"Searching, please hold …"

NOTE: BEVERAGE-SPEW WARNING — funny stuff ahead

  • request the pleasure of your company

Why, thank you!

Every day I like to look at the search terms that brought people to my blog. And every day there are several requests for “cat drawing” or some variation thereof, which lands people on my page about prosopagnosia, as does “faceblindness”. Of course, every Web site gets its share of weird search hits. Here are some of mine, including my all-time favourites, which are at the end of the list. (As you might guess from some of these truncated references, the WordPress search-term lister has a character limit.)

Meanwhile, I have:

  • prove you are not a robot

That would be related to the devilish annoyance of CAPTCHA. I hope! Sometimes I think people view search engines as modern versions of crystal balls — a lot of queries are scripted in ways that suggest someone is asking questions of an oracle: Continue reading "Searching, please hold …"

"Innumerancy Taxes"

I once saw a bumper sticker that claimed lotteries were “a tax on the innumerate”, meaning that most of the people who gamble on such do so because they don’t really understand the mathematics of basic probability (chance). It does seem to be alarmingly true that a great number of people don’t have a good understanding of odds. Sure, some people simply gamble for the gaming aspect, but casinos aren’t getting rich off folks like my grandma who got together with friends at each other’s homes once a month to chat and play penny-ante poker — they’re in business to make money off those who keep thinking that they’ve figured out some kind of “system” or that they’ve some kind of special “luck” or who are addicted to gambling.
There are some really odd ways the human brain works against reality, especially when it comes to understanding probabilities. The brain likes to find patterns, even when they aren’t there. Continue reading "Innumerancy Taxes"


(For the less geeky, the post title is “Models” — a play on Numb3rs)

For someone who deals with statistics only when I absolutely have to (the formulae make my head swimmy), I still have a fondness for doing comparative measurements. Most of the online personality-type tests are an absolute waste of time (I’d much rather work out a Sudoku), but once in a great while one will catch my attention long enough for me to actually complete it, such as the nerd test. Okay, so at a 93% I’m not as nerdy as Bug Girl, who earned a “Nerd God” score of 99!

On the other hand, last time I took the AQ Test Continue reading Model5

Math and Science, Bass-Ackwards

In one of my jobs, I’m a paraprofessional in a high school science classroom. Last week in Biology we were in the unit on carbohydrates, lipids and proteins as polymers. Of course, the students have been struggling because we’re touching on biochemistry concepts, and they’ve not had chemistry.
So I asked the teacher, “If biology depends upon chemistry, and chemistry depends upon physics, then WHY don’t we start with physics, and then go to chemistry and then biology?”
(I mean like, duh!)
And he replied, Continue reading Math and Science, Bass-Ackwards

Which Is Better?

When people ask, “Which is better?” for most anything, my response is, “Better for what?”
The same is true for any kind of debate about different teaching approaches, whether the subject is language, mathematics, or how we design classroom environments.
Take for example the whole debate about phonics versus whole-word approaches to reading. Each method is useful in different ways, and to different people. Phonics does give you tools to decode a great many words. But because English is not a strictly phonetic language, phonics can break down in the pronunciation ability, and especially in the spelling ability. One can usually come up a number of phonetically rational ways to spell a word, but only one or two will be correct (e.g. the British kerb and the American curb). So, let’s spell a word (I bet you can come up with even more ways than I’ve listed here!): Continue reading Which Is Better?

