Tag Archives: child study

Review Essay: Poverty, Cognition, and Learning

Because I’ve spent most of my career working with adolescents from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, I have developed great interest in poverty’s effect on a child’s ability to thrive in general and learn in particular. Elsewhere on this blog, I posted a review of Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s first-rate Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (New York: Picador, 2014). The book, as its title suggests, addresses scarcity in household economies and its direct effect on cognition. Rather than reiterate my review of that book in this post, I seek to open a serious discourse on the challenges poverty erects to success in school for vulnerable children. There really remains no doubt that the economic reality of the students we serve circumscribes their ability to learn. Indeed, poverty may be the salient characteristic of many struggling learners. 

A few years ago, I read The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. The book rewards a reading with, among other thing, the authors’ acknowledgement of the effect of various forms of stress–including poverty–on children’s development and, therefore, their ability to learn. This took me quite by surprise, because in my experience with the relatively dismal professional development workshops offered by the New York City Department of Education, this is not an issue that is dealt with adequately; in fact, it is all but ignored.

Moreover, over the years I’ve belonged to a variety of teachers’ interest groups on social media (e.g. the Badass Teachers Association–you can find them on Twitter and Facebook) in which I have heard it said again and again that in professional development sessions in their schools, and in discussions with administrators, the attitude toward poverty as a cause of learning problems ranged from willful ignorance to open contempt for the idea that impoverished students struggle as a direct consequence of their economic situation. One needn’t look much further than the “no-excuses” charter schools to see this ideology in action: poverty and its drag on cognition–like the rest of the myriad obstacles in life disadvantaged kids face–is simply not an “excuse” for struggling in school, this argument seems to go.

As teachers, we ignore the issue of poverty at our peril–but more importantly, we ignore it at our students’ peril.

I’ve been struggling with this essay for about eighteen months, but I heard something recently on the local news here in Vermont that animated me to finally sit down, conduct the research, and write this damn piece. Like everywhere in ‘Murica now, Vermonters of a certain socioeconomic class regularly experience food insecurity. Vermont Public Radio interviewed a man in St. Johnsbury, gateway to Vermont’s storied Northeast Kingdom, who suffers a disability and has lost work on account of the COVID19 pandemic. Hearing him describe the amount of strategizing he does to keep he and his mother (did I mention they both contend with diabetes?) fed and sheltered left me exhausted. While I have lived in poverty (I didn’t get my first college degree until I was 35, so I dealt with some very lean times in my twenties, especially in the years I worked in migrant farm labor), I never struggled as these folks do. I always had enough to eat.

If you search ERIC (the Educational Resources Information Center) using the terms “poverty and learning,” and check “peer-reviewed only,” the site yields 1,485 articles. “Poverty and school” brings back 3,875 peer-reviewed articles. Thus, the issue of poverty and learning clearly has been studied: a review of the titles and the articles’ abstracts indicates a consensus of scholarly opinion that poverty attenuates and restricts cognition and learning and that schools must address and seek where possible to mitigate the effects of poverty on students. Why are we still debating the effects of poverty, I wonder? Why have so many people who ought to know better decided to dismiss poverty as an “excuse” when research clearly shows that the struggles of poverty hamper learning?

This essay seeks to review six articles on the subject. I chose them at random from ERIC. Let’s take a look. I’ve uploaded them all to this post as PDFs.

First up is “The Effects of Poverty on Academic Achievement” by Kendra McKenzie from the BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education (Volume 11, Issue 2, 2019). Like so many the articles on the issue of poverty in learning, including the six sampled for this article, Ms. McKenzie starts with a straightforward assertion: “Academic success can be predicted by socioeconomic status.” This is a refereed article that serves as a review of the current literature on poverty and learning. Therefore, it relays all the things we already know about poverty as a source of stress, alienation, and conflict. This essay emphasizes the biological impediments to learning that poverty engenders; as Ms McKenzie observes, “children raised in poverty are likely to experience cognitive lags due to significant changes in brain structure in areas related to memory and emotion. Poverty may make it difficult for parents to purchase toys and books to promote cognitive stimulation for their children, thereby causing the children to have a lesser vocabulary and a more directed speech.” To put this more concretely, when families don’t have enough to eat, it follows that they don’t have money for Melissa & Doug Toys or Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle books. Moreover, the stress associated with straitened circumstances (this is the main thrust, incidentally, behind the work Mullainathan and Shafir did in preparing Scarcity) can, Ms. McKenzie observes, “…result in shrinking of neurons in the frontal lobes of a child’s brain…”, which is the area of the brain “… responsible for the child’s ability to make judgements, plan, and control impulsivity.” If you know anything about executive function, you understand the problem here.

