On Behavioural Observations and Assumptions

Traditional ways of understanding processes

Often science has taken the approach of understanding how things work by examining situations in which things don’t work, or in which they work differently, e.g. mutations in Drosophila flies or Arabidopsis plants, or disease processes. On one hand, these situations help reveal the mechanisms / processes by showing us where to look, and by giving us a comparison for what does or does not happen.

For example, when we have plants infested with insects, sometimes we see the insects (often we don’t see them because they hide on the undersides of the leaves; insects are not intelligent, but they aren’t stupid either), sometimes we see signs of the insects themselves (such as frass, a technical word for insect poop), and sometimes we observe or measure the symptoms caused by the insects’ feeding (such as red discoloration on sorghum from greenbug aphids).

When we have people infected with diseases, we can also see the outward signs or the symptoms reported by the patient, but we cannot see the disease itself. If the disease is caused by an organism, such as a bacterium, fungus, or virus, we can see the agent, but that is not the disease. The disease rather is the mal effect upon proper functioning caused by one organism upon another*. Diseases can also be autonomic, caused by something from within the organism itself; diseases in this sense are processes gone wrong.

Technically, something is a disease if it has a predictable set of symptoms, with some sense of the cause of those symptoms, and the physiology of how they are expressed. If the cause or the physiological dysfunction is unknown, it is not a disease, but a disorder. When repeated sets of symptoms are observed, they are referred to as a disorder. Although some disorders may be treated pharmaceutically, they are not diseases.

We cannot see the disease itself, rather, the disease is something inferred by the observations and dialogue between the people with and people without the disease. In contrast, a disorder is often only discerned by the people without such, because it is defined by comparison; order is defined by like, and disorder is defined by not-like. Diagnoses are defined by relationships and perception as much as, or even more so, the physical states.

Limitations of inference

When we have people who are autistic (et cetera), we diagnose it likewise by the “signs and symptoms” or the observable data of the behaviors. What we cannot necessarily determine are the causes of those behaviors. It is an accepted fact in some disciplines of science (such as ecology) that the specific process cannot necessarily be determined by the end results! We can hypothesize several likely causes, or series of causes that would produce the current situation, and we can do experiments to test if we get similar results, but those experiments do not guarantee that the specific causes and processes are what caused the current situation.

Quite frankly, our ability to understand what is going on is limited by both our ways of thinking, and by our abilities of perceiving the world. Ethologists who study animals are more often aware of their inabilities to share the same perceptions as their subjects than are behaviorists, because it is more obvious that the Umwelt (perceptual world) of a honeybee is different than that of a human being.

What we can discover is determined by how we approach the problem conceptually as much as by the methods we use, or by the data we gather (i.e., “If the only tool you have is a hammer, all of your problems look like nails.”)

A person who assumes that the behavior exhibited by another person results from a particular set of sensory inputs and mental processing, is therefore going to be limited in, and also sometimes erroneous in their understanding of that behavior. Five different people can do the same thing for five entirely different reasons. For one of them to assume that the others do the same thing for the same reason they do is a kind of egocentrism. In this way, the much-vaunted neurotypical “theory of mind” that allows people to guess others’ motivations by implicit information can actually lead them astray, because they assume that others do things for the same reasons they do.

Conversely, when people do not see the expected behavioral results from certain circumstances, they can sometimes misunderstand what is going on and why. If several people laugh at a television show and I do not, they may assume that I do not have a sense of humor. In truth, I have a well-developed sense of humor, and will spontaneously giggle at things I remember, or jokes I remember and re-tell to myself, or laugh from other television shows, but I do not always find the same things funny that others do. In this case, their conceptual limitations prevent them from understanding alternative causes.

Even if all the information is present to be observed, and even gets recorded through some miraculous accident of experimental design, the underlying causes and effects may still be hidden because the observer has neither the intent nor the capacity to notice and understand it. We can only answer the questions we ask, even if additional answers are there in front of us. Likewise, if we ask questions the wrong way, we will not be able to learn the right kind of information.

The current mode of research has derived from the pathology model, where we try to figure out what goes wrong. This is not bad. This is a necessary approach, in many ways. But it should not be the only approach. One of the best ways to figure out what we should do, and what does work, is to examine the successes!

Problem 1: warped perspective

It is because of the historical origin of psychology, (it stems from studies of mental problems) that the dominant paradigm is “average = normal”. Much of the diagnostic phrasing is focused on disorders, and it tends to pathologize what is different from the norm. If you don’t fit within the boundaries, then something is wrong with you, not that the situation doesn’t fit you.

On the other hand, these situations also tend to give us a warped perspective. The warping stems from the fact that identifying processes by “broken-ness” gives one a “Dysfunction” – and dysfunctional – view of the universe. Things working = function = normal. Things working otherwise = not working = dysfunctional = abnormal.

To follow the disease model is not correct because average is presumed to be equivalent to normal. Actually, “normal” is a value-laden word, because “normal” means both “average” and it means “okay”. Abnormal means not-average and not-okay. It is a false dichotomy to assume that not-average means abnormal!

