In the most desperate of moments we contemplated hiring the local autistic youth in the village to take care of the pre-school children. He’s a good-natured fellow though he dresses in rags and is mostly treated as the village idiot. He’s the only one the ethnic minority students will speak Lao to. If he could just get some clean clothes and take care of the key to open the classroom, he could be the adult presence that these children need. Anyway, we’re not really sure if he’s autistic because he is charmingly social and can remember people’s names even if he’s only met them once eight months ago. He just didn’t seem interested in a job, that’s all.
“Autism is part of who I am.” This is what Temple Grandin has said. She was made famous in a movie about herself and helped the world to know that autism doesn’t prevent people from getting a PhD. In her case, she revolutionized cattle-processing facilities in the US because of her superior spatial reasoning and understanding of animal behavior. She has also reminded us, “Who do you think made the first stone spears? The Asperger guy. If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley.”
In Lao classrooms, I don’t know who has special learning needs. I’ve visited hundreds of classrooms and wonder if the children with the more desperate needs are simple left at home. On the few occasions that I did find a child that wouldn’t respond or would be lost in making circles on the floor, their peers would inform me very matter-of-factly, “Oh, he’s / she’s different.”
Unfortunately, we just don’t have the resources and capacity to properly offer services for the special needs kids. It seems that everyone has special learning needs. I’ve seen many classrooms with kids struggling very hard to learn. Every child needs special attention and I’ve also seen how a new method or approach can bring children back to their natural inquisitive selves. There is solid evidence of their ability to learn.
The most sophisticated methods have no formula. It just takes a teacher’s interest in the particular unique intelligence of a certain child and their ability to turn on the switch. It takes a certain eye. Temple Grandin had been dismissed as beyond hope by the “experts”. Her mother refused to believe this and worked persistently on language and social skills in hopes her daughter could behave without raising eyebrows. It was her persistent devotion that helped Temple raise eyebrows in admiration in the academic world and prove that everyone’s perspective, no matter how obscure, has value.
It was Temple’s science teacher, however, who recognized her particular talents and could find the switch to her light bulb. His touch came from his own enthusiasm for his trade, not only for his scientific expertise, but his craft as a teacher. He saw that Temple was not a social misfit, but was several steps ahead of the crowd. She saw things that others couldn’t see yet.
A great teacher doesn’t appear to do much more than to throw on the switch, thought that is just about everything. They can either point the light in the right place or help find the sweet spot in the student’s brain. The great teacher is not about stuffing their own knowledge into young heads as if they were turkey carcasses. The great teacher can step back and applaud their students’ efforts without taking ownership. Education doesn’t work as a colonial game.
The world was astonished to see what was behind Romanian orphanage walls after Nicolae Ceausescu’s fall in 1989. Because of restrictions on abortion and contraception, orphanages were filled with unwanted children and the overcrowded institutions were beyond belief.
Though most of the world was appalled, many researchers leapt at the chance to find out what happens to children when they are abused or starved of interaction. What happens to the developing brain under such conditions? Children slept in empty cribs without toys and in silent, colorless rooms. They appeared despondent and evidence was found that lying in a cot all day without affection, interaction or stimulation can leave black holes in the brain where otherwise they should have developed. In a study at the CIVITAS Child Trauma Programs at Baylor College of Medicine of 1,000 abused and neglected children, new brain-imaging techniques determined that these children’s brains were physically 20 to 30 percent smaller than their peers.
An undeveloped brain causes physical and behavior problems in the children. Many showed intellectual delays, attachment disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivitiy Disorder (ADHD). The brain, however, is resilient and can repair itself and catch up to some degree. A study by UW-Madison psychologist Seth Pollak on Romanian orphans found that children were performing well at a later age on visual-perception tasks and reasoning abilities. Yet, more than 50% had severe difficulties in paying attention to verbal information. “When children had to listen to words, remember a task and act quickly, many of them had a hard time.” This means that these children would have a very difficult performing in school and failure could be the indirect reasons for related behavior problems.
Lao children are lucky. They are surrounded by their playful peers and enjoy the affection of extended families and communities. The concern is that they may not be getting enough intellectual stimulation at an early age and this may contribute to underperforming in later years. There are no cribs to be confined to, but spending inordinate amounts of time sitting at desks could be an equivalent. Schoolrooms are drab save a few drawings on the wall. Many teachers often appear fatigued and find ways to spend time elsewhere. I would expect an unsupervised pre-school to erupt into chaos, but I sometimes find despondent children in abandoned classrooms. The demands on the teachers are tremendous and I know they are doing their best, but I’m still startled every time I see an unsupervised class of 8 year-olds. If this were to happen in middle-class America, parents would converge on site quicker than you could spell litigation.
Teachers can let their students study on their own at older ages, but leaving a writing assignment on the board for pre-school children is not likely the best way to make them literate. It’s a given that we should be taking good care of the little ones. Having severe difficulties in paying attention to verbal information means likely failure in school. The inability to understand and follow directions is not going to make any employer very happy. We should consider their brains as the primary human resource of the nation and understand the worth in investing in the growth of them. Black holes become a national deficit and a social burden in later life.
