Meet the Expert: Mark Butler
When Asbury University alumni return to campus for Reunion, one of the things they say goes something like, “When I came to class, I knew I wasn’t just another student to my professor. He knew me, he challenged me, and I’m better at what I do now because he knew what he was talking about.” In an ongoing Web series, Asbury will feature just a few of the faculty at Asbury who are making a difference in both their subject areas and their classrooms.
In classrooms across the United States, there are several types of students. There are students for whom learning comes easily. There are students for whom some types of learning require extra work — a few more practice problems, some time with a tutor. And there are students with learning disabilities. This last group is Mark Butler’s passion.
“If you walked into a classroom today, regardless of age, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to pick out the students with disabilities,” Butler said. “Things like Down syndrome, profound autism and significant cognitive delays aren’t always what we’re typically talking about in special education. About 37 percent of people in the system fall under the category ‘learning disability.’”
In an educational culture like the United States, that is both test-oriented and requires students with learning disabilities to be educated alongside their peers, teachers are under tremendous pressure to make their instruction efficient and personalized. And for students with learning disabilities, traditional methods of instruction often don’t connect — the challenge is not to do more education, but to do it differently.
Enter the research that Butler has been conducting as part of his doctoral program at the University of Kentucky, just 15 miles from the Asbury University campus. He and a team of researchers have been working with a math curriculum called Enhanced Anchored Instruction (EAI), which is a blend of problem-based scenarios that mixes hands-on applications with digital components such as video. In the past two years, the team has been in 58 middle schools across the state, working with diverse populations to first implement the curriculum in resources classrooms and then in inclusive classrooms.
The Enhanced Anchored Instruction approach is to put a real-life challenge before the students — build a skateboard ramp with a budget, for example, or construct a hovercraft from a scale model. Students learn the necessary skills in fractions and problem solving and can see an immediate application of the skills, increasing their motivation and connecting the dots between the abstract ideas and materials in front of them.
“Students that have participated in Enhanced Anchored Instruction significantly outperform the students getting normal instruction in the classroom,” Butler said. “When students are given problems that are motivating and relevant, they’re interested. A word problem on fractions: not interesting. Building a skateboard ramp to determine how much wood you need: interesting.”
The change in perspective required to motivate these students to tackle skills that have previously frustrated them in the classroom seems a small price to pay given the stakes involved.
“Often students would tell me they would only ever work construction or fast food,” Butler said. “This reflects how they felt about themselves in part because of what they’d been told the ceiling was. But when they taste success and stay out of trouble a little, their view and aspirations change. They start to believe they can go to college. They start to dream a little. So much depends on lighting that fire and getting them to believe in themselves and see the power of education.”
For Butler, special education is not only a professional interest. It is a spiritual conviction stemming from Prov. 31: 8-9, which states, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
“I have a firm conviction that students with disabilities are some of those we’re called to care for — not do things for them, but equip them to be independent and empowered learners,” Butler said. “There is a deep Biblical foundation for serving those who are often disadvantaged socioeconomically, in their home situations or without a strong moral compass. As Christians we can stand in the gap for those students. As a special educator, I can help them believe in themselves and make good choices. Helping them to do that is, in some ways, doing justice.”
Mark Butler, after graduating from Asbury University in 2002, worked as a youth counselor at the Kentucky United Methodist Children’s Home for Children and Youth in Versailles, Ky. That time instilled a desire to work with at-risk youth and propelled him to further education to work with this population. His graduate course work at Asbury University and the University of Kentucky in Special Education has focused on using education as a vehicle for life-altering change. Butler is married to Dr. Krissie Hannah ’04 Butler, who is an assistant professor of Spanish at Asbury University.