Thursday, July 11, 2013

Educating the Differently-Abled

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - widely attributed to  Albert Einstein but likely in error

I love writing essays.  Sometimes organizing my thoughts on paper is the only way I can actually figure out what I really think.  I've had many jobs in my life, but, unfortunately, none that required writing.  There are some jobs that necessitate advanced writing skills but precious few.  So I'm wondering why our education system is still so heavily geared towards essay-writing.  We use it as a marker of academic excellence, but perhaps that needs to change.

A while back, the Globe & Mail had an article about how schools should be accommodating difference.  We were always supposed to be accommodating difference, but what's new is the increasing numbers of kids who have learning disabilities, Aspergers, and other challenges to their academic achievement.  We're looking at 1 in 84 with Aspergers now (even though it no longer technically exists).   There could be many reasons why:  increased air and water pollution, increased life-saving technologies that help infants live that formerly would have perished, or even an increased level of diagnosis due to an increased level of concern for these kids' rights.  Whatever the reason, I think that last consideration is most important.  If we're concerned and we want to insist that everyone has the same rights to an education, then we have to make it possible for everyone to succeed to the best of their abilities.

Many kids that struggle in school - many in the G&M article, and many in my own school - struggle because they can't easily decode writing.  The article discusses a bright young girl who never learned to read, and a dyslexic dentist who couldn't pass the final exam (but might have if it could be done orally); both are bright and capable but struggle with one specific skill that is a barrier to all of education.  And it makes me wonder, what if we took the focus off writing?

Essay-writing is important not just to teach the skill of putting words together beautifully, but for the skill of organizing thoughts in a clear and coherent manner.  I think it's useful and necessary to teach kids to structure their thoughts in some way in order to facilitate better communication.  We hope kids will learn to "collect their thoughts" before they blurt out some stream-of-consciousness diatribe, so we make them practice it over and over for at least four years of high school.  But is it necessary that it be done in writing?

Technology has changed how we get information.  Many people get the news through YouTube snippets, and, as long as they're well-chosen, that can provide an excellent, well-rounded education.  But beyond that, students now can make films to display their learning.  It's no longer necessary for a teacher to mark students one-on-one in order to mark their ability to present information verbally if they can film themselves and submit a vimeo link.  

But if we want to make this change to how we teach, it can't just be a shift in elementary schools and high-schools.  It has to be a shift in our colleges, university, and our culture.  For many of the courses I teach, I offer a plethora of ways students can display their knowledge of the content and their skills at organizing and editing their thoughts.  They can make a podcast, film, cartoon strip, flipbook, song, prezi, present it orally, perform a play, or make a series of diaramas out of cake!  All of these can make it clear that students understand the information, can organize their thoughts in a logical sequence, and can revise from one draft to the next.  And I can allow students to write tests orally with two recording devises (one for questions, the other for answers) and a quiet space.  But, in a 4U course, it's all about essays.  I could have the brightest mind in the world in my class, but if s/he can't put ideas down on paper, then s/he'll fail.  And if s/he can't write an essay quickly on the exam, s/he will fail.  And that's entirely because 4U is a training ground for university.  And university is one of the few places in the world where essay-writing is pivotally important.

Universities will accommodate students to a limited degree.  Students can have more time on assignments and tests, but they have to do the same assignment as everyone else.  If a student needs a computer to work, they often provide that resource.  But if the student can't work on a computer because s/he struggles to filter out extraneous visuals on the prof's website for instance, then s/he's shit out of luck.

Either we need to make high schools less accommodating in the U-streams in order to weed people out before they hit university and find it impossible to succeed, or we need to make universities more accommodating.  It sounds, at first blush, that the latter option is a dumbing-down of society, that it's a slippery slope to giving PhDs to imbeciles.  But it's quite the opposite.  We can have rigorously high standards in each field without writing being the one factor that marks ability and weeds out inability.  And the result could be that we find some very strong critical thinkers, and innovative designers, and creative writers who just can't manage pen on paper.  That one thing - that one of many means to communicate knowledge - should not be the stopper to their academic achievement.

I also have seminars in my 4U course that are painful for some people to get through.  I've had a student faint in front of the class.  I believe we should stretch all students to be exposed to many different areas of study and to be made to try out learning and presenting in a variety of ways, but when it comes down to evaluating their understanding of content, to the mark that appears on their transcript and determines where they're allowed to venture next, what's the harm in allowing them to present it in the way that enhances their own specific skill-set?  