Rote learning gets the bad rap in education and for good reason. Many countries have come to the realization that products of a rote education system are not competitive in the current world, especially since we as humans are on a fast track to storing most of our memory in external drives. It won’t be necessary for schools to be dispensers of information since we can get what we need from the cloud. The current verdict is that rote learning is dead.
For language acquisition however, there is still too much that is not known. Interaction, immersion and tapping into our multiple intelligences are unquestioned requisites for competency though the hard reality is that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work for the vast majority of language classrooms in the world which are overcrowded and handled by non-fluent teachers. The issue is management and management by default becomes the method. This usually ends up being parroting and rote drilling. It’s a bit militaristic but convenient for crowd control.
When learning a language on our own, we instinctively resort to something that could be called rote learning or brute memorization. We have vocabulary lists and sound files that we try to hammer into our heads. Any private language class will be about sound and repetition. Even when learning from movies or songs, one time is not enough. Parroting is the ability to imitate well and the most skillful have the best pronunciation. Of course we feel we learn the most on a bar stool or on a chat line, but when it comes to long-term memory, we know we have to hammer the words and phrases into our brains.
Like anything, we can get too much of a good thing. When excessive repetition taxes our patience, it’s called “semantic satiation”. It can happen quicker in the conventional classroom when students know the drills are less about language learning than about crowd control. They know this because of the teacher’s tone of voice, lack of variation and the lack of anything fun or pleasing. Crowd control and language learning are two different things and young children understand this well.
Lao classrooms still have a lot going for them. Teachers complain that students are naughty, but believe me I’ve seen much worse in other countries. Still, teachers can easily find more engaging ways for crowd control and ways to stimulate rather than satiate. Lao students love singing and can memorize long passages in a blink if they have a tune. Children have an ear for rhyme and rhythm and early learning can be wildly productive if a good amount of the time is given to singing, moving and creating. These are activities considered important in the approaches of Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia and are also valued in brain-based early learning approaches.
What about critical thinking? We can’t learn sequence without concept or risk becoming test-taking automatons. Without deeper comprehension, we can’t master complex subjects at an advanced level, but this might precisely be the point. We build a healthy brain before we move to more complex levels. We learn to walk before we can run. Sufficient stimulation for the brain varies with its stage of development. Even rote memorization done creatively can stimulate the brain in productive ways once we understand the beat of the drum in “repeat after me” is something inside us all.
In the Lao language reader, the last chapter is about the last day of school. “We get up early on this special day and walk to school with feelings of anticipation and excitement.” I can relate to that. I remember the irrepressible feeling of freedom on that last day of school. It marked the long and glorious days of summer to come with picnics at the beach and maybe a car-trip to Yellowstone.
I downloaded images to help visualize the text in the Lao reader. They were easy to find. Kids are throwing their notebooks into the air with joy and dashing out the school. “The last day of school!” Then I was corrected. I was told that the last day of school comes with a bit of sadness. Summer vacation is not something to leap in the air about.
It’s mid-July and we’re doing a special session at a rural school. I didn’t hear any village loudspeakers making the announcement but by 7:00 AM steady streams of children are heading to school. In a land where 8:00 means 9:00, I’m astounded to see children coming to school an hour early. They’re wearing their uniforms, which are perfectly ripped, wrinkled and soiled just as I remember them in May. It’s very possible that the uniforms have been carefully stashed away in their miserable states. One boy has the red sash tied around the collar and the effort is almost heart wrenching. For whatever reason it may be, these kids want to go to school.
They happily jostle for a bench to share with their friend and then settle down to concentrate the best that they can. The chorused response is loud enough to create the illusion of a functioning class, but I suspect otherwise. Mouths are not moving in synch, but with a micro-time lapse that follows the lead of the few students who can answer. One girl can’t take advantage of the time-lapse. She seems lost, not because she doesn’t understand the lesson, but because she doesn’t understand what one is supposed to do in a school. It is that bewildering.
Even older students can’t answer simple questions. “Are you going to continue to secondary school next year?” At best, they nervously giggle, but the feeling is that there is no shared language be it Lao, Khmu or Hmong. They are chronically shy and cannot even nod or shake their heads. Maybe they’ve never been asked personal questions like this before.
They’re best at songs. They remember them quickly and fill their lungs with air to belt them out with big smiles. They’re worst at writing, so bad that even a foreigner can see the mistakes. The ethnic minority kids are at a particular disadvantage because the complicated system of tones has never really been explained to them. Throw in some dialects, inconsistent pronunciation among teachers and the fact that they don’t hear Lao in daily lives and it really gets hard.
We finish teaching and I feel like they’ve learned a lot in a few hours. I’ve learned a lot too and can’t really swallow the realities of how difficult it is for them to get an education. They pour out of the school and file home but within minutes appear again dressed for work on the farm. I can see the cornfields halfway up the mountains, half enshrouded in clouds and way too far for a child to climb to. The sticky ankle-deep mud makes it all the more impossible. No beach picnics. No trips to Yellowstone. They look forward to the day they can sing songs in a classroom again.