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Hope is Essential


When I was invited to write a post for this blog I struggled with the topic. Which special interest of mine would I discuss: evidence-based practices? empathy? civic professionalism? autism? I finally decided on a subject when I looked again at the title Hawks Hope Blog and zeroed in on the word: hope.

In all of my work in the field of education over the last 25 years hope is one construct that has been essential to success. My teaching career began in Connecticut. As a substitute teacher working in urban environments I needed hope to get through my day. I was hopeful that I could teach the diverse students in front of me and hopeful that they would teach me too. Later, as a special educator in an inclusion program I needed hope that I could meet the many needs of my students with disabilities while trying to include them with their peers but also teach them the daily living skills they needed.

One of the first educators I co-taught with was a veteran third grade teacher. She had amazing knowledge, skills, dispositions and most important to me — she was hopeful. This stance was vital as we initiated inclusive programming for three students with significant disabilities in the classroom. Hope was a foundation for proving naysayers wrong and taking on big challenges. Our hope was that we could foster friendships, change attitudes and teach all of our learners. It wasn’t easy; change often isn’t, but we made big gains over the years and everyone — families, students, and teachers — learned and grew.

After several years I moved to Kansas to begin a new phase of life. As a graduate student I needed hope that I could complete the volumes of readings, keep up with writing assignments and perform under pressure when testing students on our assessment team. While in graduate school I worked in a Kansas public school district as an inclusion facilitator. I needed hope to assist school teams who were supporting students with significant needs as well as keep up with a huge number of cases. In all of these experiences the thought that things could get better in the future, that educators’, families’ and my knowledge and skills would increase, and that students would improve the quality of their lives was necessary in changing systems and transforming lives. Hope was an essential ingredient!

I recall how excited I was when I first learned about Dr. Shane Lopez’s research about hope when attending a professional development workshop. Lopez, a KU alum and professor, not surprisingly found that students who are hopeful are happier, attend school more, are more engaged, are more resilient, and are excited about the future (Lopez, 2013; 2016). Lopez described how hope can spread by helping students make connections between the way they currently think, learn and behave to their future goals, aspirations and lives. Moreover, his research shows how we need to teach students multiple ways to reach meaningful goals in very specific pathways. This investment in the future is at the core of success. These ideas dovetail nicely with the educational initiatives of self-determination, positive behavior supports and strength based learning.


Dr. Shane Lopez

So many of the parents, siblings and other family members I have known over the years had hope that their relative with a disability would be accepted, would learn what they needed to learn, would be invited to an after school event at a friend’s house, etc. One particular parent I knew was a Rhode Island father of a young adult with autism. Despite the son’s significant limitations and behavioral challenges, the father hoped that he would be able to understand his child, provide him with the best supports and that he would be successful in his own way; this was inspiring to the entire transition team.

I happily recall working with an 8-year-old boy in Kansas who had an intellectual disability. He was a charming little guy with an infectious smile and a thorough knowledge of his family and their culture. He was hopeful that he could learn as much as he could about his favorite topics. He was so positive about all of his classmates and was always hopeful that they would want to play with him at recess or sit with him in class. His hopefulness was contagious and prompted many friendships and collaborations.

I now teach at Rhode Island College and hope remains an essential part of my life. I need to be hopeful to tackle the responsibilities of being a professor. Last year a few of my undergraduate students who were completing a field experience came back to the classroom and shared a difficult story. They described a cooperating teacher who was no longer hopeful and who was burdened by the many demands of modern day teaching. They observed child-teacher interactions that were not based in acceptance but rather filled with resentment. This mentor teacher asked my students, “Why do you want to teach these days?” and told them to, “Get out while you can…” My co-teacher and I took this opportunity to deeply discuss the teaching profession with our class and all the ups and downs that it brings. We asked questions about why this disgruntled teacher would think and feel the way she did. We ended with positive stories and stressed the importance of hope and how it can make a difference in the lives of others.

The bottom line is that we all need hope. In our complex ever-changing fast paced world there is often strife and difficulty. Clearly collaboration is a must to face these challenges and hope is a core disposition. Howard Zinn’s (2002) thoughts about hope provide an apropos conclusion:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

So here’s to behaving magnificently and positively changing the world…

Author’s note: I began thinking about the possible content of this essay in June of 2016 and was very pleased when I finally concluded I would write about hope. Thus, it was with great shock and sadness that I learned of Dr. Shane Lopez’s sudden passing away in late July 2016 while I was putting the finishing touches on this blog post. He was an inspiration to many and will be greatly missed…

Lopez, S. (2016). Positive education: Hope for children and youth with emotional and behavioral challenges. Invited Keynote lecture, Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders, Kansas City, MO.

