If Teaching facts makes you a bad teacher, does rocking when you’re not stressed make you a bad autistic?

A monkey glances up and sees a banana, and that’s as far as he looks—

Eoin Colfer

Monkey tricks by VicaVersionOn perception:

One of my pet hates is when I hear educators moan about facts as if they were hazardous to health. I’ve heard them moan that they serve no purpose, that they’re a waste of time; outdated or or somehow superfluous; that it’s not proper teaching. There are numerous complaints, too many to list— however the median example, at least, the one I seem to come across most is: the date: 1066, the Battle of Hastings; 1588 and the Spanish Armada and so on and so forth…

And to some degree I agree that there is a limited quality, albeit re-usable quality to this type of knowledge. I love it, but that’s just me, give me more…

However, facts make learning easier, facts give concept-based teaching context. Facts make learning more effective. This is not just a an opinion, in some ways I wish it were, but unlike approaches based purely around concept, there is mountains of data which suggest that the use of facts as part of a learning strategy works; having a solid bank of knowledge regarding a particular topic, then makes conceptual-learning effective, not the other way around. The very notion that anyone can form long lasting contextual assessments on anything without knowing what it is they’re supposed to be contextualising, is counter-intuitive— but this is one of the things modern teachers are taught to do, even though it flies in the face of most of the evidence available to current researchers.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the ability to conceptualise is an imperative to successful learning; the reasoning, that this is the way it should be done comes from reasonable sources— these are not stupid people. It just doesn’t work as they’d like it to work; it cannot work. The reasoning is built on whimsy, not the real world. Facts: those concrete, unshakable units of information which are not subject to change are unpopular, when they should be the foundations upon which effective practices are built.

It’s difficult to understand why the idea of learning useful, relevant and re-usable information is frowned upon— as a former practitioner, I do at least understand the potential difficulties involved in the presentation— but again, the median argument for this is just as unreasonable: we can’t just have kids reciting dates over and over…

Of course not— that really is stupid. Professional teachers, should be able to incorporate some kind of fact-based content into their lessons if they are proficient in their subject, without the furore— they do it everyday as it is, but there’s something about the word: fact, they’re taught not to like. I would’ve taught in a dress if I had cold hard data suggesting cross-dressing made learning more effective; and that should be the only thing that matters. There are approaches which work and some which work better than others; some are just unpopular.

The reason I bring it up actually has nothing to do with teaching, but the underlying trait which shapes this particular issue.

It’s a packaging problem— rightly or wrongly our perception becomes this: so it’s gotta be true. It’s exactly the same problem we have with labels— some of which effectively describe certain people and conditions, but are wildly unpopular. Some of which are too accurate, so a semantically broader variant is encouraged as preferable. Personally, I struggle with aspects of this— I don’t find words, tags or labels to be inherently functional without context. One of the problems of being concept-based instead of substance based, will be an increased obsession of eradicating ‘offensive’ lexis, regardless of context. Which in itself, is an act I find deeply offensive.

Anyway, the catalyst for this came about from several sources, independent of which, I wouldn’t have had a contextual springboard to unite them— however when taken together, there are similarities which I think are fascinating.

The first was this article1, which recounts the author’s experiences with a couple of group sessions for adults on the autistic spectrum. She writes:

“I told the group about my own experiences in coming to terms with autism, about wanting to be autistic because it was the only thing that felt like all my experiences finally made some sense. About redirecting my energy and efforts towards things that would help me cope, instead of things that would make me appear normal. Allowing myself to be more visibly autistic.

“At those last words, the entire group gasped in shock … I’m not joking. I was the only one there who thought it wasn’t actually all that bad to be stimming in public.”

Now my first reaction was to try to empathise with group— some of whom were clearly uneasy with the author’s rocking, but I couldn’t consolidate what it was about the article that was impressing on me without resorting to speculation, despite the resonance of one of the questions: “If I don’t do things like that, then maybe I’m not actually autistic?”

It wasn’t until I read this post, that it all clicked into place: that, like some teachers’ point-blank refusal to accept that facts do not give you cancer, what I had in front of me was another packaging problem— which lead me to re-read the question as, I wouldn’t mind being autistic if I didn’t do things like that…

What struck me upon the second reading was an event from another session, which thanks to the second article, had even greater meaning in this context:

“[O]ne of them said to me that maybe I needed a time-out to calm down, because I was rocking back and forth so much. And when I said I was just focusing on the conversation, and not feeling anxious at all, he didn’t believe me.

Was she not believed because: autistics only rock when their stressed; or because ‘he’ only rocks when he’s stressed: so it’s gotta be true? It starts to become clear that across a wide range of things— how narrow and inflexible our associations can really be.

However, without Disabled, Not Broken2, I wouldn’t have written this at all. It finds the author posing a simple question and answering it by defining what he is and what he isn’t through a short exploration of language and its denotations: even the words which we use to define other words, which we then use to define who we are or what we think we are, aren’t always satisfactory contextually.

Add to that, that if you rock back and forth you are defined by your actions and emotional state: you must be autistic and you must need a time out. If you’re a teacher and heaven forbid you teach facts: you are defined by an historical context; that you’re out of touch, you’re doing something wrong and a bad practitioner. Perhaps, by the same reasoning: if you rock and you’re not stressed, it makes you a bad autistic?

In each case there are misconceptions based on a perception that has attributed to it, a value of some kind, so if you do it, think it, use it or say it, according to that perception: it’s gotta be true.

Right?

I don’t know, it’s just an observation—

But without a bank of knowledge to draw on, I wouldn’t have been able to get far.

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