If Teaching facts makes you a bad teacher, does rocking when you’re not stressed make you a bad autistic?

A monkey glances up and sees a banana, and that’s as far as he looks—

Eoin Colfer

Monkey tricks by VicaVersionOn perception:

One of my pet hates is when I hear educators moan about facts as if they were hazardous to health. I’ve heard them moan that they serve no purpose, that they’re a waste of time; outdated or are somehow superfluous; that it’s not proper teaching. There are numerous complaints, too many to list— however the median I seem to come across most, might as well be the very devil himself: the date:

1066, the Battle of Hastings;

1588 and the Spanish Armada

1805, Trafalgar and so on and so forth…

And to some degree I agree that there is a limited quality, albeit a limited re-usable quality to this type of knowledge. Personally, I love it, can’t get enough but that’s just me, give me more…

However, facts make learning easier. Facts give concept-based teaching context. Facts make learning more effective. This is not a judgement call, nor is it an opinion— unlike approaches based purely around concept, there is mountains of data which suggest that the use of facts as part of a learning strategy works; having a solid bank of knowledge regarding a particular topic, then makes conceptual-learning effective, not the other way around. The very notion that anyone can form long lasting contextual assessments on anything without knowing what it is they’re supposed to be contextualising is counter-intuitive— but this is one of the things modern teachers are taught to do, even though it flies in the face of most of the available evidence.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the ability to conceptualise is an imperative to successful learning; and the reasoning that the way it’s now used is ‘best’ and the way it should be done comes from reasonable sources— these are not stupid people. It just doesn’t work as they’d like it to work; it cannot work because the reasoning is built on whimsy, not the real world.

Facts: those concrete, unshakable units of information which are not subject to change are unpopular, when they should be the foundations upon which effective practices are built.

It’s difficult to understand why the idea of learning useful, relevant and re-usable information is so frowned upon— as a former practitioner, I do at least understand the potential difficulties involved in the presentation; I did all the time— but again, the median argument against it is just as unreasonable: we can’t just have kids reciting dates over and over…

Of course not— that really is stupid. Professional teachers should be able to incorporate some kind of fact-based content into their lessons if they are proficient in their subject, without the furore— they do it everyday to some degree as it is, but there’s just something about the word fact that they’re taught not to like. I would’ve taught in a dress if I had cold hard data suggesting cross-dressing made learning more effective; and that should be the only thing that matters. There are approaches which work and some which work better than others; some are just unpopular.

Now the reason I bring it up actually has nothing to do with teaching, but the underlying trait which shapes this particular issue.

It’s a packaging problem— rightly or wrongly our perception becomes this: so it’s gotta be true. It’s exactly the same problem we have with labels— some of which effectively describe certain people and conditions, but are wildly unpopular. Some of which are too accurate so a semantically broader variant is encouraged as preferable. Personally, I struggle with aspects of this— I don’t find words, tags or labels to be inherently functional without context. One of the problems of being concept-based people instead of substance based, will be an increased obsession with eradicating ‘offensive’ lexis, regardless of context. Which in itself, is an act I find deeply offensive.

Anyway, the catalyst for this came about from several sources, independent of which, I wouldn’t have had a contextual springboard to unite them— however when taken together, there are similarities which I think are fascinating.

The first was this article1, which recounts the author’s experiences with a couple of group sessions for adults on the autistic spectrum. She writes:

“I told the group about my own experiences in coming to terms with autism, about wanting to be autistic because it was the only thing that felt like all my experiences finally made some sense. About redirecting my energy and efforts towards things that would help me cope, instead of things that would make me appear normal. Allowing myself to be more visibly autistic.

“At those last words, the entire group gasped in shock … I’m not joking. I was the only one there who thought it wasn’t actually all that bad to be stimming in public.”

Now my first reaction was to try to empathise with group— some of whom were clearly uneasy with the author’s rocking but I couldn’t consolidate what it was about the article that was impressing upon me without resorting to speculation, despite the resonance of one of the questions: “If I don’t do things like that, then maybe I’m not actually autistic?”

It wasn’t until I read this post, that it all clicked into place: that, like some teachers’ point-blank refusal to accept that facts do not give you cancer, what I had in front of me was another packaging problem— which lead me to re-read the question as, I wouldn’t mind being autistic if I didn’t do things like that…

What struck me upon the second reading was an event from another session, which thanks to the second article, had even greater meaning in this context:

“[O]ne of them said to me that maybe I needed a time-out to calm down, because I was rocking back and forth so much. And when I said I was just focusing on the conversation, and not feeling anxious at all, he didn’t believe me.

Was she not believed because: autistics only rock when their stressed; or because ‘he’ only rocks when he’s stressed: so it’s gotta be true? It starts to become clear that across a wide range of things— how narrow and inflexible our associations can really be.

However, without Disabled, Not Broken2, I wouldn’t have written this at all. It finds the author posing a simple question and answering it by defining what he is and what he isn’t through a short exploration of language and its denotations: even the words which we use to define other words, which we then use to define who we are or what we think we are, aren’t always satisfactory contextually.

Add to that, that if you rock back and forth you are defined by your actions and emotional state: you must be autistic and you must need a time out. If you’re a teacher and heaven forbid you teach facts: you are defined by an historical context; that you’re out of touch, you’re doing something wrong and a bad practitioner. Perhaps, by the same reasoning: if you rock and you’re not stressed, it makes you a bad autistic?

In each case there are misconceptions based on a perception that has attributed to it, a value of some kind, so if you do it, think it, use it or say it, according to that perception: it’s gotta be true.

Right?

I don’t know, it’s just an observation—

But without a bank of knowledge to draw on, I wouldn’t have been able to get far.

