How can learning through projects (an approach similar, but not the exact same as inquiry-based learning) make students with special needs feel like they are included in your class?
As a secondary science teacher, I have used problem based learning (PBL) in addition to inquiry-based learning (IBL) on a regular basis. I consider PBL ’learning by doing’ and it differs slightly from IBL in that it focuses on the journey more than the research question itself.
Using PBL can make students with special needs feel like they are included because they are in the driver’s seat. This allows the best kind of differentiation because students can take their research to whatever level they see fit, and with my guidance, can often strive beyond their potential. PBL also leans away from didactic teaching methods, which is much less effective with exceptional students (at least I find it that way!).
Using a project-based approach takes the pressure off exceptional students – it focuses less on the answer and more on the journey to get to it. This is especially effective with students with anxiety as they don’t feel the push of time-sensitive, shorter activities and deadlines, giving students the ultimate freedom and creating an inclusive, comfortable and nurturing learning environment.
Having said that, I try to set clear goals for PBL units in my science lab so that students have a strong indication of what we are trying to accomplish. Sharing rubrics in advance and allowing students to share and reflect on their research methods via a common platform (I.e. Google classroom, One Note, etc.) can also help.
Why is it important for your students to see themselves as active participants in your class?
We know that active and engaged students can achieve better and use their skill sets to the best of their abilities. This is what I like to call ‘active learning’ or ‘power learning’. Giving students the power to learn in my science lab is and has always been my ultimate goal, especially with exceptional students. Passive students one the other hand will not achieve their full potential and research is consistently demonstrating this. Allowing students to ‘drive’ their learning is very important as it is a key motivator in their learning journey. Although the curriculum can sometimes hinder ultimate creativity and expression in science, even if I give my students some level of choice (i.e. researching a physics versus a biology or chemistry topic), they become active learners. I compare it to a ‘choose your own adventure’ type mentality. Within certain curriculum parameters, this can be extremely effective, especially with exceptional students. Allowing special education students to select, modify and evaluate their own research gives them power over their learning journey and an active role in their attainment making them feel adequate, comfortable and at ease. I feel that this is the ultimate form of ‘inclusion’ for students with special needs.