Empowering Group Education

Engage:  Empowering Group Education

A group of five learners sit at a table with me.  I have materials set out for the learners to explore. There is no right or wrong way for the learners to use the materials, but there are established boundaries for the group and what is not acceptable to do with the materials. Outside of that, the goal here is for the learners to use the materials in front of them in any way that stays within the boundaries.  

This time, I have a jug of bubbles, a pitcher of water, straws, and a container for each learner as they sit around a table. Even though these learners have seen bubbles before, the goal for group exploration is for everyone to explore materials as creatively as they choose. Containers are in the middle of the table where each learner can reach them. I do not encourage or discourage the learners to participate, rather make it clear that they can take a container if they so choose. I demonstrate my idea for using the materials by pouring some bubbles into the container and using the straw to blow bubbles. I will monitor the amount of liquid that is used, not in an effort to avoid all mess, but rather so that I can help learners to understand the results of their actions if they spill or do not have enough water.  Learners have ample time and freedom to explore, however, I provide structure to avoid chaos and work to reiterate the boundaries of the group.

Some learners eagerly jump in and try adding different amounts of water and bubbles.  Some stir the bubbles to see how fast they have to go to make bubbles in the container.  Another watches the instructor and other peers to investigate how they are using materials but chooses not to actively participate. Yet another is copying my actions exactly and I am able to acknowledge this exploration but also invite them to try something that someone else is doing.  

I am happy to see that everyone is a part of the group in some way, even if it is just being an observer. I know that observation is a critical part of exploration. Some learners will watch something and quickly jump in while others need to watch things over and over again before feeling comfortable enough to explore.

I also know that bubbles and water is a very simple activity.  However, the active exploration and creativity that comes from the learners during this activity is often an overlooked foundational element. Many children with challenges don’t explore in this way naturally during their development.  These learners benefit from practicing authentic investigation of something new and if it were a more complicated task, they would lose that practice time.

Through Direct Coaching of social skills, learners develop an understanding of how their actions impact those people around them. What happens if someone takes something that is mine? What happens if I want something that someone else has? What happens if we run out of the item that I wanted?  What can I do if my first idea doesn’t work? What will other people be doing with the materials? These are all questions learners begin to ask themselves and the group, thus creating an authentic learning experience.


Opening the Box

ENGAGEAutism-Opening the Box

Imagine a ten-year-old learner with limited verbal capacity, physical challenges including tics and seizures, vision problems, and cognitive impairment.  Does this learner not deserve to discover that he can’t get a box open with his hands? That there may be a tool he can use? That using a plastic knife is not as effective as finding the scissors?  That the scissors may not be in the same place that he left them because another learner moved them? That he can look around the supply area for the scissors, find them, cut the tape off the box, and explore its contents?  Sure it would be very easy and much faster for the Instructor to swoop in and open the box for this Learner. If the contents of the box were the sole lesson to be learned, that would be the method to use. However, the search for an effective alternate to the first attempt, and the struggle of not having immediate success are critical to the development of self for each learner.  While this Learner was born with many challenges, it does not mean he is incapable of making discoveries and building a sense of himself as an independent entity in the world. Not to mention, he feels good about himself when he opens the box and gets to see what he worked so hard to unearth. His smile is a reminder that with genuine struggle there comes genuine pride of accomplishment. Nothing and no one else can do that for this Learner.

This sense of self is critical to the individual’s success in any group they participate in.  Without a sense of himself, this learner sits until told to stand, does not eat until fed, stares in to space when presented with materials, and doesn’t communicate his basic needs.  

Too often the focus on academics in schools is centered on having students regurgitate what they already know or sit clueless while information that is complicated or without foundation is presented with low or no expectations of understanding.  With the ten year old described above, if the Instructor focused on speaking in order to get the box open, knowing the color, shape, or number of items in the box, saying please or thank you to get the scissors, or any other of a list of skills that could be focused on, he would have lost this genuine opportunity to make a connection for himself.  This is not to say that colors, shapes, and numbers are not important to learn but too often the authentic moments are sacrificed in service of a list of skills that the learner doesn’t actually need to be a person functioning in the world. How often do you have a dinner party where you and your guests list all the colors on the table? Now think of how often you and those same guests have to figure out how to get the bottle of wine open when the wine opener breaks or the cork splits?  

The combination of specific practice with specific skills and the managed introduction of small challenges to the Learner is the foundation of Academic Coaching.