Attitude Change through Service Learning
Wilson, Gloria Lodato, Academic Exchange Quarterly
General education teachers are being directed to embrace and implement inclusive practices as a result of the enactment of IDEA. However, an essential element for successful inclusion lies not in legal mandates, but rather, in teacher attitude. The author examines the service learning experiences of preservice general education teachers. Service learning in a special education setting is an important component in the education of preservice general educators allowing for personal reflection and exposure that affects their attitudes toward students with disabilities.
Attitudes Toward Disabilities
The inclusion of students with disabilities is drastically altering the roles and responsibilities of general education teachers in the United States. Under the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities no longer have to earn the right to participate in the general education environment. Special education is now viewed as a set of services and not a location, placing the responsibility on all American school districts to support students with disabilities in the general curriculum and for the most part in general education classes (IDEA, 1997). The issues surrounding inclusive education are far from simple, and there remain debates in the educational community over both ideology and implementation. There are those who favor "full inclusion" with what amounts to a battle cry of "all means all" (Lipsky & Gartner, 1996). Proponents of full inclusion for all students declare that all students would benefit from an educational community that is committed to supporting student growth and understanding of the dynamics involved in learning. There are others who, while supporting inclusion for most, contend that the continuation of options regarding where learning occurs must remain open. Placements in a continuum of services include such environments as special education self-contained classes and schools.
What has not been the subject of debate, however, is the enormous impact of inclusion, whether full or partial, on the general education community. While an expanse of student abilities within general education classrooms is historical, the diversity of that range today includes students with mild to severe disabilities, as well as a broad array of other cultural and linguistic factors. Today, in typical general education classrooms all over the country and at all levels, there are students with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, and physical and sensory disabilities. The multiplicity of student characteristics and needs is stretching the boundaries of the general educator's teaching in such a learning environment. General education teachers are being directed to embrace and implement inclusive practices (Kolar & Dickson, 2002). In order for inclusion to be successful, an essential element must be addressed: attitude. The positive attitudes of all participants in inclusive settings, including teachers, students, parents, administrators and support staff, towards students with disabilities, is of the utmost importance. Without a belief system that incorporates notions of great expectations of learning and growth for students with disabilities in inclusive settings, there will be little learning or growth (Kolar & Dickson, 2002; Lipsky & Gartner, 1996).
But, how, when, and where in the education of teachers, does reflection on individual belief systems take place? Preservice general education programs on the undergraduate and graduate levels are increasingly incorporating special education courses into their plan of studies to address attitudes and expand knowledge. Some programs are now adding the additional component of service learning to present preservice general education teachers with direct exposure to students with disabilities. This exposure is critical for future teachers to provide them with opportunities to examine their personal attitudes toward the wide diversity of learners (Cromwell & Curran, 2002; Mayhew, 2000; Boyle-Baise & Efiom, 1999). …