Rainbow Cracking

The other week after my blogging about dyspraxia and such, hubby found an article in wired blogs (“Hacking My Child’s Brain”) and a recent article in the New York Times, “The Disorder Is Sensory; the Diagnosis, Elusive”. Although sensory integration remains a vaguely-defined albeit real disorder, treatments are highly varied and disputed. Some treatment approaches lack rigorous testing for efficacy, creating difficulties for insurance coverage.
One approach mentioned in the former article is from the Sensory Learning Center in Boulder, Colorado (US), and is described as suitable for a long list of issues: autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, acquired brain injury, developmental delays, birth trauma, behaviour problems, ADHD, and for “learning enhancement”. Their Web site is rife with testimonials from clients and practitioners.
Well, testimonials don’t sway me, Continue reading Rainbow Cracking

Slices (Episode 1)

The best definition of “poetry” I’ve ever encountered is, “Poetry is life condensed”. In a similar way, cartoons condense a slice of life into just a few panels.
All four of these reflect different aspects of dealing with the social world, from blocking off unwanted interaction to the absurdity of Continue reading Slices (Episode 1)

Running With the Red Queen

Everyone in life has to compensate in some manner or another, because no one excels at everything. If you are not mechanically inclined, you take your car to a shop to get the oil changed, and you call a plumber to fix leaks or replace worn faucets. If you’re not comfortable with arithmetic calculations, you have a tax specialist do your annual return, and you arrange for automatic payroll deposits and bill payments with your bank. These are ways that ordinary people deal with ordinary difficulties, and no one thinks any less of them. In fact, the economy depends upon people’s interdependency — earning your living doing things for others is important to the Gross National Product, is important to a town’s sense of community, and is important to a person’s self-worth from feeling useful.
It is curious that people who have others do everyday things for them because they are rich are envied, whereas people who have others do everyday things for them because they are unable to do them are looked down upon. People with ability sets that are different than the “average” person’s run into problems because they are being “inappropriately incompetent”. Some of those “should be able to” things are related to sex-rôle stereotypes: a man should be able to fix a leaky faucet, a woman should be able to sew her own shirts. Among more traditional or conservative populations, a person is not faulted if they are incompetent at a skill that is reserved for the other gender. However, when someone cannot do something that is expected of everyone, or cannot do it well, or cannot do it consistently, they are then open to derision.
The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler noted how people compensated and even over-compensated as ways of dealing with perceived incompetence and avoiding feelings of inferiority. Not all “incompetences” really are gross difficulties — they may merely be assigned as such by others around us.
I’ve mentioned before that my life is a mass of compensatory strategies. I compensate for auditory processing problems, and the tinnitus that increases the background noise problem. I compensate for prosopagnosia (difficulties recognising people from their faces). I compensate for all those organisational, time-sense, and executive-functioning issues related to ADHD and Asperger’s (planning, executing tasks including the getting-past-the-inertia stages, self-monitoring). I compensate for the hyperacusis, and my general clumsiness, tics and stuttering, and migraines. Generally speaking I compensate fairly well. So much so that most people don’t realise that I am working much harder to achieve nearly as well. I “pass for normal” most days, so people can’t understand why I’m having problems when I’m ill or stressed or simply trying to compensate for too many things simultaneously.
Adler would probably say that I over-compensate.
I had to go through Driver’s Education class twice to acquire the necessary motor skills. I did eventually learn to drive stick shift (manual transmission) and have even driven in both the UK and US. The day that I parallel-parked in front of my high school to request a transcript to be sent to a college was indeed a threshold moment in my life. (Even the transcript part was a highlight, as assaying higher education was uncertain due to my previous academic difficulties.) My husband once asked me, “What, can’t you drive and talk at the same time?” and I did not feel that it was unreasonable to answer, “No, I can’t.” I cannot drive a stick shift vehicle through city traffic, trying to find a business I had never been to, and talk on a cell phone. (I have Auditory Processing Disorder and he has a severe hearing loss — talking on the phone can be inherently confusing in its own right.)
