Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

December 30, 2009

Learning-Disabled Robots

This article from a fellow WordPress blogger showed up as a randomly generated “possibly related post” at the end of my last article. I liked the saucy question mark at the end of the title, so I checked it out.

I loved her over-all point: the emphasis on relentless testing, along with funding difficulties, have elbowed out important topics like art, humanities, music, drama. I agree that literacy and computer proficiency open the world to young minds. (I especially liked her mother’s statement that “If you can read, you can learn to do anything.”)

However, I disagree with her conclusion that “students did not want to think.” They most likely just didn’t want to think about the things their teacher (or whoever designed their curriculum) wanted them to think about. Do you ever wonder how kids could be so entranced by video games? They are visually stimulating, sure, but they also engage the mind in problem-solving. If they weren’t interested in analyzing the world of the game, they wouldn’t play them obsessively until they’d defeated all the levels.

I think schools tend to discourage thinking in children. In class, we are punished for staring out the window, or not paying attention to the teacher. These are signs of independent thinking. It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” In Harrison’s world inequality is illegal. That means good-looking people have to wear masks so they are equal to unattractive people. If someone is physically strong, they must carry weights to make themselves equal to the weak. If they are intelligent…they have to endure a “mental radio” that emits a siren every three minutes. To interrupt their thoughts. So that they are incapable of achieving their true intellectual potential. (Bringin’ it home…) Sound familiar? (::cough::Teachertellingyoutopayattentioneverythreeminutes::cough::)

I recently read a super-cool article in the New Yorker about this group of scientists who are creating robots that can work with disabled people or autistic children, to encourage “physical and cognitive rehabilitation.” On page 4, the author describes watching some tapes of an autistic child working with a ‘socially assistive’ robot. The researchers are trying to improve his ability to engage with humans by having him engage with the robot. For example, if he moves away, the robot hangs its head in ‘disappointment.’ Or if the child presses a certain button on the robot, it blows bubbles. In a later taped session, the robot exhibits such behaviors randomly, not as a result of the child’s actions (like pressing a button). (OK, now I’m getting to the point.)

When the child can’t make the robot blow bubbles, he is disappointed and withdraws, refusing to engage further with the robot. The author goes on to say, “At the end of the session, the child turned to his mother and said, ‘I think the robot is learning-disabled’. ”

Before being diagnosed with autism (and, obviously, afterward), this child must have gone through several tests and many different ‘labels.’ And because children can be guileless and therefore brutally honest, he defined ‘learning-disabled’ as he had experienced it: that is what people call you when they are frustrated with you for not doing what THEY want you to do.

It made me so sad for him, and for so many other children out there who are ‘labeled’ in the name of education: learning-disabled, lazy, stupid, ADHD, trouble-makers. These are all condescending and humiliating ways of saying, “You’re not doing what we expect you to do. Therefore, there must be something wrong with you. Because there’s certainly nothing unreasonable or wrong about our expectations.”

I can get behind the statement that students today “don’t want to think” about the periodic table or the Battle of the Bulge or whatever, but tell me honestly: do you? And if you answered no to that question, would it be right for me to extrapolate and say that you must not want to think? To conclude that you must be mentally lazy and therefore will Never Find a Job, which in turn will cause the collapse of our economy and civilization as we know it?

Of course not. That’s not only ridiculous, it’s insulting. Even a learning-disabled robot can figure that out.

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  1. Thanks for the HT but you missed the point of my article. The comment about my students not wanting to think was taken out of context. It was about students wanting to take the easy way rather than be challenged.
    This is the point of my article “Education is or at least should be about imparting knowledge and creating a love for learning not passing a test. A well-rounded education surpasses minimal competencies and strives for excellence.”

    Further never did I state or even imply my students were lazy or not get a job.

    The paragraph you misquoted was about higher thinking skills. As a computer teacher, one must teach problem solving and higher level thinking skills. In many assignments I was more concerned about the process my students went through than the end results. For example, in the engineering component lessons were designed using a dedicated CAD program where students had to meet certain criteria but still build a working bridge. The challenges became progressively difficult and many students didn’t want to take the time to think through the problem. They merely wanted to make an A and go on to the next task.

    Further if you read any thing else on my blog you would realize I have a very good understanding about ADHD and learning disabilities. In fact students with ADHD and learning disabilities usually excel in my classes.

