07 February 2011

Instructional Tolerance and Universal Design

In a Virginia classroom we discussed, with elementary teachers, student seating choice during whole group meetings. "Does it make any difference," I asked, "if some students are sitting on the floor, some on chairs, some are lying down, others standing up, maybe even if one or two are walking around?"

My suggestion was that not only might students be comfortable - and in my mind students cannot be cognitively uncomfortable (and thus ready to learn) without being physically and psychologically comfortable - but that we might be teaching actual social skills as well. It's OK to walk around, as long as you do it quietly and without bothering others. It's OK to lie down as long as you don't fall asleep. And it is OK to be lying down and decide that you need to stand up as long as you can do it without disrupting everything.

But I could tell that the teachers were struggling with part of this. So I said, "I understand, you are teachers, you've been taught to alert on movement, because movement suggests disruption. But what if you learned to alert on discomfort instead? On the child squirming, for example?"

You can't have Universal Design without understanding Instructional Tolerance. You can't. It isn't possible.

So what is Instructional Tolerance and what does it look like?

Since the 19th Century, Montessori has modeled a different concept of attention,
one not based on the Reformation-style "gaze"
At the start, Instructional Tolerance is the opposite of "classroom management" as taught in education schools and the Teach for America "You-Can-Be-A-Teacher-in-25-Days" program ("For the first hour, most corps members work directly with four to five students to build skills in math and literacy, to gain experience in facilitating group work. For the second hour, corps members lead a full class lesson, which builds skills in delivering lessons and managing a classroom."). With Universal Design and Instructional Tolerance you will neither "deliver" nor "manage," but rather engage, adapt, problem-solve and sometimes, "re-direct."

You will not assume - and falsely assume in every case I have ever seen - that you actually know what every student is doing, or thinking, or learning, but rather, you will lead an environment in which students are truly "doing, thinking, and learning," but are doing that in ways which work for each of them.

Some kids may be reading, others writing. Some on the floor, some on chairs, some sitting on or under tables, some walking around. Some may be using books or drawing on paper. Others might be using computers or drawing on the floor. Kids might be on 10 different web sites, or six different text-to-speech systems, or many different kinds of computers, tablets, handhelds.

Attention need not be group attention
Some might be working on math, others on science stuff, or literature, or combinations of those. They might be working alone, or in ones, twos, threes, fives, whatever. And students might change what they are doing according to their schedule, not yours.
"Both the popular press and Montessori’s own writings identify human perception as the target of these pedagogic interventions. These texts problematize perception as being simultaneously voluntary and involuntary. A calculus of compulsion and free will is central to Montessori’s pedagogy (this is not unique to Montessori, of course). An example of this dual movement is captured in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 1915 claim that ‘‘the secret of the Montessori theory is to bring out the individuality of the child and force it to exercise its own initiative.’’ ...

"To be sure, there is much evidence that students paying attention in school is a long-standing, persistent concern of educators. For several centuries now, references to the attention of the child have appeared in educational literature. An eighteenth-century American manual for tutors and governesses, for example, spoke of the need to keep order among children, noting that ‘‘feuds and contentions are continually arising among them, which always take off their attention from learning.’’ In this instance the child’s attention is understood as an aid to instruction and as subservient to it. By the late nineteenth century attention had become a central concern across a range of domains. In educational theory, for instance, attention was no longer considered merely an add-on to instruction; instead, there was an increasing sense that attention could be the crux of schooling, the solution to the entire problem of education, as it was for Montessori."
But attention has different definitions.

"To come to terms with the uses of attention in schooling, we need more elaborate and specific studies of how power circulates in different locales (a Foucauldian project, in fact). Montessori’s 1915 demonstration classroom is an ideal site for exploring the making of subjects of attention. In the interests of a specific study, we now turn to the attention Montessori sought and why this was so attractive," Noah Sobe (p. 287) says. What Montessori saw, in Sobe's work, was absorption. Students absorbed in a work to which they were deeply connected. They were not absorbed in what the teacher was doing. And because they were absorbed in something they were individually connected to, they could not be distracted from their work even in a glass classroom surrounded by bleachers filled with spectators in the middle of a World's Fair in San Francisco.

