Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cutting curbs for Aspies--and for students in general

Finally an Edweek Commentary I can relate to. In her piece on the challenges her Asperger's son faces at school, Anita Charles, the director of teacher education at Bates College, writes:

I have seen him get perfect answers in math, only to lose many points for not "showing" the work adequately. (In elementary school, the start of the math troubles, he was sent back from the math enrichment classroom because he kept showing up without a pencil.) I have seen him freak out over tests based exclusively on corrected homework—that somehow didn't manage to stay with his notebook, thereby earning him that toxic zero. Never mind the points lost for the disastrous notebook itself. (And this for a kid who was solving square roots in his head at the age of 5. Nowadays? "I can't do math," he tells me. What I tell him is that he's perfectly capable of doing "math"—he just doesn't "do school" as well.)
I have watched my son get a D on a science lab because he couldn't express enough details, had too many crossed-out errors in his lab report, and didn't list the full names of his lab partners.
He can only take yet another low mark for "group participation," "eye contact," "presentation," "neatness," "organization," and try not to fall apart at the seams.
We have asked our "Aspies" to try to "figure out" the way school functions for too long. What would it take for the rest of us to try to "figure out" the way kids with Asperger's function? What would it take to put a few ramps and railings in place, to find alternative assessments, to speak gently to these gentle souls and ask them what the world feels like to them? It's not that difficult, honestly. And the gifts we uncover might astound us.

As director of teacher education at Bates College, Charles is well-positioned to make a difference. I'm hoping that she's encouraging Bates' teachers of future teachers to question whether group participation and eye contact should figure in anyone's grades; whether it's fair to impose heavy organizational demands on anyone (not just the Aspies) who happens to be at the lower end of normal in their Executive Function development; whether neatness should ever be a requirement when students no longer learn penmanship; whether trivial nitpicks should ever add up to a D; and whether students should ever get points off for not showing their work when their answers are consistently correct.

Much as I sympathize with autism families in particular, these requirements aren't just frustrating the Aspies. Indeed, just as many have benefited from other accommodations intended originally for the disabled (everything from curb cuts to speech recognition software), many might benefit, in particular, from classroom accommodations for Aspies.


Anonymous said...

There are also Aspies who are hyper-organized, and who will be late to that math enrichment class because, having mislaid the pencil, they will spend 10 minutes trying to find it. Who will be happy to "show the work" for math problems to the point where they erase and erase and erase until the whole paper is a mass of gray. Whose Executive Function is both too limited (finding it difficult to move off of tasks that others think are trivial) and too strong (wanting more clarity and precision than you are ever likely to find in a school setting). All by way of saying that Aspies can have a good big dose of (what looks like) ADD, or a big dose of what looks like OCD. And sometimes, both!

Paul Bruno said...

I agree with virtually all of that but I'm curious about showing work, which I typically take off a small amount of credit for because I believe (maybe incorrectly) that even a student who "consistently" gets the correct answer is likely to get the correct answer more consistently if she gets in the habit of showing her work. Is there much evidence on that topic?

Catherine Johnson said...

Katharine - I see you've mentioned speech recognition software - do you know anything about whether it can help a dyxlexic student write?

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous, good point about the overlap with ADD and OCD symptoms. I wonder if a single person can exhibit both.

Katharine Beals said...

Paul, I don't know what the evidence shows. But by "consistently" I mean all of the time, or nearly all the time. Thus there would be at most a marginal payoff in what you propose, and perhaps not worth the grief caused to students. I'm all for showing work when there's work to show, but for those who do stuff in their heads, there often isn't any.

Today's post is on a related topic: explaining answers vs. showing work.

Catherine, so far the main effect on dyslexia on writing that I've encountered is on spelling (particularly words with *regular* spelling..

Anonymous said...

Katherine, I do think that ADD and OCD-type behaviors can occur in the same person (including the same Asperger's person). the OCD behaviors occur in people in their realm of hyper-interest, or in areas where they feel they have mastered the routines; the ADD behaviors occur in the areas where they don't have strong interests, and especially in the areas of life where they feel defeated or at sea.

And on the topic of showing your work (NOT "explaining" your work in math, except very rarely): there is a reason to try to have students who get the right answer all the time learn to show their work at least periodically (i.e. on request). And that is that such students are at risk for hitting the wall as they progress through the curriculum, and arriving at topics or processes where they cannot do it all in their heads, and at that point they need to be habituated to showing steps so that the teacher can identify what the blockage is and help them progress.

ChemProf said...

In teaching college students, I tell my folks that a wrong answer without work is worth no credit. So while I don't exactly require them to show their work, I do encourage it. I wonder if that approach might make more sense to an AS person, as they'd only have to get a zero once to get the point.

Of course, I recognize things may be different with younger students.

AmyP said...

"And that is that such students are at risk for hitting the wall as they progress through the curriculum, and arriving at topics or processes where they cannot do it all in their heads, and at that point they need to be habituated to showing steps so that the teacher can identify what the blockage is and help them progress."