The 6 Elements of “Student Engagement”, and How Educators Have It Wrong

The 6 Elements of “Student Engagement”, and How Educators Have It Wrong

“Student engagement” seems to be a new buzz-phrase going on in circles devoted to compulsory education. It has also crept into homeschools.  It’s a no-brainer (to me, anyway) that if students are interested in and engaged with what they are learning, they will learn the material more thoroughly and with greater ease.  It’s a sound principle.  The problem I have with “student engagement” as a buzz-phrase is the idea that educators can, and are being encouraged to, manipulate it somehow, as in this article.

The author states, “In light of this, research suggests that considering the following interrelated elements when designing and implementing* (italics added) learning activities may help increase student engagement behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively, thereby positively affecting student learning and achievement.”  He includes the following six “interrelated elements”:

  1. Make It Meaningful
  2. Foster a Sense of Competence
  3. Provide Autonomy Support
  4. Embrace Collaborative Learning
  5. Establish Positive Teacher-Student Relationships
  6. Promote Mastery Orientations

Student engagement happens naturally when the students themselves design and implement their own learning activities.  When the students themselves design and implement their own learning activities, it automatically eliminates the need for an authority figure to artificially interject these six “interrelated elements” into the fray.  With that shift in mind, let’s examine each one in further detail, in a point-by-point back and forth, starting with what the author has to say

Make It Meaningful

“Research has shown that if students do not consider a learning activity worthy of their time and effort, they might not engage in a satisfactory way, or may even disengage entirely in response (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004).”

Really?  We needed a study to determine this?  

Ask yourself what you do when you do not consider something worthy of your time and effort.  Do you like feeling that your time and energy is being wasted?  No adult I know abides well in having their time and energy wasted, and if we have any choice in the matter, we don’t allow that to continue.  And yet, all too often we persist in demanding that our children suffer through what we ourselves would find intolerable.

“To ensure that activities are personally meaningful, we can, for example, connect them with students’ previous knowledge and experiences, highlighting the value of an assigned activity in personally relevant ways.”

Personally meaningful activities are those that someone chooses to engage in themselves, recognizing beforehand a need or a desire to do or to learn.

An authority figure cannot do anything organic to make a learning activity meaningful, other than simply get out of the way of the learners who are actively pursuing that which is meaningful for them and resist making outside, subjective judgments about what is worthwhile or satisfactory.

Foster a Sense of Competence

“To strengthen students’ sense of competence in learning activities, the assigned activities could:

  • Be slightly beyond students’ current levels of proficiency
  • Make students demonstrate understanding throughout the activity
  • Show peer coping models…and peer mastery models…
  • Include feedback that helps students to make progress”

A sense of competence is important, for sure, but it isn’t something that one person can give to another.  It has to be earned one step at a time.  When a task is personally meaningful for someone, they will ask for help or guidance as they need it if they have not been taught that asking questions and making mistakes are things to be ashamed of.

Provide Autonomy Support

“We may understand autonomy support as nurturing the students’ sense of control over their behaviors and goals.  When teachers relinquish control (without losing power) to the students, rather than promoting compliance with directives and commands, student engagement levels are likely to increase as a result (Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004).”

As long as we’re talking about the teachers retaining their power over the students, we aren’t talking about true autonomy.  It’s a ruse, designed to manipulate the students into doing or learning what someone else wants them to do or learn.  There aren’t any tricks or techniques that an authority figure can use to unleash the capacity of autonomy to ramp up student engagement.  The answer is to hand over the reigns to the student to autonomously guide and direct what they are learning themselves.

Embrace Collaborative Learning

“When students work effectively with others, their engagement may be amplified as a result (Wentzel, 2009), mostly due to experiencing a sense of connection to others during the activities (Deci & Ryan, 2000).”

Well, you know the saying: “Misery loves company.”  Of course having other people that you like work alongside you during an activity that you find distasteful makes it more tolerable.  Having other people that you like work alongside you if you want the company during an activity that you enjoy makes it even more enjoyable.  The point here, though, is the choice to determine the activity in the first place and then whether or not to collaborate with other people after that.