This second article, “Middle Grades Student Achievement and Poverty Levels: Implications for Teacher Preparation” by Lauren Dotson and Virginia Foley (who are, respectively, at least at the time of this article’s publication in the fall of 2016, an assistant principal of a school in North Carolina and an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at East Tennessee State University) appeared in The Journal of Learning in Higher Education in 2016. Like the rest of the literature reviewed here, this article makes the case that “Correlational studies show a strong relationship between high poverty and low academic performance.” Indeed, where testing is concerned, this essay is a carefully assembled quantitative analysis of standardized testing in our schools. The gist of this essay is that we have contrived schools that are essentially the exact opposite of what children growing up in poverty need. Instead of creating learning environments based on process, we have environments that lurch between testing and punishing students based on a set of inflexible “standards” that often bear little if any resemblance to what teaching and learning are and aim to accomplish. If you are concerned with the number of tests to which we subject students (I am, incidentally), then this quote will help you understand the gravamen of the article as well as the problems practicing educators–i.e. teachers–face in schools where impoverished children are preponderant: “However, as the push for increased accountability gained momentum it left many students falling through the cracks; standardized tests do not take the varying experiences of our students into consideration when it comes to test results, and as a result, achievement gaps became the norm for many subgroups but most noticeably for our economically disadvantaged children.” Enough said here? I think so.

Moving right along to our third article, here’s a piece titled “Poverty and Brain Development in Children: Implications for Learning” by Victor E. Dike from the Asian Journal of Education and Training (Vol. 3 No. 1, 2017). Once more we encounter a familiar thesis: “Research suggests that poverty affects brain development in children and that the implications for learning are more compelling today given the attention the issue has attracted.” In this relatively short (five pages, including the scholarly apparatus) article, Mr. Dike reviews both the biological and cultural influences of poverty in children’s ability to learn; he makes this unsurprising statement–given what the other literature in this post present and analyze on the issue of poverty and stress: “The longer a child is exposed to poverty and stress, the larger the negative impact on the cognition, emotion, and self-regulatory learning skills of the person.” If I ran a school and had anything to say about professional development obligations, I would probably use this article as an overview to open a lengthy inquiry into the research on poverty and learning and its implications for classroom practice.

This fourth article, “Neuroeducation and Early Elementary Teaching: Retrospective Innovation for Promoting Growth with Students Living in Poverty,” by Karyn Allee-Herndon and Sherron Killingsworth Roberts, respectively affiliated with Mercer University and the University of Central Florida, underlines as its purpose an examination of “the salient connections between poverty and brain development.”  It comes from the International Journal of the Whole Child (Vol. 3, No. 2, 2018). As its title indicates, this essay is considerably more technical and focuses on the neuroeducational consequences of poverty, particularly organic delays in the development of self-regulation and executive function. The article either enlightens of reminds its readers, depending on their prior knowledge of these cognitive structures, that “Existing neuroscience research suggests a predictive relationship between executive function and to literacy and numeracy skill development (Shonkoff, 2011). Blair and Raver (2015) provide further evidence linking executive function as a predictive agent for academic achievement associated with socioeconomic status for children of poverty.” After explaining the basic science and the state of research on poverty and developing brain, the authors offer a variety of suggestions for classroom practice when dealing with children living in poverty: language games, storytelling, dramatic or imaginary play, games and puzzles, and gross motor play and music and movement. The final pages of the article list a number of commercially available games, puzzles and books for expanding classroom practice to include the kinds of everyday activities people of all ages do to keep their minds engaged and agile. These are the kinds of things you would find in a home where educational attainment and sufficient disposable income are present. Nota bene that the author’s prescriptions for building responsive and nimble minds include nothing in the way of, say, reciting a litany of decontextualized facts followed by a high-stakes test demanding recall of those facts. Just sayin’.

