A Specialized Learning Environment

What differentiates ‘special’ from ‘general’ education? One answer could be that special education is an experience uniquely catered to a student’s strengths and areas of opportunity. By leveraging an individualized approach to learning, a student may learn through methods that best address his or her needs. In short, special education provides a student with the exact tools and skills necessary to be successful. In fact, federal policy highlights four key outcomes for special education: (a) equal opportunity, (b) full participation, (c) independent living, and (d) economic self-sufficiency. Summarized by Turnbull (2005), these outcomes are worthy goals not only for special education but also for all of education. Wouldn’t all students benefit from a fair chance to be active and independent contributors to society? I would answer a resounding “YES!” to this question, and here at the SWIFT Center, we strive for these outcomes, too.

One difficulty we as educators face is siloization. We spend a great deal of our day in our own silo—we shut our classroom door, we have difficulty finding the time to work together, and we specialize and narrow our content areas and skillset. SWIFT hopes to break these silos through unique collaborations. By including the entire faculty and staff of a school, the community, parental support, as well as local and state endeavors, we believe significant progress can be made to break these silos and provide a quality education. Spend a moment reflecting on the above graphic. My brother David Pollitt, a photographer, took this photo at Fermilab outside of Chicago. It is a great representation of what can happen when silos marry—one unified vision of understanding and purpose. Rather than broken, disjointed perspectives, the art piece draws your eyes towards the centered, integrated whole.

Now, how to get our silos to integrate? It is much easier to ask this question than answer it! However, I was excited to read about IBM’s recent 5 in 5, and its relation to our work at SWIFT. If you are not familiar with IBM’s 5 in 5, each year five predictions of “innovations that will change our lives in the next five years” are made. Some of these predictions seem bizarre—computers that can “sniff” artwork—or tasty—a mathematical equation for concocting flavorful food—but one particular 5 in 5 for 2013 caught my eye. In this year’s The classroom will learn you, IBM predicts that “the classroom of the future will shift from a one-size-fits-all model to a truly personalized environment.” With a smart classroom, it is believed that cloud-based data will use cognitive systems to not only track and monitor student progress, but develop records that can personalize learning experiences. Furthermore, this system could recommend instructional strategies, interventions, or probe more deeply to understand student strengths and areas of opportunity. Rather than simply reviewing data, it is predicted that cognitive systems will consider student learning preferences and guide educators along a process of creating a specialized learning environment for each student. IBM, without using phrases familiar to us like “multi-tiered systems of support” (MTSS) or “universal design for learning” (UDL), has essentially outlined how the alignment of silos can foster a more valuable educational experience. When considering the outcome of wanting all students to be active and independent contributors to society, breaking down the silos to focus on a more quality education is no longer an imaginary goal for the future—it is now an exciting reality in 2014. I encourage you to watch the IBM 5 in 5 video in the provided link.


IBM Research (2013). The classroom will learn you: Cognitive systems will provide decision support for teachers. Retrieved from http://www.research.ibm.com/cognitive-computing/machine-learning-applications/decision-support-education.shtml

Pollitt, D. M. (2013). A trip with the family to Chicago. Retrieved from http://www.properspective.com/Galleries/Travel/Chicago/i-jZFKpCf

Turnbull, H. R. (2005). Individuals with disabilities education act reauthorization: Accountability and personal responsibility. Remedial and Special Education26(6), 320-326.

– Dan Pollitt

Photo of blog author.Dan Pollitt is a research project manager at the SWIFT Education Center and oversees the training and implementation of SWIFT-FIT and SWIFT-FIA fidelity tools. He is a former elementary and middle school classroom teacher and as an adjunct graduate faculty in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas, teaches undergraduate and graduate students. He can be reached @danpollittphd on Twitter.