Establish Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

“High-quality teacher-student relationships are another critical factor in determining student engagement, especially in the case of difficult students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Fredricks, 2014).”

The adage that no one cares what you know until they know that you care is true.  It’s very difficult to learn from someone that you neither like nor respect.  Additionally, it is possible to leverage a good relationship in order to coerce someone into doing or learning something that you want them to do or learn.  I don’t want my kids to learn to read in order to please me because they love me.  I want them to learn to read because it is both useful and enjoyable, and they have discovered the utility and the pleasure on their own in their own lives.

What I would do with this element is flip it around.  It would be more about the student choosing his or her own guides and mentors than a teacher consciously or unconsciously manipulating feelings and connection in a relationship with a student.  

Promote Mastery Orientations

“When students pursue an activity because they want to learn and understand (i.e. mastery orientations), rather than merely obtain a good grade, look smart, please their parents, or outperform peers (i.e. performance orientations), their engagement is more likely to be full and thorough (Anderman & Patrick, 2012).”

This is 100% spot on.  The problem occurs when parents or teachers believe that they must do anything to create or manipulate this.  It doesn’t need to be promoted.  It can just be.  Parents and teachers just need to let go of the idea that learning must be linear and that there is a time and a place for every child to learn X, Y, and Z in order to empower students to approach their learning from a mastery orientation.

When you free yourself and your children from the assembly line of mass produced education and allow life to guide and direct the scope and sequence of education for each individual, you make it possible for the power of student engagement to sink its hooks into the material or experiences and make something personal of it.

 

It Doesn’t Have to be Overwhelming to Homeschool a Dyslexic Child, and Here’s Why:

It Doesn’t Have to be Overwhelming to Homeschool a Dyslexic Child, and Here’s Why:

Shortly after Erica was diagnosed with dyslexia, inattentive ADD, and problems with her working memory when she was 12 1/2, I joined several Facebook groups that focus on homeschooling dyslexic, ADD/ADHD kids, because, let’s face it: homeschooling a kid who isn’t a typical learner is a huge departure from homeschooling a typical learner. Support from other people who “get it” is invaluable.  The ideas that we can bounce off each other, the suggestions we can make, and the encouragement that we can both give and receive are crucial to our success as parents and as homeschoolers.

Support from other people who “get it” is invaluable.  The ideas that we can bounce off each other, the suggestions we can make, and the encouragement that we can both give and receive are crucial to our success as parents and as homeschoolers.

I came across a post on one of those groups that asked if anyone ever got overwhelmed by the task of teaching a dyslexic child.  Now here’s a disclaimer before I reveal what I said: if I was trying to do it with a traditional mindset about education and preconceived ideas about what that process should look like, then yes, absolutely I would be overwhelmed.  But since I’m not, I’ve got more of a sense of peace about it.  This is what I said:

“I do not find it overwhelming to homeschool any of my kids. I have two “normal” kids and one dyslexic inattentive ADD kiddo. My kids learn the way we learn as adults. We figure out that we want or need to know something. We find the resources or materials. We study or practice until we’re satisfied. Then, we move on to the next thing.

My older two (then 16 and 13) have VASTLY different learning styles and interests, and that approach to education works equally well for both of them…but, neither one of them do much of anything that looks like what 10th graders and 7th graders are doing in school.

My 16 year old spends 16 hours a week at our Congressman’s office as an intern. That has more or less derailed his typical high school subjects. He’s “behind” in math, far ahead in reading, on track with science, on track or ahead with writing, on track with foreign language, and far ahead in history and social studies – insofar as what he’d need in order to attend a four year university right out of high school.

My 13 year old is dyslexic, inattentive ADD, and has problems with her working memory. She excels with American Sign Language and art, and much of her education focuses on those two areas right now. My approach with her (and really, all three of my kids) is to shine a light on her strengths, to allow her the freedom and flexibility to pursue her passions, and to teach her how to mitigate or accommodate for her weaknesses.”

I got this in reply, from someone else in the group:

“Ms Ogden your 13 year old sounds a lot like my 11 year old daughter. by teaching her how to accommodate for her weakness do you allow her the use of a calculator for math? An electronic dictionary for spelling? Do you make her sit with worksheets made for dyslexics? I feel as thought I need to teach her life skills to help her negotiate the grocery/shopping. I need to teach her how to run a household, etc.

