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  • Posted Tuesday, September 6, 2016

  • Filed Under

    Education

Teachers and Technology in Correctional Facilities

With summer coming to an end and school starting up again across the country, there is no shortage of articles about the difficult work performed daily by educators in America’s schools. And for good reason; their job is very demanding. Even by those standards, though, the subset of teachers who work in correctional facilities face uniquely challenging conditions.

Western and Pettit have compiled some interesting statistics about the incarceration of the uneducated in the United States. At any given moment, one out of every eight high school dropouts is behind bars, including 37% of African-American dropouts.  The chance that someone without a high school diploma or its equivalent ends up behind bars is extremely high.  White dropouts have a 28% chance of ending up incarcerated at least once during their lifetimes, compared to 68% for African-Americans and 20% for Latinos.

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Compared to typical schools, students who are incarcerated are more likely to be below grade level in basic skills, have a learning disability, and struggle with mental health issues (The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015).

In correctional conditions, where the population consists of reluctant learners and those with various types of learning and behavioral issues, it is critical to deliver the tools that have been proven to be essential and necessary in non-correctional settings, tailored for the problems of learning (and living) behind bars.  The environment itself leads to a lack of consistency.  Lockdowns or other events can disrupt class, for example.  Programming resources are stretched.

Correctional students often dropped out of traditional education because of learning disabilities and behavioral issues, typically compounded by difficulties in their personal lives.  Their exacting circumstances required individualized attention and the application of tools designed to address these complex pedagogical needs specifically.  Without access to these, the reluctant learners fell through the cracks of the system and descended into criminal activity.

As adult learners taking secondary school programming, they may find themselves insecure and rusty when it comes to their study skills, unmotivated or unable to concentrate.

As adult learners behind bars, they may face further challenges to their ability to concentrate and to apply time on task, including time outside of the classroom.  They require individual coaching in order to stay on track, time and attention that is difficult to come by when educational and programming resources are spread thin.  And, perhaps most importantly, they require ongoing reasons for completing the program.

For those who think that deploying just any content or content that has not been designed, tested, and proven as the pedagogical best-of-breed with a “just-as-good” type of homegrown solution, putting technology into the hands of inmates may be counterproductive.  It can also be counterproductive if the vendor thinks that technology can be used to replace or minimize the role of the teacher.

In order to maximize their chances for success, incarcerated learners require an individualized educational plan that addresses their myriad hurdles:

 Differentiated instruction helps teachers design individualized education programs that focus on the student’s weaknesses with “extra practice, step-by-step directions, and special homework”

•  Chunking of learning tasks into manageable blocks (tailored for the individual student’s strengths and weaknesses) that make the student more engaged with the material

•  Scaffolding in which teachers form a “bridge between what students already know and what they cannot do on their own … Teachers often use this method by presenting a model of high-quality work before asking students to work on their own.”

•  Direct, private student-to-teacher communications channels gives the teachers and students a way to discuss issues as soon as they arise, or to focus the individualized education program iteratively, all away from the eyes of other inmates whose observation may distort the quality of this interaction

•  Behavioral incentives will help to motivate these reluctant learners when tied directly to achieving delineated learning objectives

For those who think that deploying just any content or content that has not been designed, tested, and proven as the pedagogical best-of-breed with a “just-as-good” type of homegrown solution, putting technology into the hands of inmates may be counterproductive.  It can also be counterproductive if the vendor thinks that technology can be used to replace or minimize the role of the teacher.

Without the proper coaching and the proper path, merely putting any one-size-fits-all educational content on reluctant learners in a difficult environment is setting them up to fail, with all of the confidence-destroying implications that implies.

Technology can certainly be transformational in a student’s education, but it cannot replace the personal, human connections that only a teacher can foster, or the ability to inspire higher levels of achievement (Owlcation, 2012). Having someone to whom they can talk, ask questions, and look for an example will always be a necessary resource for successful students.

American Prison Data Systems firmly believes that applying the best tools and techniques for educating men and women who could not complete their high school diplomas in the normal course and who now live behind bars (with all of the attendant difficulties this situation poses for learning) is a necessary requirement for any correctional system in assessing any educational solution.

APDS also firmly believes that whatever technology solution the facility adopts must be integrated with the work of the teaching staff in order to have maximum effect.

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