Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Full and Meaningful Life

"Today I still have limitations, difficulties and deficits, but they do not define me. Instead they inform me. I can plan my life accordingly, ensuring supports, down time and accommodations so I can be the human being I want to be in this world. Today I have a full and meaningful life. I am content and happy and I am still just as autistic as I have always been." 

Sometimes I find it hard to balance my job and parenting a child with "disabilities" particularly given the fact that my son (Mikey) is on my "case load" at work. There are benefits and drawbacks to being both his mother and his "case manager"/"inclusion facilitator".  

Perhaps the biggest benefit is that it allows me to see his education and the education of all the students and families that I serve as being about more than just the years and hours that they will spend at school.  It puts me in the position to analyze the questions around the purpose of education for students who will require some level of support for their entire lives.  Is it the same as it is for any other child?  Are there things we need to consider for this population that we do not need to consider for others? 

I do not pretend to have all the answers.  I don't think anyone does.  It's why we need to engage and explore in the process of trying to define it all more clearly.  We are living in exciting times as we are now able to gain insight from so many individuals that in the past we may not have been able to gain insight from as they had no way to communicate their perspectives to us.  But there are many who can still not speak for themselves in conventionally defined ways.  My son, and most of the students that I work with, have "limited verbal abilities".  This means that we need to continually seek out ways to enhance his ability to communicate through the exploration of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) but it also means that we have to be aware of all the things he is continually communicating in more "non-conventional" ways.  

And when it comes to facilitating a self-determined life for him (the ultimate goal that all parents seek for their children), it means that our children may not be able to spontaneously tell us what they like, want or desire so we need to do the work to expose them to as much of the world as we can and then "listen" to their often non-verbal responses. What ignites their passion?

Sometimes providing those opportunities might even mean having to touch a snake... 

It means when we create the social experiences that are just part of growing up we need to be aware of the small modifications we might need to make to help our children to cope with the over-stimulating environments or the fact that these experiences often require a way to interact and communicate with others. Sometime it means facilitating that. Sometimes it means teaching others around your child what your child is "saying".  Sometimes it means getting out of the way and letting them figure it out as kids seem to be better able to understand communication without words then we are at times. Sometimes it means providing them with a way to communicate what is needed. We don't avoid them because at first they might seem to be too much. We try them and watch for how our children respond as that is the way they will communicate to us what our next steps on the path could be...

And through it all, you stand back and look for ways to increase agency.  You look for ways to not just provide the experience but to ensure your child can engage in the experience.  

Over time, you keep looking for those things that really grab your child so that you can create more opportunities and experiences in the areas that other children would tell their parents they want to do.  The snake was obviously not a hit so, much to my relief, we didn't do a whole lot more with reptiles as time has gone on.  On the flip side, it has become clear to me that he loves to engage in the scientific process of figuring something out through trial and error so we didn't steer clear of everything science related.

This continuum of engagement helps me to better interpret what his interest level in things are.  I do always remember though that he is an observer by nature and there will be times where he is "passive" and "obedient" for a long time even when it is something that is highly interesting to him.

passive -- obedient -- participatory -- inquisitive -- autonomous -- committed

I'm writing this post as a mom but it is reflective of what I believe about the education of the students that I work with. It matters when we work with students that we are clear on what we believe the purpose of their education to be. On the top of my blog I put the statement: "Exploring meaningful pathways to inclusive and personalized learning for students with complex learning differences and disabilities because education should prepare all students for a lifetime of learning."

Are we there?  Do we see students with complex needs as candidates for being "lifelong learners"?  How do we facilitate what it takes for them to be able to do that?  I don't know the answers.  I don't think any one person can.  It's why having the village is so important.  It's why natural supports are so important.  It's why exploring and finding the things that will motivate someone to engage and learn is so important.  I don't have any illusions that we will find all the answers.  The question really is always going to be what is the next small thing that we can do that will bring us one step closer? 

"Better to have a short life that is full of what you like
doing than a long life spent in a miserable way."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Worth Thinking About: Reacting or Responding

Reminded me of Ross Greene's philosophy of

I post new "Worth Thinking About" questions on Sundays. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Masters Capstone

A week ago, I attended our second last formal gathering with the masters cohort that I have been learning with and from for the past 2.5 years.  The next time we will get together as a group is in April to present our Capstones.  These past 2.5 years of balancing going to school, work, parenting and personal have been far from easy but I would never trade the experience and learning and getting to know the amazing people in this cohort for "easy".  I'm humbled every time I get together this this group of educators as the passion and compassion that they have for education, students and humanity shines through in everything they say, share and do.

The process has been even more meaningful as it has occurred at the same time as my job and the way we serve the students that I work with has evolved.  We started this program in July 2011 and in September 2011 we began the process of making the general education classroom the primary placement for the students that I had, to that point, taught in a self-contained classroom based out of an elementary school.  I would be lying if I said the process of moving these students to age appropriate schools and taking the first steps in figuring out a different starting point has been smooth.  I would be lying if I said we have it all figured out. What I do know is that the growth and learning that I have witnessed in these students (and some of the students around them) is substantially larger then what I witnessed when I was teaching them in a self-contained classroom. I see a confidence and happiness in each of them that is different from what was there before. We are all dreaming different dreams for them and exploring learning possibilities that just could never be available to them in a setting segregated from their peers. I would go so far as to say that we are redefining what education means for this population of students through this process. 