There are those who deny the appropriateness of difference; one must do their best to fit it and not be different to be okay and accepted. I am different in many ways, many not visible. One difference is visible: I have fair skin and rather than tanning, will freckle and easily sunburn. This is genetic. Because of this genetic difference, I exhibit different behaviors than do most of my peers. For example, I do not use tanning beds or lay out on beach towels to sunbathe, and will do my field work clad in a brimmed hat, sunglasses, bandanna, long-sleeve shirt, cotton gloves with the fingertips trimmed off, long pants, and socks. The average person does not wear this much clothing when outdoors on a 104° F/40°C day; however, no one would say that I am “abnormal” for exhibiting these behaviors. These behaviors are appropriate and healthy for someone of my genetic makeup; they prevent me from stressing and harming myself. These behaviors do not create problems for others, and only create social disturbance because they are uncommon in some social realms. There are no, nor should there be, any negative value judgments attached to behaving differently than my peers because of this genetic difference.

I am also sensitive to noise, especially chaotic or high-frequency noises, and will in some situations wear ear-plugs, withdraw to a corner, or limit the frequency or duration of my visits to certain places. These behaviors are appropriate and healthy for me; they prevent me from stressing and getting severe headaches. In contrast, these behaviors are considered odd or unacceptable, but without them I can end up twitching, grimacing or swaying from the noise stress, and these reactions are considered even more unacceptable!

Then there are those who deny differences exist as real differences, and that if one cannot achieve things in the same way or at the same rate as “everyone else”, then they just are not trying hard enough or are stupid. People with AD/HD (et cetera) are simply “making excuses”.

“Everyone else” is an interesting myth of self-contradiction; it assumes that everyone is the same, while at the same time acknowledges the fact that one is not the same. The myth of “everyone else” makes the different person responsible for the having and resolving the problem that others create. The meta-issue here is that the person’s difference is not the problem – the others’ lack of acceptance is the problem! I do not “suffer” from any number of differences I have, I suffer from the lack of acceptance and understanding of those differences and how I can best function.

The unsavory alternative to people rejecting differences can be their amazement that people can accomplish things “despite” disabilities. Imagine during World War II, when in the US women went to work in factories. That women had competently done hard manual labor in factories in previous decades was often forgotten (the working poor or various ethnic groups didn’t count of course); instead there was amazement and collective self-applause because my goodness, women not only wanted to do factory work (how noble! how patriotic!), but could even do the factory work and do it well (how extraordinary). Those women workers who could perform well were an inspiration, they could overcome their lack of mechanical expertise, or inherent female weakness or even the fact that they suffered from monthly hysteria. Of course, after the war was over, the women were to cheerfully return to their kitchens and let men do the “real” work; factories wanted their normal, able workers. Of course, such attitudes seem dated and silly now; there is nothing amazing about women working, just people with “disabilities” getting college degrees or married or having families or working or …

Problem 2: assigned motivations

Another problem with the current model is that it tends to assign motivations that do not necessarily exist. For example, someone offers to share with me a slice of his or her home-baked, fragrant, pecan pie. If I smell the pie and love to eat pecan pie, I should [want to] eat the pie, shouldn’t I? But behavior is not merely stimulus-response; there is also the previous history of the organism, the perceptual realm, the mental processing, and the current state of the organism. For example, previous experience may lead me to drool when I smell pecan pie, but if I am not hungry then I will not have this reaction. If my nose is stuffy from a head cold and I can neither smell nor taste much, then I won’t have this reaction. If the offer of pecan pie comes with the additional requirement of staying and eating it at an intolerably noisy-busy lunchroom then I may also decline to choose to eat the pie. The person offering the pie may imagine a whole variety of motivations for my refusal of the pie, including suppositions about my judgment of their ability to cook good pies, or my desire to socialize with them. These motivations are imagined, and do not necessarily exist!

Problem 3: disemphasis

Although my differences affect what I do and how I do things, they do not exist separately from me, nor they responsible things, e.g., my ADHD is not “being bad today”. I may be judged “unsocial” when rather I am adverse to be in crowded, noisy places. This actually transfers my real or perceived motivations from my thoughts and my actions, and assigns them to the “unsocial dysfunction”.

The problem with this is that it changes the emphasis of thought from who I am and what I need to “what my problem is” and “what treatment my disorder requires”. Just as hospital patients run the risk of not only acquiring not only nosocomial infections, they also run the risk of being identified by or replaced by and treated as their maladies, e.g. “the COPD in room 243”.

Lacking diagnoses (and attendant “treatments”) for many years, I cannot say what my life would have been like had I been considered to be a child student with disabilities. I can say that missed diagnoses are just as bad as mis-diagnoses. I can also say that as an adult, the time I must spend getting diagnoses done, paperwork filed to “prove” such (it’s not real unless someone else says so on paper), making arrangements for “accommodations” (one must be very “special” to have enough time to finish a test, and to take it without a lot of distractions), having to go through the schedule re-arrangements required for such, and all the other stuff rather detracts from other things I could be doing, like studying or lab work. This really improves my ability to be a good student, right?

