When Dr. Edmund Cervone established The Center for Learning at The Pennington School in 1975, he articulated a mission for the program that still stands today. This mission includes the tenet that students who learn differently than their more typical peers--students who have been labeled as learning disabled--should have full access to a college preparatory program. Dr. Cervone envisioned an academic environment that honored the individuality of all learners--those with learning disabilities and those without--and approached teaching in such a way that all students had the opportunity not only to achieve but to attain individual excellence. At the time that it was articulated, this vision may have seemed somewhat radical. Even today, there are still those who may think that addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities within a college preparatory setting runs the risk of compromising the “rigor” of the academic program. Over thirty years of experience serving students with learning disabilities at The Pennington School has shown us otherwise. In articulating his philosophy of learning, Dr. Cervone asserted “that understanding transcends memorization, verbalization, and coverage, … that processes bear equal value to content, that there are multiple intelligences, … and that the best principles of learning for students with differences or disabilities are the best principles for all students.”
Working to continually develop and refine a curriculum that will help students to meet the changing demands of college and life in the 21st century provides exciting opportunities for educators. From the perspective of the Center for Learning, the opportunity goes beyond reasserting our founding beliefs about learning, however. For students with learning disabilities, this reframing of educational goals represents a move even further away from a focus on some of the basic skills that may have represented stumbling blocks in the past. Just as the need to spend tremendous amounts of instructional time addressing spelling problems--a common difficulty for students with dyslexia--has faded in importance with the rise of simple technology tools such as spell check, we see a move to curricular goals that are accessible by their very nature. A curriculum that keenly focuses on higher-order thinking skills, cross-curricular understandings, collaboration, creativity, and real-world problem-solving abilities appropriately challenges all students. And for those who learn “differently,” that difference can be a strength that they can bring to bear to meet these curricular goals.
The concurrent development and further refinement of educational and assistive technologies adds to the excitement. While not a panacea, we can make available assistive technologies that can provide ways to get over, under, and around a host of potential obstacles. Voice recognition software allows students to use their strong verbal abilities without being hampered by problems with written expression. Text-to-speech software programs make the world of electronic text, including the Internet, accessible to all students, even those with reading difficulties. Technologies designed to enhance learning for all students, such as electronic whiteboards, mini notebook computers, portable note-taking devices, portable wireless electronic books, and Web 2.0 learning environments are transforming the way that all students interact with the curriculum, but they are also breaking down potential obstacles for students with learning disabilities. Dr. Cervone believed that “learning should be a nurturing of success rather than a cataloguing of errors.” In every way we should focus on what students can do well, not on what they cannot do well. We are continually finding ways to help students to work to their strengths, and technology innovations and a focus on 21st-century skills are working hand-in-hand in ways that allow us to serve all of our students--those with learning disabilities and those without--better and better all the time. Now more than ever we can see “that the best principles of learning for students with differences or disabilities are the best principles for all students.”
- Jo Prockop, Director of the Center for Learning