Learning Enabled- Leveraging Technology with Exceptional Learners


The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), with funding provided by the Ontario Ministry of Education, is supporting Collaborative Learning Community (CLC) projects during the 2016/2017 school year. These CLC’s allow teachers to explore and share solutions to common professional dilemmas through action research, by meeting with colleagues to develop resources, or to implement new instructional strategies. Projects this year focus on Mathematics and/or Technology.

This January, three colleagues and I will initiate our CLC joint inquiry project titled Leveraging Technology With Exceptional Learners. Each of us is a Special Education teacher, working in somewhat different roles within the Ottawa Catholic School Board. The question that guides our inquiry is, “How might technology be leveraged to increase independence among exceptional learners?” To answer the question, we will co-teach, share best practices and investigate technological learning tools. Specifically, we will assess whether our students access the best tools to meet their individual learning needs. Then, we will share our findings with educators within the board and educational community at large. We anticipate that by doing so, our technological capacity will increase the capacity of other teachers. This inquiry is and will be a work in progress.

To understand the rationale for this inquiry, travel back in time with me to my first year of teaching. It is Spring 1999. I am administering the Grade 3 EQAO assessment. In the front row, sits a blond-haired boy. I watch as he opens the first testing booklet. He stares blankly as he turns a page, then another. Carefully he scrolls through the twisted, mesh of letters on each page.

Diagnosed as having a learning disability, on each page he sees jumbles of letters, no words, no structure and no meaning. He calls me over. Asks my assistance in deciphering what is in the booklet. My response, a gut-wrenching, “Do the best you can.”

In the classroom, during regular instruction, he relies on scribing, and having text read aloud to him. He relies on my input to construct meaning and to unlock the mysteries of print on a page. With these accommodations he successfully learns what he is supposed to learn. However, in the testing setting, without the supports he has in the  classroom, this boy is left to his own devices. Much, as in life, we are left to our own capacities to solve and delineate.

Now, step into my Grade 6 classroom in May of last year. Look at that young boy sitting four rows back. On his desk, a Chromebook. Like his classmates, he uses it for inquiring about an exemplary, innovative thinker. His thinker is Walt Disney. Alongside his peers, he uses the Chromebook to simplify pages, have text read to him and, using a microphone attached to a headset, to record his thoughts. Every so often, I pass by him to ensure he is on track. Next week, during EQAO assessment, he will require no scribe. He will access the same voice-to-text and read aloud features. He is not passive in his own learning.

In the past, accommodations for a student with exceptionalities relied heavily on tangible teacher support – scribing ideas for students, reading text aloud,  or using peer tutors.  Often, programming involved duotangs to be completed by the student, as separate modified work. To enable the student to work independently, while the teacher instructed the rest of the students, this work was at an easier level than the student was capable of producing.

As with so many instructional accommodations for exceptional learners, we lead a student to believe that success relies upon others’ involvement. To succeed, a student must rely on an external support, most often a teacher. This is a clear doctrine in fostering learned helplessness and a failure to increase self-reliance and independence in our learners. We need to exercise caution.

Early in my career, the first assistive technology I encountered was used by students with developmental disabilities. A combination of knobs, buttons and levers enabled the students with physical disabilities a greater sense of independence. Later, in the regular classroom, early voice-to-text and listening tools slowly made their way into programming. The complexity required to program and navigate the software and interfaces of these types of learning tools generated much frustration. As did the finiteness of their usage.

But, thankfully, times have changed. Today, ease of access, use, functionality and a wide range of learning tools are readily available to support learners. Now, with appropriate technology exceptional students work on the same tasks as their classmates. Learn, innovate and create alongside their peers. Participate in the same, not separate or watered-down learning tasks. Moreover, technology enables exceptional students to demonstrate understanding in ways beyond paper and pencil. In sum, technology has potential to level the playing field. It enables success in ways which enable all learners to grow, to achieve and to own their own learning.

According to Rick Lavoie, fairness does not mean everyone gets them same, but rather, everyone gets what they need. This concept is depicted below.


While what is good for some, is good for all – the effect of technology on academic performance, self-esteem and learning skills has no greater impact than on exceptional learners.

The focus of our project is to develop more independent learners through growing their capacity with technological tools that accommodate their unique needs. Finding the best tools and supports involves eliminating frustration, reducing barriers, such as reading or writing levels, and allowing students to capture their learning and push the boundaries of their potential. In this way, we as teachers move to the sideline and allows the student to be front and center in their own learning.

It is our belief that if students utilize the skills they have and if they utilize the available technological tools to support their learning, then they will overcome learned helplessness and academic barriers and become more self-reliant, independent learners.  In this way, technology usage equates to a means for closing the achievement gap for exceptional learners.

Project Team:

Leslie Cardarelli @MrsCardarelli_R
Special Education Teacher at St. Bernard School, OCSB
Leslie oversees the Special Education programming for Kindergarten to Grade 4 students.

Charlene Davidson @mscdavidson
Junior Special Needs Teacher at St. Marguerite d’Youville School, OCSB
The Junior Special Needs program is for Grade 4-6 students identified with a Mild Intellectual Disability.

Sarah Faloon @MrsFaloonPLC
Language Class Teacher at St. John the Apostle School, OCSB
The Language Class program is for Grade 1 to 3 students identified with a Language Impairment.

Laurie Azzi @laurie_azzi
Learning Strategies Teacher at Holy Family School, OCSB
The Learning Strategies program is for Grade 5 students identified with a Learning Disability. It is a one-year intensive program.

We are grateful for this opportunity to put ideas into action. To be part of this learning journey, read our reflections here and on Twitter. Together we can ensure that all learners are engaged, productive and successful in our classrooms. Let’s empower all learners!