She also has a receptive/expressive language disorder, so I focus a lot on what “terms” mean. Such as lets make dinner and she looks at me with the deer in the headlight look and then I have to explain that “making dinner” means to fix a meal for us to eat. Public school says she will keep falling behind, but I have seen what they do!”

Rather than derail the original purpose of the thread where I was asked that question, I created a new post to answer it, and I said:

“My first course of action in teaching her how to mitigate her weaknesses was to work with her on eliminating all of her shame and embarrassment about those weaknesses, and develop a sense of humor about them. Yeah, she can’t spell worth beans. So what? There are lots of successful adults who don’t spell well, and no one will really care – as long as she doesn’t care too much and she’s up front about it.

“Want someone to proofread your paper? My daughter is not your girl! LOL Find someone else. She needs to be comfortable being honest with herself and with other people about what her weaknesses are – and what her strengths are. She’s taking a botany class in our co-op (which she chose to join). She had seven pages to read for today. She did it, but she says she didn’t understand it at all.

Mitigating her weaknesses here means that she has the strength and courage to talk to the parent teaching the class and be honest about her experience with the material. Tell her she read it, but let her know she didn’t understand it. I needed her to get to a point (and she’s mostly there) where she realizes that people will take their cues about her from her actions.

If she remains silent, people are going to think she’s lazy or stupid. If she’s honest about how God wired her, people will understand. They won’t be left assuming she’s lazy or stupid.

“The next thing we did to help her mitigate weaknesses is that we bought Dragon software for her to use when she needs to compose a written expression of her thoughts, and an Intel Reader for her to use when she needs to be able to access written information that isn’t interesting to her (she likes to read for pleasure, but reading is not an efficient or good way to stuff information into her brain – especially if she’s not interested in the subject or the text itself is difficult).

I don’t think she’s picked up a math book in 7-8 months, but if she did, I’d let her use a calculator. She has an adequate understanding of consumer math to be able to “get by” in the adult world. Does she “need” to have algebra or calculus? Well, the state says she does (fortunately in my state, homeschoolers are exempt from regular graduation requirements), but that’s an artificial “need” dictated by someone else.

“A college or university will say she does as well….and if attending a college or university is important to her, she will do the math she needs to do in order to attend. If that means taking some remedial math classes at a community college, (which, by the way, is probably what my 16 year old who does want to go to college, is going to have to do because this internship is taking up a lot of his time and he hates math anyway) then so be it. It’s not the end of the world.

Basically, I don’t want her to spend 6 years (she was diagnosed last spring) focusing on her weaknesses. That, in my mind, is not a good path to success.

Her future probably lies somewhere either as an interpreter of ASL (although she’d need to shore up her spelling for that) or in the visual arts. I want her spending the next 6 years making herself an expert in something she loves. That way, she will have the resources to be successful – and if she comes across needing something like a research paper for a presentation, she can hire someone else to do it and keep her focus on what she does well.”

I was very surprised by the response I received to that post.  It seemed to resonate really well with a sizable number of members there, which frankly I was not expecting because it’s not a “normal” perspective.  

I’ve sort of thumbed my nose at all of the purported experts who tell me that I need to remediate Erica’s reading and math skills right now.  I’ve stuck my fingers in my ears and I’m shouting, “LA-LA-LA” trying to drown out all of the people who have dire predictions of doom and gloom for her odds of success in life because we are departing from the norm with the scope and sequence of her education.  

I’m doing those because I believe, wholeheartedly, that allowing Erica and her siblings to learn the way we do as adults is not, in fact, doing them a disservice; rather, it is doing them a tremendous favor.

As adults, we recognize a need or a desire to learn something.  No one else is forcing us to learn something that we either have no desire to learn or no use for learning.  After we recognize the need or the desire to learn something, we go about locating the resources and materials to do it.  Then, we study or practice until we’re satisfied that our need or desire has been fulfilled.  As adults, that cycle repeats over and over and over again.  