I've learned a lot but there are times when it is evident that it is probably just the tip of the iceberg as the we are still really in the infancy of figuring this out.  It is only in my lifetime that it has even been a requirement that we provide an education to those who fit the profile of the students I work with. There is still so much to learn. 

Personally, I have to take a deep look at my own established "mental models" often through this process.  It has required finding time to reflect more deeply to ensure that we aren't just doing things because that is the way we always did them.  Most important in this journey for me has been the experiences of really listening to those who are the true experts - self-advocates.  We need to listen both to those who can use words to communicate and those who cannot.  There are so many people stepping forward to tell their experiences which can help us to better understand and hopefully create educational (and life) approaches with our students rather than for our students.

I've learned to attend more closely to what is going on... to step back and try to figure out all the subtleties of the situation rather than just immediately reacting and trying to "fix things".  I've learned that sometimes helping doesn't actually help at all.  I've learned that sometimes overcoming a barrier through struggle is the greatest learning experience for both myself and others.  I've learned that we all have our own pre-defined beliefs and experiences that will impact how we interpret any situation. It's been more of a personal than a professional journey in many ways.  But perhaps there is not as much of a defining line between the two as present-day society would want us to believe. 

And here I sit... feeling that finally I am coming to a point of this making sense... not in the lets wrap this up and be done with it kind of way, but rather in the I see where this is just the first step on a journey kind of way.  This experience has changed me and impacted what my hopes and dreams. 

It wasn't really that difficult to piece together my focus for this Capstone  As interested as I am in the larger picture of "inclusive practices" in education, what drives me is tied to inclusive education for students with complex needs.  What does it take?  How do we ensure coherent, comprehensive, and continuous programs for this population is we are serving them in the general education setting?  Can we create the same continuity and cohesion to their programs as we could if we educated them in self-contained classrooms with a specialized teacher that they often stay with for years?  Should we be aiming for that if we reference the concept of "dignity of risk"?   What framework and supports would make this sustainable? 

We so often try to define the problem and solution with the mental models that we currently have. We hear only what we recognize. We interpret things based on our experiences and feelings.  We then draw the same conclusions that we have drawn before. 
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." (Albert Einstein)
When we think about educating students with complex needs (any students, actually), we often fall back on a curriculum-driven perspective.  This keeps us stuck in believing that we need a duo-track system to serve the needs of students who just fit too far out of the bounds of how we currently deliver and assess curriculum.

What if we shift the paradigm and thought of education for students with complex needs (any students, actually) to an inquiry based perspective rather than our curriculum driven perspective?  What if we saw the education of these students as a multi-year process of working with the student and those who are naturally a part of the student's life to figure out how to ensure increases in the areas of access, engagement and autonomy?  Is it possible to equip any student, even those with what we consider the "most severe challenges", for a lifetime of learning? 

A lot of it ties to the heart of "Person Centered Planning".  It's been around for  quite some time now in the field of "disability".  It's a great idea but has it been realized in practice... and, more specifically, has it been realized in the way we educate students with "disabilities"?   Can we realize it within the current structures and belief systems? 

There are a lot of questions and a lot of thoughts.  It seems only fitting that it is now time to pull it all together.  To look at what has been accomplished and what we still have to accomplish and begin to piece together a framework that fits in to our current and evolving context.  This is what my last step in my masters journey will be.  I'm excited about it. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Enabling does not equal empowering...

To enable is to "supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity" to achieve a goal. We enable others by minimizing barriers, helping them and possibly even by creating extrinsic rewards or consequences to "encourage" them to move in the direction of the goal. When we enable someone we may end up setting too low of standards, doing too much for them, over-focusing on the rote what and how, stepping in and rescuing or directing when things are not getting done. We give people structures because "they like structure". Enabling a person often leaves the power in the hands of someone outside of the person who is being enabled. At the end of the day, that person is able to do the task but doesn't necessarily have control over the choice to do it.  Is that person independent?  Is that person autonomous?  What is learned helplessness in reference to the idea of independence and autonomy?  

Empowering, on the other hand, involves turning over control to another person and then trusting that they have the ability to reach a goal. When we empower we start from a place of faith in another person. We don't judge.  We focus on our own behaviour rather than the behaviour of the other person. We provide information and engage in collaborative problem solving.  We have discussions about "why" rather than about "how".  We are patient through what is sometimes an incredibly messy process because of the potential for it to lead to authentic learning, understanding and intrinsic motivation.

Enabling is clean and simple. The path from point A to point B is generally linear. That path is predefined and the steps are predefined and if one missteps off the path, someone will step in to make sure that person gets back on the path. You can make a series of check marks. It looks good. It looks like something is being done. It can usually be measured quantitatively. It is associated with what we have traditionally defined as "success". 

The empowering process can be confusing, messy and complex.  It leads to "mistakes" and "failure" and possibly even to hard feelings and negative emotional responses. Getting from point A to point B takes longer and the path is not direct and sometimes it is not even clear which direction one is heading in. It may seem chaotic and out of control. In the middle of it, we may long to fall back on something simpler - something already known - to generate some relief. 

We have traditionally focused education through the enabling lens and our focus has been on achievement and performance.  As we shift over to an empowering lens, our focus moves to growth and learning. Students (people in general) will avoid things they still need to learn if we put too much of an emphasis on achievement and performance. Nobody wants to put themselves in the vulnerable position of looking like a "failure" and if we focus only on the final product when you don't get there because you are still exploring and learning, others might interpret it that you have failed.  We don't want that... so we step in and enable.  But is that the right way?  Couldn't we just recognize that we all need different amounts of times and ways to explore and learn?  If it is about learning and you can state what you have learned despite what product you produced at any given step, learning and success take on a different meaning.  

