anthology introduction

A Dual Perspective: Benefits of an Art-Based Teaching Environment for LD Students

1 in 10 Canadians has a Learning Disability (LD), and I am one of them. As a child, I struggled in traditional western school environments even though educators were continuously supporting me. My experiences have led me to pursue a career in education to better assist LD children. As I move into the role of an educator, I will be able to offer a dual perspective, having had the experience of a student with Dyslexia and Dyscalculia in a traditional school setting. This is the catalyst for my Anthology: As teachers, how do we help our LD students succeed in their academics? What methods do we incorporate into the traditional curricula to better assist LD children? I believe that Canada’s conventional education system needs to explore the importance of art-based learning to improve the academic achievements of LD children.

It is challenging to prove which mode of teaching is most effective; LD symptoms vary from child to child, and some techniques may work for one but not others (BCED 7). In reviewing contemporary research, significant patterns emerge which suggest an ideal pedagogy. Various approaches include assistive technologies, cooperative learning, and art-based environments. Throughout this Anthology,  I will investigate these methods, as well as the Ministry of Education’s recommendations for teachers working with LD students. It is hard to say which is the most effective approach; in my experience, engagement with the arts led to better understanding of subjects like Math, Science, and English. Unfortunately, art-related programs are slowly disappearing from elementary schools due to budget cuts. In the Vancouver School Board there is only one school specializing in fine art: Nootka Elementary. I urge the provincial government to revisit the benefits of an art-based teaching environment. This anthology is intended as a guide for future educators wishing to examine contemporary techniques, specifically art-based learning programs for students with learning disabilities.

As prospective teachers, we need to be aware of what characteristics define an LD child. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) puts forth this definition: “Learning Disabilities refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information.” When entering into this conversation, it is important to note the broad spectrum of disorders falling under this description. For example, British Columbia’s Ministry of Education categorizes Learning Disabilities into ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Speech and Language Impairment, and Memory Difficulty (12-13). Moving forward, we will explore how assistive technologies, cooperative learning, and art-based environments aid in LD students success in a normative school setting. But first, let’s look at what the recommended methods are for educators assisting LD students in British Columbia.

B.C. Ministry of Education’s book, Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers will provide context for this anthology. It is challenging to cite the specific individuals who compiled the book, as it is uncredited; however, the British Columbia School Superintendent’s Association is mentioned, as well as educators who have teaching experience with LD students (2). The manual is broken down into five sections: what is a learning disability, setting the stage, planning, strategies, and case studies (4). The ‘strategies’ chapter reveals specific expectations for educators within a standard school setting, listing numerous techniques, such as phonemic games for reading, hands-on method for spelling, encouraging questions through a K-W-L (Know-Wonder-Learn) chart for comprehension, and visual manipulatives for mathematics (54-86). At the beginning of the section, the guide mentions that the methods presented are not the only ones available, but “serve as a starting point for ideas about how to support students with learning disabilities” (49). Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers provides the reader with a basic understanding of useful methods to employ. Briefly mentioned is how to utilize assistive technologies to aid LD students but only in the context to improve reading comprehension (58). With technology advancing quickly, there are new developments to understand so we can better enhance the learning abilities of LD students.

Using Assistive Technology in Teaching Children with Learning Disabilities in the 21st Century creates an insightful compilation of the innovative methods available. The authors define assistive technologies (AT) as a device “that is used to maintain or improve the functioning of a child with a disability” (15). This article offers two questions to consider: why use assistive technology to teach children with learning disabilities? And what are the assistive technology educators can utilize? Adebisi et al. assert that assistive technology gives LD students the power to learn on their own instead of relying on others, significantly improving the well-being of the child. Thus, the devices are not intended to supersede core competencies but add to them (15). The authors categorize the various assistive technologies based on how they might help a student develop independence in writing, reading, mathematics, listening and memory (16-17). For example, speech synthesizers allow children to hear words they write or read, instead of relying on internal thoughts. Another example is talking calculators, so students can listen to numbers while they perform math problems. To aid with memory skills, the use of data managers and prewrite organizers will assist with memory retention by storing notes into computers and organizing the child’s thoughts into an understandable framework (16-17). Giving LD children the power of independence through AT will not only improve their academics but allow them to create better connections with fellow students (19). Adebisi et al. mention that these technologies will help LD children “gain access to peers and teachers” (19). This comment leads me into the investigation of peer-based learning to improve the academics of LD children within a western school system.