What I need to know right now I couldn’t possibly have prepared to learn even five years ago.  What I want to learn right now is different than what I wanted to learn even a few months ago.  Lifelong learning is an on-going process, one that allows us (or our kids, if they are fortunate enough to have the freedom to learn this way too) to be responsive to who we are right now and who we want to be next.  

It’s that forward momentum, that the things we learn right now make us bigger, better, smarter than we were before and open up new doors that we couldn’t possibly have imagined before, that give me the confidence and the peace to embrace this approach – even with my dyslexic child.

 

The Homework Contract

The Homework Contract

Hmmmn…there seems to be a theme running through my blog lately.  Some article comes across my Facebook feed and I am just compelled to write about it.  And the other night was no different.  It was the “Homework Contract”.

I suppose that there could be some value in doing a “homework contract” if your child is in school or your personal philosophy of education as a homeschooler tends to be schoolish.  If you’ve got an agreeable child who will meet you halfway as you work together to determine what his responsibilities are insofar as homework goes,  what yours will be to help him, and on concocting an artificial reward or consequence at the end of the term, then it might tame the homework battles.

I showed Erica this “homework contract” and she balked immediately.  Oh, she’d be the type of agreeable child who would meet me halfway on something like this, but once you add in her dyslexia, inattentive ADD, slow processing speed, and poor working memory, it wouldn’t be very long before this “homework contract” was collecting dust – and we were right back to the homework battles….if we rolled that way.  We don’t, though. And this blog is about rethinking how we view education and empowering our children to take charge of their own educations.  So, stuff like this ends up becoming fodder for my posts.  It’s time to dismantle and examine it.

The article says that, “Homework can be a hot-button issue for you and your child.”  Why is it that we just blindly accept that we will have battles with our children over their homework?  Have you ever just stopped and thought about why homework even becomes a “hot-button issue” to begin with?  Why is that?  Have you, as the parent, ever stopped and reflected upon how you behave when someone is trying to coerce or manipulate you into doing something that you don’t want to do and/or don’t see a purpose for doing?  Are you generally happy about that task?  Or should the person trying to get you to do it expect some push-back from you?

I know, I know.  Sometimes in life we all have to do things we don’t want to do.  True.  But, think about the things you don’t really want to do…that actually get done by you.  Why are they getting done?  Maybe, for example, you hate your job, but you want the paycheck.  Okay.  You’ve decided that the money you earn is worth the aggravation of your job.  And by the way, you chose your job.

If your child has the autonomy to choose her own goals and to study that which moves her toward achieving those goals, invariably something that she actually does need to know that she doesn’t particularly want to learn will come up. At that point, she’s in a crossroads of sorts.  Just like you have to decide whether your paycheck is worth going to that wretched job, she’ll have to decide whether or not her goals are important enough to her to endure that which she hates. If it’s not, just like you would have to go out and find another job or create a new business, she’ll have to adjust her goals as well.

Math is an example from my life learning homeschool.  Jarrod despises math.  But, he diligently plods through a math textbook anyway.  Why?  Because it’s a means to an end that is important to him. Interestingly, though, he has also shown remarkable out-of-the-box thinking when he began thinking about his end goal as a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps and maneuvering around what he foresaw as unacceptably high requirements for math getting to that commissioned officer position through Annapolis or ROTC.  I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I want to be seeing from my kids!  I want them to be leveraging their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses.

Homework is not a “hot button issue” for me or my kids.  Why?  Because I refuse to allow it to become one.  I have seen time and time again that all three of my kids are perfectly capable of determining what they need to know, how much of it they need to know, by when they need to know it, and how they will learn it.

At six years old, Jillian knew more US geography than a lot of adults do. Why?  She was interested in it.  If she was in school, the only state the Arizona Department of Education says she needs to be able to identify is Arizona. Since that is the standard, I highly doubt that she’d be getting the exposure to US geography in a classroom that she’s getting all on her own initiative on a fun website that she enjoys.

So, in a “homework contract”, you can also “…specify the time of day she’ll do her homework…outline when and how you’ll help her with her homework…and outline rewards and consequences for following or failing to follow the contract.”  What?  That just seems very rigid to me.  The rewards of an education are intrinsic. People, outside of institutional settings where someone else is dictating what must be learned and when, seek the knowledge that will enhance their lives and/or move them closer to a goal that is meaningful for them. That is the reward.  The consequence is not reaching that goal and having to rework it.