"He pays more attention when he's interested."

Absorption and Instructional Tolerance are the answer to that "duh" statement above which I hear far too often in IEP meetings. "He pays more attention when he's interested." Of course. Everyone does. And, perhaps short of spending between $15 million and $500 million on 60 or 120 minutes of entertainment, you're not going to hold the interest of any diverse group with a single presentation. People have been trying it for years. People fall asleep in theatres with the best actors and musicians on stage... your audience may gaze at you - even SLANT you KIPP-style - but they will rarely be absorbed.

So despite the shortcomings of some of Montessori's theories and the antiquated conceptions in which some are based, the concept that attention is the result of connecting a student to an object of interest remains a powerful idea.

In this realm attention is not gaze at a performance - in which case any more interesting performance - say the child next to you scratching or the university student next to you drinking coffee - will pull your attention away. It is instead the attention built of interest, powerful, connected interest.

And powerful connected interest requires different things for different students. Different subject entry points. Different presentation forms. Different technologies. Different places to sit or not sit.

Which requires Universal Design in spaces, schedules, and technologies, and which requires Instructional Tolerance.

The tolerant learning space looks different and is different. Large group instruction is minimal or non-existent. Behavioural controls are few, though real. Disturbing other students directly isn't acceptable, but walking out of the door is. Talking is OK, but so are headphones. Movement is fine, but so is stillness. This is a "real world" environment - not a simulation of a sermon in a church on Sunday.

This "tolerance" for learning without your explicit knowledge or direction isn't easy. Is that student really doing anything? Are those boys looking at porn? Will they be able to get themselves ready for the test? You will - surely at first - ask yourself a thousand of these questions a day. But day-by-day you and your students will learn how to learn together as a community, and you will all learn how to better create your individual learning environments, and you may find yourself walking around less, supervising less, and having much more time for mentoring, for supporting, and for helping students find their way.

And if we do it well from the start, Instructional Tolerance will build the kind of self-directed, self-confident, internally motivated learners we need, eventually allowing you to echo Philadelphia's great 1970 school principal... "I asked [the head teacher] if he would identify the kinds of things that were going on about us. His response - quick and unqualified - was to the effect that he had no idea what the activities consisted of, that it was furthermore not his business to know, and that the participants had defined the content, value, and details of their pursuits and were probably doing whatever it was they felt it important to do." - Greenberg and Roush. Philadelphia

- Ira Socol


Pam said...

Just spoke with a very experienced librarian who spent time with you in "library seminar" and has "changed" up her library space as a result. She's opened space by removing tables to create floor space- pulled books off shelves to create themed book tubs on tables for kids to "rifle" through which they love- added a creation center- unplugged the laptop stations so kids can use anywhere- and says she is working on alerting to "discomfort" by changing expectations that kids sit the way she wants. She says her expectations give the illusion of attention, but perhaps allowing comfort will result in real attention.

Some say that "changing" spaces does nothing to change teaching.My observations? Changing spaces offers an entry point into changing teaching, learning work, tech apps, and interest levels of teacher and learners. It's one entry point of many- but w/o changing spaces, it's hard for other shifts to emerge.

Em said...

This is a great article, Ira! I'm reading the Montessori source material, or at least the 2004 article from Education Theory, right now. :-)

Anonymous said...

Any ideas on how to find schools that are stepping outside the industrial model?

Anonymous said...

hello - just came by your very interesting posts. I am a Montessori preschool - k teacher/owner. I can tell you from first hand experience that Montessori works as well today as it did 100 years ago. Children still thrive in these environments that foster independence, socialization and a love of learning. Dr. Montessori figured all of this out so long ago. I am thankful that some of our public schools today offer Montessori classrooms.
I feel the biggest obstacles in education are not just the (traditional) classrooms but rather the (unhealthy) home environments that some children must endure

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be tolerated. That's an insult. How about instructional acceptance instead? or permissiveness?

the power or capacity of an organism to tolerate unfavorable environmental conditions.
permissiveness: a disposition to allow freedom of choice and behavior.