“SORRY, OUT OF ORDER”

A Facebook friend of mine posted this problem for folks to solve:

90 – 100 ( 6 + 3 ) = ?

Answers included 0, -90, 810 and -810. The correct answer is -810. Some of you are sniggering at the errors — quit that! 

Now, if you didn’t get -810, hang on …

Why do people have problems solving math equations? It’s not that they’re stupid, but that:

  • they get confused;
  • are anxious;
  • the teaching was boring;
  • they’ve moved around and have missed bits here and there;
  • they’ve learning difficulties;
  • the teachers are trapped following the text and the text is a mile-wide and an inch deep and not in sensible order;
  • the teaching made no sense or was based upon “just memorise how to do this process” instead of understanding why or when to use what methods;
  • … and sometimes people have problems for several reasons.

Hey folks, don’t feel badly if you got it wrong. I had trouble with the maths in school, too! I didn’t even learn all my multiplication tables until 8th grade. You know what? It’s not fatal; I slowly went through some pre-College Algebra classes at my local community (junior) college, and filled in the confused bits, gained confidence, and eventually went on to introductory Calculus.

And I still have to pause and think on some of my multiplication facts, and still have days when I’m prone to reversing numbers. But those difficulties don’t detract from the fact that I am able to learn math, and they don’t mean I’m stupid. (“Take THAT, ‘Mr. Dull’!” she says, shaking her fist at a middle-school algebra teacher.)

But now I work with students in 7th – 12th grade math, and you know what? Good news! It makes a lot more sense when you go back and review it as an adult! You can fill in the parts you missed or didn’t understand, and get a better idea of how it all fits together. Honestly.

Math no longer terrifies me, even though my brain still has that glitch that prevents me from memorising the quadratic formula. But I never use the quadratic formula in real life.

I DO use ratios in real life, for example, adjusting a recipe, figuring how much stuff to put on my garden, planning travel time… And I’ll show you how to do those really easily, without getting all tangled up in multiple steps, and you don’t need some mysterious “intuitive feel for how to set the problem up”.

.~#~.

MEANWHILE, In our problem above we use Order of Operations. I tell my students, “You use Order of Operations every day! You put your tee on before you put on your shirt, and you put on your jacket last.”

The problem above is solved like this:

Read the rest of this entry »

Fruit flies like a banana

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

Some of my special interests are insects, science and special education. The three subjects rarely intersect, but you can bet that when they do, it’s going to be interesting! Populist politics is once again — or rather — still degenerating into vast bogs of anti-intellectualism.  As noted across many news-editorial and science blogs, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin positively excels at scorning science.  It shows up not only in her stump speeches, but also in her belief in young-earth creationism and stance on teaching Intelligent Design in classrooms. One of the latest foofaraws is her denunciation of funding for research on fruit flies.

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good,” Palin said. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” [YouTube link]

What does Palin have against this line of science?  Well, that’s a bit puzzling, especially when we look at the subject of her first policy speech.  The VP candidate was talking about special education services and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  But all the pro-funding talk was a bit of a turn-around for the Alaskan governor, who had previously cut the funding for Special Olympics in half.

What really stood out is that within her speechifying, the intent of her points about science funding collided with the actual content of part of what she was saying. Palin was (among other things) advocating for Read the rest of this entry »

The sum of good intentions

Feel free to insert the more familiar or acceptable word of your choice.  But regardless of your word choice, the equation stands:

Good Intentions plus Bullshit still equals Bullshit

It doesn’t matter if you are a parent earnestly trying to help your child improve lagging developmental skills — if the information you are disseminating to newbies or news agencies is based upon bogus treatments and world-wide conspiracy theories, then the information you are giving others is still bullshit. (Example: vaccines cause autism and/or dozens of unproven “cures” for all sorts of developmental/educational difficulties.)

It doesn’t matter if you are an elected official trying to get funding for projects that could potentially improve the local economy — if your cherry-picked “experts” assert that there are no ecological problems, but the overwhelming majority of experts from agencies around the world say there will be serious consequences, then your assertions are still bullshit.  (Example: Sarah Palin on global warming, oil pipelines, and polar bears.)

It doesn’t matter if you are a news reporter trying to ensure “balanced coverage” of a story by quoting from “both sides” — when one of those “sides” lacks credibility and just presents distraught protagonists ranting over perceived injustices because fact-based reality keeps intruding upon belief systems based upon magical thinking and millenia-old folk tales, then your editorial judgment is weak and the news is full of bullshit.  Respecting others’ feelings and beliefs does not mean that those should usurp sound legislative, educational or economic practices, or be allowed to trump everyone’s civil rights.  (Example, Creationism/Intelligent Design being taught in science classes.)

Nope; the earnestness and good intentions part cannot gloss over the huge piles of bullshit.  Crap is still crap, and the best thing we can do with crap is to put it with the rest of the dead stuff and compost it, until the bacteria and worms and arthropods have broken it down into something useful.

The Crystal Ball Crack’d

The Kid recently took the ACT test, which like the SAT, is frequently used by colleges to determine scholastic abilities, and in his case helped place him for which college writing class he needed.  He had to ask his sister what the test was like, and her impressions about its difficulty level.  I could not personally provide any opinions, because I had never taken the ACT or SAT.

I never took them because no one thought I would go to college.

They made massive assumptions about my abilities and my future. So here’s what happened, and something to think about. I welcome you to please post comments, and more links to other positive blogs and sites.

My grades in secondary school grew worse over the years, and I had to re-take a semester in one class (English of all things, which in later years proved to be ironic when I became a freelance writer, with hundreds of items in print).

By this time in my life, my parents had divorced.  My dad lived in another state, and was even more of a non-player in my life.  Alas, my mother had spent years futilely trying to make me more “normal”, from requiring me to learn right-handed penmanship, enrolling me in a “charm school” at the local Sears & Roebucks to improve my feminine graces, and so on.  But as the years wore on, my faults (problems) became more and more apparent.  She no longer described me as “very bright”, but was quick to list all my failures and describe them in damning detail, until I was ready to vomit or pass out from the stress (though I never did, even though either would have been a relief).

By 9th grade it was apparent to all that I was not gifted scholastically, and the general consensus was that I was lazy, stupid at math, not trying hard enough, and acting up just to make her life difficult.  When she was drunk, my failures and interests and personality traits would be compared to her ex-husband’s, “you’re just like your father, the bastard”.  Even as much of a socially-clueless 14 year old that I was, I knew that these kinds of comments were untrue and inappropriate, and the problem was with her attitudes and her drinking.  But they still hurt, terribly.

I would not be diagnosed with ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, and Prosopagnosia until I was in my 40’s.  Such diagnosis hardly existed in those days; certainly my difficulties were not considered to be due to anything but my own personal failings.

No way, my family and school officials decided, could I be college material.  I could not keep track of my assignments, I still struggled to learn and remember my multiplication facts into 8th grade, and I flunked or barely passed classes.

Given my social difficulties and subsequent lack of dating, and even my utter lack of domestic abilities (mom warned me off taking a sewing class because doing so would “ruin my GPA” – grade point average), I was obviously not highly marriageable. This was the 1970s, and most people still thought along those lines — an astonishing number of girls went to college to “get their MRS”.

The goal then was to get me some kind of minimal trade training, so I would, as she fiercely reminded me many times, not be a burden on the family. It was made plain to me that once I graduated high school, and then later turned 18, I was to be out on my own.  I should not expect financial assistance from her.

So I was enrolled in typing, which was a miserable experience beyond the whole ordinary ordeal of learning to type on manual typewriters.  The room was a cacophony of noise.  The instructor was adamant about constant attention to task, proper posture, and graded with the intent on us producing perfection — as soon as a student produced a typographical error, then the score was made. (Additionally, the students’ pages were  held up to the light against her perfect copies to check centering and spacing). There were many days when I would produce an entire page that was otherwise perfect but for a typo in the second line, and my grade would be an F because I had such a low word-count.  Given my problems with developing manual speed, tracking text (near-point copying), attention, and transposing letters and numbers, I struggled to get a C grade.

But the clerical work that was deemed best for me also required taking bookkeeping.  Not surprisingly, this was also a very difficult class for me.  My aptitudes and interests were not really taken into consideration, because after all, even if writing and science and art were what I liked best, I had not done well in those classes, now had I?  Besides, clerical work was what my mother knew, so like many parents she expected me to follow occupational suit.

Unlike many such students, my story has a relatively happy ending.  I did manage to graduate high school, to everyone’s relief.  A year later, I even enrolled in an evening class at the local community college.  College classes were not easy, partly from my intrinsic difficulties, partly from not having the necessary study skills, and partly from not having a solid academic background.

But the glory of the American system is that such colleges provide opportunities for adults of all ages to acquire the these things, and to gain higher education. I worked hard, and slowly figuring out how I learned, which was not always in the ways that others thought I should study.  Sometimes I had to drop a class and re-try it later on, to finish it successfully. Later on in my 40’s I was to also get some of my issues diagnosed.

I now have a Master’s of Science. I teach college students.  No one would have expected this based upon my previous performance. (Employers who place near-complete trust in Behavioral-Based Interviewing, please note!)  And this point, amongst all the others about the perils of attribution errors, and learning disabilities, and dysfunctional families, this point is crucial:

A child’s future abilities cannot always be predicted,

when based upon their current abilities.

Many parents of children who have developmental disorders worry that their children will never be able to attend school, or finish school, or go on to college, or hold a job, or live on their own, or be loved by a partner, or have a family, or talk, or be potty-trained, or any number of milestones.  Just because the child cannot do the same things that their age peers can do, or are expected to do.

