Creating Engaging Learning Experiences in Special Education

Have you ever attended a training or workshop as a special education teacher, and thought:

  • Why am I here? This has nothing I can use.
  • My students are not able to do these things.
  • This has been a waste of my time (again).

Well, that was me a few years ago. Our entire district was adopting Rigorous Curriculum Design by Larry Ainsworth. It is a well mapped out sequence of hands-on learning activities and assessments. It encourages deeper thinking and inquiry and project based learning. All things that are hot topics today. BUT, in special education this needs some major tweaking.

As I sat through days of this training, I just kept thinking, “How can I make this work for MY students?” I asked questions. I went up and talked with the instructor one on one. In the end, I got a lot of blank stares. My kiddos had the most significant issues (physical, intellectual, behavioral, social, health, communicative…) in the county. So, in the end, it was up to me to think outside the box.

Engaging Learning Experiences

One of the main components of Rigorous Curriculum Design is the use of an engaging learning experience. This is often a series of weekly tasks that go beyond the actual content of the lesson. They build on each other each week, and end with a final, culminating project.

The main features of an engaging learning experience are:
  • They need to be real or genuine events. That does not mean they cannot be fictional, but they need to be based in some sense of reality.
  • The tasks need to be relevant and connect with what students already know or can identity with.
  • This learning experience needs to weave in other disciplines to make it a deeper, and more enriching activity.
  • It cannot be routine. It should be exciting and different.
  • It should be motivating and interesting.
  • Finally, and most importantly, it needs to be rigorous. This is not a “fluff” activity.

Other main features

Some other things I learned about engaging learning experiences were that they often have a very narrow focus. The goal is to deepen student understanding of one particular topic.

Engaging learning experiences often start with a “hook” or what Ainsworth calls an engaging scenario. This can be imaginary or real, but if you use an imaginary story it still needs to be somewhat realistic.

These learning experiences are often broken down into performance tasks. Students often complete one performance task a week. Many of the units developed using Rigorous Curriculum Design are 4-6 weeks in length, so you are looking at creating 4-6 separate performance tasks.

The performance tasks connect back to the original content of the unit. They build on each other, is a way to deepen student understanding or scaffold learning of a more complex topic.

Finally, these engaging learning experiences need to be intentional, well-thought out and planned. What does that mean? They are a lot of work to put together!! BUT, totally worth it.

Going outside of the box

So, I knew I liked this concept. I also felt confident I could adapt it and make it fit into a framework my students would benefit from. One of the things I like the most about it, was that I could plan it all out ahead of time. Then, I knew at least one activity we would do with the content each week. And, those activities were connected and built upon each other.

It also gave me a chance to take content that may be somewhat abstract and less appealing to my students, and come up with an engaging learning experience that they could connect with and work through in a step-by-step systematic fashion.

Here is the basic framework I used:

  1. Develop an engaging learning scenario my students could identify with
  2. Come up with 4 separate tasks to explore that scenario
    1. Task 1 focused on gathering material.
      • photos from magazines
      • items around the school or classroom
      • internet searches
      • photographs we took ourselves
    2. Task 2 focused on how we would use or summarize the information we gathered.
      • narrowing down the focus from information gathered
      • making a collage to illustrate information gathered
      • deciding on how we could set up a test or experiment to answer a question
      • making a poster
    3. Task 3 focused on applying in some way what we had narrowed our focus to in task 2.
      • make a physical product like a model
      • start recording results if conducting an experiment
      • conduct a public service awareness campaign to share with others what you learned
      • act out a skit demonstrating a skill you learned about
    4. Task 4 focused on evaluating the final result.
      • reviewing the results of your experiment and comparing it to the hypothesis
      • survey or poll audience to see if you were able to change how people thought
      • create recommendations based on what you learned to share with others
      • have students make a mini-movie talking about what they learned

I know this is not an easy concept, especially if you are a super busy teacher with a diverse class of students. So, I am sharing the 3 engaging learning scenarios I created while still in the classroom.

3 learning experiences free to download
  • Weather Emergencies: Could you save Dorothy and Toto in a tornado?
  • Photosynthesis: Could plants survive if it was night all the time?
  • Photosynthesis: What are some things you can do to help make the Earth a healthier place?

Just click the button below to download all 3 of them! Then, try to make some of your own. They are super fun and engaging for students, and worth the effort!!

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