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. 

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