Neurodiversity – Have we been here before?

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The growing emergence of the value of neurodiversity (differences in how we learn) in our schools appears to mirror society’s changing perceptions of cultural diversity in the 1960’s – at least in the Australian political landscape. If this is true, do we really need to follow the same 50 year learning path? As we are dealing with the concept of diversity, albeit in a different form, would reflection on those lessons not save us a few decades?

It has always been a case of dominant and peripheral groups, identified through a lens of culture. Moving from assimilation up to and through the 1960s – absorbing the peripheral groups into the unbending dominant group as the deficit-based objective of the times. The 1970’s saw a shift to pluralism, where peripheral groups were hoped to exist alongside the dominant group, often described as a salad bowl – existing together, enhancing each other while maintaining identity as the equity-based objective. The 1980’s and beyond saw a growing recognition of the resilient nature of cultural identity and the benefits of reciprocal impact. Economic rationalism took over from here – diversity would give a nation a competitive edge. We shouldn’t just celebrate diversity; we should foster it.

If the perspective is ‘neurological’ instead of ‘cultural’, dealing with this diversity in the classroom by moving straight to the celebration and fostering stage seems to make sense. Let’s not take decades to realize the value that neurodiversity adds to the classroom. As Armstrong states in Neurodiversity in the Classroom (2012, ASCD), a starting point should be an ‘inventory of strengths, interests and capabilities’ (p.9) of every student, rather than ‘a focus on deficit, disorder and dysfunction’ (p.9) in a few on the periphery – a necessary paradigm shift. I just hope it doesn’t take us decades.

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Teaching – the most haunted profession of all.

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This photo really has nothing to do with haunting, but it was the scariest image I had. (Image: © Elena Moiseeva | Dreamstime.com)

One of the great mysteries of the teaching profession is that we are the one most closely linked to learning, yet we are the most resistant to change, the greatest inertia bearers of any profession. (Even if you disagree, it is safe to continue as I will argue with myself in the next couple of sentences.) This makes no sense, until we realize that my first assumption has a fatal flaw, in that it is based on a common misconception. Teaching has not always been about learning. It has mostly been about teaching.

This is the fundamental piece of the school-puzzle that has changed rapidly in educational thought, but not in educational practice. We think differently in our heads, but sometimes not in our insecure hearts, because we are haunted by those persistent ghosts of the past. Our teachers were probably about teaching, not learning. It is hard to throw the ghosts of our own hard earned school experiences off our backs, those ingrained assumptions about the way classrooms run. Tenacious little assumptions they are, formed during our own school days.

The closed-classroom is the embodiment of the ‘teaching is about teaching’ world view. Conversely, the ‘teaching is about learning’ world view is embodied by an open-classroom. It seems that levels of preparedness to share would be a perfect measure of classroom openness. For a quick self assessment of how badly you are being haunted by those ghosts of the past, I have three questions – a yes/no is required.

  1. I am nervous about sharing my lesson/unit plans with colleagues because they may not be good enough. (The plans, not the colleagues!)
  2. I become nervous when another adult enters my class.
  3. I make sure my door is (literally) closed when I am teaching.

If you answered yes to all three, you are clearly being haunted by ghosts of school past. Fortunately, there is a simple remedy. Do what we ask our students to do on a daily basis. Create, share, publish, create, share, publish, create, share, publish ad infinitum. A sure cure to get those ghosts (closed-classroom insecurities) off our backs and move our great professional along, so that our collective thinking will more closely align with our collective practice.

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Is the learning of reading a magical thing?

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A Contemplative Baboon moment, ‘I learnt to read better during secondary school. However, I wonder if I would have been a better reader, if someone had actually taught me?’

Is the learning of reading a magical thing in secondary school? Does it happen when we are not looking? I recently did a study (http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:305782 – abstract available here) – a discourse analysis of 100 lessons – 5000 minutes of the lives of some students. Modes of discourse (reading, writing, speaking, listening & acting) were identified. I would like to make you guess what percentage of all of that classroom discourse was reading based.

…waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting,waiting, waiting…

OK, that’s enough time. It was just 4% of all discourse – at least in my sample.  There were many things in the results that didn’t surprise me, but this did. To make matters more distressing, a high percentage of this discourse was teacher-centered. I don’t even want to add another thorn, yet I must. No explicit teaching of reading was identified. This is 100 50-minute classes. That is quite a lot. At least I thought so when I had to analyze it.

This brings me back to my question – is the learning of reading a magical thing? Students get better at reading, yet we don’t explicitly teach it.  I have kept my eyes open for the elusive explicit-teaching of reading in the secondary, but it continues to confound me. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that students learning to read better is miraculous. Perhaps it is just some type of inexplicable magic. It just doesn’t seem to happen when we are looking.

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Pasta & Portfolios: Assign tasks, not tools

The purpose of making pasta.

The purpose of making pasta. Photo by @amyburvall

A recent sojourn into the wonderful world of portfolio process design has convinced me that we need to increasingly, in our schools, assign tasks – not tools. Underneath the structures of portfolios (the ‘document’) and student led conferences (the ‘conversation’), we want deep reflection on both learning and self-as-learner, the real purpose.

