Time to Move On to Other Subjects

            There is always something to say about teaching French as a Second Language in Canada, but I feel that I have said enough.  For now.  Many thanks to those of you who joined the discussion.

            At the moment I am embarked on a new topic in education; I am studying the 2005 document from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Education for All:The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6.  It is taking me some time to plough through it.  I am looking at it as a teacher who might not only be expected to implement the document but look like she is implementing it.  There is an awful lot about tracking and questionnaires in Education for All so I have been copying, modifying and creating my own versions of the kinds of tracking charts and questionnaires that seem called for.  As I create them, I imagine myself as an elementary teacher doing her best to teach well and I try hard to think of ways to 1) make them work for the teacher and her students and 2) reduce the nuisance factor that so many new ideas have.

            This takes time, of course, and I will be willing to share my attempts with my readers and colleagues out there when I have finished.  I have also gone back to an old hobby of mine, studying the brain.  This sounds very impressive before I explain that I have done so little science that axons and dendrites were new concepts for me.  It’s going to take me a while to grasp how the electrics in the brain work.

            I am using a rather odd assortment of books to teach myself.  The key book is The Human Brain Coloring Book by M. C. Diamond, A. B. Scheibel and L. M. Elson.  This book has given me a whole new respect for colouring as a learning tool.  There are others in the series and trust me, they aren’t for children.  Check them out sometime.

            I am also using Netter’s Concise Neuroanatomy. I bought it because the pictures were beautiful but it’s also a second opinion when the colouring book isn’t clear.   Zen and the Brain by James Austin and Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens make up my little library of reference books on the brain.  The former I bought because Buddhism fascinates me and the latter because of my interest in consciousness.  As I read them, I come across references to the brain and I work through the colouring book until I have a better understanding.  Then I go back to the books.  I keep a notebook with blank and ruled pages to sketch my own drawings and diagrams, record and integrate notes from the books and jot down questions for later.

            So why am I telling you all this?  When I learn and when I teach I observe how I do it and what seems to work best.  It always informs my understanding of the research I read and often raises questions I don’t find direct answers to in the research.  That in turn gives me more ideas to try in the classroom or in my own learning.

            My initial degree was in English; as a lover of books it really didn’t seem necessary to study much beyond reviewing content.  I have rarely had courses since where it was necessary to actively learn content.  The truth is that the further we go in education, the more we specialise and the more we specialise, the greater ease we feel in the subjects we study.  We may have to work hard, but our engagement is such that the learning seems to come almost naturally.

            A few years after I started teaching, I was given a job that involved teaching math to two grade seven classes.  As I had forgotten my multiplication tables, I decided to take a grade thirteen reach-ahead summer course.  It ended up being a review of almost all the math I had ever learned. 

What I learned about being the dummy in the class was invaluable.  I knew I was smart enough to do it, but I didn’t have the tools; I struggled every day both with the homework and catching up.  When we worked in groups I realised that I was good at analyzing the problem and the other students were good at figuring out which formula to use.  I passed with 53% but I had learned a great deal about how it felt to struggle in math and what strategies would help struggling learners.  More teachers need to take a course or two outside their comfort zone in areas where they would have to struggle to learn.

Learning about the brain for me is more about memory and fitting together information than thinking. In studying the brain, I am doing the kind of learning I have always avoided: memorising facts.  By observing what works for me, maybe I will gain some insight into what might work for students.  The $64,000 word for it is metacognition.

But that’s not the only reason I’m studying the brain.  It seems to me that learning disabilities are caused by subtle insults to the brain and that the principles behind the techniques that help stroke victims could be applied to children and people with learning disabilities.  How much better would it be if we could cure rather than accommodate learning disabilities?  There is already some work being done in this area.  Norman Hoidge in the The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science refers to Barbara Arrowsmith and her school in Toronto.  It seems to me that her techniques resemble techniques used for rehabilitation for people with brain injuries.  It will be interesting to see what will come from further research into her techniques.

If my speculations are correct and her work bears it out, then our integrative approach to dealing with learning disabilities is exactly the wrong way to go about working with these children.  There are also other implications for teaching regular students; perhaps the repetition involved in teaching handwriting, math facts and memorising poetry does more than just teach those specific subjects.  It may be that we threw the baby out with the bathwater when we rejected rote work as not valuable educationally.

Finally, current research in mental illness indicates that some illnesses such as depression leave actual changes in the brain and brain chemistry.  That some illnesses do not appear until late adolescence or adulthood suggests that there is a trigger in the maturational process.  Is it the maturation of the brain or the body?  Is there some practice, such as yoga, meditation or the deliberate habit of kindness, which would inhibit some mental illnesses?  These are things worth reflection and research.

I doubt that I will ever have enough expertise in the brain to make a significant contribution to the field of understanding the brain.  On the other hand, in the age of specialists, it seems to me that there is a great need of generalists who poke around in a variety of areas looking for connections and patterns.  Perhaps I may be fortunate enough to make such a contribution or even persuade one of you to look beyond your field.


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