Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"I did it all by myself!"

Few phrases capture the joys of childhood better than this one.

...And one of the most troubling results of today’s trends in education is how little opportunity today’s kids get to experience this in school: the joy of mastering things on their own, and of demonstrating this mastery to others.

More and more, they work in groups and turn in group assignments. More and more, teachers de-emphasize closed book, calculator-free, in-class tests in favor of “formative” assessments of portfolios and projects that, even if they are mostly the work of individual students, may also involve unacknowledged help from parents.

Increasingly rarely are students asked to engage, on their own and on the spot, with challenging tasks that gauge true mastery. And, as I discovered in writing my recent Atlantic piece, it’s our special ed students who have it the worst.

The most recent culprit are the Common Core State Standards. By holding special needs students to the same, one-size-fits-all standards as everyone else, they deprive such students of assignments tailored to their current ability levels. For those students who are below grade level in a particular subject, this practice ends up restricting them to assignments that they can only “complete” with what’s called “scaffolding” or “supports” or “accommodations.”

Here, I’m talking not about accommodations that create or improve access—e.g., to sound (sign language interpreters, FM systems), or to written texts (enlarged text, text to speech apps)—or that bypass fine motor impairments (keyboards and touchscreens). Instead, I’m talking about “accommodations” like simplified texts or story boards or movies (for those with reading comprehension impairments), or speech-to-text apps or word-predication software (for those with impairments in productive language). And I’m talking about the many instances of “scaffolding” in which the teacher or aide ends up walking over to the struggling student and, consciously or not, guiding him or her to through the task—essentially giving away the answer and moving on to the next lesson or unit before the student ever shows independent mastery. These are the sorts of accommodations that interfere with learning—and that easily become excuses not to teach.

Even for many neurotypical kids, many of the Common Core goals, and the tests and assignments they inspire, are too far out of reach to allow independent mastery.

It should come as no surprise that students learn much faster when given assignments at their Zones of Proximal Development (if you're skeptical, read this paper). But beyond cognitive benefits, think of all those socio-emotional goals we purport to have for our students: we want to grow their confidence, self-esteem, and grit: we want them to feel good about themselves, about what they can do independently, all by themselves; we want them to see how hard work and perseverance are what get them there.

In the name of a lofty, feel-good curriculum, we deprive students of opportunities to achieve their own, personal lofty goals and feel good about themselves--to experience, time and again, the wonder of "I did it all by myself."


Full Spectrum Mama said...

You pinpoint several aspects of the current educational scene that i hadn't quite identified yet but were tickling the back of my mind and driving me nuts nonetheless.
For one thing, the trend toward group work is HIGHLY challenging to my son, who is on the autism spectrum. He has a very difficult time when students do not follow their assigned roles; but, more importantly, he gets "helped" by the other students because of slow processing and impaired motor skills, despite being academically gifted. It is basically impossible for him to shine in that context.
Second, this idea of scaffolding is one that has been a factor all along for my (again! academically gifted! but who cares - all kids should be met where they are and allowed to "do it"...)son. He used to come home with his school work essentially DONE by his helper -- who thought she was "helping" him.
Now that you have so brilliantly identified these issues, what are some solutions?! Thanks and love,

Katharine Beals said...

Full Spectrum Mama, easier said than done, one can try to use the leverage of the IEP and insist that one's child have opportunities to practice and demonstrate independent mastery, where independent mastery means no evidence of "help"!