Thinking Before Teaching

I wonder, how much teachers think about teaching.  I dare to ask such harsh question not to criticize others, but to analyze what I know about my own teaching experience in the context of its usefulness to the students.  With typical student, teachers usually follow given curriculum and apply teaching methods that are currently en vogue and/or pushed by their administrators, and often, politicians. In United States textbooks for children are accompanied by a presentation books for teachers.  That let the teachers to follow general instruction written by authors of the textbook and relieves them of the obligation to plan lessons themselves. How many of the teachers, even new teachers, prepare  themselves for lessons by writing lessons plans?  Do they analyze individual student’s errors? Are they aware of learning idiosyncrasies of particular students.?   Are they able to plan ahead  ? Do those plans take into account the differences among pupils that would require targeted instruction, and vocabulary? How many teachers rethink their approach AFTER the lesson?   Do they rethink and reshuffle their methods?

Of course when Robert was in ABA oriented Private School, the teachers and their clinical supervisors (you would call them BCBA today, but they were much more than that) analyzed data from discrete trails and based on the numbers they made decisions about next steps. However,the emphasis on strong reinforcers embodied in ABA might have diminished the trust that  teaching methods also do influence the quality and pace of learning.

My teaching depended on haphazardly searched textbooks and workbooks.  I made intuitive assumptions about how their pages could be applied in teaching Robert. After choosing worksheets, I tried to adjust Robert’s way of learning to them.

But even I felt that there still was a gap between Robert’s abilities, often limited by his way of processing information, and the demands of the tasks.  So on the backs of one-sided copies of the worksheets I kept  writing simple exercises that would bridge that gap.  Those handwritten pages, as I see it now,  were really the most suitable and useful educational materials for Robert.  I have been writing them having Robert in mind thus they addressed difficulties Robert had in retaining or understanding new information. Many of them I wrote as a sequence of easy exercises that step by step lead to more advanced skills.  I knew what was difficult for Robert and how to go around it.  As i look at those pages now, I realize that they allowed for the easiest and most pleasant teaching/learning. However, I did not treat those pages  seriously.  I treated them like supplements, the afterthoughts, not as the main venue for learning.

The general curricula were necessary to set the  direction/goals, and stay focused, but without those “supplements” Robert would not learn.

I have to add, that those were not  practice pages – the whole page of multiplication facts, or division facts etc. I did not bother making those, as the internet and many workbooks are full of those.  I concentrated on writing simple pages with just a few related problems.  For instance in a top  of the page there were a few problems to change mixed fraction into improper fraction. In the next line there were a few problems to multiply proper fractions (less than 1), and finally in the bottom half there were a few problems (but written in larger numbers) that required multiplication of mixed fractions.

For last three days Robert was learning to  tell time using different expressions. He has been making  progress because I spent a little time planning his learning, I used what I know about both Robert’s skills and his difficulties in appropriating new information to design a few simple worksheets that together with Judy Clock would become tools for learning.  I organized problems in such a way, that would lead Robert to discover patterns, which would later enable him to answer similar questions faster and almost mechanically.

I wrote:

3:55______________________________________________________________________________

7:55______________________________________________________________________________

2:55______________________________________________________________________________

2:05______________________________________________________________________________

I asked Robert to set the time on a Judy clock to 3:00 then move the minute hand to3:55. That would help Robert avoid an error of setting the time to 2:55.  After looking at the clock, Robert was ready to write the time in words, ” It is five minute before 4:00.) He proceeded  down the page, following mechanically (with some stumbles) the same routine, until he got to 2:05 and with my help wrote:” It is five minutes after2:00.” As he went down the page with more times written down, he discovered ( through rereading his answers) the pattern.  Whenever he was able to answer without the support of Judy Clock, I let him. if he hesitated or made an error, I passed him the  Judy clock with words, “Help yourself.”

Robert has progressed but he is not independent yet.  If he had a test today he would fail.  In Vygotsky’s terminology, Robert is on a higher assisted performance level. Using ABA jargon, one might say that Robert needs some level of prompting. Since however, the  support I am  providing to Robert is of a flexible and variable form,  Vygotsky’s language is more suitable.

At present, Robert can do one, two or three tasks independently, then he looses focus, and he is lost.  Sometimes, he applies pattern that he had discovered himself, sometimes he forgets that pattern.  But when I say,”Help yourself.”  and give him Judy Clock , he immediately sets the minute and hour hands in proper positions and finds the answer.

I don’t know why  I did not put more thoughts in Robert’s teaching.  I knew why his old ABA programs worked when they did and why they failed when they did not lead to progress. I was well equipped to design programs  much more suitable for Robert than any ready-made curriculum. Why didn’t I ?

At first, I did not trust myself. I thought that teaching a child with autism had to be very different than teaching children without developmental disabilities. Later, i discovered that similar rules could be and should be applied but with stricter analysis of results and thoughtful self corrections.   I was also constantly put down by… educators. They ignored my teaching, as if it did not bring any results, as if Robert was not learning.  When they reluctantly noticed that Robert knows things he had learned with me, they dismissed that knowledge as not relevant. They implied that there was no point of Robert having such knowledge as it would be useless in the limited life, they envisioned for him.  They were amplifying Robert’s lack of skills, his difficulties learning new things  and ignoring what he knew.  Over and over they let me believe that educating a child with special needs doesn’t make any sense.  In so many ways, the teachers, some aides, and school  administrators were invested in undermining  Robert’s and my educational efforts.

So my educational efforts were going AGAINST the  philosophy and practice of special education in my school district.  I kept teaching.  I did not lost my motivation, but I ended up  confused and distracted.

As i see now, Robert paid the price.  We lost too much time on lukewarm  teaching  when for Robert’s survival the most sharp, intellectually challenging approach was necessary. Sadly, that is not something Robert’s public school is capable of providing.

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