Climbing With the Wrong Ladder

The term PREREQUISITE SKILLS”  is woven into almost every teaching curriculum. It states that before you attempt to teach D or E you have to make sure that the object of your educational efforts knows A and B, and has some familiarity with C.  From preschooler to college students the demand for prerequisite programs/courses is loud and clear.  It comes from strong convictions that learning is a linear process like climbing a ladder – you go up step by step.  Of course there is a room for some small exceptions.  If you see that a student has legs long enough to stretch them over two steps of the ladder you assume he can omit one of the prerequisites.   And of course you don’t always have to take A before B.  You can take one of the A’s variations, say A1 or A2 and from there switch to B.

I attended PCDI/NECA three day long workshop in December of 1995.  One of the methods presented there seemed appropriate for Robert.  Picture Activity Schedule.  Great and simple idea.  The child has a book with a few pictures representing a few activities.  After seeing a picture a child chooses an appropriate toy, plays with it, puts it away, and goes to the next picture.  If my son were presented with a book of 3 photographs, he would complete easily each activity just after a short training – maybe a few minutes long-  not necessarily in discrete trails format.

Unfortunately, his teachers developed a step by step program. Robert couldn’t go to the next step if he didn’t master the steps below it.   The first step required that Robert TOUCHES the picture in the book, reaches for the toy that was presented in the picture and was placed next to it, completes the activity, and  then proceeds to the next page.  The problem was that  Robert DIDN’T TOUCH the picture.  He just tried to reach for the toy (puzzle with 4 pieces) and complete that puzzle.  Of course he was not allowed to do that without first touching the photo.  Every time he tried to do so the teacher stopped him and moved his index finger to the photo.  Only then he could finish the activity.

Touching the picture seemed completely meaningless since the toy was just in front of Robert.  Even looking at the photo was meaningless since it was not related to any real choice.  Robert didn’t have to choose from two activities based on the photo. He had to complete just the one in front of him.

It is possible that the authors of the program wanted to also teach pointing.. Ability to direct one’s attention by pointing toward something is an important skill.  Children with autism had been found to suffer from deficits in shared (joint) attention.  However, this program taught Robert the opposite of what it intended.  It taught that there was  no reason for looking or pointing at the picture since the photograph didn’t provide any clue as what to do.  The clue was on the table all the time. Robert saw it even before he opened the picture book.  The required prerequisite for this program was not logically connected to its  goal.  Had Robert had two activities to choose from  then the picture would lead him to the proper choice. There would be a reason to look at the photo (although not necessarily to touch it).

I need to make a few comments:

1. Adding an unnecessary  step to a multistep process might not only prolong the time of learning but also derail the possibility of learning altogether.

2.The underlying cause of adding “empty” steps might be the patronizing belief that children with disabilities cannot use or do not need logic  in solving problems.

3. There are children for whom learning a sequence of teachers’ pleasing behaviors (and that includes touching a picture)  is not difficult.  The problem I described above doesn’t affect them.

4.How many times teachers rely on wrong, unrelated, and unnecessary prerequisites?  Does this problem is restricted to special education?

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1 Comment

  1. When I started writing this post, I wanted to write about different experience. That is why the title was “Climbing WITHOUT the ladder”. Somehow I left the main trail of thoughts and wrote about something else. It is still about “Ladder” of prerequisite skills, but designed in a way which obstructs climbing instead of helping. Maria


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