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This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do cultivate and support teacher leaders?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
Barry Saide, as per usual, is quite on to something with his post "Be Excellent to Each Other" (http://edge.ascd.org/_Be-Excellent-to-Each-Other/blog/6562298/127586.html). The lesson of “being excellent to each other” is surely one we can learn from inimitable Bill S. Preston, Esquire, & Ted “Theodore” Logan. Unsurprisingly, Barry beautifully articulates the ways teacher leaders (can and should) practice being excellent. He also aptly reminds us that, perhaps most importantly, students will do as we do, for better or worse; like Barry (and Bill & Ted), I want that replication to be for the better—and most certainly, being excellent to each other is for the better!
I’d like to extend the lessons we can learn from Bill & Ted to another pressing aspect of teaching and learning: engaging students in meaningful learning experiences to build deep and enduring understandings.
Let’s start with Bill & Ted’s learning experience before their excellent adventure. This short exchange between Bill, Ted, and Mr. Ryan (their history teacher) from the classic film might (unfortunately) parallel the social studies learning experiences of many students still today:
Mr. Ryan: So, Bill, what you're telling me, essentially, is that Napoleon was a short dead dude.
Bill: Well, yeah.
Ted: You totally blew it, dude.
Mr. Ryan: Ted, stand up.
Ted: Stand up?
Mr. Ryan: Yes, son. Stand up.
Mr. Ryan: Now, who was Joan of Arc?
Ted: ...Noah's wife?
Mr. Ryan: It seems to me that the only thing you have learned is that Caesar was a salad dressing dude.
Besides pure comedy gold, why did Bill & Ted have such a limited understanding of History? Allison Zmuda (in the November 2008 issue of Educational Leadership) explained what might contribute to Bill & Ted’s (and so many students like them) problem—that learning is too often about compliance, meticulously “following directions...repeating procedures on cue...and...expertly summarize[ing] other people's ideas” (p. 38) rather than engaged and authentic meaning-making. Bill & Ted surely do not “function like low-level bureaucrats” who thrive in the compliance-oriented, rote learning environment that exists in too many social studies classrooms today.
Zmuda explains that “[w]hen students have meaningful opportunities to understand, they are more likely to wisely use that knowledge in future tasks and situations” and we must provide a space for students to “ask tangential questions, wonder about things that have no space in the curriculum, pursue avenues that are dead ends, and spin their wheels with no apparent breakthrough in sight” for such meaningful understandings to emerge (p. 42).
In this exchange from later in the movie, we see that Bill & Ted no longer believe “that school is boring, that they are stupid, that it shouldn't feel this hard, and that it has no connection to the real world” (p. 41):
Bill: Mr. Ryan, fellow distinguished classmates, teachers, babes.
Ted: Our first speaker was born in the year 470 BC. A time when much of the world looked like the cover of the Led Zepplin album 'Houses of the Holy'.
Bill: We were there. There were many steps and columns, it was most tranquil. (gives a thumbs up.)
Ted: He is sometimes known as the father of modern thought. He was the teacher of Plato, who was in turn the teacher of Aristotle. And like Ozzy Osborne, was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.
(Mr. Ryan watches them with interest.)
Bill: And since he doesn't speak English, my friend Ted here, is going to interpret for him. (Ted shrugs his consent.) So please welcome, to tell us what he thinks of San Dimas, the most bodacious philosophizer in Ancient Greece…
Bill: It is indeed a pleasure to introduce to you a gentleman we picked up in Medieval Mongolia in the year 1269.
Ted: Please welcome, the very excellent barbarian.
Both: Mr. Genghis Khan.
Ted: This is a dude who seven hundred years ago totally ravished China. And whom we are told, 2 hours ago, totally ravished Oshmans' Sporting Goods.
(Bill and Joan of Arc are play fighting.)
Ted: A most bodacious solider, and general, Ms. Of Arc totally rousted the English from France. And then she turned this dude Gofan, into a kid, and all this by the time she was 17.
By turning their rote history oral report into an excellent adventure, Bill & Ted “find satisfaction during the creation and production of work. Instead of trying to eliminate or cover up mistakes, they...evaluate the source of the error and search for a potential insight about their understanding—or their misunderstanding—of the content, the discipline, or themselves” (Zmuda, 2008, p. 41).
In addition to Barry’s discussion of the importance of “being excellent to each other,” we should also learn from Bill & Ted that learning should be meaningful and enduring for our students, that it is less about memorizing a series of right answers or factoids and more about a journey with ups and downs, a roller coaster ride filled with fascinating realization, a truly excellent adventure!