In reality, successful learning seems to be a product of reflecting on and responding to what we have traditionally labeled as "mistakes".  If we keep trying to figure out another way we have not failed. It's when we begin to see "mistakes" as "the process of learning" that we can begin to redefine "success".  It allows us to develop the "grit" that Angela Lee Duckworth talks about in her TED Talk. 
Towards the end of this talk, Angela Lee Duckworth states that we know very little about building grit.  Yet the other day I talked with a group of grade 5 students about things they have learned "without teachers" and each of them explained a process that involved a lot grit.  Perhaps what we don't know much about is grit in the formal learning setting where the student is going be given a "grade" for what they are learning.   

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Worth Thinking About: Deficit in the Child or Deficit in the System

Reminded me of Jonathan Mooney's belief that "people don't have disabilities
but experience disabilities in environments that aren't accommodating or
inclusive of the wide continuum of human differences."

I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Worth Thinking About - Discipline or Punishment?

Reminded me of Ross Greene's philosophy of

I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

What is Success?

This past week, one of my students who is currently learning to navigate a visually supported communication system on his iPad, was supposed to give a pre-planned and recorded presentation on using Tap-Speak-Sequence (a separate app from his regular communication system) during drama class. 

We all went in to the week knowing that this student might not even get up to the front of the room as he is not much for "performing". This was okay as the learning experience that we were focusing on in this activity was tied to creating and recording the sequential script.  We had taken the assignment and he had worked with both a learning assistant and peers to answer yes/no questions and navigate around his communication system to find the things that he wanted to put in to the co-created sequence that he would use when he did his presentation. 

Presentation day came.  There is no doubt that this student would have gone up and obediently tapped the screen each time he was supposed to if a learning assistant would have gone up with him, turned on the program and prompted him through hitting the screen each step of the way.  There is also no doubt that making this student go up on his own would result in no movement at all.  So when it was his turn, another student in the class went up to the front with him and held his iPad while he turned it on and went to the needed program. 

He did hit the button once but then it was so quiet that nobody could hear it.  The student with him tried to turn up the volume but it was already as loud as it could go.  This student turned off the iPad at this point.  The classroom teacher stepped in and the three of them (teacher, the student who was presenting and the other student who was up there for moral support) played around for a bit trying to hook up a portable speaker to the iPad.  All the time the student who was doing the project, who doesn't often get up in front of the class, was engaged with this process of trying to hook up the speaker. 

They tried the presentation again. This student turned off the iPad.

They tried the presentation again. The student up at the front with him tried to encourage him a bit more to give the presentation. This student again turned off the iPad.

It became clear that the actual presentation wasn't going to happen.  The teacher thanked him for coming up, told him it was a good try and said maybe he might want to try again next class.  A couple of students said something to him about trying again next class in a very supportive way. The interaction was probably not unlike an interaction for a child who might become "stage freight" in the situation. It was no big deal and they moved on to the next presentation. This student remained in the audience listening to others present. 

To an outsider looking in on this presentation day it might look like this student "did nothing" and "learned nothing".  Some who know him might even be frustrated because they would know that he is capable of the simple act of just pushing a button to activate a sequential script and all it would have taken that day to make it happen was for an adult to step in and direct him. 

But that wasn't the point. 

In a world where we want to be able to quantify everything, we are often quick to look to "end products" as an indication of what learning has occurred.  If this student had been given a mark for his "performance" that day, he would not have "passed" the assignment and his mark would have reflected a belief that no learning had occurred during the process. 

Yet, in the process of creating the script, he navigated around his communication system, demonstrated comprehension of conversations he had with several different people in created the script, connected all the pieces of his presentation together by the choices he made, typed in some of the words needed for his script, went to the front of the room without adult support, turned on his iPad and found the appropriate script, engaged in problem solving with the teacher and classmate around his system not working (trying to figure out the speaker part of it) and protested in the best way that he knew how when he just didn't feel like he could do the next step (shut the iPad off... and given some of his past protest methods this is a huge step forward) and then just sat back down and carried on with the rest of his class when he "failed" to give his presentation. 

Maybe next week the peer support that he got around the "maybe next time" approach will motivate him to get up and present.  Maybe it will just motivate him to get up and go through the process of finding the script again.  Maybe it won't motivate him at all and the presentation will never happen.

It doesn't much matter because it has already been an incredibly successful learning experience for him.  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Worth Thinking About - Special or Not?

Reminded me of Thomas Hehir's work related to 

I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Worth Thinking About - Burden or Privilege?

Reminded me of Peggy McIntosh's writing
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.

I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Giving is the best communication...

In my life, I have experienced the extreme blessing of parenting and working with children, adolescents and adults with complex communication needs.  In my job over the past eight years, I have stated how wrong it is that I'm the one we call "teacher" and they are called "students" as I so often feel that I learn more from them then they do from me.
I believe in interacting with people who do not necessarily use words to communicate, you become attuned to just how vast and deep "communication" actually is.  Every single act we perform throughout the day communicates a message and in any given moment we have the ability to have an incredibly deep influence on the world and the lives of those we come in contact with.

To communicate is to have an impact on the world around you.  The following video shows how "giving" is a very powerful avenue of communication...