There are classes when I struggle to keep my attention focused on the instructor, and also to understand what they are saying, especially if the classroom is mechanically noisy, or if the instructor mumbles or talks while facing the whiteboard or doesn’t present information in a clearly-defined format or use supplementary visuals. Because I am very good at being able to distinguish the important material in an educational presentation and record those details in sensible paragraphs, I have been a note-taker for dysgraphic or hearing-impaired students. But I have only been able to do that in those subjects where I was already familiar with most of the information — I could not be a note-taker for others if I was still learning all the vocabulary and concepts myself.
Mathematics presents special difficulties for me because of problems with sequencing, slow working speed, and occasional transpositions. It took me four years to memorise my multiplication tables, and I have flunked a number of tests over the years, and nearly had to take a class over. In university I dropped a course that I was getting D or F grades, to try it again later on to get C, B or A grades, and did that with more than one course. It was slow, difficult work slogging through college algebra, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, physics, and four semesters of chemistry. One of my current jobs is working as a special education paraprofessional. I help in the science classroom, but my main assignment is in the math classroom. The extremely ironic thing is that not only am I helping students with mathematics, but also that I am doing so in the very same school I attended years ago, in the same classrooms where I had once sat flunking math tests. (My first work week was not only difficult from the prosopagnosia-aggravated new-job disorientation, but also from “post-traumatic school disorder” as I had ongoing flashbacks.)
I actually did flunk a semester of secondary English and had to re-take that portion of the course. I have also written a book and hundreds of articles (on a variety of subjects) for magazines and newspapers. I tutor college students in composition classes.
Given these examples, it might sound as though my difficulties were all in the past, and have been made up for by my recent successes. That isn’t quite true. What I have done is learned how to work around some kinds of difficulties. With others I simply have to work harder to puzzle through consciously to figure out those things that most people do easily and without conscious effort. Some days I feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as fast as I can just to stay in place.
The problem with over-compensation is that although I have at times felt that I had vanquished my personal demons of incompetence by having overcome various failures with landmark achievements, those successes do not mean that I cannot or will not have future problems! What helped more than those moments of personal glory (exhilarating though they were, despite lacking exciting soundtrack music), has been finding out why I have problems, how those problems manifest in my daily life, and how to work with them. Self-understanding improves self-image because it gives me tools for those ongoing and future difficulties. Self-understanding means that the next time I fail something (not “if” but “when”, because everyone does fail periodically), I will have the necessary cognitive and emotional tools to handle the disappointment. I will be able to handle defeat graciously, because it is a failure of task-specific achievement, not moral failure. Furthermore, I can extend that same grace to others, because we all have such problems, even though the details differ.
Out in our various communities, we need to be able to not only acknowledge that Yes, not everyone can do the same thing, but also destigmatise that fact. One of the tragedies with the current paradigms in the helping professions is the disdain and depersonalisation from “care-givers” to that people who need personal attendant services or other forms of assistance. We can’t all do the same things. Needing someone to change your diaper should be no more stigmatising than needing someone to change the oil in your car. There’s really something sick about people who feel superior those whom they serve — there’s an element of self-loathing transferred from one’s self to one’s job to the client. It is overcompensation of the soul-eating malicious sort. Service to others is about sharing strengths, not about bolstering one’s damaged self-worth at the expense of others’.
We should not have to overwork ourselves to over-compensate just to earn other’s acceptance.

