Learning Nothing

“I don’t know what to do with my son. You don’t understand what it’s like. He CAN’T LEARN. He’s been in school for FIVE YEARS and has learned NOTHING! I’ve been to all these meetings. It took him MONTHS of therapy to teach him how to sit down! He’ll NEVER be able to talk. He’s severe.”

This is a made-up letter. It’s a highly shortened version of letters I’ve seen a number of parents post on various discussion boards. It’s alarming on several fronts: the parent is stressed beyond their limits, and is of the belief that their son has not learned anything and cannot learn anything, and not surprisingly, has all but given up on the school he’s been attending, and also that because the child cannot [reliably] speak at this age that they will never speak or never be able to communicate by other means. The parent is certain that the child is DOOMED and will never mature into a capable, happy adult. (The grammatical and attributive errors of “he’s severe” also make my brain hurt, but that’s another issue.)

Judging by the complaints of parents who blog about their frustrations with schools or with their children, there is no lack of bad pedagogical examples.

You try something. It doesn’t work. You tweak it, and persist at employing Instructional Method X for a semester. For an entire year. New IEP, with a few tweaks, new room, different teacher. Still pretty much a variation upon Method X for another semester and another year, because X is the method that the teachers learned when they went to teaching college, and the tweaks were what the SpEd specialist learned from when they went to teaching college, picked up at a seminar, and heard from another SpEd specialist that worked on another kid who was also diagnosed with “A”. By all accounts, it should work.

Let’s work on that some more.

We’ll start off with the basic premise, “my son has been in school for five years and learned nothing”. There are a variety of reasons for this resulting perception:

  1. The child has not been taught in ways that work with their learning modality.
  2. The child has not been given adequate instruction in the curriculum.
  3. The child has not been assessed in ways that can adequately measure their learning, which is closely tied to:
  4. The child does not understand what others want them to communicate about their knowledge.

1. The child has not been taught in ways that work with their learning modality.

Let me ask you: if you go to the fridge looking for a snack and find that there’s no apple pie left and return to what you were doing,
— and you go to the fridge looking for a snack and find that there’s no apple pie left and return to what you were doing,
— and you go to the fridge looking for a snack and find that there’s no apple pie left and return to what you were doing,
— and you go to the fridge looking for a snack and find that there’s no apple pie left and return to what you were doing, what does that mean?

Maybe you’re so distracted by what you’re doing you’re not really paying attention to what was in the fridge; I’ve been known to do that … But seriously, would it be rational to expect to find apple pie the umpteenth time? Of course not. If you do “B” repeatedly and keep getting “C”, then it’s not sensible to keep doing “B” if “W” is your goal.

And yet when children don’t appear to be learning by the methods we use, what do we do? We spend inordinate amounts of time teaching them how to learn the “appropriate” way by remedial learning. We’re trying to teach them how to learn the right way. This is foolish; it’s not that people can’t learn. It’s that not everyone learns the same way. This isn’t news. But setting up “special education” as a way of trying to pare off all the square blocks so they better fit into the round learning holes like all the other “normal” blocks only speaks to the shortsightedness of teaching approaches.

A different tack: instead of focusing on things going wrong, start listing when things go right. Try and figure out why/how things go right/well so you can do more of that. In other words, lead with strengths instead of always trying to remediate the weaknesses. It also really, really helps to tie the curriculum to the child’s special interests. Which leads us to:

2. The child has not been given adequate instruction in the curriculum.

It’s really scary when we allow students to go through years of schooling without giving them the actual content they’re supposed to be there to learn. I’m not talking about the few students who don’t have the abstract abilities to master algebra — not everyone needs algebra. I’m talking about students whose IEPs focused upon learning how to pretend to be normal, or watered-down curriculum.

It’s a shocking truth, but there are some students out there who find the easy things to be difficult, and the difficult things to be easy. Some kids will be better off learning how to keyboard and rely upon spell-check, instead of learning how to print neatly and master all the minutiae of phonics prepatory to using reading primers. Neither printing nor phonics are bad things, but they are merely tools toward the end-goal of print & screen communication; they are not lasting end goals unto themselves. Getting “stuck” on these as IEP goals can make a student pretty sick of school, especially if they’d rather be learning about Venetian glasswork or cartography.

3. The child has not been assessed in ways that can adequately measure their learning.

You have to decide what kind of learning you are trying to assess before you decide upon an evaluation method. One also needs to select an evaluation method that will produce valid results. That is, you wouldn’t give a blind student a #2 pencil and Scantron (bubble-page) to fill in for a multiple-choice test, and you wouldn’t give a student with test-anxiety a 100-question test to complete in 45 minutes. Hopefully those are obvious as hell. But really, everyone learns. So what we have are a gap between what we want to know about what the child is learning (which may or may not have anything to do with the curriculum), and what the child is demonstrating.