Similar to Adebisi et al. asserting concern over the importance of peer relationships, Joseph and Angela Sencibaugh investigate the importance of these connections within their article An Analysis of Cooperative Learning Approaches for Students with Learning Disabilities. Peer-based learning is a relatively new framework, which the Sencibaugh’s defined as “students work[ing] together in small groups to help each other learn” (357).  The small groups remain together for long periods of time to ensure the completion of larger goals. Various studies have seen a positive outcome for LD students placed in peer-based learning environments (358). In particular, the authors note that “in most instances, cooperative learning outperformed other types of instruction” (357) in the studies they examine. The authors refer to a colleague’s nine-week study completed in 2003, in which both peer tutoring and teacher-led lectures were used between two classrooms, where fifteen of the students had a learning disability. The LD students in the peer tutoring groups showed a greater improvement. During interviews, the LD students insisted that the peer tutoring helped them with reading comprehension, assisted them in remembering information, and indicated they would like to use peer tutoring in other subjects (359-360). Joseph and Angela Sencibaugh’s article lays out the benefits of collaborative learning environments; I encourage future educators to introduce similar practices into their classrooms, not only to aid those with learning disabilities, but to enhance the experience of all students.

Boardman et al. go one step further than Joseph and Angela Sencibaugh, by conducting their own case study instead of analyzing others. Their article, Collaborative Strategic Reading for Students With Learning Disabilities in Upper Elementary Classrooms provides clear reasoning of why team-base environments need to be employed by educators (423). Collaborative Strategic Reading is a “multicomponent reading comprehension instructional model theoretically grounded in cognitive psychology,” (411) where teachers place emphasis on students working together to support each other (411). Their case study conditions are as follows: sixty grade-four and five educators were chosen to be a part of the study; there were 1,372 children in total, and 32 have LD characteristics (414). Half of the groups conducted collaborative classroom techniques to teach reading comprehension, and the others teachers were told to continue their regular lesson plans. The results concluded that LD students present in the collaborative classrooms had better reading results than the classes where no changes occurred (409). Boardman et al. offer a unique perspective on the positive outcomes for LD students when educators employ a team-base learning environment. I encourage prospective teachers to consider including more team activities to benefit students with learning disabilities.

Lastly, but most importantly, we will explore the significance of art-based education to aid in LD students’ academic studies and well-being. Golnar Abedin’s dissertation, Exploring the Potential of Art-Based Education for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities: A Case Study of Engagement in Learning Through The Arts encapsulates a meaningful vision. Abedin’s conducted her case study in a conventional public school, where seven LD children were enrolled in a music and drama program. The results encompassed the LD students’ feedback on the program along with opinions from both parents and teachers (1-2). Overwhelmingly the study showed that “arts have the potential to provide a powerful context for meeting the affective and cognitive needs of adolescents with LD” (304). Abedin broke down the beneficial effects into three themes: “It feels like you open up to yourself;” (the Importance of Nonverbal, Embodied Engagement in Learning), “You get to create what’s your own; it has some thought part of it centered near you;” (Student Ownership of the Learning Process) and “In arts there is no wrong answer; it’s a safer social environment;” (The Social and Pedagogical Context of Learning) (293). The LD students’ experiences within drama and music classes matched those listed above and positively affected their involvement in other academic courses (293). Golnar Abedin’s study speaks directly to my recommendation that the provincial government must create more opportunities for art-based education to improve the quality of learning for LD students.

Irene Karagiorgakis’s thesis paper The Visual Arts-Based Experiences of Students with Learning Disabilities: Two Multiple-Perspective Case Studies exemplifies how art can positively affect LD children’s learning abilities. In comparison to Abedin’s dissertation which encompasses both music and drama, Karagiorgakis’s work looks specifically at the effect that visual art has on LD students (1). Although the case studies conducted by Karagiorgakis only include two students with LD—Gwen and Kevin, her results show that the students’ engagement in visual arts unmistakably raised their learning capabilities (2-3). The students participated in visual art exercises during Literacy and History class (46). Amid these subjects, art activities included reproducing historical human faces with earth clay (115) and designing a scrapbook to showcase comprehension of poems (144). Both the student’s personal experience and their work engagement concludes the final results (172). Karagiorgakis states that the art-based learning environments “incited positively their learning attitudes, engagement levels, and feelings of academic self-efficacy” (218) for Gwen and Kevin. Both Golnar Abedin and Irene Karagiorgakis’s dissertations have successfully explained the importance of art-based learning to improve the academic achievements of LD children.

After reviewing these pieces, I leave it to my readers to decide which method should be employed more often in B.C.’s traditional school system. I have arranged these six sources in descending order from the most recommended to the least, as suggested in the B.C. Ministry of Education’s book, Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers. By including different methods, it acknowledges different styles of learning among students; for example, one child might show signs of improvement while engaged in art activities, but team-based exercises might distract them from learning the material. In my experience, art helped me to develop skills that directly benefitted courses that I was struggling with. Both drama and visual art taught me how to open up to myself, similarly to the results Abedin describes in her case study. During my last years of high school, art and drama classes helped me to accept my unique style of learning. It saddens me to see art-based education slowly disappearing from elementary schools. I urge my fellow peers to acknowledge its value and to ensure that art is more commonly utilized to better LD students’ academic achievements.


all the colors by kyra power

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