Any extraneous restriction/imposition, not serving the purpose that supports that reflection forms a superfluous distraction, generating an artificial focus, potentially (but not necessarily) diminishing focus on what really matters the most.

When I make pasta for friends or family, the purpose is to create  an experience – not a dinner set or a specifically shaped piece of flour & egg. If I spent too much time worrying about what bowls someone told me to use or how thick someone told me to make each strand, it could potentially (but not necessarily) detract from the ‘dining experience’ – the real purpose.

It seems that when students are creating that ‘reflective experience’, allowing them to choose their own paths, as much as possible, would allow them to retain a focus on this real purpose.  Choose the bowl yourself – one that suits your purpose. There are lots of bowls out there.

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Life is too short, to not take the stage.

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I attended a middle school poetry slam a couple of weeks ago. A large percentage of the MS students participated, which is miraculous, in and of itself, writing their own poems and standing on a stage to recite, deliver, perform, amaze.  I’m an English teacher, so I like to think that I know my way around a poem, but while sitting in the audience, I tried to calculate how long it had been since I had actually written and recited one. 30 years, in fact – when I was forced to do this at school. This event was a completely different world to the one in which we all stood up, in turn, and read our words to a disinterested class all those years ago.

This poetry slam was so much fun and so much courage was found by so many students, you could not help being moved. The photo above was taken while I was riding to school one day across Kawainui Marsh and it seems to capture how it felt, sitting listening to the MS students recite their poetry. There is a specific beauty within that type of courage. Their inspiration allows me to now say, ‘My name is Damian Rentoule and it has been two weeks since I wrote & recited a poem’.  Here it is, with references to the poems of the night – The ‘Wang’ is the name of the auditorium,  the ‘brick wall’ is a paper backdrop which fell during the performances etc. You can just try to guess the rest. Hope you enjoy it.


Dragons & Bottles: The Eggcellent JLA Poets

Enter the Wang,

but beware the brick wall.

Looming behind me,

tempting to fall.

Listeners cheered,

poets all spoke.

Words from the heart,

and of course, the odd joke.

To hear my friends shouting,

as my name is read.

There’s nothing quite like it,

these words in my head.

Beautiful brownies,

all stuck on the floor.

Don’t worry about it,

just go back for more.

Alone on the stage,

yet not really just one.

My friends are all cheering,

they’re making this fun.

Some words are bright,

others just bold.

Desperate or angry,

all truth is told.

These thoughts are so private,

too private to share.

But here on the stage,

my soul is laid bare.

Yet, not nearly as scary,

as I thought it would be.

For this feeling is special,

all eyes are on me.

Their waiting to hear,

the meaning I’ve spun.

Ms Huber, Ms Baxter,

I feel like I’ve won.

Life is too short,

to not take the stage.

To wear a black beret,

recite from my page.

Parents are proud,

you are growing so fast.

We love you dear child,

From now, to the last.

Dragons and Bottles,

That’s who I am.

Bullies and Eggs,

The Poetry Slam.

By Damian Rentoule – an impressed audience member.


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Success – The end point or the next step?

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Image: © Jan Csernoch | Dreamstime.com                                                                                                           What’s on the other side? Literally, only one way to find out.

 

A tweet crossed my path today, as they are want to do, with a phrase ‘culture of failure’ and this started me thinking about our perceptions of success and failure. There has been a lot said regarding the importance of failure for learning, however the waters are muddied somewhat as we carry around different ideas of what these concepts represent. I don’t feel that the current ideas of embracing failure, for the sake of learning and creativity in general, are aimed at the end of the journey. It seems that the current discourse on the subject of failure has pulled failure back from the distant end of the journey, to the immediate next step of the journey. In this sense, failure is not what it used to be. It has become part of the process instead of the outcome. This is powerful, and if this is what is deemed a ‘culture of failure’ I welcome our new definition. I am not sure that I am too keen on a world where success is a rainbow, vanishing as we approach. I like the immediate. We can do something about that. There may be no ‘there’. Only a ‘here’, and this is where success and failure belong in the learning process.

Learning is a house with many doors. Success depends on opening, or building, the right ones along the way. Sometimes we have an idea of where we are going. Sometimes we do not. We never really know what is going to be on the other side of any of them. Success and failure are just the unique combination of the doors we move through.

Tweets (May 10, 2014)

  A carefully co-constructed-with-the-learner rubric makes it easier for the learner to see what direction success is.

  I’m not sure we always want success. How does that line up with culture of failure in vogue now?

  Depending on whether success is defined as the end point or the next step. If success is a rainbow? 

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Portfolios – A very tricky, simple idea.

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It seems that organizing a process in schools where students gather evidence of their learning and compile a #portfolio is very simple. That is, it would be very simple if you didn’t need to bother about it being a meaningful process. This is where the difficulty lies. I have experimented with different types of portfolios, both student and teacher, for a number of years and have always found that they tend to get done, yet the purpose of the portfolio is more than getting it done. Looking back, one thing I would change if I was to go through this process again is to better define their purpose, and ensure a higher degree of choice offered throughout the process, choices based on this flexible purpose. It just so happens that I am in the middle of this process and will share my thoughts along the way. 

 

 

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