As an educator I find myself wondering how we can create the circumstance for our students to experience giving so that we can set them on the path of ethical citizenship

In the book Reimagining Education: How We Teach, What We Teach, and The Systems in Which We Teach Jerry Goebel asks the question "What is one vital behaviour we could teach young people that would change their generation?"  His response is the ability to think empathetically and respond locally. He notes that when students do this they become both agents of change and social entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurism is about standing up, seizing an idea and then implementing it. The Ashoka website states: "Just as entrepreneurs change the face of business, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society, seizing opportunities others miss and improving systems, inventing new approaches, and creating solutions to change society for the better. While a business entrepreneur might create entirely new industries, a social entrepreneur comes up with new solutions to social problems and then implements them on a large scale."

Inclusion and "belonging" are often associated together.  Belonging is often thought to be about fitting in or being a part of but authentic belonging also involves contribution.  When you belong, you have an impact on the community and what you bring to it matters.  Angela Maiers touches on this in the "YOU MATTER" Manifesto...

The question of how we create the circumstance and environment for all members of a school community to find, use and develop the gift they have that others need seems to be at the heart of creating inclusive school communities.  As we move towards the recognition of each person's unique contribution, both of doing and being, we move towards inclusion. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Fear of Diversity

In the book The Courage to Teach Parker Palmer speaks to the layers of fear that may exist related to diversity:
This fear of the live encounter is actually a sequence of fears that begins in the fear of diversity.  As long as we inhabit a universe made homogeneous by our refusal to admit otherness, we can maintain the illusion that we possess the truth about ourselves and the world - after all, there is no 'other' to challenge us! But as soon as we admit pluralism, we are forced to admit that ours is not the only standpoint, the only experience, the only way, and the truths we have built our lives on begin to feel fragile.
If we embrace diversity, we find ourselves on the doorsteps of our next fear: fear of the conflict that will ensue when divergent truths meet. Because academic and culture knows only one form of conflict, the win-lose form called competition, we fear the live encounter as a contest from which one party emerges victorious while the other leaves defeated and ashamed. To evade public engagement over our dangerous differences, we privatize them, only to find them growing larger and more divisive. 
If we peel back our fear of conflict, we find a third layer of fear, the fear of losing identity. Many of us are so deeply identified with our ideas that when we have a competitive encounter, we risk losing more than the debate: we risk losing our sense of self."  
In the following TED talk, Kathleen Taylor talks about figuring out who we are so that what we are supposed to do can flow from that.  Perhaps, then it is not so much the fear of losing identity but rather the fear of finding identity that sits at the heart of accepting diversity. Finding our identity creates the responsibility to step away from the crowd and, at first, seems to actually create the condition for dis-belonging rather than belonging. 

Perhaps it is somewhere in our definition of "belonging" that the concept of "inclusion" and "celebrating diversity" get mixed up as we have traditionally defined belonging as being one of the crowd.  This creates the belief that we must conform to the crowd to belong.  It speaks to the idea of the crowd and the environment being static and defined.  In education, it speaks to the factory, compliance driven model that schools have been built on. 
This morning, I came across this response to the question of how schools go from "good" to "great"...
Belonging is not about fitting in and being like everyone else.  It is about valuing.  Valuing our selves. Valuing others. Valuing the community we are a part of.  There is nothing static or defined about a community in which all members authentically belong because that community evolves and is shaped by the unique and changing contribution and needs of each member. 

Kathleen Taylor states that "action and creativity and innovation that comes from true authenticity is what moves the world forward."  She talks about how we each add our own unique contribution to the world.  When we celebrate diversity, we celebrate these contributions.  We celebrate an always evolving world... a world that is perhaps always just a little bit off balance.  We learn how to more deeply relate and connect so we can more deeply understand the world and people around us.  We become aware of the fact that we are not just merely surviving in the world or trying to achieve check marks on our bucket lists but that we are actually agents in the world and are a part of creating the world as it now and as it will be in the future.

Inclusion is not about creating conformity to some pre-defined norm.  It is about creating the circumstance where each individual can come to understand their strength and value and then nurturing it in such a way that it will expand the entire community.  We don't lose our identity when we embrace diversity... we find and are empowered by both our individual and our collective identity. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A value is not a value until we act on it...

Students in our division will begin their new school year on Tuesday.  This past Thursday, we gathered with all the staff in our division to hear David Wells speak on the topic of replacing stress with faith.  In one section of his talk, he spoke of children in the Church and the question of what they should be doing in the Church.  He went on to share a set of rules that a Church came up with to guide people around appropriate behaviour in the Church.  He did this without judgement and spoke to the need for balance in this area.  In the middle of this example, he stated, "Then one day you wake up and you got the rules and you have forgotten the reason for the rules."

Although he was referring to the Church in this example, it applies to any institution and even to the entire human race.  In the context of education, it seems the reason should link to our purpose and our values.  What is the purpose of education?  What do we value in education?  Do our rules match our reason? 

We live in a time where the socialization of education and work is becoming more and more evident and we work in a system that pushes us as educators to measure things that are not at all tied to socialization. In the process, we end up sacrificing the play, exploration and engagement that sits at the heart of social and emotional learning.  We create "rules" that are rooted in trying to control the "behaviours" we believe are necessary for learning.  Sadly, our limited resources then end up going towards control rather than engagement.

What if we focused our efforts on engaging the disengaged rather than trying to control them?  I recently came across the great quote on the blog In-kloo-zhuhn: "To see all individuals as 'at promise' rather than 'at risk' is a fundamental shift that means facilitating rather than fixing, pointing to health rather than dysfunction, turning away from limiting labels and diagnosis to wholeness and well-being." (Source:

How are we naming our students?  Students will become what they are named.  Do we make it a priority to protect the dignity and build the character of our students?  Would we put different action plans in place if we thought of students as 'at promise' rather than 'at risk'?  At promise of what? How do we work with that student and those closest to him/her to move towards that promise?  Is this our reason?  If it is, does it change our rules? 

