In her letter announcing the suspension of individual music lessons in the Quabbin school district, Dr. Marshall notes with regret that she felt compelled to take this step. I want to reassure her that she did the right thing—really the only responsible thing. Frankly, how anyone could imagine a functioning school system that responds to the individual whims of its students—that could pursue a reckless policy of disrupting an otherwise orderly schedule of standardized and standardizing instruction with the frivolity of music “education”—boggles the mind. Rather than regretting decisions like these, we should applaud them, and I personally appreciate the significance of offering this leadership in March—NAEA’s Youth Art Month. If only we had thought of this sooner, my daughter—at this moment on an 18-hour bus ride to Chicago to play (even the language of music doesn’t sound serious!) in a Percy Grainger festival—could instead be making her way to the national mean in alignment with the Common Core.
I know Dr. Marshall and many of the teachers to whose concerns she is responding in making this decision. They are serious people and capable educators. The fact that we live in a moment when decisions like this one seem inevitable is really the problem.
By Matthew Aaron Kim
Patricia Dunn (1995; 2001), implores teachers to introduce unconventional modes of representation to experienced and novice student writers in hopes that these writers can work with or against their customary thinking patterns to produce valuable insights in their writing. Dunn calls for composition teachers to “investigate and use whatever intellectual pathways we can to help writers generate, organize, reconceptualize, and revise thoughts and texts”…and that all writers would benefit from “multiple intellectual pathways to generate knowledge, and the world in general would benefit from the intellectual contributions of people traditionally excluded by print-loving pedagogies” (1). She cites Paulo Freire as a revolutionary in multimodal thinking as he engaged his students in “visual, tactile, and other literacies to help them develop language-based literacies” (58). Dunn also cites Patricia Bizzell as arguing ‘if learning to write can be seen as a process to think about one’s own thinking’ then “it suggests that other ways to represent thinking about one’s thinking could also be useful” (59). From that line of reasoning which engages teachers to think of introducing multiple representations in their pedagogies, Dunn suggests that teachers include visual activities and also sketching activities to students’ strategies for composing. Sketching, she argues, is an “unconventional mode for both experienced and novice writers” and “can work with or against their customary thinking patterns, producing valuable insights regarding overall purpose, structure, and use of evidence” (66). Dunn’s call for teachers to introduce unconventional modes of learning to experienced and novice writers is a challenge to teach writing to students of all abilities. I use the term “all abilities” to include students with learning differences.
“Our traditional take on human capabilities, bolstered by an overreliance on statistical measures and a fetish for medicalizing all manner of experience, encourages us to identify and treat uncommon circumstances as disease and disability. In other moments, we see those same circumstances as the seeds of greatness—and that’s the basis of Gladwell’s thesis. We are torn between these narratives. In one breath, we take a reductionist, neurobiological view of learning disabilities and look for brain-based treatments to normalize our children. In the next, we valorize difficulty. Neither narrative leaves our children in very good shape.”
The preceding quote is taken directly from Dr. Michael Riendeau’s most recent editorial, entitled Dyslexia: Neither Blessing, Nor Curse, in which he asserts the idea—I’m quoting here– that we need to see diversity as the norm. In rethinking current ideologies surrounding contemporary notions of learning (dis)abilities, historical implications inherent to categorical imperatives reinforce the idea that schooling is a socially agreed upon phenomena in which a society thrives. Accordingly, deeply held values surrounding students with learning (dis)abilities strongly need to be reassessed, because, as Hegel might say, if ideas and perceptions do not move, develop, and change into new patterns of thought, such finite categories become static, and, as many of us have seen—whether it be through failed school experiences for ourselves or our loved ones– there is danger in stagnation. It is normal and it is, of course, widely acceptable to create a common discourse surrounding traditional forms of education. It’s also dangerous for some of us and affords unearned privilege to others.
Such logical determinations are natural to societies as they are often rooted in human actions and feelings. However, when thinking about the types of principles and knowledge based on and around students that learn differently, personal agency is all too often eclipsed by classification. This is problematic when working with students to creatively and playfully engage with texts in an educational setting, and made even more striking when a student does not learn according to societal norms. The Other becomes stigmatized due to dependency and the need for help. We see this idea in current disability studies (which proclaim that the word itself denotes a metaphor for something “gone awry”) but not often enough when discussing the need to reframe curriculums and pedagogies to accommodate all types of learners. Perhaps, by reassessing commonly held values, we can begin to place a broader emphasis on building, learning, and exploring, while ideally disregarding fixed determinations that are so prevalent within commonly held assumptions of what education ought to be.