This is one of the biggest points of contention or discussion between the “autism community” (parents of autistic children) and the “autistic community” (children, teens and adults who are autistic, and many of whom are parents as well).  Even beyond the farcical assumptions that either community is monolithic with regards to attitudes and knowledge and politics et cetera, there are inherent issues that need to be mutually addressed.

One of the best resources for the autism communities are the autistic communities.  If parents go around just talking to other parents, especially those other parents who are consumed by the “Terrible Tragedy and Selfless Suffering Families” world-views, they may fall prey to this easy assumption:  If my child can’t do it now, he’ll never be able to do it, and our lives will be ruined.

Sure, not everyone takes it to that extreme.  Sure, there are a few children who do not achieve many of those life-goals.  But those lack of achievements does NOT automatically mean that their lives are ruined, or their families’ lives are ruined. They do NOT automatically mean that people cannot live relatively happy, healthy, and productive lives.

Please do NOT assume that not being able to use speech as a reliable means of communication is the same as not being able to think, or not being able to communicate, or not having anything to communicate.

Please do not assume that because a child does not learn in a traditional manner that they are learning “the wrong way”, or that they cannot learn at all, or that they must be taught “remedial learning lessons”.

Please do know that even when children have problems, and are slower to acquire skills, they are not doomed.

Please do not give up on them.

“Don’t talk to me like I’m an idiot.”

~First words (at age 35) of an autistic man [quote source]

I welcome you to please post comments, and more links to other positive blogs and sites. Kindly see the newly-updated “NOTES TO COMMENTERS” box in the top of the left sidebar for important information. Read the rest of this entry »

More “Trap Bias”

Whenever I read statistics about the “increasing rates of autism”, I heave a big sigh. Those statements invariable contain a whole number of assumptions, many of them flat-out wrong, or at least unexamined. In the epidemiological data, there are diagnostic issues and census issues and statistical issues and of course, the inevitable agenda issues in the reportage of the census results and analyses. I’ve previously discussed a number of these problems, including incidence versus prevalence, and correlation versus causality in the post, “Epidemics of Bad Science vs Epidemics and Bad Science”

What I would like to address today is a related issue with diagnostics and perceived prevalence, meaning, “How do we know who has autism or AD/HD or a learning disability, and how many such people are out there?”

In entomology (and in other zoological branches) we have a concept known as “trap bias”. There are a number of ways of taking a census of an animal population, including using traps. A “trap bias” means that the kind of trap you use to census a population will limit the responders to your census, and thus create unintended biases in the results.

Now, if a few synapses in your brain just fizzled from that wordy definition, let’s try a simple example. Read the rest of this entry »

Mystery Jam and Other Achievements

I lost a label. I don’t mean the sticky label missing from the jar of “mystery jam” in my pantry (the goo is yellow, so I’m pretty sure it’s last summer’s ginger-pear jam), but rather a diagnostic label. For many parents, one of the highlights or milestones in life is for their child to “lose the label”.

Once-upon-a-time the getting that label (or labels) was highly important, so everyone knew what the problem was (well, sorta) and so the child could get some kind of educational or therapeutic services. Getting the label was oft times a relief because it meant that Someone Official had recognised that the child’s problems were not due to bad parenting, moral failure, or general laziness on the child’s part. Usually parents suspected something was “off” for quite a while, so having that validated is a bit of a relief.

Of course, then once the suspicions are confirmed, there are often new kinds of feelings while adjusting to the new daily reality. Frequently there are skirmishes with school districts or other bureaucracies. Sometimes there’s a bit of a grieving process for not having the perfect little darlings imagined during pregnancy. Some families have issues with relatives not understanding, accepting or even “believing in” whatever problem with the child is dealing with. Nasty episodes can erupt in extended families if one of the parents is accused of “causing” the problem or bringing “bad blood” to the lineage.

And of course, a number of parents eventually realise that the child’s issues are echoes of some of their own issues. Going through these things is very complex, sometimes stressful, and often enlightening. Having a child with a disability does not automatically tear a family apart or make the siblings resentful; depending upon how the parents respond to the issues and to each other, it can strengthen the family members’ ties to each other, and lead people to be more compassionate and less judgmental.

So losing the label can mean that the family has (finally!) managed to get beyond a lot of those stresses. Or so it seems.

But what does it really mean to “lose the label”? It can mean a number of things. Read the rest of this entry »

A very painful problem

When you are looking at a particular problem behaviour in a child (student), the big question is, “Is it really a problem?” “Problem” does not mean it’s unusual, or that some people are uncomfortable because it’s a “stereotypical autistic thing”. “Problem” means someone is getting hurt, or in danger, or poses a considerable social issue. Rocking is not a problem, head-banging is. Lining toys up is not a problem, biting people is.

A great many of people’s responses can be categorised as trying to get something or to get away from something. If you’re trying to get rid of a problem behaviour, then you need to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure out what the stressor is, then you can avoid or reduce it. If you can figure out what the behaviour provides to the person, then you can figure out a more suitable replacement behavior that will provide a benefit, without the problematic issues also associated with it.

Let’s say you have a student (client, child) who is hurting themself. Read the rest of this entry »

Swamped in studies

I met with a tutee last week, a fellow who is studying Human Anatomy. Of all the courses one can take, anatomy is a particular humdinger, if for no other reason than one must memorise such a load of new terms and be able to identify and name parts. It’s an especially difficult class for students who are slow to memorise things, who have trouble with spelling (so many words are orthographically similar), and/or who have trouble with recall upon demand.

He’s an extremely determined student, one who wants to very conscientiously get everything down pat before moving onto the next thing. Unfortunately, at the standard 1-semester pace of this class, he’s not going to be able to do that, unless he figures out a way of hammering things into his memory at a much faster rate. Because of his earnest desire to do well, he has been poring himself through his materials, including reading the text and studying the lab models and reviewing the quizzes from the textbook’s Web page, and doing the review worksheets, and making flashcards, and …

It’s all very exhaustive, and exhausting. Read the rest of this entry »

How hard can it be?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of providing the annual Inservice training session for a university’s tutoring department. One of the themes I explored in brief was how tutees, especially those with various learning disabilities, may have processing difficulties. We have to take information in, make sense of it, retrieve information, and then be able to relay information back. Various kinds of learning disabilities interfere with steps in this process, and the interference can happen at more than one step, especially when a person has more than one kind of difficulty. (Learning disabilities and other physiological issues are often co-occurring, technically known by the dreadful-sounding term of “comorbid”.)

The upshot of all this is that any “speed-bumps” or “road-blocks” in the processing will result in slow processing (it takes longer to do things), or uneven processing (some days it’s more difficult to do things, not always for apparent reasons), or intermittent or chronic inabilities to do things (being able to do things on some days or in some hours, but not others, can be more frustrating than never being able to do them).

There are a variety of disabilities out there, but instead of describing how each one can affect a person’s ability to respond in educational efforts, I’m going to describe how processing works in general, and at which steps some disabilities become apparent.

Whenever we interact with the world, there is a whole series of steps that has to happen. Let’s take the subject of, “Answering a question asked of you”. Most people assume that this is really simple, and thus, easy. Hah! Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing Things

So I’m meeting again with one of my science tutees. As usual, I started off by asking what he wanted to work on that day.

He didn’t know. Not because he’s a slacker. But because, he explained in earnest and slightly frustrated confusion, because he wasn’t sure what precisely it was that he was having trouble with.

It took some reassuring on my part that This is okay, and that figuring out where one is having problems is part of the whole learning and tutoring processes. You have to be able to identify where and how things aren’t going well before you can address the issues.

So we sat down with the materials and started going over different ways of reviewing things, as I asked him what had or hadn’t worked well for him before as studying techniques. And not surprisingly, he couldn’t say. Meaning, he wasn’t able to answer that question simply from my verbal enquiry. It was also difficult to pull up random examples just off the top of his head. His experiences had not been encoded into his memory as analyses, so the search came up empty. And I quite understood that. After all, if he already knew what he needed in the way of study methods that worked well for him, he wouldn’t be in such need of tutoring! Sometimes we tutor content, and sometimes (like here) we tutor process. And process is trickier, because people don’t learn things the same way (e.g. flash cards don’t work for everyone).

Further into the session, the stress levels were getting reduced, and we were able to focus on a particular issue. He had to be able to distinguish between pictures of different kinds of human tissues, and in the study lab had run into frustration trying to explain to someone else that he “couldn’t see” what they were talking about.

Ah-ha … now I understood what was going on. Read the rest of this entry »

Centenary Retrospective

“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
~ Carl Rogers

Wow. The other day I was looking at my blog stats, and it said that I had 22,000 hits. I have also recently written my 100th post since June; that’s close to thrice a week, for the mathematically disinclined. So I thought I would take a step back and review what has gone by, to see what kinds of topical trends emerge, and pull up some of what I think are the better posts, for those of you who are newer visitors.

Bloggers are usually loquacious and opinionated, a description I do not fail to meet. But why do I blog? Some bloggers just natter about their lives, others blog as an outlet for kvetching, some are pushing a specific agenda, and still others like to analyse what they see. I do a little of all the above, but mostly I like to analyse. I am less concerned about persuading you than I am about giving you something to think about. After all, if we all believed the same things, the dialogues would get pretty dull!

Now that there is data from which to draw a pattern, what kinds of things do I blog about? In a way it is hard to sort posts into single categories, because topically there is an n-dimensional hypervolume of intersecting sets. But as an approach, I like to explore themes from personal experience or news events, and also from philosophical perspectives. I feel that philosophy loses some of its significance without grounding it in the phenomenal fields of people’s lives. And telling stories of lives without examining the what and wherefore of those events falls short of the ultimate value of storytelling: revealing the patterns in human relations, and learning from them.

