Friday, April 13, 2012

Informed Practice Makes Perfect...

flickr image via matthewpiatt

Well, maybe not perfect, but a whole lot better.

I was involved in a conversation about learning disorders recently, (I actually prefer to call them learning challenges.) I myself am a challenged learner... learning disabled in the traditional sense. I am dyslexic. The problem is I didn't know I was dyslexic until I was in my second year of university. I was taking an educational psychology course and we were talking about learning disabilities. As the professor described dyslexia, I began to remember the sorts of problems I had in school, and then I began to wonder if perhaps I was dyslexic. I spoke to him after class, and we decided to assess my problem. Sure enough; I was dyslexic. So how come it took until I was 21 years old to figure that out?

There isn't a teacher in the universe that would deny learning disorders can be terribly detrimental to a child's learning progress. I am certain that I have dealt with dozens of learning disabled kids during my teaching career. I am also certain that the vast majority of these kids are surviving in school, as I did, undiagnosed, or perhaps misdiagnosed... an equally or perhaps even more serious concern for teachers trying to do the right thing for all students.

Here's the problem... teachers aren't qualified to diagnose learning disorders, (unless of course they are also trained psychologists,) however, they are expected to effectively support kids who suffer from one or more of them even if they don't know exactly what the potential disabilities are. Teachers are confronted with the reality that they must teach kids who may very well present with a legitimate learning disorder, but also that they will seldom be working with really good data to support the effective mitigation of the problem. We are not practicing in an informed way when it comes to learning disorders. We need to know what a child is challenged by, and we need to know that early enough in the game to curb any added anxiety and stress a child will inevitably feel when he knows he is struggling.

I submit that we need to invest in a process that assesses every child early enough in primary school to know what learning path we should be travelling. We need to ask every child what works best for them, and investigate ways to make that a reality. We can't continue playing guessing games long after a child is deemed to be struggling... we shouldn't let them get to the point of struggle. We should be responsibly assessing them at the beginning of their learning story in order to support them all the way through their kindergarten to grade twelve journey. A cognitive test for every child early enough in the school experience would eliminate the ineffective trial and error game we play later on when we notice a child isn't "getting it."

Assessment costs money... of course it does. Pay now, or pay later? How many teacher, counselor, learning assistant and educational consultant hours are spent guessing and checking what challenges may be present for kids? I will guess when compared to the cost of early and comprehensive assessment for all kids so we can fly with instruments right from the start, that the total cost in person hours trying to deal with the problem is very high, and may end up being more expensive than just doing the assessment in the beginning.

I recently viewed this TED talk by Dr. Aditi Shankardass... A second opinion on learning disorders:



I can't imagine there would be more compelling evidence supporting the effort we should be making to be informed about every learner before they begin to experience stress and anxiety as a result of potential learning disorders. It appears Dr. Shankardass has proven that these "disorders" need not be terribly detrimental if we can become aware of them early enough to establish good action plans mitigating the challenge and maximizing learning opportunities for kids. Knowledge is power. We need to empower kids by helping them understand themselves within their own learning contexts.

I sure would have liked to know about my dyslexia when I was a kid.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Learning from place...


flickr image via ws_canada

I read an insightful blog from David Timony (@DrTimony) recently. In his post he alludes to what for many becomes a boundary; the boundary of our own experiences, and our perspectives toward them. In our  noble, but misdirected effort to create interesting and engaging learning environments we often default to the orientation we know best; our own. Perhaps there is a better, albeit more unsettling and less controlled orientation to take.

I have come to understand the value of "learning from place." Taken literally it actually is learning while at, or immersed in a place.  In a more representative context learning from place  is a mindful, almost spiritual experience. Thinking deeply about what a place has represented to others gives us a glimpse into their experience and what their life may involved there; what they saw, felt and thought... it's a powerful experience beyond measure.

David Timony says that,
It is important that we acknowledge who we are and what we bring to the situation so we may set it aside and teach from a more neutral space. Not everything that we teach requires connection to our own lives. It does not need to be shown through our lens nor does it require a frame in order for appreciation to occur. Surely, our desire to explain and expound–to mediate through language–often reduces experiences.
I have had a feeling of awe in a few places in the world, mostly close to home... places many take for granted because they are close to home. One of those places is Dry Island Buffalo Jump. Thousands of years of history have occurred at this sacred place. Aboriginal people have been going there for that long to hunt, gather and live together. I feel them when I've been there. I didn't have to explore every square inch to absorb the magnitude of the place... I just sat at the top of the jump and thought deeply about how many others had done the same thing, and what they may have thought in their place.