Doing Things the Wrong Way

I was in my teens when my mother announced in a fit of supreme annoyance, “You know Andrea, all children rebel, but you’re doing it all wrong!”

This comment required some thinking on my part. Indeed, it rolled around in my head for hours as I tried in vain to make sense of it. Granted, I was continuing to have academic difficulties, but those did not stem from rebelliousness. What was I doing wrong? I didn’t date (so no sex), didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t even have my driver’s license to be engaging in reckless behavior, didn’t ditch school (wasn’t truant), and wasn’t grossly disrespectful. If someone had created a list of the Six Dreadful D’s that a teen could engage in, I would have been clear of the whole list.

The “doing something all wrong” part of itself wasn’t the difficulty; that was a sadly familiar refrain. It was attaching “all children rebel” to it. The words implied that there was a “right” way to rebel that I was failing to accomplish. But parents never wanted their children to rebel … what a double-bind! Oh, it made my head hurt. Finally by the next day I decided that her comment simply did not make sense. That would later prove to be the turning point of my tediously slow process of untangling an alarming number of double-binds that had for years tied my head up in knots.

Part of the reason that I had trouble understanding the nonsensical nature of that remark was that my mother was not the only person from whom I’d heard this refrain about “doing things the wrong way”.

I had inexplicably run into problems in art class (of all places surprisingly – this subject was normally a source of outstanding marks) because I wasn’t following the directions for figure drawing. We were supposed to be drawing the person perched on a high stool by creating a series of connected ovoids for the torso, limbs, and appendages, and then connecting those ovals and smoothing them to create the figure. That didn’t make much sense to me; it seemed like a lot of unnecessary work. I simply started at the top of the head and proceeded to draw the silhouette. Sometimes I would erase a small section to refine the line, but otherwise I would work my way around to the beginning point, and then filled in the interior details.

My art teacher however, was a stickler for “Process, process, process!” She had managed to get everyone successfully through single and double vanishing-point perspective by careful adherence to procedure, and she was determined to have all her students complete satisfactory still-life drawings of bottles, cow skulls, and humans by careful adherence to procedure. Initially we’d started our still-life work with the typical assemblages of fruits-as-Platonic-solids, but this class was right before lunch and the props kept disappearing. The bottles proved to be adequate subjects for learning techniques, but the cow skulls proved daunting. The system of Platonic solids and ovoids proved to be no match for the murderous complexity created by the mandible and orbital cavities. I was able to draw a respectable cow skull only by virtue of the fact that I could visualize it as a two-dimensional image and then transfer that mental image to my paper, fait accompli. I have no idea if her distrust of my personal process was related to the fact that I wasn’t complying with the given directions (and thus had succeeded in completing the assignment but left her with little to calculate in her grading rubric), or whether it was related to the fact that she had no idea how I could draw by finished silhouette. Even the token artistic genius of the class had to sketch and re-sketch lines repeatedly, for all her finished product was the most refined.

Trouble was constantly simmering over in my maths class, and boiled over every nine weeks as progress reports were sent home. Whereas beginning algebra had been a minefield of flunked exams, geometry was taking a much different turn, and not always for the best. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand geometry with all its angles and parallel lines and intersections of compass-drawn circles. Indeed, it was the first time I had excelled in understanding anything mathematic. I could consistently answer the homework and exam questions correctly. I just couldn’t consistently show the steps or name the proofs that described how I’d reached those answers. As far as I was concerned, the exam requirements of List the proofs and Show your work were the bane of my life. Generally there weren’t any steps to be had! The answers were obvious. So much so that I spent most of the class lecture time just doodling on the margins of my notepaper, creating recursive labyrinths, spiraling pursuit curves, or re-inventing Voronoi tessellations by marking the areas of influence around random blemishes in the paper.

When my maths instructor had taken me aside one day after class to find out just how I was getting my answers (there were suspicions of cheating), I then stupefied him by announcing answers by glancing sideways at the problems. He was totally flummoxed when he found that I figured sums of several numbers by initially clumping complementary pairs of digits in each column into sets of ten before adding them up, rather than starting at the top of the column and consecutively adding each digit. I couldn’t understand why my approach wasn’t natural to everyone, because after all, we were using a base ten system. At least he was satisfied that I was producing the correct answers on my own, no matter what obscure method I used to produce them.

When I sat and contemplated my place in the grand scheme of things, I found myself wondering just how it was that I could be “doing things the wrong way” and yet still be producing the right results. Were the processes really as important as the results? Apparently so, for I was increasingly finding that style was as important as substance when I found myself in social situations. You weren’t supposed to lie, you weren’t supposed to sit there and not participate, and yet you weren’t supposed to say what was really going on. Amazing how often one could be deemed rude for merely sharing facts or for being specific. I repeatedly found myself doing things the wrong way and thus going against what people were telling me to do. Maybe I was rebelling after all.