Some of the greater categories revolve around education, from both student and instructor perspectives, and they revolve around the politics of disability and advocacy. In contrast, there are some themes that connect those categories. One of the most important themes is taking the traditional understandings of how social systems work, and taking those apart to reveal very different perspectives on what is happening.

These systems include how we communicate, such as when the language of “choice” is really just a distractor, or doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation. These systems also include power paradigms, including how we “help” people, how people miss the mark when trying to create “inclusiveness”, and why pity is such a evil force because it creates distance between people. (There is no need to congratulate me for having “bravely overcome” the insults and artificial obstacles that people put in my way.)

I also look at how the assumptions we make determine how we define groups of people, from the way that we create diagnostic labels, to the sometimes-absurdities of “person-first language”, and concepts of “tolerance”.

In the end, we don’t need better ways of “beating” the system, because we are all part of the system, and the beatings must stop. (They haven’t improved morale yet.) What we need are ways of overhauling the system by sidestepping these terrible games and introducing different ways of working together.

Our perceptions of the world influence how we act, including how we view and understand others. Sometimes people mistake better identification or newer kinds of identification with “epidemics” of autism, AD/HD et cetera. But I bet if we’d had these kinds of identifiers decades ago, a lot more of us would have been better understood. Hyperactive kids are kind of hard to miss, even those who otherwise do not misbehave. (You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to sit inappropriately!) More boys than girls are diagnosed, but I have to wonder if that isn’t due more to diagnostic criteria than actual prevalence rate. Why didn’t we see kids with these kinds of “needs” in previous decades? Partly because some of those kids didn’t even go to regular schools — they were kept at home or in institutions. Those who did go to regular schools just had to struggle along. They rarely had IEPs and such because their parents didn’t – couldn’t – ask for services that simply did not exist.

When we make these changes in understanding systems and in our perceptions, they can be outwardly expressed by seeking to become a better advocates. Being able to create a new rôle for one’s self includes being able to learn about the various rôles that others have played. (But just try to find sources on disability studies at the local bookstore!) Advocacy requires overcoming inertia and moving into commitment, and moving into commitment and inclusiveness. We also have to be able to recognise our own sources of ability and power, especially if we’ve been convinced otherwise.

Advocacy is complex, and the concerns of parents for the futures of their disabled children is an important part of that. Unfortunately, people whine about how hard it is to have an autistic child, or any kind of exceptional child. All too often there are terrible news reports about parents who have killed their handicapped or autistic children because they were such a horrid burden. Even more horrifying is when the press perspective or quotes are full of sympathy for the murderer because killing your own child is “understandable” because a person can’t help but be insanely stressed from dealing with the child’s abnormality.

It’s hardly not a new trend. But this millennia-old attitude does a terrible disservice to disabled people everywhere to be cast as either devils or angels. It is dehumanizing, and removes us from our humanity, and thus our basic human rights. In light of the fact that many things have a genetic basis, then hating disabilities in our children involves a curious kind of denial and self-loathing.

Distraught parents also need to understand that there is a difference between getting cured and being healed. The unresolved grief leaves parents susceptible to errors of judgment, and these well-intended but scientifically ignorant people who buy into these things are being duped by charlatans, sometimes with loss of life as well as with great monetary expense. Then the problem is propagated because those well-intended but scientifically ignorant people become meme agents, earnestly spreading the false gospel. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to weed out the “Astroturf” of faux grass-roots efforts.

Advocacy efforts include those in our schools, and involve administrators, educators, parents, and the students themselves. Sometimes teachers and parents worry about school accommodations because they fear it will leave the students unready for when they have to venture into the “real world”. Or, by misunderstanding the differences between equity, equality and need, teachers fear that giving accommodations “wouldn’t be fair” to the other students.

Parenting our students with learning difficulties is not easy – the traditional methods do not work, which is often why the students end up in “special” education. In turn, the students also get frustrated, and attempts to deal with the unmotivated student can sometimes create further problems. We also have to be careful to distinguish between challenging our students, and just making things more difficult for them. Distinguishing between cause and effect in misbehaviour is important – we need to address the causes to resolve problems.

The teaching end of things can also be rife with issues, and college professors can sometimes fall prey to pedagogical myths. Equally absurd is how learning difficulties are often not recognized until the student has been failing or near-failing for a while, thus allowing the student to get further behind and more entrenched in negative mind-sets. On the flip side, we identify exceptionality by contrasting it to what’s common for the group, or by how well a person functions. But what if our sampling group is far from average, or if the environment is less disabling?

Tutoring and teaching is another means of engaging in advocacy, and one of the best means I have is to share with my students the tools for how they can solve new kinds of problems in the future, for themselves and by themselves. It also gives me the opportunity to constantly learn from my students. During this co-educational process, we often need to figure out where in the learning process they are getting stuck, then come up with different ways of helping them learn new information, and different methods for studying. Sometimes the educational changes we make can be as simple as the way a test is typed up, making it more accessible to all the students. The way the audio-visual equipment is set up also makes a significant difference, including the kinds of computer monitors and lighting used. As a tool for engaging your students’ attention, novelty can be a big help. It can also backfire in unexpected ways…

On the more personal scale, I’m always seeking better ways of dealing with my own challenges of “Executive Functioning”, like dealing with all the stuff, stuff, stuff that piles up, losing something in the Dreaded Safe Place, coping with the inertia of task paralysis, or just getting “stuck” when the Plan B falls apart or I unexpectedly get engrossed in something. In worse cases, this means pulling myself out of an awful case of the Betweens, which condition you won’t find listed in any manual, but one that any ADD or autistic person will surely recognise. Regardless, it still helps to remember that strategies for compensating are just that – and that when there’s too much load on the system, those strategies won’t all succeed. That makes it difficult for me, but sometimes others’ lack of understanding is the greater problem.

When I sat and contemplated my place in the grand scheme of things, I found myself wondering just how it was that I could be “doing things the wrong way” and yet still be producing the right results. Were the processes really as important as the results? Doing things “normally” is very important to the general public. People with a wide variety of differences go to extreme effort trying to “pass for normal”, but this can be perilous. Some parents spend great effort to ensure their autistic children learn how to do “good eye contact”, but this may be a poor goal for some unexpected reasons. People can get hung up on developmental timetables, or they worry and wonder why their child likes to spend lots of time lining things up (it’s a good thing, really).

Adults can come up with some pretty off-the-wall assumptions about what is, or is not, going on in a child’s head; we cannot always assign mental processes to the results we see. Then there’s the situations that an earnest-yet-clueless ADHD or Aspie kid can find themselves in, such as failing to cheat. The really scary part is how these children who have difficulties socialising with their peers will fall prey to bullying and abuse, and general depression. Then we grow up into adults, and there’s the whole sticky territory of trying to make Small Talk, and the repercussions of just having a different sense of humor.

On the lighter end, a few posts are just for fun; about once a month there’s a “Recess”. Recess means we take a break and play – it’s important to do that once in a while. During dinner our family discusses why “resistance is fruitile, and how to be “underly pedantic”. Meanwhile, I have fun with repeating words, and enjoy taking photographs of improbable things.

My thanks to you for stopping by, and please to leave comments!

andrea

Problems With Solutions

Students will fail to succeed, or outright fail a subject, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have learning disabilities, sometimes they have health issues, sometimes their underachievement results from motivational issues. Oft times there are sticky combinations of these causes. In any regard, there’s a long and sadly-familiar road trod by the triad of parents, student and school staff in the effort to rectify the situation.

Unless the underlying causes are obvious (such as health issues), the common cause assigned to the student’s underachievement is usually motivational problems. This is especially true if the student did okay in the earlier grades, but their marks gradually slip lower with succeeding years, or their marks are irregular within the same subject. Which is not to say that there might not also be various learning difficulties that are exacerbating the student’s motivational issues – it’s hard to keep applying yourself when you can’t understand why your results are so erratic. When students can’t understand the cause and effect, they tend to assign difficulties to external forces, and feel they they have little power over the results of their efforts.

Unfortunately, the first impulses of the dyad of adults in these situations, those solutions for tracking the student’s progress and ensuring their successful completion of school work, can often end up making the situation worse. Alas, in the end, everyone ends up more stressed than before. The solutions create more problems instead of rectifying them …

Although assignment books or pages are meant to enhance communication between school and home about what the student needs to do, they often end up creating an even tenser situation. (Here we are talking about those that are ongoing missives between the adults, not simply a resource for the student.) These are theoretically carried to and fro by the student, keeping everyone apprised of what has been assigned and has been completed. Unfortunately, the focus of this exercise frequently turns to what the adults need to “make” the student do, and upon what the student has not done. (Note: it’s nearly impossible to “make” someone do something; you cannot “make” a child fall asleep or eat or learn.) The frustrated adults become angry at the student, repeatedly reminding the child of how they have failed yet again. Blame-assigning sets in, and each half of the adult dyad accuses the other of “not doing their part” because obviously, were the other set of adults doing their job, the student would be getting the work done and turn in promptly!

Amazingly, all this tension and attention does not improve the student’s performance. Indeed, the student now feels pitted between two large forces, wanting to please everyone but instead having their incompetence repeatedly confirmed. Instead of empowering everyone to help the student, everyone has instead become disempowered, frustrated, and adversarial.

Sometimes the adult dyad will resort to behavioral report or the daily or weekly progress reports for the student. These can suffer many of the same issues as the assignment book, by focusing entirely upon negatives. When poorly structured, the reports end up being little more than tallies of daily sins. It is very disconcerting for anyone to be under the microscope all the time; slight transgressions and ordinary human weaknesses become quantified and magnified. The child become identified with a bad score, even the hollow nothingness of “being a zero”. The student may also end up in the trap of false dichotomies, seeking to be perfect, and failing that, falling to utter failure. Here the student is expected to take responsibility for their behavior, but then simultaneous loses more of the control and personal power of the situation.

