Flexible Curricula

“How can we rethink and remake educational systems that will provide more flexibility and educate more students effectively?” (Young & Minitz 501)

This is the most important question that we can ask if we want to create accessible curricula and classroom environments where all students feels comfortable sharing and learning. Young & Minitz argue that instructors should take responsibility for making classrooms, curricula, and teaching practices as accessible as possible (502). The question, then, is how we do that.

Ginsberg & Schulte note that ~10% of U.S. college students have a disability, yet college instructors have the least support and knowledge about how to educate students with disabilities (84).  Through their qualitative survey—which admittedly feels a bit shallow (i.e. They only interviewed faculty from one school, and it’s not entirely clear why they chose that school.)—we see faculty responses that range from “I’m treating the students [with disabilities] differently” to “I do for them ‘what I do for all students’” (88). It seems like the most negative comments come from instructors who support the deficit-model of disability, positioning students with disabilities as “defective” and in need of being fixed (85). So a shift in attitude may be the first step to creating more flexible curricula. Instructors who view students with disabilities from clinical and othering perspectives can’t begin to create accessible classroom environments. Post-secondary instructors need to adopt the social model of disability that locates the problems within our interactions, relationships, and environments.

Adopting a social constructivist model is certainly important, but it doesn’t answer the original question: How do we physically enact accessible practices?

The second step is definitely implementing accessible classroom practices. The answers from Ginsberg & Schulte’s survey give us some ideas:

  • asking students to paraphrase materials to gauge understanding,
  • breaking down content (which Sousa tells us is necessary for comprehension, anyway),
  • giving exams in different formats,
  • meeting with students one on one, and
  • encouraging student collaboration (89).

These options are all fairly interactive, advocate student-centered learning (which makes learning more relevant and comprehensible), and encourage delivering information in multiple modes of communication. If a student has trouble listening to a lecture, try delivering that information visually or as a written supplement. Even better, if I’m trying to explain a complex concept, I have students work together to learn the material and then present it to me. This repositioning gets students involved, positions them as valuable knowledge-makers, and emphasizes their abilities. As Harwood & and Humphry may argue, it highlights what students “can do” rather than highlighting what is “done for them” (379).

For me, the best way to create accessible practices is to focus on multiplicity and flexibility, which are often interrelated. I teach Composition & Rhetoric to undergrads, which always involves a final research project. In terms of multiplicity, I try enacting as many different classroom practices as possible—we brainstorm ideas visually and verbally, do research in the library and in online databases, draft outlines in traditional formats and in mental maps, and share drafts with each other throughout the process. In terms of flexibility, there are always set curricular goals, but I always allow a wide range of media for the final product—e.g. traditional term papers, websites, scrapbooks, formal reports, collections of brief essays, multimedia presentations, etc. Students need the flexibility to learn and compose in whichever ways make them the most comfortable, which will ultimately allow them to do the best work they can.

So, what practices work in your classrooms?



Ginsberg, Sarah M., and Karen Schulte. “Instructional Accommodations: Impact of Conventional vs. Social Constructivist View of Disability.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 8.2 (2008): 84-91.

Harwood, Valerie, and Nici Humphry. “Taking Exception: Discourses of Exceptionality and the Invocation of the ‘Ideal.’” Disability & the Politics of Education: An International Reader. Eds. Susan L. Gabel and Scot Danforth. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008. 372-83.

Young, Kathryn, and Emily Mintz. “A Comparison: Difference, Dependency, and Stigmatization in Special Education and Disability Studies.” Disability & the Politics of Education: An International Reader. Eds. Susan L. Gabel and Scot Danforth. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008. 499-511. Print.

4 responses to “Flexible Curricula

  1. Allison,
    I agree with you about teachers having to make a shift in their attitudes first. In my opinion, nothing else can fall into place until there is a shift in attitude, because I think that is the root of the problem of students not being properly supported in educational settings. I feel that once a teacher views students as able instead of not able, then everything else begins to fall into place. I enjoyed reading through the instructional example you provided in your post. This past fall I was observing in an elementary classroom where they were working on a Social Studies unit on the U.S. Government. This unit was set up in a way that connected all types of learners at different parts. The students were split up into groups of 4, and were asked to do a webquest to find the answers to questions provided to them (each group focused on a different branch of government). Then the teacher made new groups so there was a student representing each branch of government in the newly formed groups. The students then created a poster and presented it to the class. Throughout this unit the teacher incorporated almost all learning styles at least once, and with the students working in teams they could rely on their peers for help and not just the teacher.

  2. Allison and Angela –
    Shifts in attitude are extremely important to more effective teaching. However, there can still be issues in stigma and/or referencing normative discourses around disability. How might these be avoided?
    Allison, in reference to your comments about Ginsberg & Schulte’s qualitative method, Phil Ferguson (in Ferguson, Ferguson, & Taylor [eds.], 1994, p. 167) writes that case studies can be limited, but we must “learn all we can” from them. What benefits might there be from studying something in just one place? Since you don’t seem to be much of a fan of Ginsberg & Schulte’s research design, what would you do differently? How might this change the study?
    Andrew Bennett

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