A “homework contract” would also never work for any of my kids, but especially Erica.  We wouldn’t be fighting about just homework anymore; we’d also be fighting about her failure to follow the contract – unless I wanted to start nagging her about that.  Why?  Because she’d forget about it.  I know she would.  She’d have the best of intentions, but lists…they end up lost in a great abyss, never to be gazed upon by those blue eyes of hers again.

An education is supposed to be a personal thing.  An education is also supposed to be a lifelong process that builds passion and exposes people to all sorts of new information.  I’m learning all sorts of things right now that weren’t even on my radar screen five years ago, simply because life has taken me on a wild ride!  I want my children’s educations to be part of the glue that binds our family together.  We support and encourage each other’s interests.  To me, this fighting about homework or manufacturing some “homework contract” is for the birds.

 

Would You Do It?

Would You Do It?

Close your eyes and visualize the place in your home where most of whatever schooling your kids do takes place.  See the lighting.  Feel the temperature.  Notice the distractions.  Settle in, mentally, to the chair or the beanbag or the floor.  Wherever your children tend to do their work.  

In your mind’s eye, take in whichever resources your kids are working with to learn the material they’re studying. If you or another teacher has given them any assignments, gloss over those in your mind.  What kind of assignments are they?  Busywork?  Something meaningful?  

Put your children in that mental image you’ve created.  What’s their mood like?  

Are they diving into those resources and assignments enthusiastically?  

Are they willingly and diligently or purposefully working through the material?  

Are they whining and complaining?  

Are they off in la-la land, paying no attention whatsoever to the work in front of them?  

Are their arms folded in front of their bodies and their lips set stubbornly as they quietly refuse to do what’s in front of them?  

Are they screaming, crying, or tantruming?  

Do their eyes glaze over as they slump forward, resigned to their fate to use those resources and do those assignments?  

What kind of young learners do you have in your homeschool?  Notice that.  Really notice it.  Feel it…without making any judgments.

Now, replace your children with yourself in that mental image you created.  Would you do what your kids are working on?  How would you feel about it?  Would you be enthusiastic?  Willing and diligent?  Grumpy? Daydreamy?  Rebellious?  Tantruming?  Resigned?  

Notice that.  Really notice it.  I challenge you to feel it…and then make some judgments.  If you were honestly able to say that you’d approach that learning with gusto, congratulations.  You’re on the right track.  If you’re disheartened to admit that you too would be whiny, mentally checked out, or combative, you’re probably in good company.  1896766_389854054530944_141007322949229570_n

Former educator John Holt said, “We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour.  How many of us attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us can keep our minds from wandering away?  Hardly any.”  While he was speaking of kids in public school classrooms when he said this, all too often it can also be said of homeschooled children as well.

If that’s applying to your homeschooled children, know that it doesn’t have to.  You don’t have to be asking your kids to do schoolwork that fills even you with a sense of drudgery, resentment, boredom, or despair.  

The first step toward recovering your children’s love of learning is simple awareness of what they’re doing, especially if you’re tasking them to do it.  You’ve just done that.

The second step involves some reflection.  Think about why you felt that drudgery, resentment, boredom, or despair.  Dig deep on this.  Don’t settle for the easy answer.  The easy answer is the one that caves to the status quo.  There is a lot more to a good education than the bill of goods we’ve been sold by the Department of Education; you just have to be open to something different…

And that leads us to the third step.  Take John Holt’s wisdom and flip it on its head.  Instead of asking your children to do what you either cannot do or do not want to do, allow your children to learn and experience the world the way you do as an adult.  Open up the freedom and flexibility to discover what interests you and fuels your passions as an adult to your children.  If you do, their minds will not be wandering away anymore, and then when you repeat this exercise of awareness later on, you’ll honestly be able to say that you’d approach that learning with gusto too.