Focusing only on a student’s weaknesses creates a heavily biased view of the student. Everyone has weaknesses, but successful students learn how to lead with their strengths and how to accommodate or compensate for their weaknesses. A good plan needs to focus upon how the student is improving. The student needs help to learn how to plan ahead and effectively deal with inconsistencies in achievement that are simply part of the human condition. They also need to learn how their successes are derived from what they have done, rather than from random outside forces, and how they are not only responsible for their behavior (in the sense of receiving its consequences) but also capable of effective positive changes in it as well.

When many people are faced with noncompliant underlings (students, children or anyone lesser in the hierarchy), their first impulse is to punish them: “When people are bad, they deserve to be punished. When people are good, they deserve to be rewarded.” Rewards in such cases are simply the flip side of punishments. The problems with punishments are complex and not immediately apparent, because the system of punishment and reward (including the heavily-marketed “logical consequences”) is so heavily entrenched in our culture.

The problem with punishments is that they change the focus from the activity itself to those punishments and rewards. They also change the focus from a person’s internal, intrinsic pleasure at doing something, to something extrinsic: the avoidance of pain or the attainment of pleasure. Any activity (even one that is naturally interesting to a person) can lose its natural appeal under such conditions, and people do not work as effectively or as imaginatively. Instead of improving work ability, such external systems actually end up reducing it.

Furthermore, placing punishments and rewards into the situation takes the responsibility from the person doing the work, and places it in the hands of the people handing out the punishments and rewards. It’s no surprise that students end up focused on what they will get for doing something, rather than simply doing it because it needs to be done. Success thus requires an outside system to ensure that the jobs are done. Sometimes the rewards are so far in the future (a month or a semester away) that the cause and effect linkage cannot be made at the simple behavioral level – there’s no relevance to what is happening today, and how the student feels at the moment. Reward inflation also occurs, where ongoing jobs or more complex jobs need bigger and bigger rewards to ensure their completion. Punishment inflation can also occur, because the student may decide that the punishment is not nearly as bad as the fear of failure or other dismotivating state. Ultimatums like being grounded for a month (the parental version of house-arrest) or sending children away also do not work. Either the child knows that the parent won’t follow through, or if they do send the child off to someplace dreadful, the child learns that their scholastic achievements are more important to the parent than their love for the child as a person.

Assignment books, progress reports, or punishments and rewards rarely have good long-term benefits because they are poor teaching tools. They work on the assumption that fear or bribery are good teachers. Not only do they teach the wrong things (fearing and hating authority, or needing to be bribed to do things), they also do not teach the right things.

They don’t teach the person how to persevere when frustrated, or how to solve their own inner difficulties, or how to monitor their own efforts, and how to adapt to new situations. As a result, they don’t help a student become a more independent learner and worker, or how to think critically and problem-solve. In short, they leave students very poorly equipped to be independent adults. (Guess what happens when the student then goes to university …)

We don’t want to assign blame to various people, or to punish our children and students for having problems. Instead, we want to help them learn to problem-solve, and acquire the skills they need so they can figure out how to solve future problems.

This means stepping outside of these established defensive and offensive modes of interaction. It means listening to the student’s frustrations without denying the validity of the feelings (even though the premises upon which they are based may be faulty). It means demonstrating how to break down overwhelming jobs into smaller tasks, and how to create organisational structures that are self-enabling. It means initiating work by starting from a place of competency and asking the student what they do know, rather than telling them what they ought to know. It’s not something that is accomplished quickly, especially when the poor mental habits have taken a long time to become established. It takes a while for the student to re-frame their self-perception, and to install more effective work habits.

Parents and school staff also assign blame on each other, and get defensive when one side asserts that the reason for the student’s difficulties lies in the other’s incompetence. This ends up putting the adult dyad into offensive-defensive modes as well, thus blocking positive change.

We don’t need parents who are better warriors at IEP meetings, when in fact they really want to be helping the teachers understand how neat their children are, and sharing their insights about the child’s strengths and interests.

We don’t need school staff who are better at defending the Local Education Authority’s policies, when in fact what they really want to be doing is sharing their enthusiasm for various subjects with the students, but in fact end up cornered by employers that create systems that interfere with imaginative teaching.

We do need team members who can collaborate with each other and with the student, and who can teach the knowledge and tools they will need to be better masters of their own destinies. That is what education should ultimately be about, rather than about creating more compliant student masses.

Novel Ideas

 

 

 

Modern Times

Survey question: Ever been absolutely bored to tears in a class?

Of course you have! We get bored from things that are too easy, that seem too irrelevant, or that are so familiar and routine that they fail to hold our attention (especially those of us for whom attention is a slippery thing to begin with).

A little novelty can be a wonderful thing in teaching. It can catch and retain students’ attention to present them with new material. It can invigorate familiar subjects with new perspectives. Used judiciously, it can raise the challenge to a manageable level that makes students reach to stretch their boundaries, without being so high they run the risk of complete failure.

Novelty can affect educational difficulties in different ways. Educational difficulties are frequently described as “learning difficulties”, although not all of them are expressed in “learning”, the acquisition and integration of new knowledge. Rather, educational difficulties can result from mismatches in teaching methods or in environmental factors. When we run into environments with high levels of novelty, we can run into educational difficulties. Take for example, field trips …

Field trips are chock-full of novelty! New places, new things to see, perhaps to handle, smell and taste, and hopefully new things to do as well. Novelty can help a person more consistently retain attention, especially those people who have problems with varying levels of attention. Please note that “more consistent attention” does not necessarily mean that your AD/HD or autistic student will be “better behaved” on a field trip!

This is because attention-switching can be more difficult when the novel thing has become a sudden, fascinating, all-absorbing interest. Thus, one has to “drag away” a girl from an exhibit on steam engines. Or, the novelty can be so overwhelming that the student hardly knows where to turn – everything in the Hall of Egypt is fascinating! This is the student that won’t dutifully follow the troop from one exhibit to the next in a quiet and linear manner. Instead, he is bouncing all over the place, “Hey, look at this cat wearing an earring! Wow, a real sarcophagus!” His attention is on the exhibit, but nearly all of it all at once. Either way, the teacher leading these “poky little puppies” or “bouncing kangaroos” despairs of keeping the class together, either in the literal sense or in the pedagogical sense when delivering explanations about the materials. (And that, O Best Beloved, is why teachers are always drafting additional adults to be chaperones.)

On the other hand, novel environments, or even familiar environments with highly novel activities, can be problematic for students whose coping strategies are dependent upon having a particular enabling environment, or dependent upon having particular way of approaching and processing work in different ways, either physically or cognitively. This can happen even if the concepts and methods being used are familiar. Sometimes (with strokes, other kinds of brain damage, pharmaceutical side effects, auditory or visual processing difficulties, or autism) students simply have certain processes that they won’t be able to access consistently, but those kinds of events will also happen when nothing has outwardly changed, which indicates that the difficulty is interior to the person.

But sometimes there is something so profoundly new in the system that it “throws a spanner into the works”. The mental gears come to a halt. Outwardly, it appears that the student is either being noncompliant, or else has forgotten what they learned earlier. But in the case of excessive novelty, no amount of cajoling, rebuking or of punishments & rewards is going to “make” the student comply.

In situations where the student gets profoundly stuck or shuts down, it helps to remember that everyone is an organism within an environmental system. Is there something different in the environment since the task was last accomplished? Is there something different in the methods being used? Is the instructor using a very different approach or verbiage? In cases like this, we want to go back and re-establish the previous situational parameters, and reinforce the abilities gained before. This may have to be done on another day; sometimes “stuckness” can be sticky for hours.

Having achieved the skill again, practice it with a single minor change. During the practices, modify the change in small increments, and do not try to introduce multiple changes. Don’t expect to make very many changes at once, either. Doing something differently three times may not be enough to cement it in, and when assaying the task again, it may take a few more tries to get things down thoroughly with all the new changes.

 

In situations like this, the difficulty can also be with generalising, or being able to apply familiar skills in unfamiliar situations. This isn’t the same problem of being unable to access the skills, but rather, of recognising that this new situation requires that particular set of skills.

Lest these problems seem absurd, and related only to students with cognitive disabilities, then think back to when you got an entirely new version of your computer’s operating system, or when you changed from one word-processing program to another. It’s not that you didn’t know how to use the “file cabinet” in Windows 3.1, or how to save files in WordStar, but rather that lurching into Windows 1996 or WordPerfect, and then later on lurching into Windows 2000 or Word, has changed all of your familiar cues and ways of doing things. You may have had the skills, but now you’re looking for the old things in new places, or using slightly different commands or names for things. Or if you’re a newbie to the world of computers, then think back to your second car, and having to switch on the windshield wipers or headlights with different controls, and of not having the radio buttons working in familiar ways. Somehow, even though it’s the same old thing you’ve been using competantly for a long time, it’s also all new, and every single task is fraught with a dozen little glitches to trap you. Or if you’ve traveled to other countries, consider the first time you stepped into a market and couldn’t automatically identify the packaged goods. The brands, label configurations, aisle locations, even what shapes of containers your items would be packaged in, are all different. It makes the head spin.

Such are the effects of excessive novelty: too much invigoration or too many inputs to sort. Think of it as “educational jetlag”.

P.S. Was the novelty of having the picture of Charlie Chaplin from his film “Modern Times” distracting when you were trying to read the blogpost?

IFs, ANDs or BUTs

When dealing with exceptional students, it’s all too easy to end up just focusing on their difficulties, to the exclusion of their strengths.  Sometimes even the strengths become seen as weaknesses (which is a whole ‘nother story – stay tuned).