* If disease rather is the mal effect upon proper functioning caused by one organism upon another, could we then assert that some teachers/ clinicians/ social workers cause disease in autistics by interfering with their normal functioning?

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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?

I Miss My Opposable Thumb

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve not really lost my entire thumb to accident. I merely knicked a bit off the tip with a kitchen knife. But unlike a mere cut where the skin just has to close back together, this is a small concavity that takes a bit longer to fill in. Because it’s on the tip of my thumb, it’s prone to all sorts of ongoing abuse that would prolong the healing process. So, I have one of those plastic caps taped to my thumb to protect it. And of course I can’t really use my thumb for much bandaged like this.

So like many other things in my own life I had to develop coping strategies to accommodate this temporary disability. I use my index and middle fingers in a pincer grip for holding small things (hooray for doublejointedness). Shoelaces are really tricky this way, but I’ve always asserted that shoelaces are the work of the devil (I was in 3rd grade before I finally mastered them), so I stick to loafers and sandals whenever possible.

Last night I remarked to hubby that my entire life is composed of coping strategies.

I have coping strategies to deal with the ADHD forgetfulness, distractedness, and hyperactivity. We have a baker’s rack near the front door for backpacks and shoes. My necessary pocket stuff is emptied onto a special dish at bedtime, and reloaded the next morning when dressing. I set my medicine bottle on my computer keyboard. I write notes to myself (and others) using a dry-erase marker on the bathroom mirror, as one ends up in the bathroom on a regular basis, it doesn’t get lost like scraps of paper, and I can be sure of seeing them when getting up the next morning. I turn off the oven before removing the food. I have an index card in my shirt pocket where I keep my To Do list and ideas to pursue. I set my car keys atop whatever object I need to take with me.

I have coping strategies to deal with the Auditory Processing Disorder blips where I can’t understand what someone has said to me, and the resultant overtaxing of my short-term memory that makes recalling verbal instructions and lectures so damn difficult. I watch television with the closed captions (subtitles in English) turned on. I take extensive notes when given verbal instructions. I request emails instead of phone calls, printed meeting agendas, and transcripts.

I always have earplugs on hand to turn down the volume a bit in noisy places because of my hyperacussis, and frequently listen to background music to drown out my tinnitus.

I have coping strategies to deal with my faceblindness. Like other prosopagnosics, I rely on accessory features of posture, gait, mannerisms, voice, hairstyle and location to identify people. I also rely upon name tags and prompts by family members and others. When we’re in crowds, I instruct people to wave at me so I can find them again.

I have coping strategies to deal with my clumsiness (although given the continuous succession of bruises and the number of scars I have, apparently insufficiently adequate ones). For years we did not have a coffee table because I crash into furniture too often. I transfer raw eggs with my hand palm-up to let gravity work for me. I pour liquids with the containers over the sink to make spillage cleanup easier. I keep burn ointment on top of the refrigerator instead of in the bathroom medicine chest because I get burned in the kitchen, not the bathroom. I skid the sole of my foot across the top edge of a staircase to find the first step. I do complex hand-and-foot actions sequentially instead of simultaneously. I wear glasses with metal rather than plastic frames, as they bend instead of break. I wear snug clothing to improve my proprioception so I don’t run into furniture as often.

I have coping strategies to deal with my intermittent reading & writing transpositions. Everything has to be proofread. I block off extraneous numeric data with a piece of blank paper so I don’t pick up the wrong number. If I have to write out calculations for students, I ask them to watch me really closely and let me know if I transpose something. (This makes me more human to them, and also makes them watch me like a hawk, thus paying more attention to the lesson!)

All these coping strategies mean that on good days I may even be over-compensating for some things. Overcompensation is something I sometimes do well. Spelling was one of my worst subjects; as an adult I became a newspaper proofreader. I had a speech impediment and occasional stuttering that required speech therapy; I’ve recorded books on tape and now I do a lot of public speaking and get return invitations. (I also get queries about my “accent” because when I’m tired I tend to over-enunciate, producing a sort of Received Pronunciation effect.) I have ADHD but for several years of college I lived in two cities and did four jobs while taking classes. I have APD but have been a note-taker for other students, albeit in classes where I already knew most of the material. Adler would be proud.

There is however an inherent drawback at being so good at developing coping strategies: because I can more-or-less get by most of the time, people can’t tell that I’m having to work twice as hard to do what I do. So when I’m tired and/or sick or otherwise stressed, I don’t do things as well. To be frank, I do poorly. A lot of my coping abilities lie in the fact that I’ve worked to create enabling environments for myself. Take me out of those (for examples, when on trips, or when starting new jobs), and a lot of my strategies fall apart.

Because these are invisible difficulties and disabilities, people don’t understand why I intermittently fail or falter. They can’t understand why an otherwise apparently smart person suddenly does and says apparently stupid things. This means that sometimes people will decide I’m being lazy or rude, or if they don’t know me they will decide that I’m stupid.

In the long run, the attribution errors can be the most disabling thing of all.

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.

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