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (transcribed script). Transcribed by S. Kemp. Retrieved from http://www.angelfire.com/tx3/80schild/bill1.html.
Zmuda, A. (2008, Nov). Springing into Active Learning. Educational Leadership, 38-42. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov08/vol66/num03/Springing-into-Active-Learning.aspx.
I’m seriously concerned that the schools aren’t doing enough (change that: aren’t doing anything!) to prepare students on the autism spectrum for a range of careers that are beginning to open up for them in the workplace. So much of recent educational ”reform” has been about preparing our students to be college and career-ready. If this is true, then we should be focusing on doing everything we can to help prepare students with autism spectrum disorder for new opportunities that are opening up for them. Educators need to know about an emerging trend in the workplace where high-tech companies are increasingly seeking to hire individuals with autism because their strengths are well-suited to a career in information technology. I contributed to an article in the October 8, 2013 Wall Street Journal(online) on this new phenomenon, and I’d like in this post to go over some ideas and resources that supplement what was given in that news piece.
The company that really launched this new trend was a Denmark firm called Specialisterne (”The Specialists”). They hire workers to look for ”bugs” in computer software. Their clients have included Microsoft, Oracle, and other top high-tech companies. Seventy-five percent of Specialisterne’s employees are on the autism spectrum. Specialisterne has opened up offices around the world, including in the United States.
The Specialist People Foundation, which owns Specialisterne’s concept and trademark, has launched an initiative to obtain training and employment for one million people with autism. As part of this project, they have begun creating partnerships with other high-tech companies to employ people with autism, including software giant SAP and Computer Aid, Inc, which plans to employ 3% of its workforce with individuals on the autism spectrum. Two other companies that are also seeking employees on the spectrum include Freddie Mac, the giant mortgage finance company, which has been advertising for interns with autism, and Semperical, in San Jose, California, which provides software testing and quality assurance services, and advertises on its website: ”Our specialized program unleashes the incredible natural talents of engineers on the autistic spectrum.”
Another organization that has taken an important role in training and employing people with autism, is the Plano, Texas firm Nonpareil, which, is a combination training program and software company for young adults on the autism spectrum (photo by Lauren Silverman for NPR depicts trainee at Nonpareil). Gary Moore, one of the partners of Nonpareil (along with Dan Selic), has a son Andrew who is a junior in high school and is on the spectrum. “Although [Andrew] can’t tie his shoes or buckle his belt to do a lot of things independently, he can do technology,” Moore says. “He’s a digital native.” Another group, the Specialists Guild in San Francisco, also trains and finds employment for young people with autism. Their clients include Benetech, Compass Labs, and Launchpad Toys.
These new employment trends come in the wake of research findings suggesting that in addition to the difficulties that people with autism have in the areas of social functioning and communication, they also have particular strengths, which up until now haven’t been recognized. Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, points out that people on the spectrum are good at interacting with system rather than people (and these systems include computer programs and other IT systems).
Laurent Mottron, a University of Montreal scientist has written about the strengths of autism in a recent article in the prestigious British journal Nature, and suggests that if IQ tests such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (a highly abstract visual-spatial assessment devoid of social interaction), were used with individuals with autism instead of the standard IQ test (the Weschler Intelligence Scale), their IQ scores would be 30-70 percent higher. Another ability connected with autism is the capacity to focus on small details, sometimes referred to as ”enhanced perceptual functioning,” which is a valuable trait for searching for small errors in computer code.
As I said at the beginning of this post, the schools are totally unprepared for this, and the simple reason for that is that special education in the United States has been firmly rooted in a ”deficit” paradigm for the past hundred years - focusing on what kids with special needs can’t do, rather than what they can do. This is true of both public and private schools. Perhaps the most renowned person with autism in the world, animal scientist Temple Grandin, in the October 7, 2013 issue of Time Magazine, wrote: ”I recently spoke to the director of a school for autistic children and she mentioned that the school tries to match a student’s strengths with internship or employment opportunities in the neighborhood. But when I asked her how the school identified the strengths, she immediately started talking about how they helped students overcome social deficits. If even the experts can’t stop thinking about what’s wrong, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism to think any differently?”
I firmly believe that every school that has students with autism (and other special needs) should have a ”strengths specialist” that does nothing but look for abilities, capacities, talents, and gifts in special education students. This would be a specially trained educator who is familiar with the strength-based literature (only a small part of which was noted above), competence in using a range of formal and informal strength-based assessment tools (see my previous post on seven of these assessment tools), and the capacity to help a student’s teachers use instructional strategies based on their strengths. They should also be able to find ways to develop a student’s strengths within the school (such as computer classes) and to serve as a school-community broker, helping to set up internships, apprenticeships, liaisons, and other real-world opportunities where students on the spectrum can be trained and find employment in the workplace.