The harm right now is that they'll be destroyed in university if they can't write an essay or test.  

The G&M article suggests we have to do some work because schools are being sued for not offering enough special-needs services, and the article focuses on the cost for extra help for students.  But what's being requested isn't new in kind, just in degree.  All teachers should be using differing methods to teach and evaluate individual students. There was a shift towards equity over equal treatment decades ago.  But it's not just a matter of protecting ourselves from litigation.  Helping all students reach their potential is good for society.  

And we don't need significant more resources to accomplish this.  We just need permission to focus our time differently.  Because there's a different and sometimes overlapping school population that's adding to the problem of helping this struggling group  to understand the work.
The bulk of my time is not taken with students who need extra help to achieve to their potential.  It's taken with students who don't care to achieve at all, and I'm required to follow up endlessly to work - and it is work - to motivate them to get to class and put away their cellphone and actually do something tangible.  But I will never be more exciting than the drama that is their social life.  The forms to complete to document absences and the many phone calls home to parents who have largely thrown their hands up about this one - they just don't know how to get him (and it's typically a him) out of bed - are frustrating and too often fruitless.  And when they get him out the door, they can't guarantee he makes it to school.  Exasperated parents either commiserate, make excuses for their kids, or send the blame our way.  Many conversations are a means of counselling, of ensuring the parents they're doing all they can though nothing seems to help get the kids to school.  And many parents don't commiserate, but take their frustrations out on the teachers for not being the light at the end of the tunnel.  The kids are "differently prioritizing" themselves out of a useful education.  That's their choice, except the province insists they're mandated to be in school until they graduate or turn 18.  So their choice becomes our responsibility.  And that's not good for anybody.

We have a mythology in our culture that one day there will be a teacher who can save the day.  To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me....  If we could just get teachers to really get to these kids, then we can save the day.  But I think a more realistic depiction is Detachment.  Adrian Brody helps a few kids here and there, but others wander off.  He does his best, but he can't reach everybody.  That's as good as it gets.  We can aim to be their inspiration, to change their lives for the better, but we can't beat ourselves up if we don't make that goal because it's largely unattainable.

We're worried about the drop-out rate, and the pedagogy of the day suggests that if kids hate school, it's because teachers aren't inspiring enough.  If that's the case, then I just don't know how to be entertaining enough.  Maybe teacher colleges should have mandatory classes in stand-up comedy.  Barring that, I can desert the curriculum and show action movies.  It works for some teachers.   But maybe we're just looking at the problem from the wrong angle.     

We could save a lot of time and energy by making 3-year certificate programs to help the school-weary get through, and by no longer forcing them to take courses that are meaningless to them at this stage, like taking four mandatory courses in literature-studies.  Kids with university or college in mind should continue to be streamed towards taking the necessary requirements to get into those programs, as well as towards a breadth of fields of studies.  But, for students who just want to get out and work, beyond grade 9 numeracy and literacy, and some basic understanding of science, Canadian history and geography, and some career guidance, why not allow them to take whatever courses that fascinate them the most even if it's two full years of welding or landscaping or powerfit?   Allow them to stay in school for the full four years, but give them the option to leave after three.  Maybe just by being offered a choice, more will stay in school and actually attend classes.

Do we want kids in school to 18 to better educate them or just to keep them off the streets?  If it's the former, then three years of going to classes that interest them will help them learn not just the content, but, for no additional fee, we'll teach them basic manners, promptness, civility, and work ethics.  Four years in courses they hate teaches them to abhor education and to hone their skills at escaping what they perceive as a punishment.

If it's the latter we're going for, a means to keep young, potential ruffians off the streets, then if they're only attending sporadically and not actually learning much anyway, can't we give them credits for watching movies and playing video games all day in classes with long attendance lists but few actual bodies.  Maybe they can learn conflict resolution as they beat levels.  And maybe they'll show up enough to get the credits.  I'm being facetious, but really, students who refuse to attend or refuse to work need to be segregated somehow in order for the teacher to be able to focus on the rest who are trying to learn.   Or just let them leave school - and maybe they'll manage without a diploma.  If they don't, they might come back with a different mindset.  


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