16 May 2008

An inability to understand

powered by ODEO
interview with Melinda Pongrey of LDLive - 16 May 2008

[warning, the following might be less than fully coherently written]

When I present I sometimes tell the story of the star.

A long time ago I met with a special education teacher about a student we were providing technology for. As we were talking I was doodling, and I drew a star.

"If he saw that," the teacher asked, pointing to the star, "could he copy it?" I said that I was sure he could, in fact, that given his art skills, he could copy almost any picture. "Then why," she asked, leaning over, writing the word "star" in lower case print letters, "if I write this, he can't type it for me."

And in that moment I discovered something. I discovered why "this" - with "this" being special education or education itself - so rarely "works." It rarely works, I realized, because the two 'sides' - teacher and student - often have such radically different views of the universe that communication becomes impossible. In the decade since this revelation has been reinforced a thousand times.

"Well," I said to the teacher, "first, I don't think he sees words as individual letters, just as pictographs. Little images which might mean something. So he doesn't separate that out automatically into letters, and the keyboard doesn't have a "star" key." She looked at me puzzled, and I knew why. Teachers spent so much time being beaten with reading strategies that they have forgotten the obvious. Almost none of us "read letters." we read "word shapes" - pictographs - logograms - sinographs - whatever - every bit as much in alphabetic languages as in a language like Chinese. But we lie to students about it every day.

This is why you can read those emails you get where the interior letters of the words are all scrambled, but you can still read all the words because nobody actually reads using phonics or by sounding things out, you read by knowing - the better a reader you are the more automatic this is - that this picture - teacher (you'd recognize it even if looked like "taecher") - means something different than this picture - student. Just as you do not sound out the letters when you see a McDonald's or a BP sign. But, as I just said, we lie to students about this every day. We lie to them so much we actually convince ourselves of what we are saying.

So, no "star" key on the computer, but I had to point something else out. "Even if he could break that picture apart into letters," I told the teacher, "those letters aren't on the keyboard - well, only one of them is." She looked at me like I was crazy. I still do this, I ask teachers all the time, "What letters aren't on the keyboard?" On a very good day one out of thirty will figure it out.

I had to pick up a keyboard to demonstrate. "That 's" is there," I said, "but I don't see anything like the t, a, or r. And he doesn't know that those lower case letters match up."

That's something else we lie to students about. We tell them that there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Just about every struggling students know what a massive lie that is. There are lots of different symbols which represent the same thing and we have to memorize all these pictures - surely if we're trying to "sound things out." And that can be very difficult, because alphabetic language is a code system, just as musical notation and Morse Code are. The only difference is that those follow some logical structure, and the alphabet, especially as used in English, is just random nonsense with various sounds assigned randomly to various letters, depending on the word. As I sometimes say, it is as if the numeral "1" meant "one" if presented by itself, but meant "thirty-four" if it followed a "3" or "six" if it came before a "5."

Which is why most of us, almost every one of us, reads by word shape, or what educators call "sight word recognition."

But teachers live in a world constructed one way. A world in which phonics matters (if phonics worked in English, it would obviously be spelled differently), in which the alphabet contains 26 symbols, in which reading means decoding a series of letters printed in ink on paper, in which drawing a picture of a star is a less valid method of saying "star" than typing the word "star" on a keyboard.

And students live in a world constructed entirely differently. A world in which, though we say they can't read, they have no problem distinguishing McDonald's from Burger King simply by the sign. A world in which, outside of the classroom, they seem quite capable of communicating. A world in which they can gather a ton of information and knowledge every day without ever looking at letters in ink on paper. A world in which - to be quite honest - they are far better equipped to do everything from learn how their mobile works to following Ikea assembly instructions than most of their teachers are.

So teachers look at students and see an inability to succeed in things that have always - obviously - been important, even essential. And students look at teachers and see people lying - and not just lying - lying about things which seem obviously irrelevant.

This starts at the beginning of school with the alphabet. Because the kids know that they really don't need to sound out letters to recognize words - they've already been recognizing words for years. And it ends at university where students get knocked for "bad" citations even though every student knows that the only valuable citation is the hyperlink to where the source material lies.

To illustrate: On my last post an anonymous commenter said, "The idea of an illiterate pilot or paramedic is absolutely frightening. How, for example, can an illiterate person give the right dosage of the right medicine in an injection ("Quick, inject 30 ccs of morphine!" "Uhhhh....which one of these is morphine and how can I tell what 30 ccs is?")."

