Thursday, February 7, 2013

Rethinking (upwards) what our children are capable of learning

From the newspaper report on the new Israeli program
A program called Otzmot (meaning 'strengths') at Bar Ilan University in Israel began operating this year. It offers cognitively disabled young adults a tertiary level education. It will also enable them to mingle with non-disabled students in the library and cafeteria. 

The hope is that ultimately the students with disabilities will embark on a regular BA track. Currently, the only other such initiative is at the University of Ontario.

On its face, this is utterly irrelevant to our children. 

My daughter C., signaling that she is hungry
But in discussing this project, its director, Professor Hefziba Lifschutz-Vahav inadvertently spoke to us too. She said that usually, in her society, the cognitively impaired are not challenged intellectually beyond the age of 21. At that point they are relegated to such menial jobs as dish-washing, cleaning and stuffing envelopes. This  relates to their early cognitive decline as compared to the general population. So it is considered futile to teach them when any achievements will fade so soon afterward. Also, it is presumed that they won't grasp any abstract or complicated material. 

Finally, Lifschutz-Vahav adds that this attitude is "an expression of social rejection and prejudice." You think?

But she had encouraging news:
"All the studies and projects using mediated learning have shown ....[that] because of maturity, experience, exposure to more stimuli, a mature age enables understanding of tasks that were previously absent from their behavioral repertoire. That is, developmental delay is compensated for in later years."
Meaning that many of our children, written off at, say, the ripe old age of 5, are capable of learning much more now than they could previously. 

My C., dismissed years ago by her school as unteachable, could begin to learn more easily and quickly now. I would say the sky's the limit.  

Here are three more helpful tips gleaned from the lectures I attended two weeks ago at C.'s school.  
  1. You can't teach communication skills by depositing a child in front of a screen and leaving him there alone. Somebody must be there beside the child mediating. Today, for instance C. and I played hookey and I treated her to an intensive hour-long computer games session. I did lots of waiting, hugging, kissing and encouraging. By the end, she moved her hand several times onto the switch independently and after briefer intervals.
  2. Lack of communication skills breeds frustration and acting out. One of the lecturers told of a deaf and blind student who began attending school at 23. Her parents had cared for her physical needs well, but had never managed to impart to her any formal means of communication. She was so violent that two brawny guards - a.k.a. the "Behavior Team" -  were positioned beside the lecturer during each therapy session. The minute the student made what they deemed a threatening move, the guards approached her. After three years at school, the young woman was employed in an accountant's office, traveling alone by public transportation, married and living independently. She was, to quote the lecturer, "a brilliant woman locked inside a baby." 
  3. The lecturer said that she always tells her university students that, at any given moment in their classrooms, they must have answers to the questions "What are you teaching?" and "Why are you teaching that?" 
I would be happy if my child's teachers could handle those questions intelligently once a day.

No comments: