Civic Engagement and Meaning Based Learning: Reflections from the Ohio TASH Conference

The following post was submitted by Kathy Hulgin and Barb McKenzie, Ohio TASH board member and board chairperson, respectively.

“Like-minded people making a difference” is how one participant described the recent Ohio TASH conference titled, Civic Engagement and Meaning Based Learning. We organized the conference for just that purpose – to rally around the civic commitment to inclusive and meaning based education. We hoped to identify and highlight situations in which people were making a difference by countering the reductive approaches, which characterize so much of education today. Adults with disabilities, parents, and educators shared stories of the possibilities.

The conference theme put forth a vision of education as “a community of learners who are genuinely engaged in asking questions and solving problems that have personal and societal significance and that come out of the real concerns of the students themselves” (DeBoer, 1997). The barriers to this vision are greater today than they were 20 years ago when leaders such as Cheryl Jorgensen challenged educators to see the benefit of re-structuring schools in such a direction. There is no longer a need to convince educators of the value in this approach. As the practice of narrowly focused and prescribed curriculum takes hold, the consequences have hit home for many. Meaning based learning has shifted from a vision held by leaders of inclusive education to a deep yearning by most educators to connect with their work and their students.

A sense of unity and empowerment began to build during the opening session as Frank Fitch discussed how “data driven” “interim” or “benchmark” assessments and instruction are a disguised form of teaching to the test, with a bits-and-pieces, skill-and–drill approach that not only perpetuates segregation but inhibits creativity, motivation, mathematical thinking, and academic achievement. Shifting power away from this approach requires questioning seemingly irrefutable concepts such as “data driven instruction” and standing up for that which is being negated by them.  

This was the perfect lead in to our keynote session by Cheryl Jorgensen on “Inquiry Based Instruction that Accommodates Student Diversity.” Through her extensive work she provided practical guidance for designing instruction that promotes engagement, creativity and complex learning for ALL students. Afterwards, Cheryl and Barb McKenzie led a discussion that focused on sharing examples of inclusive education using quality indicators developed by the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire as a guide. This research based collection was enhanced with a comparable list gathered informally through observation and reflection by a parent and educators of one student over a “life study.” What does an inclusive learning community look like? How is learning for all affected and enhanced?

We realized it was critical to identify more practices that showed it was possible, even in our local circumstances, to escape the pull of current trends. We held out the principles of meaning based education, as defined above, and identified some exceptional situations. Karen Fitch, a middle school mathematics teacher, described ways in which she employs a holistic, collaborative, inquiry based approach in an inclusive mathematics classroom. Chris Preston and his colleagues described how they cultivate inventive thinking through projects such as their students designing an exhibit for the local children’s museum. Susan Foster and her colleagues showed us how they align academic standards to community service projects such as maintaining a local park. In the words of participants, they were “inspired, energized and rejuvenated” by these examples.

Robert Shuemak, Diana Mairose, and Linda Kunick, three founding members of the Advocacy Leadership Network in Cincinnati who have effectively shaped state and local policy related to employment, transportation, and the use of respectful language, talked about “Surviving (and Thriving) in School and Beyond.”  They were joined by other advocates who added rich stories to the round table discussions throughout the day.

Candee Basford recruited a few participants and powerfully demonstrated Action Learning, a small group learning approach that enables people to “creatively move through the muck” in the process of school change and civic engagement.  The learning process is an innovative yet simple approach that encourages insight and generates meaningful actions.

In the end, we gathered to share our experience of the conference in words and phrases that included: “Being here got me out of the rut.” “Teachers and students unite!” “Revolutionary!” “It feels like coming home, like I have a friend.” “I’m not alone.” Networking continues and interest is high to gather again in the near future.

Submitted by:

Kathy Hulgin, Education Department, College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Ohio TASH board member

Barb McKenzie, Ohio TASH board chairperson