Saturday, December 8, 2012

Constructivism and special needs students: implications from social studies

Given how enlightened and accepting our society claims to have become vis a vis people with disabilities, it's remarkable how consistently and disproportionately today's K12 Constructivist teaching methods impede kids with autism and other special needs. Here at Out in Left Field I've discussed this phenomenon mostly in connection with math. Two distinguishing requirements of today's Reform Math are that children explain their answers in words and that they spend much of class time working in groups--requirements that severely disrupt the education of those with language delays and social difficulties.

Inclusiveness claims and teaching trends also clash, for mostly different reasons, in social studies class. Today's middle school and high school history teachers tend to minimize their use of textbooks, and when they do use them, often skip around rather than going through them chapter by chapter. The bulk of the readings are primary sources, web searches, photocopied handouts, and "multi-media," which typically means videos.

The problem for special needs students stems in part from the resulting deterioration in communication between home and school. Children on the spectrum are less likely than others to organize their backpacks, keep track of assignments and due dates, and complete their homework on their own (or even tell their parents about what they're supposed to do). Children with attention deficits are similar. If we want our special needs kids to succeed in school, we parents need to get more involved in homework than other parents do, helping our kids through often difficult reading assignments (reading comprehension being one of the greatest weaknesses in autism--and also in ADHD), and ensuring that assignments are properly completed. But we're actually less able to do that than other parents are. And when our child hasn't written down the reading assignment, it would be a lot easier to guess what it is if the teacher weren't skipping around the textbook and including lots of easily misplaced handouts and url lists.

Primary sources pose a particular problem for autistic, language-impaired, and/or attention-impaired students. Compared with grade-level textbooks, primary sources are often more challenging to read, both in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, and in terms of assumed background knowledge. And the organizational difficulties that afflict many of these students make it difficult for them to integrate materials from multiple sources into coherent mental schemata.

For a particular subset of special needs children--autistic spectrum students with impairments in hearing or auditory processing--movies and other videos can be especially challenging. Their dialogues and social relationships can baffle, and the child may need to review the video at home in order to complete the given assignment. Even if the school shows it with captions, the parents may not have enough time to acquire such a version for home viewing.

During the unit on Eastern religions unit in J's world history class, students had to answer a series of questions on the movie Little Buddha. They watched it during school, and J watched it again at home a few days later. Here are the questions, followed by the responses given by my deaf, autistic son:
1. What did you learn from the movie?
I learned the old way to make the pottery. People had to use the hand to spin the wheel.

2. What was the theme of the movie?
It was about picking the person to be Buddha. The little boy did not want to be Buddha.

3. What were some of the messages in the movie? Did you agree with them?
1 message in the movie is that you can use the wheel to make a pottery. I agree with it.

4. What were the names of the key characters in the movie?
I didn’t understand people’s names very much. There were no captions so I don’t know how to spell it correctly.

5. What did you like best about the movie?
I liked the part with a ceiling fan in a cabin. I just like to see ceiling fans.

6. What did you like least about the movie?
What I liked the least is when someone doesn’t want to be Buddha. I thought everyone wanted to be a leader.

7. What was your favorite character? Why?
My favorite character is the little blonde boy. I liked him the best because he was chosen to be Buddha.

8. What was your least favorite character? Why?
My least favorite character is the snake. It can bite people.

9. Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, I would recommend it to my friend. It helps people learn about the history.

10. Which character would you like to ask a question of? What question would you ask?
Someone who owns the cabin with a ceiling fan. I’d ask how old it is and where he bought it.

Shortly thereafter, his social studies teacher granted him the option to do an alternative assignment. I'm not sure what it will be, but I'd love it if it were based on the textbook.


Paul Bruno said...

As a MS science teacher, I'd offer at least a partial defense of not leaning harder on the textbook:

1. The textbook often aligns only imperfectly with the state standards I am required to teach. Publishers make some adjustments to editions for different states, but they are often inadequate. This means I typically feel I can offer a more concise explanation of a topic over the course of a lecture. The textbook will often leave out relevant information or include distracting extraneous information.

2. My students are significantly more likely to complete a printed handout for homework than they are to complete a textbook assignment. I'm not totally sure why this is, but it's consistent in my experience with two very different MS science textbook series.

FedUpMom said...

Well, I have two neurotypical children, and they yield to no-one when it comes to messy backpacks, lost assignments, and forgotten due dates. This is a problem that affects everyone. I think schools are just demanding too much of kids, and putting too much emphasis on what happens outside of school. School has become just a clearinghouse for homework. Schoolwork should be done at school, during the school day, supervised by teachers, IMHO. Give all of us our family lives back!

FedUpMom said...

Those boilerplate "comprehension" questions are especially inappropriate for "Little Buddha." "Little Buddha" is really two films, intercut; one, a life of the Buddha; and, two, a story about a modern family whose son might or might not be a reincarnation. What was the theme? There were two themes.

One thing I liked about the movie, as an artist, was that the Life of the Buddha was orange, and modern Western life was blue.

I never remember character's names. It doesn't mean I didn't get something out of the movie (or book, or whatever.)

"Comprehension", oy vey.

Auntie Ann said...

Our experience is that teachers work to keep kids engaged by making the classroom "fun!" What this means in practice is that the drudgery of homework and practicing a skill repeatedly isn't fun enough for teachers to take the time with, and they shunt those tasks off as homework (or worse, don't assign them at all.) Those boring tasks, however, seem to be where kids learn the most--especially with detailed feedback and a re-do loop. It is left to parents to get their kids through the real school work at home.

We've reached the point where fun is for school, work is for home.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Auntie Ann-- That's because school's primary function is state-supported childcare. Hence all the pushes to extend the day, get younger and younger children into full-day school, and have more activities be school, rather than community based.

To be fair, we really ought to have staggered school days, so parents (often lower income) who work swing shifts, at restaurants, and as night janitors can receive the same 'free childcare' regime that wealthier families do.

This would also let those parents be home 'after school' to supervise homework/ meals/ sleep schedule.

Why should the needs of the white collar workforce determine the school schedule?

Anonymous said...

J rocks! Eight of the ten questions were opinion questions with no single correct answer. Given J's history with ceiling fans, I'd say that his answers are "correct" for him and he should get an A.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Auntie Ann. I teach Middle School English, and I feel tremendous pressure to make all my classes entertaining and fun, often at the expense of real learning. No one teaches grammar anymore, mostly because it might actually involve a worksheet (god forbid) or something that kids today find boring. One of the problems, however, is that this generation of kids expects teachers to be entertaining. If classes are not full of fun and games, kids complain. As far as I can tell, the goal of school has changed significantly. Kids come for the fun, and if it's not fun, the teacher is in trouble.

FedUpMom said...

No one teaches grammar anymore because they don't know it themselves.

Katharine Beals said...

And they don't know it themselves because they weren't taught it. Sounds like a chicken and egg question, doesn't it? But in this case it's perhaps a bit more obvious which comes first.