Special educator Mindy Eichhorn of the Gordon College, Massachusetts, recently published a paper that critically examines educational policy and its impact on students’ transition to post-secondary education, in the context of students with learning disabilities in Mumbai.
In this interview with UNESCO MGIEP, she looks back at the process of the study and talks about why she was drawn to researching learning disabilities in India, what her biggest takeaway was and how she found inspiration in the subjects of her research.
Tell us a little bit about your educational and professional background.
I’ve known that I wanted to be a special education teacher since I was 14 years old. I took a mentorship class in high school, which enabled me to finish my courses early and spend the rest of the school day in our local middle school’s substantially separate special education classroom. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Special Education and my Master’s degree in Education (with an emphasis on inclusive education) from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I moved to Hartford, Connecticut after graduating – one of the poorest areas of the U.S., yet in the richest state in the nation. I was a special educator in a K-8 school, focusing on co-teaching in 2nd and 3rd grades.
I had the opportunity to go to India in 2004. I was moved by the shortage of special educators in the country, so I pursued additional opportunities to join the inclusive education movement in India. In 2009, I began my doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in International Education Leadership and Policy. I completed my degree in 2014, and have since been an assistant professor of Education at Gordon College, near Boston.
Why did you choose to focus on learning disabilities in India?
When I began my career in Hartford, most of the students on my caseload had learning disabilities. LD was the area of special education in which I had the most experience. So, when I moved to India, I shared the strategies that I had used in my role as a special education co-teacher.
LD intrigued me in India. Although India has made great gains in disability awareness and legislation over the past few decades, LD is still not a part of Persons with Disability (PWD) Act, or the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act. In the U.S., students with LD make up one-third of all students that receive special education services. By focusing on LD in India, I hope to create greater awareness among teachers and professors in India and advocate for these students, even when the law does not yet acknowledge this area of special education.
What were the most challenging aspects of this study?
Probably the greatest challenge was working around the various school breaks/festivals and exam schedules to collect data. Also, as I acknowledge in the working paper, it was difficult to obtain information at times, being an outsider. However, I did find my Hindi and Marathi language skills to be quite useful!
What has been the biggest takeaway for you from your research?
I have been inspired by the resilience, self-determination, and grit of the students and post-college adults with LD. I have also been encouraged by the advocates that support these students, such as “Mr. Kumar,” a lecturer at “Gandhi College” and the Maharashtra Dyslexia Association. I remain hopeful that the Indian education system can provide greater access to ALL students.
Tell us a little bit more about your future publications/areas of focus.
In my research, Indian students with math learning disabilities at the secondary level revealed that they did not understand key math concepts and mentioned being scared of math. A post-secondary lecturer also mentioned that students have “a phobia, or a mental block about math. They have a preconceived notion that math is difficult” (M. Sen, personal communication, February 6, 2013). These students may be exhibiting characteristics of mathematics anxiety. Therefore, my next study focused on exploring the teaching and learning of mathematics at the foundational level, in order to try to determine at what point students’ math skills begin to break down. I have created universal math screening tools to be administered at the beginning of 2nd standard and 5th standard. These screening tools were piloted in Kolkata in June – July 2015 by Breaking Through Dyslexia. An article on the 2nd standard results will be published in the June 2016 edition of the Asia Pacific Journal of Developmental Differences. The results of the fifth standard screener are forthcoming.
This summer, I will be working with an undergraduate student to explore the predispositions of early childhood and elementary education majors towards math and overcoming these initial tendencies to expand novice teachers’ ideas of what it means to teach mathematics, and to engage in mathematical work. Perhaps this will lead to a comparative study with elementary teachers in India.
About the author:
Melinda (Mindy) Eichhorn, Ed.D, is currently an assistant professor of education at Gordon College. She holds a B.S. (Special Education) from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a M.S. (Education), University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a Ed.D. (Educational Policy and Leadership) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Mindy has spent more than six years in India as a special education consultant and inclusion specialist. Prior to working in India, Mindy was a special education teacher in the Hartford Public Schools. Her research interests include math learning disabilities, transition, early intervention in mathematics, teachers’ perceptions of mathematics, and the use of professional development to improve math instruction.
Download your copy of ‘Policy and Practise in Post-Secondary Education: The transitional experience for students with learning disabilities in India’ here: http://bit.ly/1NWckrH