 

Take that Elephant Away from the Tree

Take that Elephant Away from the Tree

You’ve probably seen this meme going around.  It really actually borders on the ridiculous.  I mean, who would take an elephant and judge that elephant’s intelligence (and worth) by its ability to climb a tree?  We all intuitively know that it’s a preposterous suggestion… but we, as a society, do it all of the time to our kids, and we don’t even think twice about it. It’s just the way it is, right?  Everyone has to climb that tree in order to be successful in life.

I, for one, put my foot down and declared, “Not my kid!” years ago – long before I knew one of my kids would’ve ended up being that elephant staring up at the tree, hopeless and frantic, wanting desperately to please but lacking the lithe form and sharp claws needed to climb that tree.  I took my three children out of the jungle.  I put them into the wide open, African bush.  You see, there you will find trees for the monkey to climb, rivers for the fish to swim in, and vast grasslands for the elephant to roam.030

It’s interesting that in that African bush land, Erica’s dyslexia, inattentive ADD, poor working memory, and slow processing speed very rarely hinder her learning.  Somehow, those issues that would be debilitating for the elephant standing at the base of the tree, aren’t disabling at all out in the grasslands.

So where are these grasslands?  They’re at home right now.  Not just at home, though, because I could easily plop her down right at the base of the tree here at home, too.  The grasslands are about more than just environment. That vast expanse of grasslands comes from empowerment.  Empowering the elephant (the atypical learner) means allowing her to take charge of those grasslands, to go left or right, to seek out water to drink or bathe in, or to find fruit and roots to eat as she sees fit.  It means allowing her to navigate the best path to the water, food, or shade. It means allowing her to figure out for herself whether her decisions were successful or not, and to alter or adapt her strategies as she sees fit.

Dyslexics are terrific visual thinkers.  Erica thinks in pictures, and is absolutely confounded by the idea that I think in words.  The base of the tree is the textbook, the essay, and the written examination. The grassland here is video or live performance.  When she’s able to learn with a medium that presents pictures, Erica excels.  She locates how-to videos and has taught herself how to sign songs that she loves and improved her artistic techniques.  Recently, a documentary opened her eyes to the horrors of World War Two, and a presentation from a survivor of Auschwitz seared the atrocities of concentration camps into her mind in a way that reading about them never would.

Dyslexics tend to have a high interpersonal intelligence.  One of the things I hear over and over again about Erica is that she is very aware of the emotions of other people.  She picks up on subtle mood changes, and has a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy for other people.  According to this article from US News and World Report, employers are looking for traits like empathy, both a teachable and a mentoring spirit, and solid interpersonal skills in potential employees.  While none of those traits are taught or evaluated as subject matter at the base of the tree, out in the grasslands, Erica is further developing that interpersonal intelligence that is already a strength for her through her participation in the US Naval Sea Cadet Corps, volunteer work, and her active involvement with our church’s youth group.

Jillian offered up her back for Erica to draw on.

Jillian offered up her back for Erica to draw on.

Dyslexics are creative.  At the base of the tree, Erica might be able to take an art class if the school had the budget for it.  The art class, however, would be an extra.  It would probably be used as leverage to get her to do something that someone in a position of authority deemed more important for her to do, like climb that damn tree.  In the grasslands, art isn’t an extra.  It’s what Erica lives and breathes for.  I think she’d shrivel up and die if she couldn’t be creative. Art allows her to leverage her brain’s innate ability to think three-dimensionally and produce something amazing.  It allows her to excel. That is no small thing for a child who experiences failure and frustration at the base of the tree.

At the base of the tree, Erica will never measure up to expectations, and inordinate amounts of time and energy will be spent trying to transform that elephant into a monkey.  At the base of the tree, someone in a position of authority will want to herd that elephant through tree climbing, branch swinging, and banana peeling classes alongside all of the monkeys.  It’ll be important, really important, for that elephant to keep up with the monkeys as they move through the system, supposedly amassing the same base of knowledge at the same time using the same resources.  And when that elephant fails, as she inevitably will, few will look at the tree as the problem.  Most will look at the elephant.

I see the tree as the problem, and the African bush as the solution.