You get statements like, “He’s a good writer, but he has major problems with spelling.”  That word but seems to overwhelm all the student’s compositional abilities.  It mentally halts the flow of positive qualities and of plans, not unlike when we say, “We were going on a weekend trip BUT I got sick.” “She could move up to pre-algebra BUT she doesn’t know how to do fractions.”

Sometimes the difficulties are problems that impede progress.  One needs to know how to handle fractions in order to work with algebraic processes.  In situations like that, “but” is an appropriate term.

On the other hand, we tend to become so overly focused upon problems that we end up using “but” way too often.  Thus, we inadvertently limit our understanding, we limit our plans for future work, we limit what we provide for the student in the way of accommodations or services, and ultimately we limit what we and the student expect that they can achieve.  In other words, it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a perceived limitation that becomes a semi-real one.

Try this on for size:  “He’s a good writer and he has major problems with spelling.”  By substituting an “and” for the “but”, we now have a student who remains a good writer, and also needs some kind of assistance with the spelling issue.  When we say “and” we do not lose sight of the problem, but we do not as easily run into the issue of false limitations.

“If” can also be a strong word.  That sounds strange, doesn’t it?  The most wishy-washy, uncertain, provisional word can actually be a strong thing.  It’s preconditional, meaning that something can be accomplished when something else is arranged first.  Millions of programmers know this to be true; the basic (er, BASIC) If-Then statement is one of the most important phrases around.  “If we give him a Palm Pilot with a detachable keyboard, then he can type his class notes and thus will be able to take more complete notes.”  This If-Then formula not only acknowledges the issue and the ability, but takes it even further to recommend how to move past the problems to stay focused on the abilities.

Small words don’t earn you very many points on a Scrabble (R) game board, but they can create a surprising amount of results in everyday life.  Try seeing how many times you can substitute an “and” for a “but” in everyday conversation.  It will seem awkward at first, given decades of saying but-this and but-that all the time.   Keep at it, as you remember at times.  If you give it a try with your family, your coworkers, your school people, then I think you’ll find a growing trickle of small changes, like the melting icicles of early spring.

Testing, 1, 2, 3 …

The other week I was typing math tests, generally a task as dull as dusting door lintels. But this time I was enthused because I was re-typing the tests in order to make them more accessible.

You see, the old tests were done in a small 10-point font, with the arithmetic problems set up in the traditional manner of stacking them in long columns and aligned rows. Many of our students have a variety of learning disabilities, and I suspected the very layout of the tests was aggravating some of the visual and/or graphomotor difficulties.

Firstly I increased the numerals to a 14-point font. This is much closer to natural handwriting size, so it’s easier for the students to write their own numbers under the columns of existing digits. For dysgraphic students, anything that gives them more room to write is beneficial. Therefore I also increased the amount of space between the problems, both within the rows and between them. This way there would be sufficient room for working out the calculations, especially the long division problems.

Another reason for giving extra room between the rows was that I wanted to avoid making the students squeeze their answers around smudged calculations. Nor did I want to have them transfer their answers to a separate page, which could incur errors involving number transpositions, correspondence between the problem and its specifically numbered answer blank, or some of the answers not even getting transferred over.

Next I put the problem numbers (enumeration) on different lines than the problems, so there would be less confusion about which was which. In contrast, the operations signs (plus, minus, multiply or divide) were moved closer to the problems to reduce any confusion about what the student was to do.

Another important step was to arrange the individual problems so they were not stacked directly above and below each other. This reduces some of the spatially-related difficulties some students have, and prevents confusion about which number is involved in a given problem. It’s too easy to pick up the wrong number or even skip a problem when all the digits are piled up in long wriggling stacks. Offsetting the problems helps isolate each one in a larger area of white-space.

The combination of offset problems plus using a larger font resulted in using two rows for five problems, rather than just one row. In turn, the tests usually grew longer by a page. I don’t consider that to be a problem; there’s a time for “saving trees” (conserving paper) and a time when that is a false economy because it creates other problems. When photocopying the tests, I did not copy on both front and back. It’s too easy to miss a chunk of problems on a test when they are “hidden” on the back. Plus, having blank page backs automatically gives blank space for any additional little calculations that the students need to do.

These mathematics tests don’t have much in the way of worded questions, although for those that were included, I doubled the length of the answer blanks so they would be roomy enough for handwritten responses.

When laying out tests with worded questions, there are some other techniques that can make test-taking less difficult on the practical end. Many things are good common sense, but we have to be aware of them to be sure of including them. These include methods such as:

• In matching questions, have the descriptions in column one and terms in column two on the same page (no run-ons to another page);
• Use numbers for one column in the matching and letters for the other column;
• Spell out the words True – False to be circled (rather than the student writing T or F or t or f and letting the grader guess which was written down);
• Avoid the use of double-negatives in true-false or multiple-choice questions;
• Use capitals in matching or multiple choice (A, B, C, D, E) instead of lower case (a, b, c, d, e) that can be confusing to the student or to the grader (a – d, b – d, or c – e can look similar), and be sure to give a blank to write the answer upon.

(As you might guess, this particular grader has her own difficulties reading small font sizes, visually tracking numbers, or sometimes distinguishing certain letters.)

The benefit to all these various techniques is that they help all the students, not only those who have particular disabilities that have been diagnosed and for whom accommodations have been established. Other students who have undiagnosed problems, marginal problems, those who are simply tired or sick, and even those in top form will all benefit from having tests that are easier to read. (Ditto the teaching staff!)

This is the joy of universal design for learning: make as much of the material as accommodating as possible for a wide group of students, and you will have fewer specific changes to make for individual students, plus everyone will be able to use the material more easily.

After all, our end goal is to assess the students’ acquisition of knowledge, not their ability to decipher tests..

Dividing We Stand

So there I was mulling over how to approach long division with one of my seventh-grade students. There are several difficulties involved in his learning of the process, and I’ve only identified a few of them. One thing I do know for sure is that he has a low frustration threshold, and that mathematics is neither an easy nor an interesting subject for him. (Last week he had a meltdown after just a few problems and wouldn’t do any work for the rest of the hour.)

I thought back to yesterday’s class. A large part of the problem is that he doesn’t have his multiplication facts memorized. This could be from problems with rote memorization, and it could be also from problems with retrieval of information he already knows. Either or both gives the same result behaviorally. I have to be able to sift through what I observe and what he says, to determine what’s happening. After watching him remember most of what we went over the previous day, and watching him have to stop and calculate 22 minus 18, I suspected that it’s probably more of a rote memorization issue than a recall problem.

He also needed a more efficient method of calculating. I showed him that instead of going through the whole rote process of subtracting 8 from 12 by borrowing the 1 from the tens column, he could count from 18 to 22, and (looking at his fingers) see that there’s a difference of four. That sped up his working pace and reduced the cognitive load. It also helped him see that subtracting is finding the distance between two amounts, rather than just cranking through stacks of numerals.

He can calculate his multiplication facts (every single time he needs one) because he understands them as adding by multiples, and he figures the product by adding, “4 …. 8 …. 12 … 16” with each group of four on one finger, then look at his fingers and know that 4 times 4 is 16. Doing all this arithmetic with every step (such as figuring out how many 6’s are close to 37 for the first value of the quotient) places heavy demands upon working memory, and thus reduces his ability to learn and recall the larger process. All that work makes it hard to keep the data in short-term memory, and without that, it never makes it to long-term memory.

So a couple of days ago I brought out a multiplication table, but he didn’t understand it. Time to backtrack and get a better grip on multiplication! I got some manipulative cubes, and we built up a partial table, setting up 2 sets of 3. He counted each cube, “That makes six,” and then 3 sets of 2, “That also makes six,” and he wrote 6’s in both squares. We went over 3×4 and 4×3, and he wrote 12’s in both squares. Ah-ha! The order you multiply doesn’t matter. “That’s called the Commutative Law,” I explained. “It doesn’t matter if you multiply 4×5 or 5×4, whatever order you multiply them, you still get 20. That means you only have to learn HALF of the multiplication table!” Then we went over 3×3 and 4×4 and 5×5 and learned why a number multiplied times itself is called a square – the blocks stacked up into squares. Finally he understood how the multiplication table is built and what he can do with it, so we decided to use it in his long division problems.

Sequencing is definitely a difficulty; he’s having problems remembering when he’s dividing and when he’s subtracting. He’s also getting confused on whether to put a number down as part of the quotient or as a product. That could also be a spatial processing issue. Some of our students have problems with their columns of numbers wandering about, which plays extra havoc when they get to decimals (I liken it to “getting decimated”), so I have them turn lined paper sideways and write their numbers in the columns between the lines.

One thing I had noticed yesterday was that he could describe the process to me verbally more easily than he could write the problem. He might very well be an auditory learner. This might also be a fine motor coördination issue (he writes his numeral 4 with three separate strokes) so we’ve been doing the problems with a whiteboard and marker. This makes it easier to write the problems down and also erase errors, in contrast to doing them with pencil and paper. The marker glides more easily, and the numerals are naturally larger. It’s also easier for me to see what he’s doing without breathing down his neck, which is more comfortable for both of us.

Today I started him out by asking him what his favorite sport is. Yes, that’s an odd way to start math class, and there was a few seconds of delay before he answered, “Baseball.” Tying the subject to his special interest makes it more interesting and relevant, and thus be more likely to “stick”. Starting with something that he likes also helps reduce his aversion to the subject. In this case, we needed to learn the names of the different parts of the division equation. Previously he’d been telling me to, “Put the 2 over the 3,” but knowing how to do one problem by rote process doesn’t always help when you get to a different kind of problem. He also needs to be able to understand that all the problems are built of the same types of pieces. So I explained that just as baseball teams all had the same kinds of positions (catchers, pitchers, basemen, outfielders and so on), so did division problems (divisor, dividend, quotient, product and remainder). Just as each team has different people playing those positions, different problems had different numbers playing different positions. Well, that made sense.