I have no way of knowing, of course, but this sure sounds like "an educator." An educator who lives in that bizarre self-constructed world of academics. Few otherwise might make the kinds of mistakes he or she makes.

Having worked, once upon a time, in emergency medicine, I can tell you that the last thing you want a paramedic doing is stopping to read the vial - perhaps sounding "mmmm-or-puh-hee-n" out phonetically. What you want is someone who knows what that vial looks like and feels like, and where it is, and can grab it every single time in, just as an example, a barely lighted corridor or a dark street corner with their eyes fixed on the patient. You even want someone who can eyeball 30 cc rather than taking the time to read the gradations. And you want the information flowing among the professionals in the clearest, easiest to understand communications system - which is whatever communications system the receiver prefers. Speak it to me, text it to him.

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous (or who knows? maybe Dr. Anonymous) actually thinks that we all operate daily in "book reading" form. But few of us do. We gather information multiple ways, we create meaning out of many things. We remember in many ways. And if people were really helping to help us learn, they would help us to find the paths we need to walk to know what we need to know.

But instead schools lie about how people learn and communicate, or, as the Anonymous commenter does (see, again, the post below), we insult. We say, "he's illiterate" and we limit his or her possibilities. We make things hard when we could be making them - if not easy - much easier. But we don't make the efforts because we're really, really bad at understanding each other. Instead, we're constantly trying to force our students to do it our way.

Could we do it other ways? Consider just a couple of ways of seeing things from the struggling end-users point of view:

Last week a student told me that when he is at home on line he copies the text of websites, pastes it into Word, and makes the letters big enough so that there are only a few words on a line. "then I don't get lost," he told me. "Wow," I said, "did they teach you that in school?" "No," he told me. "Do they let you do that in class?" I asked. "No," he said, "we don't use computers in class."

"I recognize a lot more words on paper since I've been using WYNN," a college student told me recently, echoing something I hear a great deal. "It really helps because I used to just freeze when I got to new words, but now I hear them and see them and it kind of goes all together."

"I made the keyboard labels with both upper and lower case letters on them," a teacher told me last year, "the kids love them. It has made a big difference."

"He's just been dictating to that computer for a week now," another teacher said about a fourth grader we'd armed with speech recognition. "He used to just sit there and throw things at the other kids, now he's completely engaged."

"Thanks for the Reading Pen," a nurse emailed me. "I don't run across stuff I struggle with often, but knowing that I can pull this out of my pocket and make sure I'm right makes a giant difference."

"You type faster on your phone," a friend told me. "Yeah," I said, "I love the word prediction, I don't worry about spelling." "Someone needs to develop a free iTap system for regular computers," he said.

"Thanks for turning me onto Jott," a social worker told me, "No one could ever read my handwriting before and so I'd have to come back from these field visits and type everything up. Now I just drive speaking into my headset, and I send the notes right to the secretary."

"I can't believe how much I've come to depend on audiobooks," a friend says, "My reading was getting limited because my eyes hurt at the end of the day. I never thought I'd be the one sitting with an iPod all evening, but that's what I do now."

Next time, when faced with a student who is struggling to do it "your way," think about this. Is "your way" really the only way? Can this student even see "your way"? Or is there a different way that's needed because the world looks different from "over there"?

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book


LH said...

This really is an excellent post.

Instead of shaming students for their inabilities to do things "our way" - let's take advantage of our technologies and the entrepreneurial approaches that students take in their own learning.

I was in a classroom the other day where I heard a teacher abruptly scream at a student "WHY ARE YOU THE ONLY ONE IN HERE WHO CAN'T SPELL. IT'S MAY - WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!?" It made me (and that particular student) feel awful.

I only hope that we can begin to adopt more strategies to help our students succeed, knowing that our definitions of "success" (as they are right now) are quite narrow-minded.

Thanks for this post.

narrator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I'm proud (or I hang my head for speaking at a computer screen) to say that I said "s" quite loudly when talking about the star. I often write out passwords for students in both upper and lower case - because it's in upper case on the keyboard, and lower case on the screen. I was once questioned on this, and looked at as if I was absurd for writing it twice... You make a fantastic point. Keep telling people - you may get the figure listening down from 30!

Anonymous said...

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meep said...

I often say that if I had waited till I got to school to learn to read I never would have.All of those silly phonix exercises.