What My Special Needs Son Has Taught Me about Learning

By Jonathan Gold

In a normal year my seventh grade history students would be preparing to debate the merits of the American colonists’ arguments for declaring independence. This year, which would have been my fifteenth in the classroom, is no normal year; instead of teaching history to socially distanced students, I am on leave, working as a full-time homeschool support teacher for my special-needs 9-year-old. My son, Neko, has an extremely rare chromosomal disorder that causes deafness, autism, and significant developmental delays. Neko’s amazing school opened fully remote, and with childcare unfeasible for a child with his profile, my family and I decided I would stay home with him. Neko’s needs are fairly significant and life with him can be challenging. In our best moments, we think of him as a mystery: a magical child who hums with the energy of the universe in ways we can’t fully understand. Serving in this new role as his teacher has given me a different perspective on the complexities of teaching and learning.

An oversimplified understanding of teaching would imagine that teachers take what they know and deposit it—or bank it, in Paulo Freire’s conception—into students’ brains. Anyone who’s spent any time in the classroom knows that teaching and learning are far more complicated; teaching is much more about creating the conditions for students to learn, reflect, and grow than it is about downloading content. One reason for this is that it turns out to be incredibly difficult to know what and whether students are really learning. Even if we had the benefit of some yet-to-be-invented brain scan, learning is such a complex process that we wouldn’t be able to see new knowledge actually enter a student’s brain. And so, we rely on performance tasks and measurements to gauge new skills and content retention. I thought I understood how this process usually works, but I’m realizing that my sense of how to know whether a student is actually learning needs refinement. Neko is a skilled memorizer, for example, and it’s harder than I imagined to disentangle memorization from comprehension. Evaluating what he knows is an elaborate inference game of trying to suss out his understanding; this is probably true even for my typically developing students. How often have I assumed competence or understanding in my classroom without really knowing for sure? Neko may be more of a black box than most, but more generally, how do we really know when—and how—our students understand?

As a history teacher, my goal is for my students to develop the skills to understand the world as experienced by others. This is a challenging cognitive role shift, as is the analogous task for teachers: understanding the material as experienced by students and stepping into their brains. I have long understood that teachers need to spend more time trying to encounter material the way students do; but working with my son, who has such underdeveloped communication skills, has led me to wonder how much better I could be at seeing the material (and the world) through the eyes of my students. In the rush of a school day, how often have I pushed myself to think deeply about my students’ experience of the content and their time in my class? I went back and watched a video of Neko practicing counting and noticed that he was signing a modified “yes” each time he did something correctly. I hadn’t noticed this apparent act of self-awareness and encouragement the first time through. What habitual cues have I come to rely on when trying to determine students’ comprehension and questions, and what signals might I be missing? What would my classroom feel like if my focus was even more on untangling the mystery of each student? 

As teachers, our theories of our students’ minds need to be constantly revisited and refreshed. For me, one of the best ways to do that is to keep reading books by authors who have thought deeply about education and about society; some of my favorites are listed below. Writing in Hearing Their Voices: Teaching History to Students of Color, scholar Kay Traille notes that students come to our classrooms and subject areas with their own ideas and experiences. Traille’s book happens to be focused on my discipline of social studies, but the lesson applies more broadly as an invitation for teachers to more deeply appreciate their students’ lived experience before they enter our spaces. We may find that our students, like Neko, are more delightfully mysterious than we imagined. What would school look like if we approached each student as if they were a joyful riddle, waiting to be figured out and understood on their own terms? When this pandemic finally ends and I can return to my classroom, I hope to bring a pedagogy of discovery and mystery with me. And I have my magical son to thank for helping me refine it.

Suggested further reading from the author:

Democracy and Education by John Dewey

Education for Thinking by Deanna Kuhn

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny O’Dell

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

References:

Dewey, J. (1997). Democracy and education (Later printing ed.). New York: Free Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th ed.). New York: Continuum.

Kuhn, D. (2008). Education for thinking (illustrated ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

O’Dell, J. (2019). How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Solomon, A. (2013). Far from the tree: Parents, children, and the search for identity. New York: Scribner.

Traille, K. (2019). Hearing their voices: Teaching history to students of color. Lanham, MD:Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.


Jonathan Gold is a middle school history teacher at Moses Brown School, a Quaker school in Providence, RI. His classes focus on developing students’ historical thinking skills and understanding the moral stakes of studying history. He has written at Teaching Tolerance and elsewhere. You can him on Twitter @jonathansgold or exploring the forests of New England with his family.


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