The fifth article I grabbed from ERIC, “Teachers’ Beliefs About Poverty and the Impact on Learning Disabilities in a Poor, Rural School District” comes to us from The Rural Educator (35 (3) 2014) and its author, Dr. Renee Chandler at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The first sentence of this essay sounds a familiar theme (and I apologize for belaboring the point): “Socioeconomic status serves as the strongest single indicator of students’ educational outcomes.” As its title suggests, this article deals with rural poverty–something very easy to overlook in our society–and how students are identified with learning disorders in educational settings. Frankly, much of the material about identification made my eyes glaze over, mostly because of my own experience in the process of drafting the individual education plans that govern the education of a child with special needs. In my experience, these documents are drafted mostly in haste not by frontline educators but by careerist bureaucrats who happen to work in schools. Would it surprise you to learn that Dr. Chandler found that many teachers see class structure in the United States through the lens of their own experience? And that these same teachers don’t fully understand, either as a sociological abstraction or a lived experience, what poverty is? As Dr. Chandler puts it, “The teachers’ beliefs about student performance reflected our society’s emphasis on the principle that hard work surmounts all obstacles.” It’s hard to disagree with the next sentence: “The philosophy supports the practice of ‘blaming the victim’: When students in poverty fail, they must not be working hard enough.” That is and has been, in a sufficient number of my experiences in our public schools that I have begun to consider–and regret–it as the norm, the ideological dynamic that governs the consciousness of far too many teachers. In any case, this “…belief that hard work overcomes poverty does not take into account the myriad of circumstances that make hard work in school seem fruitless to many students in poverty.” If you’ve worked with poor kids, you know that a simple elaboration of the Protestant work ethic isn’t likely to motivate them–you’ll need other tools at your disposal to involve impoverished kids in their own educations.

Finally, here is a three-page fact sheet from the National Education Association (NEA–the teachers’ union to which I have most recently belonged), on competent and effective practices for classroom teachers who educate children who have experienced poverty and trauma. There are twelve bullet points here, including “Celebrate assets,” “Create a safe atmosphere for learning,” “Give students a sense of control,” “Teach emotional skills,” and one of my own favorites in the classroom, “Build students’ vocabulary.” Most of this is common-sense stuff which should (I hope) come as no surprise to teachers. This short essay is excerpted from this twenty-one-page booklet from the NEA titled Teaching Children from Poverty and Trauma.

That’s it. As I say, I have struggled since late 2018 to find time and energy to move beyond the first two paragraphs of this essay and get it into the form in front of you now. I think there is the outline of several professional development sessions in these articles. Let me add to this professional development inquiry on executive skills and function I developed in 2016 as part of my own professional development responsibilities at the New York City school in which I served at that time.

As I write this, citizens of good conscience across the globe are taking to the streets in protest of the egregious, sadistic murder of George Floyd and the pattern of extrajudicial murders of Americans of African descent across a period of years in the United States. We live in a moment pregnant with possibility. The very least we educators can do is use this time to advocate for our most vulnerable students–those who through no fault of their own find themselves at an economic, social and sometimes cultural disadvantage in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

Language, Learning, and Social Integration

“Verbal communication is the basis for everything that occurs in classrooms, whether this is the delivery of new information or the regulation of behavior. Although language skills are biologically primary, their development in children of the same age can be highly uneven, Further, a significant proportion of children in any class may have developmental language disorders, which may or may not have been formally diagnosed. Such disorders typically impact a student’s success with written or spoken language.”

Ashman, Greg, and Pamela Snow. “Oral Language Competence: How it Relates to Classroom Behavior.” American Educator Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2019): 37-41.

The Current Number of The American Educator

Elsewhere on this blog, I have sung the praises of The American Educator, the quarterly published by my union, The American Federation of Teachers. Let me belabor my point a tad further here by saying that I think this is a first-rate journal of educational theory and practice; it’s where I first encountered Daniel Willingham, who really is doing as much as anyone out there (with his “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column in The American Educator as well as his excellent books) to assist classroom teachers in applying research to practice.

The current number of the magazine addresses the issue of teaching traumatized students. I started my career working with traumatized adolescents in one of New England’s “ivy league” psychiatric hospitals, and I have continued to work with these kids as a teacher.

A discussion of this population’s needs is long, long, overdue. I cannot sufficiently or strongly encourage teachers to read this issue of The American Educator from cover to cover. This is vital stuff every teacher should know.

Professor Daniel Willingham’s First Demonstration of Memory

[Nota bene, please, that I originally posted much of this material in a Weekly Text from August 28, 2015, which would have made it one of the earliest publications on this blog. This lesson continues to evolve, so I have decided to publish it once more with a couple of supplementary materials. If you have used this in your classroom, and plan to use it again, you may want to check back here every so often to see if I’ve added documents. I’ve also given this post a new title so that it is easy to search and locate on Mark’s Text Terminal.]