With this base of understanding, we began reviewing the process he’d mastered yesterday. Because of his low frustration tolerance, I wanted to be especially sure of emphasizing his achievement. Then we did four problems together, with me correcting errors and also doing the scribing. Having refreshed the process, for the second quartet of problems I had him tell me what do write, and he was nearly soloing. For the third quartet I had him tell me what he’s doing, and he did the writing as well. Then after all that achievement, we looked at the two different ways of writing the same problem, with the bracket or the dotted sign.

Of course, the big questions are whether or not today’s understanding made it into his long-term memory (if he can retrieve that process after a day or a weekend or a month), and if he understood what it is actually about.

Tomorrow we’ll go over again what a division problem means. 295 divided by 36 describes, “How many sets of 36 can we make from 295? Do we have any left over, or does it come out even?” I’ll also have him describe to me the overall process of long division, which I will type up for him to keep. Having the student explain something in their own words requires a higher taxonomic level of learning than just shuffling around a bunch of numbers. Using verbal description also ties the learning to another part of the memory.

The problem with learning rote processes without conceptual understanding is that the students will then stumble in pre-algebra. They will need to use abstract reasoning to evaluate which method to use when. Part of that abstract reasoning simply comes from the maturation of the brain, and part of it comes from creating that deeper understanding of different methods.

I can sympathize with our students’ mathematical difficulties. It took me four years to learn my multiplication tables, and even in statistics and calculus I still have pauses in recall. (Calculus concepts are a breeze, but I can’t memorize a formula to save my life.) I had also flunked a number of math tests when attending this very same school building, and now here I was teaching it to students. (The irony!) But I take that understanding of the frustration with me every day, and express it as patience. I apply everything I have learned (and continue to learn) about cognition and learning, and everything I have learned about observing people, and put them together in my work as a paraprofessional and as a college tutor.

All told, this student successfully completed 13 long division problems today. The whole process is making much more sense, and he persevered with the work through most of the class period. I told him that since he’d stuck with it so well (even when he got a bit frustrated) he could take a break for the last ten minutes of class. He commented that it was kind of fun. “Yup,” I agreed, “Math is like games or puzzles once you understand the process!” This is a good sign. It may not last – one good day after unknown months of difficulties isn’t enough to turn around a student, but it is part of a good start with a new teaching relationship.

Techniques & Tips from a “Professional Student”

It’s too easy for blogging to end up as nothing more than a series of rants, so here’s something positive.

It’s that time of year when millions of people (leastwise, those in the northern hemisphere) are starting new school years. As someone who tutors (other) students with ADD and learning disabilities, I thought I’d share a bevy of helpful ideas I’ve scraped together over the years.

GETTING READY TO READ

Put the material into the Big Picture. Before starting a chapter/ module/ unit, review your syllabus to see how the content of this one fits within the logical flow of the previous unit, and how it might be important to the next unit. This helps the material make more sense and seem less like a giant pile of loose facts.

Read the textbook backwards.
Start with the Summary in the back of the chapter; this is the “TV Guide” version to what the chapter is about, so you know what you’re heading into before you dive into all the excruciating details. Read over the new terms in the Glossary, so when you encounter them in the text you won’t have those unintelligible speed-bumps that interrupt your understanding of the reading.

This is helpful if this subject is entirely new to you and you have little or no background in the concepts and terminology of this particular field of study.

From the first day of class, create a personal glossary of new terms and their definitions. This is imperative if you are starting a new field of study because you will soon find yourself in possession of a swarm of new words for which you are responsible. Trying to look up a word for its definition by flipping through masses of notes, handouts and textbooks only slows you down and makes you frustrated. Staring into space, pacing, rocking or banging your head do not aid in remembering new terms, so having that personal glossary will give you a ready list to access. Don’t forget to add helpful tips to your definitions, such as cautions about similar-sounding words that you might confuse, or terms with complementary or opposite meanings.

This is especially helpful if you are slow at recalling words, or have difficulties with spelling.

Block off distracting printed material with a mask. Use a half sheet of thin cardboard, a 3/4 sheet cut into an “L” shape, or two blank index cards to mask off distracting graphics, or simply to block off everything but the single question, objective, or paragraph you need to focus upon.

This is helpful if you are someone who is easily distracted by fascinating pictures, or if you have reading difficulties.

TAME THE PAPER TIGER

Assign a particular color to each class. I like to have the binder match the textbook color, so when I’m getting things together for class I only have to grab “two red things”. After the test, keep the notes and handouts in the colored binder or manilla folder. Use that color of ink to mark due dates for assignments and test dates on your calendar. Use that color of manilla or pocket folder to keep all the stray bits of useful stuff you are collecting for a report/project – having that special “parking place” will help organize and reduce the “file by pile” mess on your desk, floor, table, window ledge and other random surfaces…

Buy a hole punch with a trap. The trap collects all the “dots” so they don’t litter the floor. A 3- or 4-hole punch (depending on whether you use 8.5″ x 11″ or A4 paper) is vastly easier than a single-hole punch, as it not only reduces the number of clenches you have to perform, but also because it makes hole spacing that is perfectly even for the binder. Hole-punch all of your handouts and put them into the binder with your notes, so the two can live in wedded bliss.

Buy several packages of index dividers so you can separate the different chapters/units in your binder and more quickly flip through them for studying.

Make liberal use of colored sticky-notes. These are the greatest invention since the microwave oven! They will save tremendous amounts of time from having to endlessly flip through textbook, lab manual, handout, and note pages to track down important information.

Use colored sticky-notes to mark where important graphs, lists, charts, and diagrams are located in the textbook – write a key word on the external, flagging end of the sticky.

Use different colors of sticky-note for different chapters/modules/units, to make studying easier when you have tests that come after you have begun the next chapter/module/unit.

Use sticky-notes to mark chapter sections for those classes that skip around a lot within a textbook. If you are only using section 3.2 of a chapter, then you may begin by reading the summary for just section 3.2 of that chapter, but it might also be helpful to briefly review what the rest of the chapter summary has to say, to understand how the ideas in this section are connected to other ideas.

NOTABLE TIPS FOR NOTE-TAKING & STUDYING

Always take notes in black ink. There is nothing more horrifying during Midterm or Final Exams than discovering that a semester’s worth of pencil-written lecture notes has turned into a smeary, unreadable mess. Oh, the horror… Also, some kinds of blue ink are close to “non-photo / non-repro” blue, a color that’s nearly invisible to many photocopiers; this is usually not a problem unless you need to photocopy those notes for any reason.

Always date and/or number your note pages. Of course, if you live a charmed life and never have sudden “gravity fluctuations” in your part of the planet that cause you to drop or spill note papers, or you never own binders that lose their “bite”, then don’t bother. Otherwise, dating the pages lets you keep track of what was lectured on at a particular time (handy if someone asks to borrow your notes from last Tuesday). If you take more than one page of notes per day (which is nearly always) then numbering the pages instead of or in addition to dating them makes it even easier to put spilled pages back to rights.

Title each page.
Even if it’s just by abbreviation, describe the page of notes by the lecture topic, the unit or chapter title. This not only makes it easier to find the right notes when studying for tests, but it also helps you remember what the overall pattern of ideas is during the course of the class across the semester.
Example:
MITOSIS WED 2 FEB p.1

Take notes in two columns: the left side for listing the main idea titles, important names, terms, dates or formulae, and the right side for all the regular details and sentences. If there is a page in your textbook, lab manual or whatever that has a particular graph, chart or listing, write down that page number on the left side as well, as well as a word or two to title why that page number is important. This speeds up your test studying because you can glance through pages of notes to find the one that has the specific information you’re looking for.

Use the Objectives listed in the chapter/unit/module as your study guide for the test, and write out a full answer to each one as though it were a question. Pay attention to key verbs such as Describe, Compare, List, Define or Identify – these can give you an idea of what kind of test question could be asked. Writing these out does two things: it not only helps you self-test your own understanding before you get to the class test, but it also changes your answers from something you have to invent during the test (which is time-consuming) into something you just have to recall during the test (which is much quicker and easier).

Writing out answers to the objectives in full sentences is especially helpful if English is not your first language, and/or if you are slow at remembering words,and/or otherwise have difficulty expressing the knowledge that’s stuck in your head.

DECIMATED BY NUMBERS

Turn lined paper sideways to have ready-made columns for keeping your place-values straight in big arithmetic calculations. Another option is to use green “engineer’s paper” that has graph squares on one side and is blank on the other side, but the graph grid is still somewhat visible on the blank side, and the green tint is more restful on the eyes.

This is especially helpful if your handwriting tends to wander around or slope down a page, and will keep your numbers and decimals in order.

If you are doing mathematical equations or other things that are processes, write out your own set of numbered directions describing how to do the process. For instance, it may not be as obvious to you as it was to the author of the formula that you need to determine the value of “C” before you put the other values into the formula. So in your own directions, you should note “Find the value for “C” by ~ ~ ~” as one of the earlier steps.
Whenever you solve an equation or do a statistical analysis, write out in a complete sentence what the answer to the calculations MEANS in regards to the original problem/story/question given.

These are especially helpful if you are more of a “words” person than a “numbers” person.

If you have several different formulae , make yourself a flow-chart (meaning, a series of decisions) that helps you figure out which one you use for different kinds of circumstances. When you are studying a chapter or doing that day’s homework, it’s obvious which one you need to use – it’s the one you’re learning that day! But come test time, you will need to be able to understand which one you use for each kind of situation.

