Remedial Learning Lessons

“Let me get this straight — the student is not doing well in class. They’re not able to learn the material from the way it’s taught. So your solution is to give them remedial learning lessons, to try teaching them how to learn the ‘right’ way. All this remedial learning process is getting the student and the parents and the teachers frustrated, and the student is getting further and further behind their peers academically.”

I keep hearing about how some teachers or therapists or ABA workers feel that they have to teach their autistic (or other) clients “how to learn” before they can teach them content. This is absurd! Every child knows how to learn, and automatically learns. Even incredibly simple organisms like wasps can learn without being taught “how to learn”.

What these people are really meaning is that their clients and students do not learn the “right” way, meaning the way that is expected of the student in narrowly-defined settings. They don’t learn or demonstrate their learning the same way as “all the other children”.

“But the child doesn’t even know how to sit at the work table!”

I rather doubt that the child does not know how to sit at a table. Rather, the issue is that the child does not understand the instruction (or the need for following it), or cannot remain at the table for very long. Being forced to sit at the work table may even have acquired a negative connotation that the child is trying to avoid.

So for example, how does such a problem get resolved in a secondary school setting? Read the rest of this entry »

A Nook of One’s Own

I was putting away clean laundry, and unexpectedly found the kid draped across dad’s bed, reading a book. He looked up at my puzzled expression and explained that he was looking for someplace comfortable and quiet to study. The kid usually studies at his desk near the living room, but dad had been watching football. I nodded, “Good plan. It’s not a good idea to study in the bed where you sleep.”

Later on I found the giant mixing bowl, a hand towel, and damp spots on the bathroom floor. I swabbed up the spots, tossed the towel into the laundry basket, and returned the bowl to the kitchen for washing. Usually the kid remembers to put the equipment away, but he’d been especially absent-minded today, forgetting a variety of tasks halfway through. “Are your feet okay? Is your toe bothering you again?”

“No,” he replied, “I just wanted to soak my feet, and the bathroom is all quiet-like for reading.”

I chuckled, definitely understanding that. Read the rest of this entry »

“Ancient chalk beds”

That was the phrase (from some science book of my youth) that came to mind the first time I stepped into a college lecture room with seating for some 200 students. The room was a broad wedge shape, filled with stadium seating of fixed chairs with small right-handed desktops. Down at the bottom was the instructor’s desk, a series of chalkboards, and a pull-down projection screen. Something was written on the chalkboard, but most discouragingly, I couldn’t read it from the back of the room. That meant I would also likely have trouble understanding the speaker, so I advanced down to the front row. Even moving to the front of the room was awkward (if not physically discouraging) because the terrace effect of the seating meant walking two paces forwards and stepping one down, an unnatural rhythm.

In such rooms, some professors would do a lot of writing on the board (usually still lecturing, which meant that they were talking to the board and were even less intelligible), and some profs would just stand there and lecture at us for the entire 50-80 minutes, sometimes writing a few things on the board. Some used slide presentations or overhead projectors, and only a few had moved to PowerPoint to merge the illustrations and text.

These were not classes from the 20th century — this was just a couple years ago.

The students around me were often visibly bored. Well, those that came. Some of them engaged in napping, with varying levels of discreetness. A few sat in the back and chatted with or texted friends. A lot of students took notes, or appeared to be doing something on paper. Few students volunteered questions, and fewer profs actually elicited dialog with and between students — most who asked questions of the students were just doing so to see if anyone had done the assigned reading.

The “sage on a stage” backed by those ancient chalk beds is a teaching style that’s over a century-old. Here’s a very interesting YouTube video,

… summarizing some of the most important characteristics of students today – how they learn, what they need to learn, their goals, hopes, dreams, what their lives will be like, and what kinds of changes they will experience in their lifetime. Created by Michael Wesch in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University.

It’s not just a very thought-provoking video — due to it’s text-driven style, it’s totally “open-captioned” as well! (Don’t worry — the video is much clearer than the frozen shot you see before clicking the Play button.)

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Which Is Better?

When people ask, “Which is better?” for most anything, my response is, “Better for what?”

The same is true for any kind of debate about different teaching approaches, whether the subject is language, mathematics, or how we design classroom environments.

Take for example the whole debate about phonics versus whole-word approaches to reading. Each method is useful in different ways, and to different people. Phonics does give you tools to decode a great many words. But because English is not a strictly phonetic language, phonics can break down in the pronunciation ability, and especially in the spelling ability. One can usually come up a number of phonetically rational ways to spell a word, but only one or two will be correct (e.g. the British kerb and the American curb). So, let’s spell a word (I bet you can come up with even more ways than I’ve listed here!): 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!