Probably the child has learned quite a bit of stuff, but is not able to demonstrate that the learning has occurred, in a way that the school staff and parents are able to perceive. By analogy, the student is sending ham radio signals, but the others can’t get them on their televisions, so therefore they say the child either is not learning, or cannot communicate. One really cannot always assign mental processes to the results they see. (I cannot tell you how many times people have come off with some entirely off-the-wall assumption about me from what they observed.)

4. The child does not understand what others want them to communicate about their knowledge.

The child may not always realise that what the adults are trying to do is to test the child’s acquisition of knowledge, and therefore, that they need to communicate their learning to the adults, and that they need to communicate it in a way that the adults are able to perceive!

Hey, that’s a lot of social psychology & semiotics for a young child to understand, and heaven knows, autistics are usually slower to acquire that social understanding. I remember being tested for Kindergarten, and having great difficulty understanding not the questions I was being asked, but rather why adults were asking me such questions. They were asking me things that adults should know the answers to, and the fact that they were asking me, a mere child, was so confounding that I couldn’t hardly answer anything, even though I knew everything they were testing me on. (Full story here, “The words got in the way”.)

The whole “learning” thing is seen as not happening because people have a different “search image” for responses than those that are given! In my case, my response was either “missing” (unseen) or “wrong” because it was different. It is as though they are expecting me to say, “Merci beaucoup” and instead I answer in Dutch, “Dank U well,” or use American Sign Language, /thank-you/. (And then they called me “unresponsive” and “clueless”!)

So in summary, when you are thinking that the child “can’t learn anything” because they cannot prove that learning — think again.

What happens many, many times with autistics is that the others are on a different wavelength. They can’t tell what’s in other people’s heads. That famous autistic lack of “theory of mind” (which isn’t really an utter lack thereof; young autistic children are merely slower to acquire some kinds of understandings), actually works both ways. The neurotypical parents cannot understand that the autistic is thinking or what they are thinking, because they cannot pick up on the different social cues. It’s not necessarily that the child isn’t thinking or isn’t learning.

When we expect all learning to occur in specific circumstances and by specific kind of pedagogical approaches, and when we assume that our “tests” are the only or best ways of assessing understanding or skill mastery, and when we expect communication to automatically be of the verbal sort, we run into problems. And then people start drawing terrible conclusions about what they think is going on.


  1. Niksmom said,

    24 August 2007 at 0:13

    Wow, I stumbled in here from Mum’s blog and boy am I glad I did! What an incredible post full of highly useful information. Thanks!

  2. 23 August 2007 at 17:45

    Thank you…that was very helpful.

    I think this is going to take a lot of communication between myself and the teacher involved. Because you’re right, I can observe him and infer his level of knowlege in certain areas. Unfortunately a teacher will not get to spend enough time with him to do this. I’m thinking it will be helpful for me to give the teacher my knowlege of his base understanding at the start of the year as a starting place for him/her.

    As I’m reading your last paragraph I keep saying ‘yes, yes, that’s it’. Instead of drilling him for answers that might make no sense to him (why is she asking me this, doesn’t she know it?) I need to allow him to make the connections and pull up the knowlege when it makes sense to him.

    Basically I need to take my cues from him. I’m constsntly amazed at how much he teaches me.

    Is there a way I can help him understand what I’m asking for? Is showing examples (by doing a problem myself) helpful? What if I know the answer is in there and I know the reason it’s not coming out is because his receptive language isn’t at the point where he understands what I’m asking? I’m finding receptive language hardest to teach. He’s in the low-normal range for expressive language but his receptive language is still below normal. I still havn’t figured out how to ‘help’ him with this difficulty.

    Thanks again. This conversation is so helpful to me.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    21 August 2007 at 23:44

    This is one of those hard-to-answer questions without much discussion.

    But it’s always easiest to start with what you know. You already know from being around your son that he can do A,B & C, and understands L, M, N & O, and has X, Y and Z skills. How do you know that? You have seen him do things, and have been able to infer things like, “He can memorise sequences of actions,” because he can, for example, run the video player. He knows your video player. If you give him his favorite video and an unfamiliar model of video player, can he recognise the symbols on the controls? (Tip: it’s at first unplugged, so he’s not merely pushing random buttons to see what happens.)

