Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Way You See the Problem is the Problem

Today's post is a combination of a lot little pieces that might not yet fit together.  I've spent some time the last few months looking to expand my scope and understanding of "disability" beyond the work that I do with students who have complex needs.  It started with exploring the social/emotional/behavioural realm but I found a lot of that crossed over in to the digging I do around the students that I work with.  Then it expanded in to another realm... the realm of learning "disabilities".  The best place to start to learn about something is to go to the source so I began reading books written by those with those more "high incidence disabilities" like ADD/ADHD and dyslexia (aka print disabilities).  Three books in this area resonated with me: The Drool Room by Ira SocolLearning Outside the Lines by Jonathan Mooney and Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman

The recurring advocacy theme in these books is that our school systems are not always set up to play to the strength of these students. That, in fact, our school systems focus on their deficits so much that it impacts some students so much that they have no sense of efficacy of themselves as learners in any realm and that some even question their value of their entire life. I have been reading a lot of Dave Edyburn's work on "technology enhanced learning" in preparation for the internship that I am planning for my masters program.  His work speaks to finding ways to ensure that all students are engaging in and have access to the process of learning.  He speaks often of the current "achievement gap" that we see in schools:
"The achievement gap is a well documented problem in schools. In practical teams the problem can be illustrated as shown in the below figure. The diagonal line illustrates the expected level of achievement of students: one year of academic achievement for each year in school. However, the dotted line illustrates the pattern of achievement for many under performing students: students of color, students with disabilities, students living in poverty, and students whose first language is not English. The area between the dotted line of performance by low achievers and the diagonal line of expected grade level performance is know as the "achievement gap".  The graphic reveals the cumulative effect of students' underachievement."

The most common justification that I hear for segregated programs is that "the gap just gets bigger and bigger" and we need to offer "these students" a place where they can work "at their own level".  If you look at achievement gap data, it is clear that the gap does get bigger and bigger but what we still need to find is the right balance between remediation and compensation.  Each of the people in the three books that I highlighted above was labeled with a learning disability and put "in" special education during their school years.  Each of those three people have gone on to achieve some pretty high academic levels in post secondary institutions. Some would say that is a sign of our system working but if you read their narratives, what they went through doesn't sound like working to me.  They all seem to have found their strengths despite the constant focus on their deficits. 

Carol Dweck often uses this Benjamin Barber quote in his presentations: "I don't divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don't.  I divide the world into learners and non-learners."  I think this gives us a window in to where we should be aiming in education. How do we ensure that students have access to learning?  Perhaps that requires that we define what learning is.  It seems it should be simple but there are so many factors that contribute to learning. 

There are all the factors related to our physiology - the processing of sounds, visual spatial information, motor sequences and the regulation of our sensations. 

There are all the factors tied to the development of our social and emotional thinking.  Factors like attention, engagement, trust, skills in interactions, communication, how we problem solve, how we apply ideas within the social world, comparative thinking, reflective thinking...etc. 

And then there is the stuff that we tend to focus in school - the cognitive functions like reading and listening comprehension, how we express our ideas both orally and in writing, logical thinking and reasoning and organizational skills. 

If a child is struggling with writing there are so many factors that can come in to play. Perhaps there are barriers at the physiological level with visual-spatial or motor sequencing skills.  Perhaps the barriers are more tied to the social-emotional realm... things like attention or using the appropriate voice.  And that doesn't touch on all the barriers that might be associated with the cognitive processes that we tend to focus on "fixing" through remediation or intervention.   

I'm not opposed to an appropriate dose of remediation or intervention but is it perhaps these other layers of the learning process that give us insight in to other paths we might take to reach the goal of learning?  Do we limit learning if we over-focus on instruction and practice with the goal of students being able to hold factors or problem solving steps in memory rather than looking for ways to engage students in the learning experience?

I once read somewhere that most jobs that can be turned in to a routine are being off-shored or automated.  This speaks to the need for us in education to focus on facilitating the growth of "expert learners" so that our students will be able to respond to the world they will live in as adults.

I'm not going to find an answer today but the narratives of the people I talked about have me thinking about what learning is and how important it is for students to see themselves as moving towards becoming expert learners.  It seems to me that this involves adapting a 'never-give-up' approach that involves thinking outside the box of remediation or intervention in helping a student to achieve.  This is ideas like creating a continuum of supports and services rooted in concepts of natural supports, "technology enhanced learning", Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Response to Intervention (RtI) come in to play.  

All of these ideas speaks to the opportunity and possible long-term impact of facilitating the right supports for learning at the right time and in the right places.  When we focus our efforts on finding ways to keep students in their current learning environments we begin to look for ways to reduce barriers to learning that may exist in that environment not just for that individual student.  This means that we can positively impact a student's sense of efficacy which results in the engagement that will allow that student to build expert learner skills.  It shifts our focus to working together to figure out the best way to facilitate learning.  This quote from the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined speaks to what happens if we don't start to think about the "rebranding" that is referenced in the beginning image of this post.  What are the strengths that a student possesses that will build that bridge to learning and get him/her engaging rather than avoiding? 
The environment can take even a tiny genetic or environmental advantage and "multiply" it again and again as such interactions are reiterated through the course of one's development.  The other side of the coin is also possible, of course.  A slight genetic or environmental disadvantage can lead a youngster to avoid situations where the difficulty would be revealed. Yet those are precisely the situations that would enable the child to practice the task and make up for the disadvantage. Instead, the child misses the boat while peers sail off ahead.
I'm ending this on with a thought from Carol Dweck about the power of the word "yet" as  I think this is a critical piece for both students and us as adults.  We may not know all the details of reducing that achievement gap YET. 

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