Thursday, May 07, 2009

Seeds of Dynamic Learning

Suppose you were going to teach your child to wash her hands. The typical way would be to head to the sink and wash hands together, step-by-step, side-by-side, or do it hand over hand. In the autism world, we often get more elaborate by making a picture schedule with PECS or putting together a series of ABA cards for each step (if you are skeptical, go here). When a child has a particular problem with this ritual, we might even write a social story to address the issue. For older children, we often type up a list of steps or organize highly structured tasks, often done independently through work boxes.

The reason for the static teaching styles given above is usually challenges with executive functioning: "a set of mental processes that helps us connect past experience with present action." Rather than fill in the developmental gaps needed to learn how to code and rely on episodic memory, it is more expedient to compensate by relying on strengths (visual processing, pattern recognition, and enjoyment of routines). When you are living autism 24/7 by homeschooling, working with large groups of autistic children in the school system, or facing challenging circumstances, I can completely understand the very real need to set up a system that works on automatic pilot. Where I get concerned is when nearly all teaching is done in a static fashion.

We do not always learn life skills statically. Two weeks ago, David, my sixteen-year-old neurotypical giant, wanted to make macaroni and cheese. I asked if he needed help with his first attempt, but he declined. The first batch was horrible, and we gave it to the dog. I asked him what he thought happened, and he said they were too chewy and did not cook long enough. I asked what he could do to prevent that problem in the future. He decided to taste test before pouring off the water. When he was making his second batch a few days later, I noticed he did not boil the water first. I told him that noodles turn out better if you boil the water first. This time, the mac and cheese was edible, but not perfect. A few days later, his third time, the texture of the noodles was spot-on, but the cheese sauce was too thick and he told me he needed to add more milk. His fourth try, made yesterday, was PERFECT.

The new RDI book (sample chapter here) started turning my wheels on the difference between static and dynamic learning. Dr. Gutstein, author of the book, based RDI on the theory that the autistic brain is underconnected (even genetic research is starting to support this theory). He proposes that neural connectivity depends on dynamic learning through experiences with the caveat that the optimal learning environment must strike a balance between continuity (sameness, familiarity, predictability) and flexibility (being challenged to adapt to novel and uncertain situations). In short, challenge the child without instigating meltdowns!

Every chapter ends with a series of questions that require dynamic thinking. My brain has been working overtime to answer questions like "If you were to construct an educational program that enhanced dynamic neural integration, what would it look like?" I reflected quite a bit on a quote he pulled from the 21st Century Learning Alliance, "The brain learns best when it is trying to 'make sense'. When it is building on what it already knows. When it is working in complex, situated circumstances. When it accepts the significance of what it is doing. When it is exercising in highly challenging, but low threat environments." As I ponder this, I am already seeing how a Charlotte Mason education enhances dynamic neural integration, but I will blog that later.

Before I left for Minnesota, Pamela told me she had planted an apple seed. She watered it for a few days, but nothing grew. This is the first year Pamela has shown an interest in gardening, so I bought some supplies. Pamela seemed to know a great deal about planting seeds, so rather than showing her what to do, I decided to let her show me what she knew. I played dumb occasionally so Pamela would have more opportunities to guide me. I think I need to find more opportunities like this where Pamela gets to think on her feet.

1 comment:

poohder said...

I loved Pamela's "thinking on her feet", it was awesome to see her wheels turning. I counted at least 14 different decisions she made during that short clip. WOW, she's getting a lot of practice on
thinking WITHOUT being prompted. She was SO engaged in the process. GREAT!