It all seems to get closer to the heart of what inclusion actually is.  It points to a question that should drive our work around creating inclusive schooling: How can we set up our school communities so that part of what we do every day is intentionally find value in each other?  "Successful inclusion begins and ends with our capacity for valuing others.  We cannot include those we do not value." (Source:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Promote the "Medicine" of Inclusion - Sharing a Great Idea to Promote Understanding of the Connection Between "Behaviour" and "Belonging"

Came across this great resource that I wanted to share: The Importance of Belonging

Page 11-15 outline a process that could be used with a learning support team or a whole staff to come to understand the connection between feeling excluded and behaviours.  A critical point made in this section is that behaviours are often a result of feeling excluded and when we think in terms of a consequence-driven approaches to behaviour, we are generally doing things that will further exclude the child. 

Page 16 has a chart that can be used to generate proactive plans related to increasing a student's feeling of belonging.  When we put an action plan in place related to increasing belonging for a student, we are addressing the root cause of the behaviour rather than trying to respond to the outwardly displayed symptoms.  I really like the idea of approaching this planning process from the angle of thinking through how we can facilitate specific feelings associated with belonging. 

I have not tried the process yet.  I just found it really interesting and have put it in my toolbox as I'm sure there will soon be a time where it will be useful to support a student. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Worth Thinking About - Talking the Talk or Walking the Walk

Reminded me of Drew Dudley's TED Talk about every day leadership

I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Monday, August 19, 2013

We Each Need a Tool Box and a Team

I have used this graphic already for a previous post but I came across it again tonight and it sparked a thought that tied to a couple of other things I have been thinking about.  The first is this Simon Sinek clip about having a personal "Creativity Tool Box". 
If a person doesn't have a "tool box" to draw from it would be difficult to see the road to success as anything other than what is portrayed on the left hand side of the diagram above.  "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail."  You could hammer harder or hammer longer but if the problem is not a nail chances are you are going to get the same result no matter what you do with the hammer.  You either win or you fail.

When someone has a tool box they can travel a different path.  They may start out thinking the problem is a nail but when the hammer doesn't work they can go to their tool box and use a different tool.  That tool may or may not work but it doesn't matter because eventually one of the tools will.  That person will persevere as long at they feel they still have tools left in their box to try. 

The idea of a toolbox is not really a new one.  It's been tossed around a lot.  Perhaps the paradigm shift here is the statement in the video that when we build our toolboxes we should be focusing on amplifying our strengths rather than on improving our weaknesses.

This challenges us in education to think beyond individuals traveling down isolated paths learning to use tools outlined in a curriculum one after another as they move along a pre-defined path from "uneducated" to "educated".  The sad reality of this approach is that it does mimic the left hand side of the above diagram with the potential to reach a dead-end failure.

It may mean recognizing that for some students it really doesn't matter if they are able to use a specific tool for a specific purpose in an isolated context.  Rather, we should be aiming for that student to have the skills he/she would need to be a part of a team that is planning, building and decorating an entire house.  Not everyone would have to come with the same toolbox and not everyone would come to do the same job. Even those doing the same job might use different tools and complete the task in different ways.

What would matter is that everyone knew how to work together, who to go to or what sources of information they have when they came upon a barrier and how to bring their own gift forward in creating the best house possible.  What would also matter is that the house can't be built without the unique contribution of each person on the team. It seems that if each person worked to develop their own tool box and amplify their strengths so that they were able to "bring value to a team" they would be in a much better position to be ready for an ever evolving and increasingly connected world.

But what about those students who do not seem to have a gift that could be amplified? Where is there value in all of this?  When we shift our thinking from isolation to collaboration, we start to see that there are two ways to contribute - we contribute by "being" and we contribute by "being".  We all have our own unique balance in how much of each we do.  Our contribution about "being" is related to how we make other members of the team feel about themselves and about what we are doing.   person makes others in a team feel will impact the overall quality of the end product.  It has nothing to do with we perceive to be "elite" skills or abilities.  A great example of the contribution of "being" is Rudy.  Everybody has some strength to amplify but this might mean thinking of strengths as not only those things we are good at by ourselves but also those things that can only really come through when working as a member of a team. 


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Worth Thinking About: Help or Support?

Reminded me of the must see short film Butterfly Circus

I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Perception as a Barrier to Learning Part 2

Kind of crazy how a Ted Talk related to what I write about seems to pop up right after I write it.  Came across this today and wanted to add this great Ted Talk by Eduardo Briceno to what I posted about yesterday.  Our perception of "intelligence" matters because we pass it on to our students.

"The difference between these two
groups... a different perspective
on intelligence."

None of this is about a list of things to do. It's about what we believe. Can we really say we are operating from a growth mindset if we believe that there are some students that we just cannot educate with their peers?

"If you hear 'I can't do it,' add 'yet'!"

Friday, August 16, 2013

Perception as a Barrier to Learning

Came across a great video this morning. 

Although the video is about health care, it also applies to education.  The way we perceive students an their behaviours impacts how we interact with them and whether or not they will engage with and, more importantly, how they will engage with learning. 

There are obvious implications related to this video when it comes to how we interpret the "behaviour" of students but I want to focus more on how our perceptions also play a role in curriculum learning.

