MIH Logo - red circle half overlapping blue right-pointing triangle Make It Happen!
MIH Home


Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: Integrating Technology into an I-Search Unit

The I-Search Unit

An I-Search Unit is a curriculum unit carried out by a team of teachers in middle schools. The teachers, usually representing content areas such as, language arts, social studies, mathematics and science, For man interdisciplinary team. The goal of this type of interdisciplinary curriculum unit is to promote inquiry-based teaching and learning. Teachers help the students learn how to become inquirers, researchers, or explorers of information (Macrorie, 1988).

Lasting approximately eight weeks, an I-Search Unit has four phases of instruction (as shown in Figure 1).

In Phase I, teachers immerse students in the unit's theme (i.e., a socially relevant theme such as Water Ecology that naturally links science, social studies, language arts, and mathematics). Students engage in a variety of authentic activities, not only to discover what they already know about this theme, but also to build background knowledge. These activities model for students a variety of ways to gather information. By the end of Phase I, each student poses an I-Search question to guide his or her personally motivated inquiry. In Phase II, students develop a search plan that identifies how they will gather information by reading books, magazines, newspapers, reference materials; watching videos, filmstrips; interviewing people or conducting studies; or carrying out experiments, doing simulations, or going on field trips. In Phase III, students gather and integrate information by following their search plans. In Phase IV, students draft, revise, edit, and publish an I-Search Report which includes the following sections: My Search Questions, My Search Process, What I Learned, What This Means To Me, and References.

An I-Search Unit is a regular education curriculum that can successfully include students with learning disabilities. Building upon research findings about promoting effective teaching and learning for students with learning disabilities in middle schools, the I-Search Unit embodies the following principles:
  • Provide thematically based instruction that allows students to link prior knowledge to what they already know
  • Provide students with a concrete, step-by-step process for carrying out research
  • On an ongoing basis, assess students' performance in order to provide specific support based on particular needs
  • Encourage and help students in the gathering of information to use a variety of resources and materials that match their learning strengths and styles
  • Guide students to work cooperatively with their peers to gather, share, process, and convey information
  • Use a variety of technology tools to support gathering, integrating, and conveying information

[ Top | Bottom | Back to References ]

Integrating Technology into an I-Search Unit

There are four effective ways in which technology applications can enrich and enhance an I-Search Unit to support students with learning disabilities. First, technology applications can provide access to information that goes beyond reading, often a source of difficulty for students with disabilities. Applications such as videos, simulations, databases, CD-ROM encyclopedias, and laser discs, provide students with information through both visual and auditory channels. This is particularly helpful during Phase I when students become immersed in the unit, and during Phase III when they are gathering information. A second supportive way is that technology provides tools to help analyze, organize and manipulate the information being assembled. For example, databases, spreadsheets, and graphing programs all serve these functions. The third way is to help students convey to others what they are learning, not only via text, but also through graphics, video and sound, integrated within multimedia compositions.

The fourth way is particularly relevant for students with learning disabilities. Technology can provide scaffolding for the search process. The EDC is currently developing a software program, the Search Organizer, that guides students through each of the four phases described above. The Search Organizer is used on the Macintosh PowerBook, a laptop computer that can easily be transported from classroom to classroom. This mobility is an important feature for participation in interdisciplinary instruction across content area classrooms in middle schools.

[ Top | Bottom | Back to References ]

Case Study

The purpose of the case study is to show how technology can be integrated into a We-Search Unit to support students with learning disabilities. A We-Search Unit, a variation of the I-Search, is so named because it emphasizes cooperative learning. The case below illustrates how cooperative groups of students, including students with learning disabilities, can use PowerBooks that run the Search Organizer software. Students also use other technology applications and media.

Examples used in this composite case are drawn from two middle schools. One is located in Indianapolis and the other in suburban Boston. Both schools are participating in a three-year federally funded project. The goal of the project is to study the impact of the We-Search process, supported by the Search Organizer and other software applications, on students with mild disabilities who are in the mainstream. Both schools have access to the same videos, interactive videos (e.g., The Great Ocean Rescue [Tom Snyder Productions]) and simulations (e.g., Decisions, Decisions: The Environment [Tom Snyder Productions, 1991]). The Boston school has access to the PowerBooks with the Search Organizer and ClarisWorks (Claris Corp., 1991). ClarisWorks integrates word processing, data base, spreadsheet, and graphics programs.

The purpose of the case is to provide an illustration of what is possible, using a combination of real and hypothetical events from the two schools. The case is organized into four parts that parallel the four phases of the We-Search Unit.

Phase I
Clutching test tubes filled with water from a nearby river, the seventh-grade team of over 100 students and their teachers hiked back to school. To launch their We-Search Unit on water ecology, they had collected water samples to test for pollution. Working in cooperative groups back at school, students created a spreadsheet. They then used the spreadsheet data to develop graphical displays of their data. Examination of the graphs revealed, to the student's surprise, that the water was not polluted.

Over the next two weeks, students continued to explore the unit's theme through a set of related activities. Not only were activities well coordinated across subject areas, they were carefully designed to make sure students with learning disabilities would fully participate. For example:
  • In language arts, they viewed a video on the Rhine River to understand the causes and impact of polluted rivers.
  • They used the computer simulation, Decisions, Decisions: The Environment in social studies. This generated interest in the social, economic, and political implications of water pollution. This program generated heated debate about how to clean up a local pond, including one of the students with learning disabilities who was usually reluctant to participate.
  • Students took a field trip to the city's nearby water treatment plant.
  • In social studies, they interviewed a guest speaker from the water commission
  • In mathematics, they continued using spreadsheets to chart their own water usage during a week's interval.
  • In science, students engaged in a simulation that showed how water came into homes and where it went afterwards.
Students worked in cooperative groups of three to five students, carefully arranged by teachers to account for diversity in gender, academic ability, and other factors. Each cooperative team of three to five students had a PowerBook. In order to move the PowerBooks from classroom to classroom, they were placed on a cart. Atop the cart was a printer and stationary computer (see Figure 2). One advantage of the cart was that as the PowerBooks fit into their "parking places" they could be recharged.