Of course, news outlets would never simply trumpet alarming news without digging deeper to discover what it really means. Oh wait! That is actually what they do.
Fortunately there are some folks (people who have more of a stake in what’s going on in our schools) who took the time to dig deeper and crunch some numbers. After the last round of PISA scores came out one of those folks was Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In a recent newsletter from NAASP we were reminded of the point Tirozzi had made before – poverty is the real problem.
So while our policy makers have been focused on accountability through more standardized testing, promoting competition, charter schools and the privatization of education, we’d all really be better served if resources went to combating poverty. Tirozzi has some really impressive looking numbers to back up the assertion that when you control for poverty American schools actually outperformed the others. That’s right. According to these numbers, American schools with less than a 10% poverty rate had an average score of 551 in reading (on the 2009 PISA assessment) placing it well above Finland, Belgium, Denmark and other countries with similarly low poverty rates.
But it’s really not so simple. In 2012 U.S. students scored below average in math and about average in reading. The key findings report of the 2012 PISA states that the share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the United States was about average. This statement doesn’t seem to jive with the NAASP analysis that suggested a much higher overall rate of poverty among American student and which claims to show that American students outperformed economically comparable cohorts of students from other countries involved in the assessment.
Interestingly though two factors in the key findings shed some light on the way that poverty among American school children affects performance on the PISA. The first has to do with resilience – the phenomenon of seriously socio-economically disadvantaged students performing much better than would be predicted by their socio-economic status. In 2012 American students were less resilient than the OECD average and much less resilient than several of the top-ranking countries. In other words, poverty had a relatively greater (negative) impact on the performance of American students.
The second and related factor is the disparity in performance accounted for by poverty. The difference in performance between students of different socio-economic backgrounds was greater in the U.S. than in several of the top-ranking countries.
The Bottom Line:
If you are a poor student in America you are less likely to perform well as compared to poor students in other countries, and you are likely to perform worse compared to wealthier compatriots than is the case in other countries.
So it’s not just poverty. It is a problem of equity and the effects of context. Poor students in the United States suffer not only from all the usual disadvantages poverty brings to education but disproportionately so. Any sincere attempt at broad and effective reform in education must have at its core policies to address inequity.
Scores of recent books by self-professed learning disabled CEOs and celebrities and other stunningly successful people take up what I see as a contemporary Horatio Alger story. They argue that is precisely their disabilities that made them great. It was their ability to think outside the box, color outside the lines—their need to work harder, longer, and smarter than their classmates—that made them great.
Ben Foss, an ex-Intel executive and founder of Headstrong Nation, goes so far in his recent book The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan as to allow us “behind the curtain” of his dyslexic writing process, showing us a sample of his writing in its “raw format.” Here are the first few lines of that glimpse behind the curtain:
some people thisn begin successful means overcoming dyslexia. Nothing could be further from the truth, By many measures I have achieved success. I have worked in the white house. I ve got a combined JD/MBA from standorf university. I directed a research group at Intel (xxvii).
I hope no student of mine who has been described as dyslexic ever reads that page. What we see “behind the curtain” is clear, rhetorically strong prose with a few minor typographical and spelling errors. Most students I know (and their teachers) would find it hard to recognize their own difficulties in the language in that passage. At the same time, I very much appreciate a great deal of Foss’s perspective on our biases about ways of reading and the experiences of students with language difficulties.
In another example, part two of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent David and Goliath (see Joe Nocera’s the Times review here) opens with an epigraph from Corinthians about St. Paul’s embrace of weakness, hardship, and persecution; the section is titled “The Theory of Desirable Difficulty.” Gladwell concludes the section about David Boies—a well-known, successful, and profoundly dyslexic attorney—with the suggestion that “[d]yslexia—in the best of cases—forces you to develop skills that might otherwise have lain dormant…to do things that you might otherwise never have considered” (124).
I don’t know Mr. Foss or Mr. Boies, and so I don’t know how they might respond to Gladwell’s question “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?” (99). I can tell you as a teacher who has worked with the families of hundreds of dyslexic children that I wouldn’t—and I doubt many parents I know would. Gladwell’s suggestion that coping with dyslexia—or a variety of other difficulties—forces individuals to develop otherwise untapped skills is doubtlessly correct. But until we can understand these difficulties as a normal part of the variety of human experience—as an expression of diversity rather than as pathology—I wouldn’t wish dyslexia on anyone.