Traditionally, when a student appeared to not understand a curriculum concept, we have assumed that this is because the student is unable to cognitively understand the concept.  Our response generally was to work with the student either during class or at another time and go over the concept again by breaking it down, giving examples, trying to apply it to their context, changing the language that we use...etc.  If this didn't work, we then made the assumption that the student was not cognitively capable of "getting it".  In the worst case scenario we would at that point give up on the student and not support their learning at all at that point.  But in most situations, if this happened often enough we would take one of three paths: (1) move the student to a lower academic stream where the learning is aligned with what we believe the student to be capable of, (2) modify the work in the classroom by having the student do "easier" work, or (3) start the process to move him "into" special education. 

The unfortunate reality of this approach is that we instill in a student the belief that there is something inherently wrong with them and that is why they cannot learn and this reinforces the belief in a fixed mindset.  I have come across countless statements like the following from adults with learning disabilities and/or ADHD in the past few weeks alone:
I can attest to just how limiting the process is. As a child, I was diagnosed with an auditory disorder that made it difficult for me to process speech in real time. I repeated third grade. Then, after an anxiety-ridden IQ testing session in fourth grade, I was sent to a school for students with learning disabilities. By the time I re-entered public school in sixth grade, the label "special ed." was hard to overcome, despite my yearning for more intellectual challenges. If it weren't for a couple of teachers (thank you Mrs. Jeuell and Mrs. Acton!) who considered the kid rather than the system's preconceptions, I might never have earned a doctorate at Yale. (Source:
As the video above points out, although Response to Intervention (RtI) models offer a "best practice" approach, the misinterpretation and implementation of these models as being only about direct pull-out boxed academic intervention or remediation can create the same barriers to learning as the special education remediation approach.   
What if we changed our perception and rather than believing that the student is incapable (or unmotivated) to learn the concept, we started from the presumption of competence and learner variability and thought through and responded to the barriers that may exist to that student's learning?  What if we started to explore what we could do beside just tutoring the student using the same method of instruction that we presented the material in to begin with?  What if we looked at the student's strengths and figured out how we might use these to compensate and get around the barrier? 
There are times when direct academic intervention or remediation is needed.  I believe there are students that have lagging academic skills (numeracy and literacy) for whom we can provide an intensive intervention and get them "caught up".  I believe there are times when we need to think about remediating by assessing a student to see if they have the pre-requisite skills needed for a specific curriculum unit and then spending time with them making sure they have those skills before the unit starts.  I also believe that there is a need to do direct daily work with students on literacy skills at their level and that this may require more than one teacher to accomplish it.  Finally, I believe that short term or long term tutoring (be it by a peer or an adult) is an effective intervention for some students.  But we have to recognize that all of these direct approaches are based in a belief of fixing the student and do feed in to a deficit model that could impact a student's sense of self-efficacy as a learner. 

Of those personal narratives that I have been reading by adults with LD and/or ADHD what strikes me is how many of them speak of the ticket as being a strategy or a tool as opposed to their time "in" special education, resource rooms or intervention.  We need to find an appropriate balance between remediation and compensation and put the same effort and resources in to implementing and evaluating indirect interventions as we put in to implementing and evaluating direct ones.  Part of this may involve letting go of the idea that reading and writing are the "right" way to do things and other methods are "modifications" or "adaptations".  Part of it may require that we adapt flexibility in methods, materials and assessments for all students so that each can come to understand themselves as a learner and then take on the responsibility of employing learning methods that work for them. 
Beyond thinking about direct academic instructional approaches we can ask so many questions that focus us in the process of learning...
  • Does the student need some way to compensate for a cognitive barrier that exists as result of our materials or methods?  Can we use "cognitive tools" like text compactor, text to speech software, word prediction software, Livescribe pens, Voice Dictation on iPads...etc.  So many of these things don't even cost anything.  Check out the Free Technology Toolkit for UDL in Classrooms for categorized possibilities. What if we don't have access to the technology? Can we provide note outlines, leveled text on the topic that is being studied, recorded text, the opportunity to record or speak rather than write, word walls or banks...etc.
  • Could we change our materials, methods or assessments to match the student's learning profile and still achieve the same curricular outcome?  If the objective is content related, does it matter if the student creates a video explaining rather than writes a paper?  If the objective is process related does it matter if he/she chooses a topic he/she is interested in to show he/she understands that process? 
  • Can we impact the student's motivation related to learning the objective?  This Minecraft History Project is a great example of taking a project that taps in to a student's intrinsic motivation.  How can we use the strengths or interests of the learner to achieve the outcome? 
  • Can we provide the student with organizational supports or teach them strategies so they can create their own organizational supports so that they are able to keep moving through the process?
  • Can we teach the student learning strategies and/or self-regulation strategies (self-monitoring, questioning, summarizing, goal setting, organization, note-taking, visual mapping, connecting to prior knowledge, understanding of vocabulary...etc.) that they can use? 
  • Can we create a check-in process or have self-correcting components so that the student gets regular feedback and gains the confidence to keep moving forward?
  • Can we modify the environment in a way that would better support the student's learning?
  • And for some students it might be worth asking is we are aiming for the right goal?  What part of the curriculum objective matters for this particular student?  Is this a situation where there is actually a more important goal that should be overlapped?  If this is about curriculum overlapping (working on a different student specific goal in the given context), what is that goal and do facilitate the learning related to that goal? 
When we engage in this problem solving process to support learning we foster a growth mindset culture.  We shift away from getting through curriculum objectives and towards working with a student to build the agency that they need to take the reigns in creating their own success in school and in life.  As we engage in the process the team and the student come to understand what works and what doesn't work for that specific student.  By continuing to engage in the process when something doesn't work, we model perseverance and a belief in the competence of that student.  By including the student in problem solving, implementing and evaluating how interventions and instructional approaches work for him/her we are helping him/her to develop a sense of him/herself as a learner.  As a student develops this understanding of self we begin to tap in to one of the biggest untapped resources in our school system... the students themselves.  When a student knows what works for him/her as a learner, he/she can take the differentiation reigns.  When a student has been empowered as a learner, they are in a position to empower others.  When we engage a student in the problem solving process, they might come up with more innovative solutions then we ever could. 
The challenge of it all is how far we can stretch our beliefs/perceptions related to the concepts of "fair" and "equal" and, even more challenging, how far can we stretch ourselves in regards to the presumption of competence and thinking in terms of changing the environment rather than the student. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Inclusion is Action!