 

The Worst Advice I’ve Ever Heard Given to a Dyslexic Student

The Worst Advice I’ve Ever Heard Given to a Dyslexic Student

Have you seen this yet?  A little girl asks scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, if there are any dyslexic people in his field of work.  He should have just said, “Yes” and moved on.  Instead, he grabbed his shovel and kept digging. The whole exchange was just… Wow.

I called Erica over and had her watch the video.  Within seconds, she was scowling, then her jaw dropped, she popped one hip out, and her hands landed on both hips.  “Oh no.  He did not,” she retorted, snapping her fingers in front of her body like a diva been wronged.  I was already trying to stifle my laughter because Erica was outraged and on the warpath, and she looked ridiculous.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s advice to dyslexic people is absolutely the worst advice I have ever heard, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon advice.  His advice?  Allocate more time for reading whatever printed material you may need to get through.  If that wasn’t enough, he went on to explain that you’d be surprised by how much extra time you can find in a day because most people watch hours of reality TV “…when they could be learning, reading…”

Why is that such terrible advice?  It isn’t – if he was giving that advice to someone who isn’t dyslexic.  Someone who isn’t dyslexic, who isn’t doing as well as he/she would like to be doing, could certainly benefit from turning off The Bachelor and devoting that time to reading and studying instead.

For someone like my daughter, though, that is simply the worst advice I’ve ever heard.  It’s tantamount to placing a paralyzed person at the bottom of a flight of stairs and telling them that if they just spend more time on trying to climb stairs, they’ll eventually reach the top.  That might be true.  If they have the capability of using their upper bodies to pull and drag themselves up each step one at a time and the patience to do it, they’ll eventually end up at the top.  Exhausted. Battered and bruised.  But there.  Never mind that they could have reached the second floor in a fraction of the time without the exhaustion and the scraped up elbows and knees by using the elevator.

I believe that deGrasse Tyson’s advice was well-intentioned.  I don’t think he set out to be offensive.  I think his intent was to encourage dyslexic people with the same advice that he’d give to anyone else: work hard and your work will be rewarded.  The problem in my eyes is that telling dyslexic people that academic success is as simple as turning off the reality TV and allocating more time to reading only serves to perpetuate the myths that dyslexics are just lazy and if they just tried harder, they could do better.

I don’t think he has any appreciation for the fact that someone like Erica doesn’t struggle with reading and comprehension of written material because she’s too busy watching Real Housewives or anything else to apply herself properly.  She doesn’t struggle with reading and comprehension of written material because she hasn’t allocated enough time to read.

Eye reading is a terrible way for her to learn anything, just like stairs are a terrible way to transport a paralyzed person from one floor to another.  If the written material is not a story that she can wrap mental images around, the physical act of trying to read it takes so much energy and focus that there isn’t anything left for retention. The important thing is getting the information, not how she gets it.  Rather than telling dyslexic people that they just need to allocate more time to reading, the better advice would have been for them to utilize coping strategies and technology that will allow them to mitigate their weakness in eye reading…. just like the elevator for someone who cannot walk or cannot walk easily and well.

Aside from encouraging someone to suffer needlessly, that advice is also utterly absurd.  Erica is a slow reader. A passage that might take the normal person 15 minutes to read will take her upwards of an hour.  So, in a higher education setting where a class might have assigned reading that will take the average person two hours to complete, she will still be plodding along – word by word, and probably not remembering any of what she’s reading, nearly eight hours later. Allocate more time?  HOW?!  How is she supposed to do that? Where does that time come from?

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Erica could find an extra eight hours in her day to do what it takes a typical learner only two hours to do.  Let’s just say that she decides to allocate that eight hours to “…learning, reading…” as deGrasse Tyson recommends.  At what cost?  What is the opportunity cost to her of allocating that eight hours to eye reading some written material when she could use adaptive technology or hire someone to help her and be done with it so much faster?  What’s the spiritual and emotional cost to her? What contribution to the community around her might we all be missing by encouraging her to spend her time and energy inefficiently?

I’m not waiting until Erica is an adult before we ask those questions.  She’s 14 now, and we ask those questions. The answers to those questions are the reasons that we classify ourselves as self-directed learners and why we aren’t currently trudging along through lesson after lesson of some Orton Gillingham program or drilling math facts and spelling lists.

 

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