It's Time to Reimagine Special Education

Erin Madonna
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It's Time to Reimagine Special Education

September 15, 2020 | MARIO Framework, High Expectations

By Erin Madonna, special educator at International School Bangkok

As a young teacher, I held the misguided notion that the more experienced I became, the more my teaching practice would evolve into a hyper-complex system. I entered my career believing that experienced teachers had layers upon layers of mysterious systems and tools they used, that teaching was about learning more and adding more. This concept, that packing my toolbox as full as I could would lead to success for my students, drove my early years in education. Not surprisingly, the results were underwhelming.


Thanks to some amazing mentors along the way, I began to understand that effective educators, while they have been exposed to numerous programs and systems and tools, are actually masters of simplifying the learning process. A few consistent, evidence-based practices far outweigh heavy binders of complicated curriculum.


The MARIO Framework resonates with me because it systematizes the distillation of pedagogy. It takes a holistic approach, and yet it leans so heavily into the evidence-base that it centers on a very clear set of practices, which impact student growth in positive ways. MARIO is about dissecting learning into its component parts and helping students to develop an awareness of how to construct their own learning. It doesn’t overcomplicate the process, but rather looks for the key practices in each domain and ensures that MARIO Educators know how to utilize them in their unique contexts.


By crystallizing best practices in a way that is digestible and practical, MARIO gives educators the breathing room to personalize their work for their unique learners. No two MARIO classrooms will ever look exactly alike. There is something revolutionary in that truth, in its flexibility and its adaptability.


Now, add in the deep focus on developing interpersonal communication, building relationships, and we reach the sublime. For a long time, in learning support, it felt like we had to tip-toe around the idea of one-to-one instruction. Inclusion has come so far from the days where students were pulled out and remediated in tracked classes. Yet the fear of being associated with this practice caused us to proclaim that group work and push-in, immersive services were the gold-standard, the only standard. In our efforts to be capital-I inclusive, we siloed one-to-one time into small soundbites of skill-based remediation. What MARIO does is refocus on maximizing the impact of time spent together. It asserts that one-to-one work is not “bad” if applied meaningfully, intentionally, and flexibly. We don’t stagnate in the one-to-one space, we constantly adapt and grow together.


I recognize that my current development as an educator is around categorizing Learning Support less as a specialty with defined boundaries and more as a practice fluidly interacting with the infinite spectrum of neurodiversity. All students and all educators fall somewhere on that spectrum, and so we are led to consider personalization as a universal practice.


By defining goals through the lens of the learner’s priorities, we push the concept of personalization closer to its true center. When was the last time you asked a learner what they wanted their IEP/ILP goals to be? I am the first to admit that I could increase the consistency with which I draw learners into their own plan creation. MARIO won’t allow us to skip this step because MARIO is built around student-driven learning, start to finish. By incrementally training metacognitive processes, MARIO learners will develop a strong sense of self-efficacy and know that they are in control of their growth.

Thinking back to that young educator, confused at the start of her career, I would love to have been able to introduce her to the MARIO Framework.

-Erin Madonna


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