (2015) reference the years prior to 1950 as being a stagnant or regressive period as researchers, such as Darwin’s theory, came to view disabilities as deviant; therefore, in need of segregation or institutionalization. Although deaf and blind students lead the path towards formal education, attention to mentally challenged individuals was left for parental advocacy. Eventually, when training was offered, it was more in terms of vocational rehabilitation, rather than academic enhancement and was always segregated from the general educational setting. In time, Thomas Gallaudet proved positive results within Deaf education, the perception of teaching intellectually challenged individuals took notice. In 1843, Dorothea Dix addressed state legislature and according to Spaulding, L.S., & Pratt, S.M., (2015), Dix “framed disability as a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference among individuals; that although a person’s physical or cognitive functioning may be restricted, they were no less worthy of dignity and deserved the same rights as others.” As time progressed, the theory of nature vs nurture took hold and the philosophy gave way to family style educational training, yet attitudes and funding waned. One hundred years of flux, with slow and steady court cases along with new legislation, by 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court passed Brown v. Board of Education declaring education is an equal right and critical for all students to live within a productive civilization. Although that legislation focused on race equality, it raised a social moral compass to view minority groups as deserving citizens worthy of justice. Continued parental advocacy over a ten year period, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, amended it in 1966, to address equality and anti-discriminatory acts of handicapped youths (Wright, 2012, Spaulding, L.S., & Pratt, S.M., 2015). After another decade, Congress enacted the Education of the Handicapped Act (P.L. 91-230) in 1970, aiming to provide additional funding. Even with such efforts, investigations proved very little progress for disabled students. From once believing that deaf, blind, mentally challenged, and handicapped individuals were simply a burden to society, parents and others like Gunnar Dybwad’s testimony in 1972 for the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) in a class-action suit against the state of Pennsylvania, were seeing evidence that education could manifest productive tax paying citizens. Because of the validated research conducted during the 1950’s, especially the evolution of cognitive psychology, various theories evolved and fed off each other and provided additional knowledge that justified attention to, and expectations from special education classrooms. Knowledge forming Theoretical Changes during the Period of 1950 – Today
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2004), influential learning theories, such as: Gestalt (1937), Social Learning Theory (1941), Behaviorism (prior to 1950) Cognitive Psychology (1950-60), Constructivism (1970-80), and Social-constructivism (1980 – 90), onward to Connectivism (2005), Multi-Intelligence Theory (2006 – present) and more recently the 21st Century Goals Theory (2002 – present), to name a few, allows educators to adapt theories of how students learn to individual needs of a student and guide learning by manipulating the environment and adjusting the context of subjects with increased effort to include students with exceptionalities into the rigor and social aspects of school performance.
With states being fully responsible for educating exceptional students, Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, also known as The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This Act has been renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and in 2004 was amended to improve accountability, especially with literacy, measurable student outcomes, data-driven instruction, and insisting on highly qualified teachers. Procedural safeguards, then and now, protect the students’ and their parents’ rights to due process. This effort aims for a transparency of classroom theoretical changes based on individual needs. IDEA 2004 perspective is to ensure special needs children are college and career ready, with equal access to curriculum and the various supports, resources, and social, athletic programs available to all students. Each year, with new political agendas, the expectation for achievement, including special needs students, has brought about No Child Left Behind. This Act attempts to address equal access for students to be proficient at state academic standards while having highly qualified special education teachers who have passed subject area performance tests. The drive to make constant comparisons with non-special needs student performance has an idealism to maximize potential; however, the debate is still unfolding as to the means, methods, testing, accommodations provided in various educational settings, be it fully mainstreamed, partial self – contained, or residential institutions. The theory was that special needs students learn differently and so needed to be in segregated classrooms. Today an opposing theory challenges the old and ensures that all children are capable of learning. After WWI and the devastating discrimination against Jews by Hitler, the American society embraced more nurturing ideology and parents advocacy insisted on nondiscriminatory acts pertaining to special needs children (Wright, 2010).
Analysis of the Enhancement of Special Education
Although the path towards equality has been a long battle, the debate continues whether new expectations of teachers and students has pushed away ideal, specialized programs and institutions that highlight a difference in how students learn, rather than requiring all students to progress within the same environment. Although there is no debate that learning theories and social consciousness has given attention to the spectrum of learning disorders and their place in society and equal access to all aspects of educational and social gain, the viewpoint that disabilities and labels are not necessarily something to be ashamed of or acquiesces to the belief that negation occurs with labels (Osgood, 2006).
Current Learning Theories Affecting Special Education Today
From the 1950’s the shift in advisability and integration of special needs children occurred; however, the effort as Osgood states, “to more fully accept disability as a natural and serving aspect of the school and the human condition in general (p 142),” has not necessarily helped all students. The goal of “social justice” has at times caused fewer socializations, more restrictions, and increased isolation, at least for many of the linguistic minority Deaf student population. Labels that started with the idea that the disabled need to be cured; to then needing to be saved, pitied and protected; to the current view that the child with exceptionalities is not tied to their label at all, allows an IEP team to sift through various learning theories to ask relevant questions that can individualize a program and placement best suited to all stakeholders. As leaders aim to enhance the special education system along with the input of parents, student, teachers, and advocates, the awareness of a historical plight, and the ever-expanding learning theories will allow options, respect, an understanding that match the unique needs of the student to optimize growth.
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