The trouble is that we are a nation torn between two visions of humanity. Our traditional take on human capabilities, bolstered by an overreliance on statistical measures and a fetish for medicalizing all manner of experience, encourages us to identify and treat uncommon circumstances as disease and disability. In other moments, we see those same circumstances as the seeds of greatness—and that’s the basis of Gladwell’s thesis. We are torn between these narratives. In one breath, we take a reductionist, neurobiological view of learning disabilities and look for brain-based treatments to normalize our children. In the next, we valorize difficulty. Neither narrative leaves our children in very good shape.
The solution lies not in pursuing either line of reasoning to its absurd end but in taking up a humbler, perhaps less obviously ground-breaking but nevertheless profound idea: the variety of human experience is breathtaking, and talk about disease, disability, dis-anything is best left to statisticians and physicians. We need to see diversity as the norm. As educators, our work is to understand each student’s constellation of talents, challenges, interests, hopes, and fears—and then together design schools and school experiences that develop and showcase those talents, confront challenges, pursue and expand interests, realize hopes, and allay those fears. One of my favorite ideas is Jal Mehta’s notion that “each school [is] a kind of puzzle that needs to be continuously solved by the people in it” (http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2009/04/education-reform-accountability-and-the-achievement-gap/).
In this age of highly active parenting the trend-watchers have perceived yet another parenting style just yearning for a catchy label. Connoting someone pushier than helicopter parents and more outwardly focused than tiger moms, the latest silly epithet for over-involved moms and doting dads is the snowplow parent. Why “snowplow?”- They push aside obstacles to clear a straight and easy path for their children’s success. In case you’re wondering if you should be laughing along with the name-callers or cringing with the guilty here are a few examples to serve as tell-tale signs: If you’ve ever called the school to get a grade changed (particularly if that school is a college or university), or given gifts to the coach to get more favorable treatment for your youngster, or accompanied your child through a job interview, you might just fit the bill for a snowplow parent. Of course such labeling is a bit frivolous, and it’s easy to laugh at some of the extreme examples, (like the parents of the young (adult) woman who had an amber alert issued for her when they hadn’t heard from her in 24 hours), but more and more, colleges are feeling the awkward pressure of pushy parents fighting dubious battles for their grown-up offspring.
Names and labels aside, the phenomenon raises an interesting question for the teaching profession in general and for teachers of challenged students in particular; at what point should parents intervene to shield their children from the consequences of academic rigor? At what point must a student be allowed to face her own shortcomings and be allowed to learn the subsequent lessons? It’s a tough question to answer, and the situations during which it arises are often emotionally charged. For parents of struggling students, the dogged attitude required to obtain the support their kids need can persist long after needs have been reasonably addressed and calcify into the unhelpfully overprotective stance of the notorious snowplow parent.
Working at a private school for students with mild learning disabilities you quickly learn that there is a sometimes blurry line between providing the support kids need to be successful and simply over-coddling. I think it’s a distinction that both teachers and parents worry about a lot. It’s not at all unusual to hear from parents who are skeptical of the authenticity of the newly positive grades their children have begun to receive once meaningful supports have been put into place. Confusingly, it’s also not unusual to hear parents ask for greater challenge and rigor while in nearly the same breath insisting that their child not be allowed to fail, (or to be realistic, even to receive anything lower than a respectable grade). It’s something akin to another ubiquitous and seemingly paradoxical expectation that a student be coached and coaxed into having more intrinsic motivation, but more about that another time. Of course, it’s only fair to point out that there can be a certain snowplowing tendency on the part of teachers as well as parents.
It’s a classic catch 22. If I “help” too much and a student achieves unaccustomed success I will be accused of coddling and more challenge will be demanded. If I implement greater rigor and a student doesn’t rise to the challenge it will seem that I haven’t provided the support he needed to succeed. This simplistic explanation of the problem may make it seem contrived, but it is a very real conundrum that we constantly face. And as it is with all conundrums there is no simple solution. It involves ongoing, ad hoc decisions and judgment calls. However, if we can clarify how challenges are beneficial it may help in making those decisions.
It’s good to remember that school isn’t just a place to acquire knowledge but is a kind of training ground where habits are formed and an individual’s dispensation toward learning, work and people is solidified. It seems to me that the rule of thumb in these situations must be in keeping with the principle of setting challenges. People, that is all people but young people in particular, experience growth when presented with manageable challenges: challenges that demand more than what one is comfortable doing but which are still reasonably surmountable. The benefits of overcoming the challenge are increased confidence and greater intrinsic motivation along with the appetite for the satisfaction of ever greater challenges. If you are fairly certain that the goal was achievable and reasonable supports were in place, a student must be allowed to fail and in the failing to grow. A challenge without at least the potential for failure lacks authenticity and does not afford the opportunity for growth, and is really not even a challenge properly understood. Children can learn an awful lot from failing when it is safe for them to fail. Conversely, the unfortunate child of a so-called snowplow parent will most likely come to resent the parent’s unwarranted efforts and more importantly will find himself poorly equipped to handle himself in life.