This is especially helpful if you are one of those people for whom “all the formulae look the same”.

Use name and address labels on everything, and add your phone number or email as well. Put them on your textbooks, lab manuals, various notebooks, calculator, data CD, flash/keychain drive, assorted binders, notepads, calendar-organizer, each piece of art & drafting equipment plus the carrying case, and all the other things that you need to survive as a student, to help guarantee that the person who finds them can help get them back home to you.

This is especially helpful if you are forgetful, distractible, prone to leaving things in various places, and/or are juggling a variety of classes and jobs. (You can imagine why I know this.)

A, B, C, D and F

“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
~Agatha Christie

“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill

How bad does it have to get?

At what point does a student’s difficulties with schoolwork demonstrate that they are having significant problems, and therefore need help?

Should a student have to fail classes before someone realizes or decides that there is a problem?

Why do we rely on failing – or near-failing – to signal academic difficulties? By the time a student has slid that perilously low in achievement, they have been struggling for a long while, and are getting further and further behind, thus making it even more difficult to catch up and succeed.

Furthermore, all that time spent struggling and generally not understanding why they are having problems, only creates even greater frustration. Stress doesn’t always push students to rally and succeed – too much stress rather, just serves to flatten their spirits.

Being told (directly or indirectly by all sorts of adults and peers) that they are simply “lazy” or “not trying hard enough” or “stupid” or whatever, only serves to further mangle the esteem and create greater frustration. It’s a recipe for depression, for withdrawal, and/or for acting out.

Bright students apply their natural intelligence and create coping strategies around their various difficulties. Oft times this is an unconscious process; it’s sheer adaptation to the world because they are expected to be able to do what everyone else does, and because in many ways, they have to approach tasks differently.

But coping strategies can only compensate so far. When the student is tired, or is sick, or is overwhelmed by other events in life, or is having to spread not enough compensation over too much difficulty, it breaks down. And then the student “suddenly” can’t do what they’ve always been able to do. Teachers, parents and others can’t understand why the student isn’t performing well. It’s easy to make those dread attribution errors: “You just need to focus. You just need to try harder. You just need to pay attention.”

For the student, sometimes they can’t even understand how or why it is that they can do things some days, but not others. Or why they can only sometimes do things well. It seems irrational. It’s easy for the frustrated student to make attribution errors of their own: “The teacher hates me. The work is too hard. The subject is just stupid.”

Students who are both very bright and have learning disabilities or learning difficulties or even marked learning style differences, face a terrible Catch-22. For years they will get by on sheer brains, compensating for their problems in ingenious ways. But eventually the complexity of the subject materials, the increasingly higher taxonomic levels of assessment, and the increasing study load all combine to bog down the effort. (The distractions of adolescence certainly don’t help, either!)

These “twice-exceptional” students may do well, but struggle to achieve what they could do. The learning problems, which affect both the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge, can cancel out the exceptional qualities. What everyone sees, instead of a bright student with learning problems, is just an ordinary student with erratic and scattered abilities.

Once someone finally cues into the fact that there is a problem, it’s the disparity between ability and achievement in test results where the learning problems are diagnosed. But even before that, it’s the erratic results in the grades (even in the same subject!) and the uneven scatter of abilities that should send up flags.

It’s not uncommon for students with learning disabilities to be uneven — the “easy” things may be difficult (such as taking 4+ years to learn multiplication tables) and the more advanced stuff may be easy (e.g. physics or calculus concepts). If people insist that the student “master” the preliminary steps before they can move on, the student will be bored and not reach their academic potential. Bored students can act up, either withdrawing, being class clown to get attention, or getting frustrated and angry.

Even after testing, there can be confusion all around. None of the test results may show a severe problem of any one kind. But we have to remember that problems are cumulative. On good days, various problems may merely be additive; on bad days they can be multiplicative. So a student with some ADHD organizational problems and some Auditory Processing Disorder problems and some Asperger’s socialization problems and some difficulties in reading and some periodic tics and some depression and occasional migraines … doesn’t have any “major” problems. But what that student does have is a major conglomeration of interacting problems. It’s no one thing – it’s everything!

One school person said this student didn’t need an IEP because they were “coping so well”. Drr? the last report card ran the entire gamut of the alphabet, from A through F.

Yeah, right.

How bad does it have to get?

Where Are All of Us?

Are there really more males than females with autism/Asperger’s and AD/HD?

Reading the diagnostic literature, one finds references to the “fact” that there are more autistic boys than girls. There certainly seem to be more hyperactive, inattentive boys diagnosed (and consequently treated with medication) than there are girls.

Curiously, when one reads through bulletin board sites for autistics/Asperger’s, there seems to be a pretty evenly balanced gender ratio (as far as one can discern from screen names or profiles). Looking at the “autiebiographies” available, the male to female author ratio is fairly even. However, such reviews are not necessarily going to be a representative sampling of a population. Publishing houses require authors to be able to present novel perspectives (pardon the pun), to have good written verbal skills, and may try to present a balance of authors. A bulletin board is naturally self-selecting for individuals who have computer access, a comfortable grasp on the language used, a willingness to identify one’s self as belonging there, plus just as importantly, an interest in socializing through Web media. The first two factors are universal requirements for access, but the last one is distinctive for a different reason.

Females are generally perceived by society as being more socially -oriented than are males, or more interested in people than in things, hence the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” analogy or Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s recent writings on male/female differences. They are also perceived as having higher verbal skills than do males, or at least girls develop higher levels of verbal skills at younger ages than do boys. There is the possibility that even if women are outnumbered in these populations, they are more likely to crave socialization and be more adept at, or feel more comfortable with, socializing through the written medium of a Web board. But does the sex ratio evinced reflect this self-selection, or is it a good sampling and therefore indicative of the overall population?

Currently more males than females are diagnosed with autism and AD/HD, at a general rate of around 4:1. The causes of autism are proving to be complex; autism is not a single, simple thing, but varies in collative properties by individual. Thus far it is indicated to be polygenic and also affected by factors in embryonic development as well, as twins do not even develop similarly. It would not surprise anyone to find that males are more likely to be autistic; the susceptibility derived from only having one X chromosome is seen in a variety of genetic factors.

These off-repeated ratios are likely not true prevalence rates, but rather reflects diagnostic rates. Both autism and AD/HD are diagnosed by sets of behaviours that differ from the norm, and thus attract attention of those people who would make initial remarks (parents, teachers) leading to those individuals being brought to the attention of those who would make final assessments (pædiatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists).

Females often do not “present” in the same manner that males do. This is rather a reflection of the fact that the diagnostic criteria were based more upon behaviour of males from the sample populations than upon a gender-balanced population samples. Currently the psych field is abuzz with discussion that girls are being missed for ADD diagnoses because they present more in the Inattentive qualities. The quiet, daydreaming girl staring out the window is not a problem for her school teacher, so there is less concern about her erratic scholastic achievements. (After all, maybe it’s just a “blonde thing” /sarcasm.)

Part of autism is inherent in the “wiring” of the human brain, and part of autism is a social construct. That Kanner and Asperger both met with unusual children who gave them the impetus to dually conceive of the concept of autism at the same time in history, may have more to do with the fact that a public awareness of psychology, the development of social and scholastic statistical norms that created specific definition of abnormal, plus the evolving field of child psychology, more than any sudden incidence of autistics.

Likewise the concept of “minimal brain dysfunction” that has evolved to its current status of AD/HD reflects changing understanding, including distinctions between hyperactive, inattentive and combined forms. As mentioned, a hyperactive boy is simply more noticeable in a classroom setting than is a daydreaming girl, although they may have very similar difficulties with their school work, personal and social lives, and ultimately their adult worlds of work.

Amazingly, kids with AD/HD grow up to be adults with AD/HD, although the problems of the adult can be less “noticeable” because adults can develop coping mechanisms (including the acquisition of helpful spouses who eventually become very frustrated if no one realises what’s really going on). Likewise, the addition of Asperger’s to the DSM and ICD criteria reflects a greater understanding of the breadth of autistic expression, and the number of adults that would now qualify for an AS diagnosis is far greater than those who actually have such a diagnosis, simply because it was not available as a diagnosis during the school years when such things are often diagnosed. The lack of available diagnoses is not the same thing as the lack of diagnosable individuals existing.

Just as autistics sometimes face the gross error of being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, mental retardation or other disorders, females face the similar problem of being misdiagnosed with personality disorders. The complementary dilemma to Misdiagnoses are the Missed Diagnoses, those girls and women who continue to struggle through life never understanding why they feel so different and why they find many things difficult. For these people the secondary problems with relationships, schooling and work result in lifelong stress and all too frequently in depression.

To better understand how autism or AD/HD affects the abilities of females, we need to better understand how to recognize them and to be able to see those cues when they are expressed in girls and women.

Hindered by Success

The favor of your reply is requested.

The other year when I was giving the annual Inservice training to the other university tutors, I asked them how many had flunked a test or a class. Only one person of the dozen-plus raised his hand, and he too had some kind of learning disability/difference. I was amazed, and thought to myself, Is life really this smooth for everyone else?

All the other tutors were there as tutors because they really knew their stuff, they were good at it, and it was easy for them. None of the others knew the panic of not being able to do something today that they were able to do a few days ago, or not being able to retrieve knowledge they knew, or not understanding test questions correctly (and thus providing the wrong sorts of answers). Hardly anyone knew what it felt like to fail, and how crushing it was to work very hard, yet still not achieve.

I also had a classmate in a College Teaching course who worked as a Teaching Assistant, and who confessed that she got really impatient and annoyed with students who had trouble in the subject; it was easy for her, and she couldn’t understand how it wouldn’t be for anyone else! Oy.

