A visionary educator who studied with and taught alongside the pioneers in the field of special education, Elizabeth Freidus, M.S., was a keen observer of students who drew upon multiple ideas about learning and teaching to design a program with lasting pertinence. Based on her observations, Ms. Freidus developed a model of learning, a succinct description of the difficulties faced by children with learning disabilities, and teaching methods for use with students with learning disabilities. These ideas were the foundation for Gateway’s program.
Ms. Freidus’ notion of what it meant to have a learning disability was grounded in the medical and psychological traditions of the day. She studied with Alfred Strauss, Heinz Werner, and Laura Lehtinen and worked closely with William Cruikshank. Her thinking about how children learn and should be taught drew upon the developmentalism of Jean Piaget, the behaviorist tenets espoused by Edward Thorndike, and the ideas promoted by social learning theorists, such as Alfred Bandura.
She developed a model of learning, which she explored at Columbia University Teachers College and came to be known as diagnostic instruction. There, Ms. Freidus taught a demonstration class. Hundreds of college students, professionals, and parents observed her teaching children with learning disabilities on the stage of an auditorium. These classes were followed by lengthy, spirited discussions between the audience and Ms. Freidus about what had been observed. Diagnostic instruction emerged as an approach to teaching that requires the teacher to constantly seek out the source of the breakdown in a student’s attempts to learn, to identify and harness strengths that will facilitate learning, and to adjust instruction accordingly. This was the precursor to individualized instruction.
Subscribing to the assumption that learning disabilities were caused by some form of neurological dysfunction, Ms. Freidus, like the other pioneers in the field, believed these primary neurological disorders led to learning disabilities which were treatable through education and therapy. She conceptualized learning disabilities as difficulties with perception and making meaning. To resolve a child’s difficulties, she looked at the interaction among the various domains of a child’s development (language, cognition, perception, gross and small motor coordination, maturity, personality, etc.) to identify not only the areas of weakness but also, and more importantly, of strengths that could be drawn upon during instruction. With these beliefs in mind, she designed a school program, Gateway, which centered upon a child’s individual and children’s collective process of making sense of the world. The original and core program at Gateway involved:
- A holistic perspective on how learning occurs with an emphasis on four domains: language, social interactions, perceptions of time and space, and aesthetics;
- The requirement that students be taught in small groups, rather than individually or in very large groups, to make children aware of how other people or they themselves, learn, grow, and change;
- Diagnostic instruction and questioning using multisensory experiences to elucidate where breakdowns in learning occur and to guide individualization of instruction;
- Ongoing, empathetic, and respectful dialogue with parents to demystify the process of learning and a child’s specific difficulties.
Throughout the 50 years that have passed since its founding, Gateway has maintained Ms. Freidus’ commitment to continuous investigation and informed reflection. The tenets of the original program continue to guide Gateway today and, when necessary, are refined to incorporate the findings of contemporary research into the overall development and effective instruction of students with learning disabilities.