Lopez, S. (2013). Making hope happen: Create the future you want for yourself and others. New York: Atria Books.

Zinn, H. (2002). You can’t be neutral on a moving train: A personal history of our times. Boston: Beacon Press.

LaCava pic

Dr. Paul G. LaCava

Dr. Paul G. LaCava is an associate professor of special education at Rhode Island College (RIC) in Providence. He is also the associate director of research at RIC’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities. Dr. LaCava spends his time teaching graduate and undergraduate courses, making service contributions and conducting research in autism, developmental disabilities, and evidence-based practice. He earned his Ph.D. at KU in special education in 2007 and is especially grateful for the mentorship of Dr. Rich Simpson, Dr. Brenda Smith Myles and Dr. Richard Whelan. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Lynda (also a KU education graduate!) and son Zachary (who loves KU hoops!) and likes to play guitar in any spare moment he can.

Behaviorism V. Constructivism: Bridging an “Ism” Schism What Should Special Education Researchers Be?

Tylers blog pix

By Tyler Hicks, Ph.D.

A colleague of mine was once in a conversation with two veteran special education professors. One was a radical behaviorist and the other, a just as radical, but a constructivist. He wanted to impress them both as he was a very young scholar at the time. So, one can imagine his dismay when one of the professors turned to him and asked point-blank, “Are you a behaviorist or a constructivist?”

Unsure how to respond, he replied limply, “Well, I’m actually both.” Needless to say, his answer failed to impress.  With a “pat on the back,” they assured him that his position was impossible.

What should he have said to his older colleagues instead? I think he should have told them, “I’m neither.” Why?  Behaviorism and constructivism have been locked in intellectual combat for the soul of special education research for a while now. Yet, the one thing that matters to behaviorists and constructivists alike is that there is a difference between behaviorism and constructivism. So, trying to be “both” at once is likely to make opponents on each side of the aisle question your sincerity or understanding of the issues. You might as well claim to be voting for both presidential candidates in the upcoming election at once.

Behaviorism, like constructivism, is an “ism” – not a method. The “ism” is what prevents someone from being both at the same time. Admiring behavior analysis (i.e., a method) does not make one a behaviorist. Constructivists can agree that behavior analysis enjoys a measure of success in practice. Although improbable, a constructivist could even be a behavior analyst while maintaining their constructivist position. This is because “behavior analyst” and “behaviorist” are highly correlated but not interchangeable terms. A “behaviorist,” unlike a mere “behavior analyst,” really denotes someone who claims that good research must conform to the ideals of behavior science (i.e., operational definitions, observation over inference, and stress on operant conditioning). In short, behaviorists are “fundamentalist positivists.”

Tyler pix 2

Constructivism, likewise, is a philosophical stance, not a method. Everyone recognizes that constructs, such as the monetary value of your car, are artificial inventions. They do not exist outside of human cognition. They depend upon us and belong to the social world of our own making. Some of these constructed ideas, as critical theorists recognize, can be very harmful (e.g., racist ideas, ablest ideas).

Even behaviorists recognize some ideas are constructed. However, constructivism goes much further than the trivial observation some ideas are constructed. Constructivism is the position that all ideas – not just a subset – are products of the human mind. Humans have no access to a reality independent of the human mind. In short, constructivists are relativists.

It seems, then, that neither constructivism nor behaviorism offer the full story. They both take us to untenable positions (i.e., relativism or positivism).

So, if behaviorism and constructivism are both unsatisfactory options, then what should special education researchers be? What position allows us to keep what is good about behaviorism and constructivism yet avoid the dead ends? That is a hard question to answer, one that I’ll save for a future post.

Yet what I will say now is that, in contrast to my colleague’s attempt at diplomacy, trying to be “both” is not the answer. Instead, why not reject the very grammar of the question, “Are you a behaviorist of a constructivist?” That question poses a false dilemma, for there are certainly other options for special education scholars (e.g., realism, pragmatism, and so on).

Perhaps those who are intrigued by the question ought to treat it as an invitation to read up on epistemology. A tough, but rewarding, subject.


Tyler Hicks, Ph.D. (Special Education & Measurement/Evaluation), is a Post-Doctorate Researcher in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas and the SWIFT (School-Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation) Center. His academic interests include Bayesian epistemology, philosophies of disability, and inclusionary education policies. At its best, his work is concerned with the intersection of methods, methodology, and philosophy of inquiry. His dissertation scholarship focused on using Bayesian estimators with subjective priors when statistical modeling in special education research with small samples. 

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