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22 thoughts on “If Teaching facts makes you a bad teacher, does rocking when you’re not stressed make you a bad autistic?

  1. autisticook

    Cool cool cool! I’m thinking that maybe? Maybe? The people who came up with the theory of conceptual learning couldn’t see the facts that they used to build that theory?

    I’m just guessing. People who notice details often have trouble integrating them into a bigger picture. And people who see the big picture often ignore the details. Both are hazardous.

    Reply
    1. Just a Little Background Noise Post author

      It’s quite possible. The thing is, it’s an elegant approach, it just doesn’t work – you only have to scrape at the reasoning behind it before it falls apart.

      I like both woods and trees.

      Reply
  2. bjforshaw

    I enjoyed your reasoning about the effects of taking away context, and also about the perils of ignoring unconscious implicit assumptions. I agree that conceptualization is a valuable skill, but patterns may only be found when the underlying data are visible. As you put it in the above comment, “both woods and trees”.

    Reply
    1. Just a Little Background Noise Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I should thank you for the flash of inspiration. It all fell into place pretty quickly after reading your post- I’ve always tried to make sense of things, by how they inter-relate … it’s a bit of an obsession really: elaborate cross-referencing can be elegantly simple once you see it- though it can drive me to distraction at times!

      I’ll have to check it in the morning for typos!
      I hope you find more to enjoy.

      Reply
    1. Just a Little Background Noise Post author

      Quite possibly. I do believe that everything we do or say is filed away somewhere, waiting to accessed or used to make sense or offer meaning to something else. Or if not meaning, the opportunity to discard it. Every now and then for seemingly no reason at all, I’ll remember something from twenty years ago in astonishing detail and then it’ll be gone. All very strange, but wonderful.

      Reply
  3. Firefly

    I only think in hertz somewhere in the region 6-8, you’re maybe functioning at 8.1, thus breaking the rules of nature; existing outside the constraints of the natural world. Wobble away and concentrate my friend.

    Reply
  4. R. E. Hunter

    That reminds me of the debate for the whole-language approach to teaching reading. Which is basically “throw a bunch of words at the kids and hope they figure out the letter sounds on their own” (I’m probably oversimplifying, but that’s the gist of it). “Phonics” is a bad word in most schools, at least in Canada. The result is that 30% “graduate” high school functionally illiterate (thanks also to social promotion). Universities have had to add entrance tests and remedial English classes, because 20% of those accepted for entrance (based on high school grades) can’t read!

    Reply
    1. Just a Little Background Noise Post author

      That’s shocking – I don’t like whole-language; it’s far to inflexible, I had no idea the numbers were that poor! I’m not the biggest fan of the way phonics are utilised in England: the method is at odds with how our language actually works… I’m in the process of putting together some approaches for teaching autistic kids how to read.

      But whole-language, not a fan, and it gets mixed up with whole-word approaches too often. The fact is, there are useful elements in the different approaches and need each other… But trying to get the converted to accept anything is like pulling teeth. 20% seriously?

      I’ll have to write about the year 12 & 13 cohort I tested to get a real-world level of the national tests they’d taken – they were shocking enough.

      There students who scored so low, they shouldn’t have been able to access a secondary education – their literacy was that bad.

      Reply
      1. R. E. Hunter

        Yeah, I was in university when they introduced the literacy test, and everyone was shocked when the first year’s results were in. There was a lot of recrimination about what was wrong with the school system, but to my knowledge not much actually changed.

      2. Just a Little Background Noise Post author

        There was a sense of dissonance regarding this issue in the school I worked in. One the one hand, as long as results were maintained, there was antipahy about addressing a steep fall in standards. As long as the first was OK, #@&% the latter… I couldn’t stand it – but at least by the time I left there was at least an attempt to redress the failings in year 13, with a class designed to provide graduate-level skills: reasoning, argumentation, study skills, technical writing. At least I did in mine. It’s a frustrating business and far too easy to get into. I do fear for the kids and for a generation of poorly informed teaching practitioners…

  5. alienorajt

    Excellent! A fascinating piece. As an ex-teacher, I heartily concur with what you are saying. The next generation deeply concerns me, too. Alienora

    Reply
    1. JALBN 2.0 Ishmael Received Post author

      The next generation of teachers and students; when one is woefully informed, there’s little hope for the other. Thank you very much – not all my themes are so transparent – education is something I struggle to write about with a happy face, although I have a few pieces on meta-cognition coming up which should be interesting… which is something I used as central to my teaching but is overlooked for more cosmetic practises.

      Reply
    1. JALBN 2.0 Ishmael Received Post author

      I can see where you’re coming from – but it’s not the most important thing. Baby-sitters, TAs, stand-up comics could quite easily manage a classroom. Classroom management is a fundamental, but it’s not the most important thing. Skills required to engage a class in challenging material are the same skills you’d use for classroom management – it’s such a basic thing that is given too much attention. I’ve seen all manner of sanction based strategies used and they are superficially effective – they don’t address certaint behaviours in the right way. I was a little left-field with some of the things I introduced to some of my classes, but they worked eventually.
      Nothing is effective from the first minute, you need to know what you’re dealing with first.

      But I understand where you’re coming from.

      Reply
      1. packmage1

        yes i admit that
        but i said that manage students, i mean that keep a balance between friends and teachers, this is always a challenging for me. Sometimes i feel hard to do that. i am new as a teacher. class management is not that difficult for me. A good teaching, a good topic would be enough. But i find sometimes it is really hard to get near to their hearts, and know their thoughts. And sometimes they do not understand you, why teachers,parents want them to read, to be a good student, to be an excellent students.
        any advice for me?
        thanks

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