"I don't listen too much to people when
they tell me I can't do something.
There is not a whole lot that is
going to stand in my way."
Inclusion is about finding answers to the
question "How are we going to do this?"
When we take students out of their natural
environment we will not be as intentional about
working with them to find these answers.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Shame as a Barrier to Learning Part 2

Came across this today and wanted to add this great Ted Talk by Brene Brown to what I posted about yesterday.   
"If we're going to find our way
back to each other, vulnerability
is going to be that path."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Shame as a Barrier to Learning

Last week I wrote about barriers to learning.  Today I was reading this Dylexia Insight post on the National Center for Learning Disabilities website and this statement got me thinking again about what we should be doing as teachers in our efforts to break down barriers to learning: "For starters, let me tell you that when it comes to dyslexia, most people focus on reading or spelling. They should instead focus on shame. Shame is a feeling that you’re unworthy because of something you are. It’s different from guilt, which is feeling bad about something you did, like stealing or cheating. Shame comes from not feeling normal."  Sadly, as the following video outlines, this becomes a cyclical process that is difficult for a student to break out of.  
It gets bigger though.  The ripple effects can go so much deeper than just not acquiring reading because reading is connected to language and we need language for self regulation.  This video outlines why we seem to see a move from a student having a learning disability code to having a behaviour disorder code.  It may seem extreme but I think it would be worth taking a look at data to see how often students move from mild cognitive/intellectual disability codes to behavioural codes through the course of their schooling. 

It is critical to recognize how closely tied together emotion and cognition are.  Emotions will either interfere with or facilitate learning.  A student who feels shame will not be able to learn and it will be difficult for that child to ever develop a sense of efficacy of themselves as a learner. 

What is the solution for the student who has difficulty learning to read?  We clearly must increase the intensity of instruction and/or intervention to support acquisition of reading skills.  Is that enough?  Are we contributing to the shame that child feels by focusing only on their area of weakness?  How do we ensure balance?  How long do we continue to think in terms of intervention and remediation before we also think in terms of compensation.

I would say the Dylexia Insight post I referenced at the beginning should give us some insight in to what is helpful to him... auditory text for "reading" and dictation software for "writing".  This involves understanding learner variability and perhaps even redefining what "reading" and "writing" in order to break down barriers to learning.  If a student is not getting stuck in the shame of reading because they can listen to or view content rather than read it, they can engage the cognitive processes required for learning.  The flip side of this is, if we have one student doing something a different way, it can also set up a situation where the student will feel different (and therefore potentially feel the same shame).  The key seems to be more related to having flexible options for students so that they can learn in the way that is most effective and efficient for them. 

There are many components in the concept of "21st Century Learning" that would open up more doors for students who feel shame about what we have labeled as learning and intellectual disabilities but without explicit awareness of how we can design materials and learning activities to address learning variability an opportunity to reduce the achievement gap might be missed. 

Todd Rose has several great talks about learner variability. The following talk was presented at a Cyber-learning Symposium. He talks about how critical it is to think about learning variability as we move forward with designing our next generation of learning environments. The Rubric's Cube example speaks to the concept of using different paths or strategies to get to the same end goal. Technology simply opens up more paths and more strategies that can allow for increased learner variability.  The second cube that he presents is about "retrofitting" rather than "designing". In order to approach addressing learner variability from the design standpoint, we need to start with an understanding of variability and it seems the only way that we can really understand variability is if we have the whole range of it in our classrooms. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Resisting the urge to finish prematurely...

"When you are looking at becoming an inclusive society,
there really isn't a beginning or an end. It is all about
the process. It is all about becoming accepting and
becoming inclusive, and not reaching a finite goal." 
In the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman. proposes the Theory of Personal Intelligence where intelligence is defined as "the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals." He goes on to state that "any behaviour that narrows the distance between the starting state and the goal state of a person's personal goal counts as an intelligent behaviour" and then to say that "the formulation of multiple strategies to overcome obstacles and reduce discrepancy between the starting state and the goal state is an incredibly important manifestation of human intelligence."