Of course, for tutors they want people who have a good command of the concepts and details of a subject, and who can communicate those well. But they also need people who are able to be flexible in how they explain things, and who are empathetic with their tutees.

Sometimes the tutees seem unprepared. But we have to assume the tutee wants to improve; why else would either person be there? Asking the tutee, “Why aren’t you prepared? Don’t you want to get better at this?” is patronizing. It’s easy to mis-attribute the lack of progress to laziness or similar moral failing.

Tutees may be “unprepared” because they have gotten “stuck” at some fundamental level. For instance, they may have not completed the assigned reading because they are not understanding terms, or there are different definitions of familiar words that are specific to the particular discipline, so the text makes no sense even thought they “know” the terms in some other context.

Oft times our students cannot pinpoint just where in the process they are having problems. These are the students who will swear up and down that they are doing everything the right way, but aren’t getting the results that are supposed to happen. Insisting that the student merely needs to “try harder” is profoundly unhelpful. It’s not a question of how hard one is working, but rather how one is working.

Some of those students are the ones who are really smart and have mostly skated through primary and secondary school on sheer intelligence, and who have not developed many study skills. Or, they may be trying to use the wrong study methods because they’ve been told that they are “supposed to” study with flashcards, even though they don’t really learn well with that method. Many students need help developing new organizational or planning approaches to handle the greater or more complex work loads.

They may also have processing difficulties that are not readily apparent. For example, a student may spend so much of their cognitive energies listening to a lecture, remaining focused despite distractions, understanding the auditory input, and/or making sense of the concepts as they are presented, that they are unable to retain the information in their long-term memory, or to be able to simultaneously take effective notes. Despite having attended very carefully, later on they will not be able to explain what the lecture was about, or have useful notes to refer to. But this lack of “results” isn’t from a lack of effort; indeed, that student may be working twice as hard as their peers.

This is profoundly frustrating, and at this point the students either turn the frustration inwards and consider themselves failures because they are stupid at a subject, or else turn it outwards and insist the teachers are making things impossible just to flunk some of the students, or that the subject itself is useless. In cases like these, the student needs help figuring out how they learn best, and how they can advocate for themselves to have access to the material in a way that works best with their individual learning style, and thus be able to work with their strengths.

Differences in learning styles is hardly a novel concept, yet there are instructors, those professors, graduate teaching assistants and tutors, for whom this idea is mostly theoretical. The professor who is an auditory, sequential learner and who did well during their own school days when taught by the lecture method, will likely just lecture to their own classes. To them it’s a “natural” way of teaching and learning. Obviously there are students who are “smart” enough to “get” the content this way. It’s “proven” because it’s traditional. Writing a few key terms on the board and projecting an illustration or two in an hour’s monologue seems like sufficient effort for visual learners. Once again, the instructors are so personally successful that they can’t truly understand why others aren’t.

Students get tutoring because they are unable to learn subjects the way the subjects are taught, or because they have great difficulty doing so. They seek out tutors because they want to do better, not because they are lazy. Each of us has different tasks that find easy or difficult, and it behooves us to remember that these are different for each person.

At this point, I’d like to be able to explore this dilemma with other members of the blogosphere, so we can all improve our understanding. My question to you is:

What sorts of teaching and learning methods work best for you, and what kinds of situations have you found that particularly hindered your ability to learn? Feel free to provide concrete examples, as people have been through a variety of schools in different times and places, and good understanding needs context.

All Those Needy, Needy Kids!

From an email some years ago: 

" I have a friend who teaches Kindergarten in the town where I now live. She told me that last September over one half of her incoming Kindergartners had IEPs, with most of those children having an ASD."    

Well of COURSE they now have IEPs to help them with their scholastic issues. Why? Because the schools now offer services.  Why didn't we see kids with these kinds of "needs" in previous decades? Partly because some of those kids didn't even go to regular schools — they were kept at home or in institutions.  Those who did go to regular schools just had to struggle along. They rarely had IEPs and such because their parents didn't – couldn’t – ask for services that simply did not exist.

I had multiple needs. What I got were glasses for nearsightedness, speech therapy, and forced right-handedness. I also got told that my difficulties were due to being lazy, stupid, careless, inattentive, rude, or due to inventing problems just to make life difficult for my mother.

What they "missed" was the ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Asperger’s, prosopagnosia (faceblindness) et cetera. Of course, they didn't really "miss" those things, because they didn't have the screening tools (or even the names) for all those things then.  (In a previous diagnostic incarnation, ADD used to be known as “minimal brain dysfunction”; charming, eh what?)

Because the school districts did not recognise those characteristics as creating problems for me or for other students, they did not have services for such.    That such a large percentage of students are now requiring various accommodations does not mean that we have a greater number of "damaged" children.  Rather, it means that we have more students who are actually getting diagnosed as not being able to learn the same way as most of their peers. 

It also means that we have an educational system that is poorly – too narrowly – designed to teach children.  Too often children are faulted for "being problems" rather than for "having different needs". And quite often it's not necessarily the child that has the problem; it's the way they educational process is set up.   

When people cannot work well in human-designed environments, it is not the fault of the people; it is bad design.

The Crime of Punishment

The unfolding layers of cruel imprisonment and torture of students with mental/emotional problems and learning or developmental disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center as described in this report have created ongoing responses by horrified and angry posts by parents, professionals, and survivors of similar places (e.g. Kevin Leitch’s Autism Blog Web Design Blog, Mike Stanton’s blog Action for Autism, or Amanda’s blog Ballastexistenz).

I won’t list the litany of carefully crafted, systematic and officially sanctioned malfeasance described in the Report, which span a range of criminal, irrational, abusive, and generally mindf**king evils that are only more shocking for the fact that so many people seek to defend them as being sensible and necessary. You really need to read the report to understand that the anger generated by the JRC & its head Matthew Israel are far from over-reactions.

What I do want to bring up are my thoughts on the whole underlying paradigm of punishment that such institutions, and indeed much of society, are operating on. It’s not enough to shut down one place (and given the current political climate, that will be far more difficult than should be compared to other bureaucratic efforts). We have to understand how such things come about, and continue to pop up. Otherwise we’re just picking off mushrooms and not addressing the fact that the entire structure is rotting and permeated with fungal mycælium.

Once upon a time, long time ago, when people had problems in life (being sick or poor for example), these were seen as due to divine punishment for being sinful. Centuries later in more enlightened times, problems were seen as being due to the natural consequences of being sinful (a Renaissance, humanistic perspective). More modernly, problems were seen as resulting from people choosing to be sinful, so they therefore deserve punishment from other people or from God. (I’m speaking generally here, so history majors will have to keep their corrective twitches to themselves.)

All of these revolve around the idea that humans are inherently sinful – and if people have problems, it’s their fault. Because it’s their fault, they should have to deal with the consequences.

That sounds reasonable on the surface, but what it really means is that people are often being punished for having problems. E.g., if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy and sinful and deserve to be poor.

Furthermore, the “help” given to people often seeks to perpetuate the status quo – the person who is being the helper gets cosmic brownie points. Such “help” is about doing things to people rather than doing things with them; it reinforces power inequalities and objectifies people. It’s about maintaining these paradigms rather than empowering people.

In classroom situations, this kind of helping or behaviour “management” just creates tasks defined by what the giver (teacher, administrator, special education therapist) wants done, rather than by what the receiver actually needs, or is able more better suited to do. (If that doesn’t seem true, ask yourself if you ever had teachers who gave out pages of “busy work” that were neither useful nor needed, just to keep the students busy and quiet for the teacher’s benefit. Or, did you ever have to practice “skills” over and over even though you were never able to improve significantly, just because you “needed to” be able to do neat penmanship or work without an assistive device, nevermind that in the real world you would later rationally drop those tasks in favour of methods that were more functional.) Commands like, “You need to do thus-and-such,” are flags that should make us examine the situation more closely.

When the students fail to comply, the resulting punishment often teaches quite different lessons, not those about how to better manage one’s papers or how to mediate playground arguments, but rather lessons about power. “I’m bigger/ older/ in charge, so I can make you do what I want,” is the message actually learned.

A big problem is that the whole system seems sensible because it’s so entrenched, and because it’s easier to temporarily suppress certain behaviours by punishments (or coercing people with shiny rewards), than it is to identify and resolve the underlying problems that are causing the distress in the first place.

Sometimes that distress is the student’s feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. But when students act up from feeling powerless, what do the authorities then do? Clamp down even harder, create more restrictions, and more punishments. This is hardly a solution, and very much a self-perpetuating feedback loop that increases distress for everyone involved.

The worst kind of pedagogical punishment is making someone do a task that is otherwise supposed to benefit them. That is, if a student acts up by being oppositional or disruptive or fails to do the assignment because there is something they cannot do cognitively or physically, then the student is “taught a lesson” and punished by giving them more of the same kind of assignment. Learning should never be used in an aversive manner; the student then gets even more upset and frustrated and acts out and then becomes a “problem student”. The student is then being punished for having problems.

Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well …

Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Punishment can not only ruin learning, but also takes moral development from an inner-directed process and changes it to a situation of “don’t let me catch you doing that again” where the message isn’t avoiding the behaviour and doing something positive, but rather of not getting caught. The focus is on consequences instead of creating interpersonal and social benefits.

Instead of morality being inner-directed (under a person’s self-control and self-initiation) it becomes personally directed – how to get what one wants for themselves – not how to work with and help others.

One of the biggest challenges we face is not just shutting down localized hotspots of cruelty and injustice, but also of providing viable alternatives to replace the vacuum left behind. Otherwise we’re just plugging dikes with our thumbs.

andrea

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