Doing Things the Wrong Way

I was in my teens when my mother announced in a fit of supreme annoyance, “You know Andrea, all children rebel, but you’re doing it all wrong!”

This comment required some thinking on my part. Indeed, it rolled around in my head for hours as I tried in vain to make sense of it. Granted, I was continuing to have academic difficulties, but those did not stem from rebelliousness. What was I doing wrong? I didn’t date (so no sex), didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t even have my driver’s license to be engaging in reckless behavior, didn’t ditch school (wasn’t truant), and wasn’t grossly disrespectful. If someone had created a list of the Six Dreadful D’s that a teen could engage in, I would have been clear of the whole list.

The “doing something all wrong” part of itself wasn’t the difficulty; that was a sadly familiar refrain. It was attaching “all children rebel” to it. The words implied that there was a “right” way to rebel that I was failing to accomplish. But parents never wanted their children to rebel … what a double-bind! Oh, it made my head hurt. Finally by the next day I decided that her comment simply did not make sense. That would later prove to be the turning point of my tediously slow process of untangling an alarming number of double-binds that had for years tied my head up in knots.

Part of the reason that I had trouble understanding the nonsensical nature of that remark was that my mother was not the only person from whom I’d heard this refrain about “doing things the wrong way”.

I had inexplicably run into problems in art class (of all places surprisingly – this subject was normally a source of outstanding marks) because I wasn’t following the directions for figure drawing. We were supposed to be drawing the person perched on a high stool by creating a series of connected ovoids for the torso, limbs, and appendages, and then connecting those ovals and smoothing them to create the figure. That didn’t make much sense to me; it seemed like a lot of unnecessary work. I simply started at the top of the head and proceeded to draw the silhouette. Sometimes I would erase a small section to refine the line, but otherwise I would work my way around to the beginning point, and then filled in the interior details.

My art teacher however, was a stickler for “Process, process, process!” She had managed to get everyone successfully through single and double vanishing-point perspective by careful adherence to procedure, and she was determined to have all her students complete satisfactory still-life drawings of bottles, cow skulls, and humans by careful adherence to procedure. Initially we’d started our still-life work with the typical assemblages of fruits-as-Platonic-solids, but this class was right before lunch and the props kept disappearing. The bottles proved to be adequate subjects for learning techniques, but the cow skulls proved daunting. The system of Platonic solids and ovoids proved to be no match for the murderous complexity created by the mandible and orbital cavities. I was able to draw a respectable cow skull only by virtue of the fact that I could visualize it as a two-dimensional image and then transfer that mental image to my paper, fait accompli. I have no idea if her distrust of my personal process was related to the fact that I wasn’t complying with the given directions (and thus had succeeded in completing the assignment but left her with little to calculate in her grading rubric), or whether it was related to the fact that she had no idea how I could draw by finished silhouette. Even the token artistic genius of the class had to sketch and re-sketch lines repeatedly, for all her finished product was the most refined.

Trouble was constantly simmering over in my maths class, and boiled over every nine weeks as progress reports were sent home. Whereas beginning algebra had been a minefield of flunked exams, geometry was taking a much different turn, and not always for the best. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand geometry with all its angles and parallel lines and intersections of compass-drawn circles. Indeed, it was the first time I had excelled in understanding anything mathematic. I could consistently answer the homework and exam questions correctly. I just couldn’t consistently show the steps or name the proofs that described how I’d reached those answers. As far as I was concerned, the exam requirements of List the proofs and Show your work were the bane of my life. Generally there weren’t any steps to be had! The answers were obvious. So much so that I spent most of the class lecture time just doodling on the margins of my notepaper, creating recursive labyrinths, spiraling pursuit curves, or re-inventing Voronoi tessellations by marking the areas of influence around random blemishes in the paper.

When my maths instructor had taken me aside one day after class to find out just how I was getting my answers (there were suspicions of cheating), I then stupefied him by announcing answers by glancing sideways at the problems. He was totally flummoxed when he found that I figured sums of several numbers by initially clumping complementary pairs of digits in each column into sets of ten before adding them up, rather than starting at the top of the column and consecutively adding each digit. I couldn’t understand why my approach wasn’t natural to everyone, because after all, we were using a base ten system. At least he was satisfied that I was producing the correct answers on my own, no matter what obscure method I used to produce them.

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? Apparently so, for I was increasingly finding that style was as important as substance when I found myself in social situations. You weren’t supposed to lie, you weren’t supposed to sit there and not participate, and yet you weren’t supposed to say what was really going on. Amazing how often one could be deemed rude for merely sharing facts or for being specific. I repeatedly found myself doing things the wrong way and thus going against what people were telling me to do. Maybe I was rebelling after all.

It’s just … that wasn’t my intent at 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.