A study done at Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered that young adults with autism who received training in specific work fields had an employment rate of 87% compared with 6% for those in the control group who received no such help. Clearly, this is a call for action to our nation’s public and private schools, and to the field of special education in general, to stop spending so much time focusing on deficits, and start turning your attention on strengths, because that is where the answer lies regarding helping these kids find success in life.
For more information about the strengths of students with special needs, and specific strategies to help them achieve success, see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom.
Today we have a guest post from educational therapist Diana Kennedy. I connected with her through LinkedIn, and was inspired by her blog post about a student with Fragile X syndrome that she has worked with as first, a special education teacher, and later, as an educational therapist. Diana’s business is Mindspark – Custom Learning Solutions, in San Anselmo, California, where she provides ”[o]ne-on-one personalized instruction using multi-sensory research-based techniques in a caring and relaxed environment.” I’d like to thank Diana for giving me permission to reprint her post here:
”So, I have this student, let’s call her Lisa. Lisa is a fifteen year old with Fragile X syndrome. She presents as someone with pretty severe autism: she barely makes eye contact, but is fully verbal. She has a personal relationship with the technical gadgets in a room (“Ask Printer if he knows the answer,” “It’s Projector’s turn to do a problem,”), but she won’t remember the names of students she’s been in class with for months. She has trouble reading a clock or counting change with automaticity, but she is one of my best Algebra students. You read that right: one of my very best Algebra students. She uses a white board (only the one with curved edges, not the square corners, and only with a blue dry-erase marker, never another color, especially not pink) to do all her work because her fine motor skills make it hard to fit side-work onto a single sheet of paper, but she unerringly knows what procedure to use when and applies her knowledge with almost complete accuracy.
I taught Lisa in the classroom for two years until I decided to quit classroom teaching and focus solely on my private Educational Therapy practice. Now Lisa comes to my home office twice a week for Algebra, while at school she will still be trying to become automatic at reading a clock and counting out change. Now, I knew that it would take Lisa a little while to get comfortable in her new surroundings, so the first time she came to my house, I ask if she wants to meet my husband, since he’d be around now and again.
“Nah,” she says, “Where’s your printer?” Silly me. She wanted to get straight to what’s important. So I show her my printer.
“He’s an HP, like the downstairs one [at my house]. What kind is he?”
I read her the name, “HP Photosmart Premium.”
“Huh,” she says. “Why do you have the pencil sharpener in front of him?”
“Oh,” I say, “That’s because there is no paper tray and that keeps the papers from falling on the floor.”
“Huh. He probably has a tray.”
“No, I’ve looked all over, and there isn’t a tray. Let’s do some math.”
She pauses in the middle of a problem, eyebrows furrowed. “The tray is probably underneath him.”
“No. I looked. I looked underneath and all around. There isn’t a tray.”
“Huh.” Lisa finishes her problem and asks for a break.
“Ok. Do you want a white board break?”
“Nah. Let’s look for your tray.”
Realizing it is useless to argue, I let Lisa go search for a tray I know is not there, just so she can let her pre-occupation go.
And she finds the tray.
Four years I’ve owned this printer and never found that stupid little tray, and within five seconds she has it pulled out and all set up for me.
In my (admittedly weak) defense, I tell her that I thought the little indentation under which the tray was hidden was a thumb rest.
Over the course of the next three sessions, Lisa says, “You thought it was a thumb rest. But really it was a little tray.”
Everyone in the LD community struggles with the choice To Label or Not To Label. Of course we don’t want our kids stigmatized or limited by their diagnoses; each of them is so much more than just “dyslexic” or “autistic” or any other word you could put in quotations. On the other hand, a diagnosis provides a shorthand for the types of interventions, remediations and accommodations that may help. And we can’t forget (how could we?) that a diagnosis is required for services both at school and after. Most importantly, a diagnosis can circumscribe a student’s disability–instead of feeling globally stupid or lazy, suddenly a child (and his or her parents and teachers) can make sense of the pattern of weaknesses and strengths and can realize that a variety of problems actually all arise from one specific source. After all, the word define is related to making finite rather than infinite. But we as teachers, educational therapists and parents, we have to understand that we are defining and circumscribing the learning disability, not the student. Lisa was, and continues to be, a marvelous reminder to me that, to paraphrase S.I. Hayakawa, the diagnosis is not the student. Thanks, Lisa. You’ve taught me so much. Including where my paper tray is.”