Learning from place. We all have our place and we can get closer to the places of others if we slow down, let go of our need to be in control and simply listen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Take class(room) action...

flickr image via jbj

I believe in the power of action research. Initiatives often start in one direction, but end up going in a completely different direction and we sometimes view this as failure, but within the context of action research, this shift in focus is often a good indicator of progress. Some are uncomfortable with the intangibility of this, but I like it. I like to think of the action research process as a cyclical path that puts to use the other four R's: reflect, retool, reframe and reclaim. These elements are key to keeping a project dynamic and malleable, but at the same time focused and purposeful in the effort to support quality education. 

My Alberta teaching colleague, Greg Miller (@millerg6) recently shared this video

The author in the video is Dylan Williams. He writes about assessment in schools; the virtues of formative assessment in particular. I agree with his message that the power of reform in schools lies mainly in teachers. There are many camps within education reform, but without getting into the debate about which one is most correct, I just want to draw attention to the fact that the single common denominator in any teaching reform effort is teachers. As individuals, and even more powerfully and effectively in collaborative groups, teachers have a distinct and brilliant education reform platform to work from because together, they are immersed daily within classrooms and schools. 

Useful feedback loops don't occur in isolation. The collective intelligence of a group will always provide a depth of feedback from different perspectives and bases of knowledge that help steer the research ship purposefully from informed and diverse perspectives. Action research is an exciting process with the power to inform, but also an under-utilized tool when teachers don't talk to each other. To leverage the power to do things better, teachers should embrace the action research process and initiate their own local, classroom-based projects designed to improve what they do. Sharing the results of this research with other teachers allows them to learn from our experiences also which essentially streamlines their reflective process in the event they choose to conduct similar research; it's the edu-conomy of scale in action.

Collaborative education reform is powerful. Action research is a collaborative process. Much can be accomplished in better, faster and cheaper ways when we put our heads together in education. Teachers have skills, knowledge and experience, but don't utilize them often enough to challenge each other; to step outside the box and do things differently in search of doing things better. Why should they? Because taking a different perspective or direction typically leads to greater insight, learning from mistakes and improved practice if we keep an open mind. Action research provides a conduit for stepping outside the box; making ourselves vulnerable together in the name of learning how to teach better and support kids better. 

When we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Of course this is true for research as it is for anything, however, I would also say that when we fail to adjust a plan, the plan is doomed to fail. The nature of action research is to adjust. The action in action research includes adjusting plans according to real time data and feedback that the research is providing. It's a participatory and collaborative process that works well when those involved understand the value the four R's of good action research. 

Reflection is looking back to empower learning forward. In research, its learning from mistakes by being honest about our process and willing to take a critical perspective. Re-tooling is the natural selection process in research; the ability after reflection to recognize that something isn't working, and then make re-calibrating changes to the research design or process. Re-framing is the process of creating an adjusted context for the research that reflects the new responsive process that reflecting and re-tooling has resulted in. Re-focusing is the product of distributed leadership within the group; a willingness from all sides to embrace and value the new or adjusted research direction. The four R's of action research are responsive strategies that allow us to function as classroom-based researchers understanding that all is not lost if the organic nature of teaching and learning causes (as it nearly always does) a deviation from the original classroom-based research plan.

Of course it's very important for teachers to stay abreast of current pure research, but in reality, teachers in the classroom are often distanced somewhat from the basic research that occurs at universities to increase understanding of fundamental pedagogical principles. They are consumed with the application of these principles as presented through various forms of professional development as new ideas and ways of thinking about education come on line. Perhaps participating in collaborative action (applied) research projects while doing the great work teachers do in the classroom everyday is a way to bridge ideas, theories and principles with real-time action to test their validity. Participatory action research is how this can be done, and it often, if not always can be done for little or no cost in dollars and cents, but it does require the will of people to get together and spend some human capital.

What will your next action research project entail?
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