Is there a way we can assist our students in remembering what we teach them in the classroom? More broadly, can we help students become stronger, more effective, and therefore more satisfied learners, particularly in terms of retention (de rigeur now for hyper-tested students), by showing them how memory actually functions? The answer, or part of the answer at least, thanks to Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is yes. Professor Willingham writes a column called “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” for The American Educator, which is an excellent quarterly journal of research into pedagogical practice and educational policy issues published by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). I’m amazed at the consistently cogent and useful scholarly research the AFT presents in this first-rate publication.

Anyway, in the winter 2008-2009 issue, Professor Willingham published his column under the title–clicking on this hyperlink will download of PDF of the article–“What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?” This is a cognitive science experiment in three parts that demonstrates the role of thought and memory in the learning process. So far, I’ve developed for use in teaching a lesson adapted from Professor Willingham’s First Demonstration of Memory, will help you and your students conduct the first of these three experiments, then sort out its immediate results. Through this clever and concrete demonstration, students will learn that thinking is the parent of memory–as Professor Willingham emphasizes.  I like to start the year with this lesson; in fact, I teach it on the first day of school, before discussing classroom norms and expectations, as a way of setting the tone (i.e. your learning comes first) for the year.

To get to the instructional material in the PDF, you’ll need download the article by clicking on the link above, then scroll down through the document to page 26, “Demonstration of the Three Principles.” You’ll use Demonstration 1: once you’ve read through the procedure for the demonstration. Nonetheless, here is the unit plan for all three lessons that rationalize the use of these three demonstrations of memory with students. Eventually, I’ll write the other two lessons for demonstrations two and three, and post those here as well.

To the documents for this lesson: here is the lesson plan for demonstration one. Although the PDF posted above includes the procedures for all three demonstrations, here is a typescript of the procedure for the first demonstration in Microsoft Word, should should need or see fit to alter or adapt this material for your class. This structured and numbered worksheet might hasten the process of delivering this lesson, particularly for struggling students. Over time, working with a large and homogenous group or students, I developed two supports for concluding the work on this lesson. Students will need to determine, as part of this exercise, which kinds of words they remembered. This first version of the support give students the words in the order in which they were read, and asks them to find the words they remembered by searching the list. That requires focus and the ability to sort out information; some students I have served over the years struggled with this part of the activity. So I designed a second version of the support with the words read arranged by type in columns in a table, and therefore a bit less challenging to interpret and process.

I find this lesson, taught to a well-focused class generally takes less than the 44 minutes my school has deemed adequate for conveying new information and providing students with an opportunity to use it. After finishing the procedural work, and sorting out the results of that work to assess its meaning (it’s part of the procedure in the article), I like to ask students a few questions. The big question is, of course, Why did you remember the words you rated for pleasantness? Another query I use is What can students and teachers do to work together to study words in a way helps students remember their meaning and use them in their future discourses? (Do your students understand the concept of discourse? It seems to me it’s a word and concept high school students really ought to know.) I also ask questions that prepare students for some of the work we’ll do that is animated by Professor Willingham’s first demonstration: Is there something common to words that can help us understand them as families? which helps to rationalize the use of word root worksheets. Is there a way to learn words by thinking about what they might mean?  justifies the use of do now focus on one word worksheets.

In any case, through this clever and concrete demonstration, students will learn that thinking is the parent of memory–as Professor Willingham emphasizes. I like to start the year with this lesson; in fact, I teach it on the first day of school, before discussing classroom norms and expectations, as a way of setting the tone (i.e. your learning and the means by which it is accomplished are of paramount importance in this classroom) for the year.

Most  of the vocabulary building work I’ll publish on Mark’s Text Terminal derives directly from my understanding of the cognitive mechanisms Professor Willingham’s first demonstration exposes. This lesson, if nothing else, may help you persuade resistant students that this is a useful way to learn and master new words and the concepts or things they define.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Research and Practice

FINAL THOUGHTS: LIMITATIONS OF RESEARCH

“The scope of what researchers can accomplish is limited in many ways…. Though ideally researchers would assess the learning and cognition of a representative sample of people, meaning one that best captures the breadth and diversity of humanity, in practice this is hardly ever the case. Furthermore, most if not all brain and cognitive researchers conduct their analyses in laboratory settings, where as many variables are identified and controlled as possible. Compared to the control of a laboratory, a classroom is filthy with variables of many types.