If you ever want to get busy teachers to actually respond quickly to an email try asking them a question like this: “If you were to give one brief piece of advice, like one or two sentences, about what makes for good teaching, what would it be?” Unsurprisingly, it turns out that most teachers are the kind of people who are more than willing to impart words of wisdom.
That’s the question I posed to a few colleagues at a small boarding school for students with mild learning (dis)abilities yesterday. And now I’m posing it to you as well dear reader. The only requirement is that your answer be brief, a sentence or two (teachers aren’t always good at following directions). Take a moment right now to pour your wisdom, in a dram-sized dose, into the comment box below. (Hint: You don’t have to be a teacher to answer the question.)
Leaving out the tongue-in-cheek or downright sarcastic (not sure if you know my colleagues); here are some of the responses I got in no particular order. They run the gamut from pithy two-word zingers to matter-of-fact practical advice to deep philosophical stances, but all are worth pondering.
~This week, I’d have to say proper scaffolding/differentiation.
~Strong active listening skills and mutual respect combined with a passion for your discipline.
~Being prepared to veer away from your set ideas of what you will accomplish in a given lesson and be flexible. Know what it is you want to achieve during the course and concentrate on essential questions and don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember that the students are the most important ingredient in a successful lesson.
~Good teaching requires a combination of patience, ethics, and understanding while being careful to not expunge what children have already been taught or what is important to them.
~Good teaching to me comes from the heart, an honest desire to see someone else succeed on their own terms and open their world to new ideas. Good teaching to me shows students the strengths and abilities they didn’t feel they had inside and gives them a safe and comfortable place in which to explore and exercise those strengths.
~Do not try to be someone you are not (as a disciplinarian and as a teacher).
~The ability to think on your feet and be aware of students’ needs, rather than just what the “plan” is. Sometimes we get so focused on what we had planned that we don’t realize that the kids either need more or less time than we had planned, or they need more information before they can really understand what we are trying to teach; teachers need to be willing to part ways with the plan if it is not working and adjust so that it will.
~Teaching is making a difference in a student’s life. The result of teaching may be obvious now, or it may take years to pay off, but good teaching – or bad teaching – has an impact on a student’s life.
~I try to find ways to teach that I imagine would have worked on me when I was a kid.
~I believe that good teaching requires teachers to genuinely care about what their students WANT to learn, and incorporate pieces of that into the skills that the teachers know the students NEED in order find success for the rest of their lives.
~A good teacher needs to be connected with the vibe of the room and sensitive to what enlivens the students and conversely what causes rapid eye glazing. Good educators must never be satisfied with the quality of their craft.
~ A good teacher rejects “fairness” between their students and inserts appropriateness in its stead. A good teacher evolves and risks applying new techniques to improve their effectiveness and does not lazily wallow in the confines of a stagnant methodology where they can retreat to a familiar comfort. A good teacher creates opportunities for their students to be “actually” proud of their accomplishments by appropriately challenging them.
~What’s important is empathy and a conviction that you have something important to share.
Lately I have been very focused and entranced by the idea of connectivism, and how it correlates with thinking, learning, and computers in the classroom. I recently stumbled upon George Siemens’ article that details the differences between constructivism and chaos in addition to understanding connectivism, and it was valuable to me as a teacher most specifically when he states, “Unlike constructivism, which states that learners attempt to foster understanding by meaning making tasks, chaos states that the meaning exists—the learner’s challenge is to recognize the patterns which appear to be hidden. Mean-making and forming connections between specialized communities are important activities.” This quote activated my sense of connectivism as I attempted to think of examples from my work or life to explain why it was relevant to me as a reader and an educator. It felt very meta—in a sense—because as I attempted to understand the quote and find meaning in it, I engaged in the act of connectivism by trying to activate my own network of personal knowledge.
Those of you who follow such things as our reports on Alfie Kohn’s controversial condemnation of homework, you probably noticed that French president Francoise Hollande’s proposal to ban homework. Of course the two camps in the debate predictably unleashed …
The U.S. report on the 2011 TIMSS has recently been published by the National Center for Education Statistics. The Trends in International Science and Mathematics Study (TIMMS) is an international assessment of math and science knowledge of 4th and …
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