Throughout Phase I, students used the Search Organizer in each class to record their emerging thinking about what they were learning and what interested them. This kind of processing was particularly important for Aaron, a student with learning disabilities who needed both a strategy and tool to capture his interests and organize his thoughts. One screen helped students to pose their questions and explain why it interested them and how it related to the overarching concepts (see Figure 3).

Students regularly printed out their work, filing these printouts in the group's three-ring binder notebook, used as a portfolio. During the teachers' team meetings, teachers would collaboratively review the portfolios to determine if intervention was needed, and how individual strategies for students would further support students with learning disabilities.

Phase II
The goal of Phase II, lasting only three days, was for students to develop a search plan. The language arts teacher took each of her classes to the media center. Here they perused materials/resources on water ecology including books, magazines, newspapers, and videos.

These resources and materials corresponded to a list of available materials and resources contained in the Search Organizer (see Figure 4). Students could mark off the materials and resources to plan their search in the Search Organizer. For each resource listed, there was additional relevant information, such as where it could be found and its citation. When students asked for a printout, each student's initials appeared in a column to be checked off.

Phase III
In Phase III‹Gathering and Integrating Information‹students carried out their search plans over a two-week period. On a rotating schedule, teachers took students to the media center. Here they used books, videos, simulations, and CD-ROM Encyclopedias. Outside of the media center, and beyond the walls of the classroom, they also conducted surveys, went on field trips, and interviewed experts in the field.

Working individually, in pairs, or in cooperative groups, students again used the Search Organizer to record and integrate information. This phase is designed to help students process information. On one screen they can record interesting information, indicate where they found it and who in the group made the contribution(see Figure 5).

Phase IV
In Phase IV, students produced We-Search Reports with the help of the Search Organizer which provides students with an outline for the report (see Figure 6). As the student advanced to this step, they found that the outline already had considerable information filled in. Prior work was pulled from different sectors into the report outline as it was created. Students with disabilities, often overwhelmed with the task of organizing information into a report can begin the report writing phase with a first draft available to them. This first draft can be downloaded into ClarisWorks for further drafting, revising, and editing. In addition, students can supplement the text by using graphics and graphs from ClarisWorks.

The unit's culminating event was a Parents/Friends Night. Students displayed their reports; publications complete with covers, title pages, table of contents, and references. In addition, some students wrote, directed, and starred in skits which were videotaped and played on a VCR that evening.

[ Top | Bottom | Back to References ]

Teachers: The Key to Successfully Integrating Technology into the We-Search Unit

In the case above, teachers ensured that students with disabilities succeeded in carrying out their searches along with their nondisabled peers. They did this by:
  • creating a four-phase unit that provided students with a structure for inquiry
  • carefully designing and sequencing instructional activities that helped students construct meaning over time
  • providing a context for cooperative inquiry in the classroom
  • providing scaffolding to support individual students, particularly those with learning disabilities
  • assessing students' ongoing work to intervene as needed
  • integrating technology into the unit's activities in real and meaningful ways
Research on the effective use of technology consistently points to the key role of the teacher (Zorfass, 1992, Sheingold and Hadley, 1990). Teachers must be actively involved as part of the technology-student-teacher partnership. To foster the active involvement of teachers, the EDC has developed a systemic approach called Make It Happen! This approach guides teachers to design, implement, and evaluate an I-Search Unit that integrates technology. Schools around the country are finding that this approach can support students with disabilities in regular education classes. As one eighth-grade New Hampshire student with disabilities said at the end of her I-Search Unit: "On behalf of the class, I want to thank the teachers. This was the best part of the year."

[ Top | Bottom | Back to References ]


Decisions, Decisions: The Environment [computer program]. Cambridge, MA: Tom Snyder Productions.

Macrorie, K. (Ed.) (1988). The I-Search Paper, rev. ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Sheingold, K., and Hadley, M. (1990). Accomplished teachers: Integrating computers into classroom practice. New York: Center for Children and Technology; Bank Street College.

Zorfass, J. (1992). Promoting successful technology integration through active teaching practices. Teaching and Learning: Journal of Natural Inquiry, 6 (3), 46-63.

Dr. Judith Zorfass, associate center director at Education Development Center, Inc., directs research, training, product development, and dissemination projects focusing on special education and technology. She is currently co-principal investigator of the National Center to Improve Practice, which focuses on improving the use of technology, media, and materials with students with disabilities. She frequently presents at national conferences and is the author of many chapters and articles.

Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Midian Kurland of EDC. He is the designer of Search Organizer, a key member of the research team, and a contributor to this article.

This article was prepared with the support of U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs; grant number H180E20011. The contents of this article do not necessarily reflect the policy of the Department of Education and no official endorsement should be inferred.

[ Top | Bottom | Back to References ]

A Project of
EDC logo

Make It Happen!
Education Development Center, Inc.
55 Chapel Street
Newton, Massachusetts 02458-1060
Phone: 617-969-7100 x 2426
Fax: 617-969-3440

©2000 Education Development Center, Inc.

[ Home | I-Search | Technology | Process | Facilitation | Products | Links ]