It’s just … that wasn’t my intent at all.

Testing, 1, 2, 3 …

The other week I was typing math tests, generally a task as dull as dusting door lintels. But this time I was enthused because I was re-typing the tests in order to make them more accessible.
You see, the old tests were done in a small 10-point font, with the arithmetic problems set up in the traditional manner of stacking them in long columns and aligned rows. Many of our students have a variety of learning disabilities, and I suspected the very layout of the tests was aggravating some of the visual and/or graphomotor difficulties.
Firstly I increased the numerals to a 14-point font. This is much closer to natural handwriting size, so it’s easier for the students to write their own numbers under the columns of existing digits. For dysgraphic students, anything that gives them more room to write is beneficial. Therefore I also increased the amount of space between the problems, both within the rows and between them. This way there would be sufficient room for working out the calculations, especially the long division problems.
Another reason for giving extra room between the rows was that I wanted to avoid making the students squeeze their answers around smudged calculations. Nor did I want to have them transfer their answers to a separate page, which could incur errors involving number transpositions, correspondence between the problem and its specifically numbered answer blank, or some of the answers not even getting transferred over.
Next I put the problem numbers (enumeration) on different lines than the problems, so there would be less confusion about which was which. In contrast, the operations signs (plus, minus, multiply or divide) were moved closer to the problems to reduce any confusion about what the student was to do.
Another important step was to arrange the individual problems so they were not stacked directly above and below each other. This reduces some of the spatially-related difficulties some students have, and prevents confusion about which number is involved in a given problem. It’s too easy to pick up the wrong number or even skip a problem when all the digits are piled up in long wriggling stacks. Offsetting the problems helps isolate each one in a larger area of white-space.
The combination of offset problems plus using a larger font resulted in using two rows for five problems, rather than just one row. In turn, the tests usually grew longer by a page. I don’t consider that to be a problem; there’s a time for “saving trees” (conserving paper) and a time when that is a false economy because it creates other problems. When photocopying the tests, I did not copy on both front and back. It’s too easy to miss a chunk of problems on a test when they are “hidden” on the back. Plus, having blank page backs automatically gives blank space for any additional little calculations that the students need to do.
These mathematics tests don’t have much in the way of worded questions, although for those that were included, I doubled the length of the answer blanks so they would be roomy enough for handwritten responses.
When laying out tests with worded questions, there are some other techniques that can make test-taking less difficult on the practical end. Many things are good common sense, but we have to be aware of them to be sure of including them. These include methods such as:
• In matching questions, have the descriptions in column one and terms in column two on the same page (no run-ons to another page);
• Use numbers for one column in the matching and letters for the other column;
• Spell out the words True – False to be circled (rather than the student writing T or F or t or f and letting the grader guess which was written down);
• Avoid the use of double-negatives in true-false or multiple-choice questions;
• Use capitals in matching or multiple choice (A, B, C, D, E) instead of lower case (a, b, c, d, e) that can be confusing to the student or to the grader (a – d, b – d, or c – e can look similar), and be sure to give a blank to write the answer upon.
(As you might guess, this particular grader has her own difficulties reading small font sizes, visually tracking numbers, or sometimes distinguishing certain letters.)
The benefit to all these various techniques is that they help all the students, not only those who have particular disabilities that have been diagnosed and for whom accommodations have been established. Other students who have undiagnosed problems, marginal problems, those who are simply tired or sick, and even those in top form will all benefit from having tests that are easier to read. (Ditto the teaching staff!)
This is the joy of universal design for learning: make as much of the material as accommodating as possible for a wide group of students, and you will have fewer specific changes to make for individual students, plus everyone will be able to use the material more easily.
After all, our end goal is to assess the students’ acquisition of knowledge, not their ability to decipher tests..