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.”


Could Have Been My Child

rainbow flower“But what am I?” Her eyes were glassy from unshed tears.

“You’re you. And you’re wonderful,” I tried to reassure her, but she saw the worry on my face.

My beautiful daughter: smart, compassionate, kind to all things living and not. Seriously, the kid bonded to pet rocks! And she never did fit in a box.

“There just isn’t a label for you yet,” I said as the letters of the current acronym went through my mind. None of those letters fit.

But she wanted a label. As much as she didn’t fit into boxes, she always wanted them. She would even ask me to create them for her. “Just tell me what to do,” she would say, even as a teenager.  I, however, was the worst parent for that request.

“I’ll help you find your way,” I would usually say. But this time I felt lost on how to do that. She was hurting, and I didn’t know how to help.

“I love you. We all love you.”

The words felt weak. Insufficient. How well would that love armor her against a world full of hate?

That was seven years ago, and my daughter travels the country, living life, lighting up the world the best she can. There’s still no perfect checkbox for her, but she has found a sense of belonging in other ways, and she makes the world a better place.

As I listened to Anderson Cooper recently read each name of those who died in Orlando, my fingernails cut into my clenched hands as I tried to stay as resolved as he was. With each name, I  thought, that could have been my child. I will hear these names. Then I saw the text message of one child to his mother. I had no words. Only emotions in a sea of synesthesia.

My heart turned to my school’s students. So many of our students are targeted – for their culture, or religion, or neurotype, or sexuality, or other reasons.  Each one is precious.  We open our arms to them and their families, and do what is within our power to help them find their way. And love them.  Always love them.

But I find myself wondering what more we could do.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”  ~ Fred Rogers

Personalized Learning No More?

Words clipart cute kid“I’m not using the words ‘Personalized Learning’ after this session,” said Adam Garry, speaker of the iNacol presentation titled The Possibilities of Personalized Learning. With that title, you can see why he was kind of stuck using the words for at least another hour.

I knew immediately why he felt this way. There were many sessions at the conference with the words personalized learning in the title or description, but much of what was being presented wasn’t really personalized learning.

Blended, differentiated, individualized, and data-driven learning can all be options for a personalized learning experience, but they are not by themselves “personalized learning.”

Has personalized become an empty buzz word? Better question: what makes learning personalized? Answer: the student. Not the curriculum. Not even the teacher. The student.

How much voice does the student have in his or her learning experience? Is the student in the driver seat, setting the goals and choosing how to get there? This can range from selecting from a menu of options that meets the student’s needs, to the student taking the goals and designing a program from the ground up.

I call it personal agency, but I like how Adam summed it up: Voice and Choice.

In the personalized programs I have been part of, students enroll for many reasons, and with many different goals. Some are aiming for university admission and will need to make sure their program is designed for that, requiring more guidance from their coach and instructors. Meanwhile some want to gain specific skills or knowledge and might not even be interested in a diploma; they want to take, even design, the courses that make sense for their goals. For both of those scenarios, and many others, we are here to serve.

However, I am stuck with the question of whether or not we should continue calling it personalized learning. What else would we call it? Maybe we could create an acronym comprised of defining words (personal agency, empowerment, voice, choice, etc.); educators are very good at creating ever-changing lists of acronyms. Or should we just stick with the admittedly over-used terms personalized learning.

What do you think?

Click here for a chart showing how personalized is different from differentiated and individualized learning.


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Careful questioning: Nurture student voice and unlimited learning

raise hand question little boyI was once in a college literature class where the professor confidently said, “I assume we are all of Judeo-Christian background here, so…”  She then went on to apply this filter to the analysis of the stories and poems we had recently read, and she was coming up with interpretations that differed from my own. Do you think I raised my hand to let her know that her assumption meant I was left in the dark about all the analogies she was now using to teach me? Today I would have, but not then. Raised in a militant-atheist household, I had only started learning about various religions, and I felt instantly stupid. In retrospect, I probably had something unique to contribute, especially in interpreting the works by authors who were also not of Judeo-Christian backgrounds.  Instead, I struggled silently, and this was just another case where a teacher was telling students what to think.

One of the things I often tell new teachers is don’t tell students what to think.  Teach them to think, but not what to think. Instead, help them build critical thinking skills, the ability to recognize logical fallacies, and the habit of questioning everything – including their own current beliefs.  Try on different filters. Invite others to describe their perspective. Be open.

And when a kid starts to go a direction you think is wrong – ALL WRONG – don’t panic. For one thing, they might be right. And regardless, it is part of their journey. Just keep asking questions and encouraging them to do the same.

Sounds simple enough, but those questions! Teachers sure know how to load a question to get a specific answer, don’t they? This isn’t just a teacher thing; it is a human thing to do. Begging the question or loading a question with assumptions is a very normal, but limiting, approach to communication.  Let’s look at a simple example from daily life:


Question loaded with suggestion: Do you want to go to Location A? (In scenario where many other options would be just as possible)

Question loaded with Begging the Question: Since you like Location A, when are you going there?

Pure Question: Where do you want to go?


None of the above seems like a problem in most circumstances, but let’s use this simple scenario to understand how loaded questioning works.

The question loaded with a suggestion requires that the person answering either agrees to go along with the suggestion or be put in the position of rejecting it in order to answer with another option.  Think that isn’t a big deal? What if the location was instead a person, and what if the person was standing in the room? Also, people can feel uncomfortable having to reject an idea offered to them, especially if they’re students in a classroom responding to a suggestion made by a teacher.

The question that begs another question in the above example makes the assumption that the person feels a certain way about something. What if this is an incorrect assumption? What if the person doesn’t really like that location, or perhaps just doesn’t want to be there today? Now the person has to wrestle with countering an assumption plus rejecting a suggestion.

The pure question allows for the greatest freedom for the person doing the answering. It also requires the most work from that person in coming up with an answer! If you wanted to help that person a little, offering several suggestions that end with a “or anywhere else you want to go” statement would be the best.

Again, the above scenarios seem rather benign, but we can apply the pattern to other situations. Think of how the same types of questioning can be applied to politics, views on social justice issues, or career exploration topics. What happens when we do this in interpersonal communication? In that literature class, the professor made assumptions about the religions of the students, and even applied her religious beliefs to the interpretation of works by others who also didn’t share her religion. Her questions then assumed that this same religious and cultural filter would always be applied. It was as valid a filter as any, but not the only one. So many assumptions, suggestions, and limitations resulted in a poor learning experience for at least this one student.

I have witnessed several scenarios like the one above, and not always with religion. Political affiliation, socioeconomic perspectives, cultural assumptions, and other personally-important yet limiting filters can come into play. Sometimes it is less personal; the limitations are simply based on the limited experiences and knowledge of the teacher. And everybody is limited!

By modeling careful questioning, and recognizing when a question is loaded, teachers are helping students think critically and openly about topics. They are expanding the horizons beyond their own perspectives. We should never limit students to that which we believe or think we understand. Not only is this pedagogically unsound, it is unethical.


To learn more about teaching students how to question, check out MindShift’s post: Why It’s Imperative to Teach How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill


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