    You could then take that and ask, “Can he transfer that abstract knowledge to something different?” Being able to generalise knowledge is important to a wide variety of academic and life skills. So we give him a kind of equipment he has never used before (such as a audio casette tape player), and if you give him an audio cassette and tell him that it has theme music to Thomas the Tank Engine (or whatever he likes), and ask him what buttons he would use to make it play theme music to Thomas the Tank Engine. (Depending upon the kid, you might point out that a music tape has a no-touch area on it like a video tape.)

    Of course, you run the risk of:
    (A) not being able to find a novel technology and,
    (B) him wanting to manipulate the cassette and the player to see what-all they can do and,
    (C) him being totally non-interested in doing such a task at the moment and,
    (D) him not understanding why YOU don’t do it yourself.

    That’s when we resort to sneaky devices like leaving something out where the kid can find it and explore it on their own terms, when interest is high and performance pressure is low.

    Assessments are tricky. One might say, “Oh, he’s really good at sequencing because he can play all these involved video games.” This is true, but sometimes we infer more than is there. In a video game, you have the scenery, the music, the characters, and the characters actions & dialog all providing cues to help jog the memory. We don’t have all those cue when performing long division, for example.

    Any kind of academic activity has a large number of variables attached to it. Say you have a page of subtraction problems that involve “borrowing” from the next higher place-value column. To do such a page, the student needs to do things like:

    * hand-write or use alternate methods of working and recording
    * be able to read the page properly (corrected vision, no dyslexia issues)
    * not be unduly stressed by the testing environment, process or personnel
    * be able to focus on working or completing the assignment
    * understand that numerals are symbols of quantities
    * understand place-value in numbers
    * understand what the concept of subtraction
    * understand how to do the process (no dyscalculia issues)
    * understand that he’s supposed to demonstrate what he knows, and why you would be curious about that.

    If there’s a glitch in one or more of those factors, then the child may be deemed to not have certain arithmetic skills. If on the other hand, the child knows the names for quantities and can communicate that, and can do mental calculations, then we may be able to say they have the ability even if the don’t have the handwriting skills or patience for desk-work. We would simply have to determine if the child understands how to read and use the written forms as well as being able to do the calculations.

    But if you have a child who intuitively knows that 23 items are not enough for all six people to each have five, then they have the potential to do multiplication and division, even if they cannot count or name all the quantities being described.

    So what you do is to start with what you know he has in the way of knowledge and skills, and then figure out what indicators you used to derive those judgments. Usually you are using multiple indicators, because that way you can tease out the various parts of the knowledge and how it is processed and manipulated.

    When querying a student, I will start from a point of knowledge, “Have you ever…” or “Do you remember when …” because when they pull up those stories, it gives them a “hook” to attach the new learning, and it helps explain things in their own life.

    In the same way, when you’re doing assessments you can use such recalls as springboards to help the student connect things and pull up their knowledge. The student feels smarter, more relaxed, and can more easily demonstrate what they know because they are pulling up associations on their own as much as you are querying “random” things. It’s easier to remember stuff from your own initiative than from someone else’s initiative.

    Wow, that’s a longer answer than I’d anticipated. Hope it helps some. Feel free to keep this dialog going!

  4. Penny said,

    21 August 2007 at 15:02

    My rule when teaching was, Kids are always learning SOMETHING. Maybe they’re learning that, to the adults in charge, doing pointless tricks with pencils is more important than expressing yourself; maybe they’re learning that some kids get away with more because they’re cute; maybe they’re learning that the cafeteria floor is stickier in fifth period than it is at the beginning of the day. You can’t make standardized tests for this kind of learning, but it’s still learning.

  5. 21 August 2007 at 13:22

    I worry a lot about how my son will do when it’s time to be tested at school. The question is, how do I/we develop a way to test him that will work? Is it just a matter of trial and error, or is there a way to watch him for signs of how he might be able to tell us what he knows?

  6. Suzanne said,

    21 August 2007 at 13:15

    So true!
    “By analogy, the student is sending ham radio signals, but the others can’t get them on their televisions, so therefore they say the child either is not learning, or cannot communicate.”
    Same sorts of parents say the child is sitting in the corner doing nothing. “nothing” is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but I find it sad when parents don’t respect their own child’s “something”. We often see this in home videos of parents trying to distract their autistic child (from watching sand fall from his hand) into some “normal” performance (look at Mommy, show me the blue one, tell me your name…)
    Excellent post Andrea. I gotta get downstairs to see what my own boy is learning. ;)

  7. 21 August 2007 at 5:16

    Ed-psych to hidden-Ed-psych, that post was a brilliant post!

    Pity you’re not my daughter’s school psychologist. She’d have a reasonable IEP if you were.

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