Learning Disabilities

Here and there along the way, I’ve mentioned that I taught in college. Recently, I was having a virtual conversation with a public school teacher. One of the things I said to her was,

For 3 of the last 4 years, I’ve been a college instructor. When we started homeschooling, we used a formal curriculum. By the time I started teaching college we were much less formal and structured but still not unschooling. Speaking without disrespect to dedicated public school teachers or my students, if the only thing I do is shelter my 5 year old’s curiosity, self confidence, initiative, and outlook on life she will be head and shoulders above the average student entering college.

Often, when I get involved in discussions about the public school system, a single student always comes to mind. To further obscure the identy of my students, I’ll always refer to any of them as he, even though I had students of both sexes. And, insofar as to the effect of public school, I did not see alot of difference in the effect between one sex and the other. In any event, this student had been diagnosed with a learning disability and took prescribed medication (which I expect he may take for most of his life). By Christmas, my sense of how the students who shared classes with him felt about his prospects was that they expected that he would fail out before the end of the college year. He didn’t. A year and a half later he graduated in the upper half of his class. Of the graduates who shared the same diploma, he was the first to get a job in his field.

The first point I want to address is that from my experience learning disabilites are not what they are purported to be. In the case of this student, between sometime in January and the end of the college year, he had an average of an extra half hour of one on one instruction with me (other instructors may have done similar things). There were 2 fundamental things which occured in those half hour sessions. The first is something that would be unlikely to consistently occur in the classroom. There was no lesson plan for the sessions. I did not have any material that I was obligated to cover. I answered his questions. In other words, he directed the learning based on what he knew he didn’t know/understand. Based on various things he said along the way, I believe the most important lesson he learned was that he was as capable of learning as most of his classmates.

The second thing which occurred in those sessions was actually 2 things. By the time we had had a few sessions, I realized that the only significant learning disability he had was that his learning style was different from what might be considered the typical learning style. It took about the same amount of time for me to get a sense of how to answer his questions so that the answer satisfied what he wanted to know. Even though the instructor-student relationship was maintained and for the majority of those sessions the discussion involved material which was a byproduct of a course syllabus, we were unschooling. One of the reasons I advocate unschooling is that, in my opinion, unschooling eliminates learning disabilities. The learning is always approached from the perspective of how the learner can understand it best.

The second point that I want to address is what I feel are the real learning disabilities which are developed in any typical classroom setting. In doing this, I am going to refer to 3 of the 7 lessons John Taylor Gatto described in the The 7-Lesson Schoolteacher.

The 5th lesson Gatto identifies is Intellectual Dependency. Given that I taught primarily computer programming courses, my student’s current and future success depended a significant degree on him being broken of this lesson. There are many careers that can be followed which require mostly following prescribed formulae and involve little independent thinking. Computer programming is not one of those fields. What I found was that the pursuit of marks invariably lead a student to subvert his intellect to the intellect of the person who will be marking the work. The most common experience I had which illustrates this is that a student had arrived at a solution to a programming problem I had given him and before implementing it he would ask if it were an acceptable solution. (i.e. not would this solve the problem but was it the solution I was looking for.) In other words, learning was secondary to getting a good mark. In the long run, if he pursued the field of study which he was currently involved in, it was not important that he know the solution to this or that problem. But, that he be able to look at a problem he has not seen before and devise his own solution.

The 3rd lesson Gatto identifies is Indifference. Because my students had chosen to be there, this was less predominant. Also, the majority of my students were not fresh out of high school. From my perspective, there were still a surprising number of students who would have made no effort to learn the subject of my courses at all if it were not that I gave them assignments and tests. While Gatto uses the term indifferent, I would describe it as passive. It was as though, learning is not something that one did. I feel that some students enroll in college expecting to be taught. In other words, expecting to be the object of a learning process rather than the active agent in it.

Gatto introduces the essay with the lesson of Confusion. The way I often saw this lesson play out in my classes was when a student did the assignments solely for the sake of the marks. From that frame of mind, a student didn’t design his own solution. Instead he relied on others to design it for him. Whether or not he was able to implement the solution on his own, eventually the problems became complex enough that knowledge of the mechanics of programming could not enable him to implement complex solutions. If a student approaches a learning exercise like it were a tax return, what Gatto describes as confusion is bound to occur. For a person in this position “learning” ceases to be the development of knowledge or skills. Instead, it is a hurdle to be passed. And, in a course like the ones I taught, a series of hurdles which are only loosely connected. Each successive hurdle becomes more difficult to get over and even though the previous hurdle was intended to make this one easier, it makes this one more difficult because what got him past the last hurdle will not help him get past this one.

Ok, I’ll be honest. I don’t expect the establishment to change it’s view of learning disabilities any time soon. In a sense, this was a bit of a rant. People defending the public school system often say that many student thrive or do well in that system. I’m not sure that I agree with that, but I’ll skip arguing about it. What is the issue for me is that I question whether thriving in that environment is good thing.

Author: Ron

Homeschooling dad of 4 (ages 27 - 14), grampy to 3, WordPress core contributor, former farmboy & software developer by profession.

7 thoughts on “Learning Disabilities”

  1. I did well in school, but I also was interested in most of the material and I was looked on a little as a brown-noser because I wanted to get to know my teachers as people. I didn’t expect a better grade of it.

    What I did expect, mostly subconsciously, and still do at times, is to get a pat on the head. “Yes, Heidi, that *was* very clever.” Sometimes, it isn’t enough for me to be proud of my own work; I need someone else to be proud of it (and of me?) too. Perhaps not proud. Perhaps impressed. Hmm.

  2. I jsut wanted to say that my experience of university teaching was very similar though I haven’t analysed it in relation to Gatto. I taught at a well respected British university that took a lot of kids with supportive parents, who came from good schools, and who had excellent exam results. They were scared to work out which books they needed to read for an essay on their own. I taught social sciences. This is depressing.

  3. Heidi – Until highschool, I was the top-of-the-class kid. In grade 10, I had a number of bad classes (which I won’t get into).

    Until then, I think I was pretty much in the same boat as you describe in your second paragraph.

    JoVE – The dependency, I think, was the thing that surprised me the most. It’s given me alot to think about in terms of my behaviour in school and college.

  4. Unschooling has definitely ensured that almost all the learning that takes place here doesn’t occur in the context of indifference or dependency. Am not sure about some other forms of confusion, but these appear to be kept to a minimum as well.

Comments are closed.