Learning Outside the Lines

Reading Jonathan Mooney and David Cole’s book Learning Outside the Lines offers the special education teacher both a disturbing and an edifying look at special educational theory and practice as students experience them. This is  particularly true for these authors, both of whom struggled in special ed classrooms. Their book also tells a distressing story about the hell on earth school can be for students with diverse learning styles. Both Mr. Mooney and Mr. Coles are quite candid about their struggles in their lives at school.

Mr. Mooney, I suspect, is the dominant prose stylist in this book’s composition; he went on to write the entertaining and enlightening travelogue (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), The Short Bus. That said, both of the authors contribute a great deal to this useful and heartfelt manual.

For those of us who seek to assist struggling learners, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that many of our charges don’t appreciate their roles as the objects of our efforts. Who better than our students themselves to aid us, and thereby become the co-subjects of our teaching? Who better understands the needs of a struggling learner than that learner him or herself? This book, which was really written for students, makes a powerful case for the teacher’s role as that of facilitator, and therefore as cooperating agent in the project to raise our students’ (nascent?) awareness of their own way of learning and understanding the content we are obliged to teach them. For me, the strength of this book rests in what it offers people who are not necessarily its intended audience, i.e. teachers. As the book’s graphic design indicates, Messrs. Mooney and Cole wrote it for students who want to learn with their own  “…purpose in mind–not your parents’, not your teacher’s, not your school’s.”

Dr, Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in issues of focus, concentration and attention, supplies a thoughtful forward. A self-described “stupid kid,” Dr. Hallowell is a widely published author and served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for 21 years. Given these bona fides, and given the fact that Jonathan Mooney and David Coles both graduated near the top of their class at Brown, the thoughtful reader will pause to wonder just what it is people mean when they speak of “stupid kids.”

This insiders’ perspective on education in general and “special education” in particular is simply invaluable. Those of us working in the field will recognize an unhappy aspect of our work: we are trained, whether we care to admit it or not, to recognize learning struggles and differences as disabilities and deficits. Within this epistemological framework, recognizing and assessing potential is by definition a challenge. This is unfortunate indeed, as it is almost inevitably an outlook that will diminish goals and reinforce the status quo.

Until special education teachers (and I confess I am increasingly uncomfortable with the term “special education”) are trained to recognize and nurture potential, and not plan for deficits and disabilities, we condemn ourselves–and more tragically our students–to an endless cycle of tedious remediation and rote work. We will miss the very rich possibility of helping our students develop potential and talents they may not even know they have. We should seek to be discoverers of potential, not describers of deficits.

I bid Jonathan Mooney and David Cole long and productive careers. We teachers need their counsel on how to do our jobs.

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