    Comment by TheDeeZone — December 30, 2009 @ 3:53 am | Reply

    • Thanks for commenting! I apologize if I came off as criticizing you. Most of that stuff about people considering students to be lazy, etc, comes from the general conversation about students and school, within our society. From what I read in the article (I haven’t gotten a chance to check out your other posts yet), we share a common belief that “education should be about creating a love of learning not passing a test.”

      However, the individual intentions of talented and dedicated teachers such as yourself are often lost in the overall trends of education today, as you pointed out: for some reason we have collectively (and irrationally) decided that test scores are the best measure of education and the best indicator of future performance, so a lot of the joy and the depth of the process have washed away. I am on your side. But what you said about your students not wanting to think merely spurred some thoughts of my own, and served as a jumping-off point for this post. I certainly don’t know you or your writing well enough to make judgements about what kind of a teacher you are.

      And while you are more concerned about the process your students go through than the end results (which was the attitude every single one of my high school teachers held), the way our school system is set up reinforces the exact opposite. Parents, teachers, and administrators tend to assign a lot of meaning to grades (aka, the end result), so students naturally pick up on that. On top of that, more often than not, the material being taught doesn’t engage their minds the way their own interests might. And I know that the official explanation is that these subjects are taught, NOT because of their usefulness to the students’ future lives, but because it teaches them certain life skills, like critical thinking, etc. But I don’t think students buy that. They feel enormous pressure to get the grades, so they begrudgingly go along with it, but they darn well won’t do an ounce more work than they absolutely have to. At least, that was the attitude when I was in school. And personally, I think the best way to learn problem solving is to come up against an actual problem in your life, then solve it. I feel quite sure that’s how I learned it, despite all my teachers’ best intentions. However, it may be different for others.

      I do feel that I understood the point of your article. But I apologize if I came across as lumping you in with the test fanatics. I ultimately wanted to say that teaching students thinking skills is a little bit like the old proverb about a watched pot never boiling. If we want it to happen, we can’t scrutinize it and monitor it. It will only occur without our supervision, in its own time. And thanks again for taking the time to read and respond.


      Comment by christinag503 — December 30, 2009 @ 4:28 am | Reply

      • Have you ever taught in a classroom or has your experience been limited to tutoring in small groups?

        I really didn’t have the problem with students understanding why they need to learn my subject — computers.

        Comment by TheDeeZone — December 30, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

      • No, I have never taught in a classroom. I’ve done individual and small group tutoring, both on a freelance basis and as an employee of large corporations. I did spend 14 + years as a student, though, in many different kinds of classrooms with a wide variety of classmates and teachers. 🙂

        Comment by christinag503 — December 31, 2009 @ 12:07 am

      • That explains a lot about your assumptions about teaching an entire class. Tutoring and small group settings is not the same as have a room of 20+ middle schoolers with only enough resources for half that many.

        Comment by TheDeeZone — December 31, 2009 @ 1:30 am

      • I agree with you. There certainly are not enough resources to go around in most modern classrooms. Teachers today have a very demanding job, and they do the best they can with what little they are given. Considering the structure of modern education, it would be ludicrous to expect one teacher to do his or her job in a situation where each child was pursuing his or her own interests, looking out the window, and chatting with their neighbors whenever they felt like it.

        And I’m not saying that I do a better job. The “reluctant teacher” part of the title of my blog derives from the fact that I am profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that I am supposed to tell children what to think about. When I am working with a kid on a particular problem and they get frustrated and they say, “Why are we even doing this? I’m never going to have to know this stuff when I grow up!” I am inclined to say, “You’re probably right. And even if you do need to know it someday, it probably won’t be that difficult to learn it then. (I hold this opinion because of the work of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, among other authors and educators.) What would you rather do right now?” But that’s not what I get paid to do, so I have to bite my tongue.

        It’s just a broken system, through and through. As Mr. Gatto says, “I don’t think we’ll get rid of schools any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we’re going to change what’s rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance, we need to realize that the school institution “schools” very well, though it does not “educate”; that’s inherent in the design of the thing. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or too little money spent. It’s just impossible for education and schooling ever to be the same thing.”

        Comment by christinag503 — December 31, 2009 @ 2:38 am

      • I think a year of classroom teaching would be very enlightening for you. One of the biggest problems with education is that many people falsely believe as you do that having been a student somehow counts as teaching experience. I have 15 years in the education field and 24 yrs as a student, it is not the same thing. Educators need to have more input into education than politicians and the general public.

