See First

pic23What if a student was highly intelligent, perhaps even with stronger understanding of complex concepts than you and me, but was unable to speak or write or type. What then? How would we know? How would we see?

I recently had the pleasure of talking with wonderful parents of a boy who was considered to be nonverbal until he got his hands on a letterboard — a way to communicate that didn’t require fine motor skills. It turns out that he processes auditory information quite well, is very bright, and is now on a path to prepare for a college education likely in physics. That letterboard was a game changer.

His story reminded me of Carly Fleischmann whose inner voice could finally be “heard” by typing. The part about Carly’s story that stuck with me was her dad reflecting on how they used to talk about Carly with Carly in the room, as if Carly was not able to understand. He later found out that she was comprehending everything, and the regret weighed heavy in his voice.

These stories are awe-inspiring, but what about the more mundane stories out there?  There are so many other students who are being assessed by methods that are limited. The limited methods… limit our ability to truly “see” students for all that they are. This is more common than not. One of the problems with most school assessments is that they are limited to “paper and pencil”, or perhaps computerized, tests that required verbal-linguistic skills.

Why do we do this? It’s a cycle. Those who did well with verbal-linguistic skills, along with meeting other neurotypical expectations, are the ones who go on to become the test-makers and evaluators of the test results.

Now it is time to see beyond. The first step is gaining awareness through stories like Carly’s and studies such as the following:

Words Say Little About Cognitive Abilities in Autism by Nicholette Zeliadt, Spectrum News

Interaction Takes Two: Typical Adults Exhibit Mind-Blindness Towards Those With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Edey R, et al. J Abnorm Psychol. 2016

Note that second one isn’t about verbal so much as nonverbal, and the title caught several people by surprise when it was first posted. This reaction shows how pervasive our preconceived filters can be, including in how we frame our research.

To quote Douglas Adams, “See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise, you will only see what you were expecting.”


Deficient? Detoxing from Negative Framing

equal testing has all animals climb a treeI attended the welcoming reception at the education conference I am at this week – an opportunity for vendors to entice people to their booths with free food. Obviously this works on me because I was there. I enjoy looking for new tools or strategies for our students, so the exhibit hall is a favorite part for me. However, as I went from one booth to another, there was one I hesitated approaching. It was huge, dominating a large portion of the room, but I passed by it several times. I was struggling with first bullet point on their sign: deficiency diagnostics.

Now, I understand the concept of deficiency diagnostics, and the importance of knowing where the gaps are – especially in a mastery-based program like ours. So I forced myself to finally read the rest of the booth’s signs to see if there was anything to redeem the negative feeling.


What’s my hang-up? After years of detoxing kids from negative framing, I find that instead of becoming jaded, I have only become more sensitive. We often get students who see themselves as “deficient” and who need to be “fixed” because of all the things “wrong” about them. It takes time to help them reframe their approach: use their strengths to tackle the challenge areas to the best of their abilities, and focus on their gifts and personal goals to define themselves as the wonderfully unique beings they are.

Maybe there isn’t a better way of saying “deficiency diagnostics” that would fit on a display sign. However, is there a way we can help students recognize and work on areas for growth without them feeling “broken” as a result? Can we – the teachers, parents, and other potential mentors – model this, or are we struggling with this for ourselves?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Also, if you know of any tools, strategies, or other resources that focus on a positive growth mindset, please share them with me.


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Do Teachers “Give” Grades?

girl thinking of a gradeYou know that whole back-and-forth exchange where a student thinks that a teacher “gives” grades, and the teacher responds that the student actually earns the grade?

Unfortunately, in many cases the student’s perception might be closer to the truth. Not in your classroom, you say? Well, let’s hope so, but humor me a moment and let’s take a closer look.

Have you ever taken off points for work being turned in late? How about grant extra credit points? What about deducting points for grammar on an assignment that was for a topic other than writing?

If you have done any of those things, it raises the question, “What, exactly, are you measuring?”

If I want to know the student’s level of mastery on a particular concept, will that grade accurately reflect student mastery, or is it muddied by a bunch of other unrelated variables increasing or decreasing the percentage score?

The real world argument usually pops up right about now, so let’s address it.

Is meeting deadlines important? Sure. In the real world, will not meeting deadlines cause a deduction in pay? Yes, usually by 100% because the person will likely lose that job or find one that doesn’t have deadlines. To repeat: doesn’t have deadlines. Those jobs exist. And what about writing that is free of errors? Editors exist for a reason.

But before we spend too much time discussing how prevalent those jobs are, we can just stop and realize something very important:

A class isn’t a job. A typical classroom looks nothing like the real world. So why are we insisting that grades be twisted to somehow reflect the real world when very little else of what goes on in the typical classroom manages that (unless you count an old-style factory or a prison system as real world, but that’s another topic).

Whether the student is aiming for a career with no, few, or many deadlines, or one that requires strong or no writing skills, our job is to provide a solid educational foundation where key skills and concepts are mastered. Grades are, or should be, a reflection of that measurement. If a student is struggling with grammar, that is a skill area that needs to be addressed while allowing the student to move ahead in other concepts that are mastered. Use those teachable moments! Note the grammar errors and offer help in fixing them; however, don’t adjust the grade unless the assignment itself is about writing.

If you do adjust the grade for things such as grammar, the grade fails to accurately reflect the mastery of the concept being assessed. The grade no longer measures what it claims to measure. Not only does it seem more “given” than earned, it is also useless in determining student progression in learning.

Making grades useful – for both formative and summative purposes –  is essential for a mastery-based learning programs. It also nurtures student motivation and sense of empowerment in earning those grades.


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