Why should the distinction between the control of variables and other factors in laboratories and classrooms matter? Put simply, it matters because ‘evidence-based’ is often mistakenly interpreted as meaning the same thing as ‘field-tested.’ To say that a particular teaching strategy or curricular initiative is ‘evidence-based’ can indicate many things. It certainly may mean, as most assume, that the phenomenon has been studied in classroom settings by educational researchers and teachers and has been found to work. And it this latter situation is the case, great! However, more often than not this label means that a particular educational strategy or initiative is based on evidence that has emerged from research studies conducted in laboratories, or it is based in evidence.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this other definition and I also do not believe that it is intentionally used to deceive. Indeed, many of the strategies proposed in this text represent exactly this type of research-based practice, namely those that have yet to be tested in classroom settings. However, any time you come across something that is research-based rather than research-validated (or field-tested), remember that the minimum threshold for this label is that the strategy is based on a review of the existing literature. Thus it is ‘field-tested’ or ‘research-validated’ and not ‘evidence-based” that should be seen as the educational equivalent of the ‘Good Housekeeping’ stamp of approval.”

Excerpted from: Rekart, Jerome L. The Cognitive Classroom: Using Brain and Cognitive Science to Optimize Student Success. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013.

Cultural Literacy: Spanish Civil War

Because I seek a teaching license in Massachusetts, I had to start my home computer this afternoon to get out an email to the licensing office up there. As long as I’m sitting here, I might as well post this Cultural Literacy worksheet on the Spanish-American War.

Now it’s time to eat spinach burek from Dukagjini. Yum!

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

One Problem with Homework, and a Solution

I’ve been working my way slowly through Ross Greene’s  books, If you teach struggling learners, I encourage you to take a look at his work. At the moment I’m reading The Explosive Child (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), in which Dr. Greene has this to say about homework (I prefer to use the term “independent practice”) and the inflexible child:

“Many parents, teachers, and school administrators believe that homework is an essential component of a child’s education. Which is fine, except that many inflexible-explosive children find homework to be incredibly frustrating because they don’t have any brain energy left after a long day at school, their medication has worn off, they have learning problems that make completing homework an agonizing task, or because homework–especially long-term assignments–requires a lot of organization and planning. Thus, it’s no accident that these children often exhibit some of their most extreme inflexibility and explosiveness when they are trying to do homework.

Do these difficulties render some children incapable of completing the same homework assignments as their classmates? Yes. Is it always possible to address these difficulties effectively? No. Does having a child melt down routinely over homework help him feel more successful about doing homework? No. Are these difficulties a good reason to alter or adjust homework assignments? Yes. I’ve yet to be convinced that the best way to instill a good work ethic in a child–or to help his parents become actively or productively involved in his education–is by inducing and enduring five hours of meltdowns every school night. The best way to instill a good work ethic is to assign homework that is both sufficiently challenging and doable in terms of quantity and content. Achieving this goal, of course, takes a little extra effort by the adults who are overseeing the assigning and completing of homework.”

The Weekly Text, July 1, 2016: A Trove of Documents for Conducting a Professional Development Inquiry into Executive Skills

Are you done with the 2015-2016 school year? I gather that our school year here in New York City goes much later than other districts in the United States. Our last day was Tuesday the 28th.

So it’s summer break! I always schedule my share of fun for these months, but I also work some–because I want to. You can continue to look for the Weekly Text at Mark’s Text Terminal, because I only plan to miss three Fridays during the summer.

Over the years, as an employee of the New York City Department of Education, I’ve experienced a mixed bag of professional development sessions. A few years ago, at least in the school in which I presently serve, teachers were responsible for performing professional inquiry groups, which selected its own topic for, well, inquiry, and analysis, germane to the work we do, but obviously for improving pedagogy. For this week, then, here are–in three separate links–the raw materials for a professional development presentation on executive skills and function I wrote for the group I joined in the 2011-2012 school year.

First up are the the proposal for this inquiry group, and a learning support for teachers, which are the teacher’s materials for this presentation; first up is the proposal for this inquiry group, and a learning support for teachers; second, here are four student surveys to assess executive skills; third, and finally, here is a letter explaining these surveys to students. I adapted the student surveys from Ellen Galinsky’s excellent book Mind in the Making.

Addendum, July 27, 2016: Here is the scoring criteria for the surveys that this professional development asks students to complete.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Meeting Fundamental Needs

“Children and adults alike share needs to be safe and secure; to belong and to be loved; to experience self-esteem through achievement, mastery, recognition, and respect; to be autonomous; and to experience self-actualization by pursuing one’s inner abilities and finding intrinsic meaning and satisfaction in what one does.”

Thomas J. Sergiovanni Building Community in Schools (1994)

Excerpted from: Howe, Randy, ed. The Quotable Teacher. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2003.

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.