06 January 2009

2009: The Year of Universal Access - Part Two

"But this vision works only if experience — we’re back to that word again — is redefined. If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count — even if none of your activities take place in an office, where you enjoy a title and a salary. Hillary Clinton made that argument when she ran for the Senate. Voters agreed that a multifaceted life filled with experiences, if not experience, made her ready to serve. Barack Obama presented a version of that argument as well. His was hardly the traditional résumé of a presidential candidate, but his potential employers (the voters) gave him credit for a fierce intelligence and lessons learned from life."

Lisa Belkin was talking about the Senatorial hopes of Carolyn Kennedy when she wrote this in The New York Times last week, but her argument represents the second essential part of making 2009 The Year of Universal Access. Belkin, making a woman's rights argument, and speaking about lawyers, corporate execs, and other 'white collar/white female' situations, frames it this way:

"In the past, you would start at Point A — the mailroom, the associate level, the boss’s assistant — keep your head down and your nose to the grindstone and make your way toward Point B, putting in hours and getting your ticket punched along the way. A few people jumped the line because of luck or connections. (Those who aspire to serve in Congress sometimes “pay their dues” by playing for the N.B.A. or the N.F.L. or starring on “The Love Boat,” which are all less relevant qualifications for the job than financing city schools.) But there was a recognized path, a defined progression, a road map from here to there."

In my last post I wrote about the technology and the technological rules which must be present if we are to have Universal Access. But as Lisa Parisi commented there, those technologies must be available as needed, as desired, and without the labelling of students.

Belkin says, "If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count, even if none of your activities take place in an office." I'll say it differently: "If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count, even if none of your activities occur in the classroom, or are accomplished in ways prescribed by your schools or teachers." This is the fundamental change we need. This is the fundamental switch which our contemporary technologies have allowed us to make. And this the fundamental alteration in attitude which allows us to take advantage of all the access technologies in the last post to create real liberation education.

I decode on a below first grade level, but I've read Ulysses three times and a hundred critical writings about Ulysses. I can not write with a pen on paper. It is either so slow that I can not record my own thoughts or it is completely unintelligible, but I have written books. There are a million tests out there that I - if forced to 'take' them in 'traditional' ways - would fail, yet those tests would keep me out of jobs that there is no doubt I could do, and do well.

So in this Year of Universal Access we have to break through the barriers of 'labellism,' of 'credentialism' that is really just a hazing process used by those in power, and through that biggest barrier in education - the privileging of the instructor's preferred method.

Labelling: It accomplishes nothing. It is always arbitrary. It is always destructive. It is aways limiting of legitimate human choice. Which is why we don't call those wearing eyeglasses "special needs." And why we don't send those who throw badly to remedial classes while other students get to visit the library. And why we don't tell those who can not sight read and perform symphonic music that they can not graduate from high school. And why we let just about anyone take elevators in tall buildings - not just those who have documentation proving that they can not climb stairs. Students need to be shown the tools available, and they should be helped in learning how to pick the best tool for their specific situation.

Credentiallism: There is nothing wrong with asking someone to prove that they can perform a job. There is something very wrong when people are told that there is only one narrow path to that job. Telling a student that he/she can't do sixth grade science because he/she reads at a first grade level is a classic example of credentiallism run amuck, as is requiring "good" handwriting when the assignment is to tell a story or prove knowlege. This goes all the way up. If I can prove my unique level of knowledge, the formatting of my PhD thesis is just nonsensical credentiallism.

Method Privilege: So much of school is about method, not knowledge gain. It makes no difference whether I've read Ulysses in ink, or via audiobook, or via computer file. But almost every third grade teacher thinks this makes a huge difference. There is no study anywhere which suggests that decoding alphabetic symbols of ink on paper is the world's best method of transmitting information. Likewise, a handwritten note is only superior to a text message if the receiver chooses to think of it that way. Writing with a computer (or mobile phone) spell-checker is not, in any way, inferior to having your college educated mom "look over" your homework. There is nothing wrong with looking things up on Google or in Wikipedia that isn't also potentially wrong with looking in the library (pick the first book you see) or opening up Encyclopedia Britannica (might be wrong or at least out of date). Method is often best left to personal choice. The end result - learning, sharable knowledge, discovery - that's what matters.

On the last post Lisa Parisi said, "I had a conversation with my 13 year old this week. "Do you know who the classified students are in your class?" I asked. "Yes." And she starts listing them. "How do you know?" "They get to use calculators and computers, they get extra test time, they get asked constantly if they understand what is going on." "Do you ever get to use any of those? Do your teachers ask you if you understand?" "Only when they ask the whole class. If I don't raise my hand, they don't ask." My frustration is over the fact that 1. she knew all the classified students as if they had labels on them and 2. she was not able to use any extra tools, whether she needs them or not. Christine and I work constantly make sure that tools are available for everyone so no one feels isolated and everyone gets what they need. And, as you said, it is not so difficult to do so today. So what is the hold up?"

What is the hold up? We could do away with 90% of "special needs" today, and instead make all those tools and resources available to every child to use every time "this way" would make education work better than "the old way." Stigmas would drop away, as would the self-limits of low-expectations. Student interests would create groupings rather than measurements of single abilities. Students would find lifespan methods to support their learning.

2009. In the year we inaugurate a president with few of the conventional resume checkpoints, a president who defined his own way to campaign, to fundraise, to reach out to voters, we ought to accept the same from our students.

In this year of Universal Access, pull off those labels. Let the "LD" kid read the hard book. Let the "smart" kid use the calculator. Let anyone who struggles with a word's pronunciation use text-to-speech to figure it out. Let even the calmest kid have a fidgit toy if he needs it that day. Let everyone choose their way of demonstrating knowledge. None of this means that you can't encourage kids to try new things, to test out different ways to communicate, but it does mean that you no longer make your preferences the only routes to success.

After all, you have no idea what communication tools will be essential ten years from now. Nor do you know how any particular students needs will align with the jobs or learning environments in their future.

Yes, we need to re-think our definitions of experience to liberate many. And we need to re-think our definitions of what 'success in school' means to liberate many, many more.

- Ira Socol


Beth Lloyd said...

"Here, here" on doing away with labeling. It only puts students into neat little boxes so we can focus on their limitations. Reflection For The Day in the Boston Globe this morning was by Oliver Sacks. "We come into an unlabeled world."

Can we go back there?

mary said...

can i let my child choose whether they should learn the alphabet sounds? did you let your son choose? i can agree with letting kids choose how they want to get info after a good effort has been made to teach them to decode.