        Comment by TheDeeZone — December 31, 2009 @ 3:57 am

      • In response to this last comment by TheDeeZone:

        There is a middle ground between classroom teachers and “politicians, public and former students” and that would be educators who work one-on-one or with small groups of students. Tutors, who are very closely engaged with students during the learning process, have much to contribute to discussions of student motivation, the learning process, drawing out natural potential, the effect of the environment and self-esteem on learning, to name just a few areas. A tutor is hardly “the general public” when it comes to education and no less a practitioner than a classroom teacher.

        Of course it would be enlightening for a tutor to teach in a standard classroom, just as it would be enlightening for a teacher to spend a year exclusively tutoring students who are primarily taught by other teachers, just as it would be enlightening for anyone to do anything they’ve never done before. But, some people choose teaching as a career, and some choose tutoring. They are, as you state, very different, but both professionals are *practicing educators* who deserve respect from each other even though they focus on different aspects of learning.

        Comment by Sarah — June 26, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

      • In response to Sarah,

        I agree that tutoring is not the same as a classroom teacher. I have about 19 years experience as a tutor and 15 as a professional educator. I have taught everything from preschool to adult education classes. Also, I have taught in a variety of settings including a regular classroom, pull-out special classes, learning lab (tutoring in school) and alternative education settings. Currently, part of my job involves supervising tutors in an adult literacy program.

        Yes, tutors are practicing educators but very different than a classroom teacher. It is much easier to motivate and challenge students in a small group setting that in classroom setting.

        I have spent years working in both a small group and class setting. Any decent classroom teacher does tutoring and small group instruction often on a daily basis and while monitoring a classroom full of students.

        My original comment stemmed from Christina misquoting/misrepresenting my article in her post.

        Comment by TheDeeZone — June 30, 2010 @ 1:45 am

  2. You’re on a roll Christina!

    I tend to think that the basic education model currently employed is largely outdated. At a minimum, it’s incapable of competing with the outside stimulation kids are getting from the electronic/cyber world. Education SEEMS irrelevant to many kids, because from their perspective it seems irrelevant to the world as they understand it.

    It probably would be better (but never accepted by the education establishment) if kids could be exposed to a very broad range of possible interests early in life, encouraged to find a niche, then to have education work around those interests in a supporting role.

    Kids need a basic education, but they’re force fed into oblivion. By making education interest-centric, kids could grow into adults who not only find interesting careers, skills and jobs, but who might also see education for the valuable SUPPORTING function it can be and thus embrace it in a constructive way that it needs to be. In truth, education needs to be a life long pursuit, not the 12-17 year period of containment/confinement it’s currently set up to be.

    Unfortunately, it seems that education-as-a-career is ruling the day, protecting the education establishment and it’s employee base. Relevant education of children is getting lost in that configuration.

    Comment by Kevin@OutOfYourRut — January 1, 2010 @ 1:58 am | Reply

    • You bring up some interesting point. Sounds like Montessori. Is ok for younger students but unfortunately falls short in the middle grades.

      Comment by TheDeeZone — January 1, 2010 @ 5:03 am | Reply

      • The middle grades are more what I had in mind. Unfortunately, that’s the precise level where kids are being lost in the school system, especially boys. Boys and girls are being made to conform to precise standards at the exact time they’re most curious about finding themselves and discovering the world.

        While I understand the mindset that advances standardized testing and higher concentrations of math and science accross the board, it’s doomed to failure. Why require kids to learn calculus, trigonometry and chemistry if they’ll have no practical need for it in adult life? It’s a waste of system resources as well as a negative draw for students. My sense is that kids inherently know this.

        Until the education system gets kids interested and on board in the education process, force feeding will continue to produce the usual results.

        Comment by Kevin@OutOfYourRut — January 1, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

      • Kevin, I think you are exactly right. Classroom learning decontextualizes the material. Without a context the individual skills are difficult to retain. To quote John Holt (yet again), “It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.” (Emphasis mine.)

        Dee, you also made a point that was so compelling I wrote a whole new post to address it. It is here.

        Thanks again for all the feedback! It is the most exciting part of blogging, I think.


        Comment by christinag503 — January 5, 2010 @ 8:14 am

      • Read the post and yes of course you have the right to your opinion. You are well versed on educational theroy. My point is that at least a year of teaching experience would temper your reliance on theory. There are many things that sound good and may work well in a smaller setting but in reality don’t. In my education classes we used to spend hours preparing for one tutoring session. That doesn’t work when you have a minmum of 30 preps per week. Theory is great but it is theory.

        Try 1-3 years on the other side of the desk.

        Comment by TheDeeZone — January 5, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

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