This definition shifts the focus from product to process and can only be realized through the lenses of presumed competence and a growth mindset.  It speaks to the recognition that each student comes to the classroom with their own unique set of personal characteristics and those characteristics can be leveraged and/or accommodated for in the process of overcoming the obstacles that would move a student from where he/she starts to the goal. 
This is one of those books that pulls pieces together.  It will take time to connect both the theory and practice to my personal context.  It is reflective of much of what is happening in the drive to reform, transform, or redesign education.  This quote speaks to that...    
The deep implication here is that there should be no external pressure to realize a goal at a particular rate. The comparison isn't with others: it's with your former and future selves. If we rid ourselves of the notion that any of us ever reach a state of "failure" then there's no problem whatsoever in encouraging people to engage with a domain. If anything, there's an abundance of evidence suggesting we should encourage all people with a love for a specific domain to engage in what they love.
Throughout this book, I've tried to illustrate the incredible transformation people can undergo when they are allowed to engage in a domain that is aligned with their self identity.  In some cases, such as people with Asperger's, when engaging in their area of special interest their "disabled" characteristics complete evaporate (see Chapter 11).  In Chapter 12 we also saw that a love for the domain was the single best predictor of lifelong creative achievement - both societal and personal - long after the effects of IQ and divergent thinking faded away. 
It's a myth that geniuses consistently produce great work. The output of most creators, including those we label "genius," tends to be highly uneven.  The key for expertise is consistency, but the key for greatness is quantity.  According to the "equal-odd rule," quality is a linear function of quantity: the more you create (regardless of the quality), the greater your chances of producing a masterpiece.
This suggests we should encourage children to dream the impossible, to think beyond the standard expectations, to dare to be unrealistic. Such encouragement promotes the importance  of perseverance and questioning the established order. What's more, this instills in all people a mindset of lifelong learning and growth. 
While some may consider the world I've described beyond our reach, I can already see glimpses of it today. Throughout this book, I've highlighted the many progressive educators who are promoting learning goals, emotional self-regulation, self-regulated learning strategies, self-expression, self-pacing, context, deliberate practice, grit, passion, persistence and play.  All of these fundamentally human characteristics are part of human intelligence, because they contribute to the adaptations of our species.  Without them, we wouldn't be here today to be able to use them to adapt our personal goals within our lives. 
One other critical component of this theory is that "engagement and ability are inseparable throughout human development, dynamically feeding off each other as we engage in the world." It is not a surprise really that engagement is critical to human development.  In reality, is more about how we bridge the knowing-doing gap around this idea.  How do we facilitate the personal connection and meaning that are at the heart of engagement?

Finally, I can get to the title and the starting video and quote of this post.  So often in our drive to be "effective and efficient" we are pulled by the urge to finish things prematurely rather than to engage in the messy and often frustrating process of exploration and learning.  These processes make us uncomfortable because they are rooted in knowledge creation that challenge the status quo that our entire system is based on.  Our system is based on knowledge dissemination, not knowledge creation and it's hard to imagine that advancement in society have actually ended up making that system irrelevant.  When we constantly look for the finish point or the product are we missing the point? 

The connection point for me is at the end of the quote above: "because they contribute to the adaptations of our species.We, and the world around us, are constantly evolving.  We can't avoid change.  We are always in a state of becoming and to be prepared for life we need to be comfortable with that.  Our brains are constantly changing... not just individually but they evolve from generation to generation.  When I think of the concept of "presumed competence" (which I do a lot particularly because of the student population I work with), I think about environments where we believe that we can dynamically work with students to figure out student-specific "strategies to overcome obstacles and reduce discrepancy between the starting state and the goal state" and keep moving students along a path of learning agency.  In the classroom context this might mean personalized definitions of and current goals but the overall goal of education should be the same... to prepare students for a lifetime of learning. 

This leaves me with a lot of questions and none of them are simple.  None of them are black and white but sometimes it is worth thinking about where they sit on the continuum of black and white because the way we frame things matters.  How far can we push the edges?  Can we imagine students with the most complex of needs being lifelong learners? If we can't imagine this, are we saying that the purpose of school for this population is somehow different?  If this is the case, what impact does that have on the way we interact and the programs we create?  Are we generating a larger gap in the process of equipping some students to adapt, learn and grow and aiming for basic survival with others (aka segregated "life skills" programs)?  Have we created a system where we believe there is linearity to learning and our default to "problems" is remediation based on the track we believe should be followed rather than compensation based on individual student profile?  Does this feed in to a fixed mindset that our duo-track education system seems to be rooted in? Are we putting resources in to labeling, remediating, clustering and segregating rather than creating inclusive learning communities where our focus is to foster personalized learning by finding "strategies to overcome obstacles and reduce discrepancy between the starting state and the goal state"?
I believe we can push the edges further and I believe that involves thinking about having the same goal of life long learning for all students. Life long learning is rooted in our passions and dreams and increases a person's quality of life.  For some that means pursuing post-secondary school or entrepreneurship. Can we imagine this possibility for ALL students or do we get stuck in thinking about jobs of flowers, food or filth for a certain population regardless of whether that is what they desire or not?  Do we understand that authentic contribution is rooted in sharing our passions and strengths rather than in the completion of tasks that others label as important? What impact does the way we set up programs have on the doors that remain open for students beyond high school?  Do we resist the urge to take the path of falling back on repetitively having a student do what we believe the student to "be capable of doing" rather than pushing the edge to figure out how we can create the context for continued growth and learning?  Do we resist the urge to fall back on busy work or life skills when we get to that point of not knowing what to do to keep moving ahead?  If we do that, are we sending a fixed mindset message and have we put a limit on the student's learning?  Is this the equivalent of finishing prematurely?

Not simple questions but I believe they are ones worth thinking about given the current climate of education and adult services.  I have to throw in a few great examples of the continuation of learning beyond high school here...
It seems the only way to end this post is with Seth Godin's "Stop Stealing Dreams" Ted Talk...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Worth Thinking About: Naked Independence or Assistive Technology?

Reminded me of David Edyburn's writing
I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.