GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT
By: Carmen Willings
Students who are blind or visually impaired need specialized instruction in order understand concepts in a highly visual world. This unique programming includes teaching through concrete and unifying experiences and learning by doing. As stated on the Impact on Development & Learning page, Lowenfeld, a leader in the field of visual impairments, identified three strategies to use when working with students who are blind or visually impaired. The three strategies are: concrete experiences, learning by doing, and unifying experiences.
Interaction with a model are not the same as interaction with a real object, particularly if the student has not had direct contact and interaction with the real item. This is true for all students, but especially for students who are blind or visually impaired. For example, playing with a plastic animal has no meaning to the student who has not touched, smelled, heard and interacted with the real animal. It is important to provide interaction with actual objects first and then determine if the student can transfer that understanding to a model or a raised line drawing. Do not assume that a student has had experiences even with what you think may be common objects. For example, a student's family may have a van and the student may not have had contact with a car or all parts of a car. In this situation, it would be a good idea to discuss similarities and differences as you provide interaction with a variety of vehicles in the school parking lot.
Learn by Doing
Students with visual impairments need to be directly involved with all aspects of the day in order to better understand the world including where materials are kept, the process of preparing food, the completion of chores and other daily routines. Involvement in these repeated routines will promote independence and minimize the student's dependence on others.
In an effort to demonstrate kindness and compassion, good intentioned adults and peers (or those in a hurry) sometimes create learned helplessness in students with disabilities. Coats magically hang themselves up, food magically appears in front of them and disappears when they are done, and toys that are thrown or dropped magically reappear. This is often referred to as “The Good Fairy Syndrome.” It is important to replace “The Good Fairy Syndrome” with the desire to be a part of the action and to be independent. Avoid learned helplessness by providing the student with responsibilities.
Help develop responsibility by encouraging the students do as much as possible for themselves. The students should be expected to move about their familiar classroom to obtain materials or information and be responsible for their own belongings. When teaching the student a process that includes several steps, make sure the students participate in all the steps from the beginning to the end of the process. If the student only completes one or a few of the steps, they may be unaware of all of the other steps that someone else completed. As soon as possible, let the student move through the activity independently so they do not become dependent on someone moving them through the motions.
If a student cannot participate independently, explore ways that the student can be assisted through the activity, allowing him to complete the steps that he can do independently. Gradually fade assistance until the student can be independent. Some students, particularly those who are blind, will need to be gently moved through the activity in order to understand what is expected. This is best when the facilitator is behind the student so that the facilitator’s body is oriented the same way as the student’s body. These repeated opportunities and natural experiences will help the student make associations. Responsibility and independence are essential in the student reaching their greatest potential.
Another essential skill the student must learn is that of problem solving. When a student needs help, show the student alternative ways of handling a situation, rather than automatically providing the support. Challenge the student to think of alternatives and reinforce the student when he or she comes up with a solution. Last, but not least, never do anything for the student that they can do for themselves. You are not doing the student any favors by teaching them to be dependent on you.
Teaching in thematic units can help a student make connections between and among the topics of instruction that are discussed. Units expand vocabulary, concepts, and skills beyond those which can be experienced incidentally in daily routines or in isolation. Deliberate, relevant and purposeful lesson planning is critical for all students. Intentionally incorporate concept development into the lesson plans. Most concepts must be directly taught and not assumed that the student is learning these skills independently or through passive listening. Watch for situations for which the student has had no prior experience (e.g. foods in different forms: corn-on-the cob, cooked corn, popcorn, dried corn; matter in altered form: water, steam, ice, dew, condensation; sources of things: milk comes from cows; occupations: what jobs people perform; etc.)
Be sure to plan lessons that challenge each student. Each student must participate at a level they can. Facilitate and guide learning to provide a supportive “scaffold” that enables each child to move to the next level of independent functioning. Learning activities should be developed to accommodate differences in ability and interest. Incorporate task analysis, backward chaining, modeling, motoring, demonstration, use of routines, reinforcement. In order to keep in mind what each student is working on – create charts that display items from each student’s IEP and hang on the wall or cabinet (remember to not identify the student, but instead use a color, shape or other type of code).
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Due to the nationwide shortage of vision professionals, it can be challenging to locate personnel. Announce a job vacancy on the Job Exchange of Teaching Students with Visual Impairments, an online listing of jobs specific to the visual impairment field.