Aristotle and the “Blue Light”

It was a few weeks before Christmas while I was gently tucking a four-year old Aristotle into his car seat when the hysterical crying began. We were leaving Grandpa’s house as we had done a million times before, and to me nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but Aristotle was beside himself with screams of “I want the blue light!” A quick mental checklist confirmed that neither we nor Grandpa had a toy, book, or device with a prominent blue light, so what could possibly be causing Aristotle’s distress? He simply could not clarify what blue light he was referring to, and all I could think of was that he must have previously seen a blue Christmas light on one of the nearby houses that was now burnt out.

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Despite my reassurances that the light would soon be fixed, Aristotle’s intense crying continued for several hours (no, that is not an exaggeration), and this same scenario repeated after every visit to Grandpa for several months. And then, one miraculous spring day Aristotle happily climbed into his seat without any sign of a meltdown at all. I was completely overjoyed at this turn of events but also incredibly curious as to what had changed. Was the blue light back or had he simply come to terms with its absence, and dare I ask this question lest I rekindle the trauma of the last few months. In what was probably not the smartest parenting decision I have ever made, I asked, and to my utter amazement found out that the “blue light” was indeed back and the world in Aristotle’s eyes was as it should be. It turns out that the blue light was actually the blue reflector that is placed on the street to mark the location of fire hydrants, not a malfunctioning holiday light after all. Grandpa’s street had been resurfaced prior to Christmas, and the blue reflector had not been replaced until Spring.

So, what does this have to do with homeschooling? Well, it demonstrates the severity of one of the hurdles many children with autism and sensory integration disorders deal with: adjusting to change. Managing all the physical, social, and sensory inputs that come with a change in situation, even when it involves moving from an unpleasant task or location to a pleasant one, takes a tremendous amount of energy for many of these children, and it is often just too much for them to handle. Aristotle and Archimedes originally attended the public brick and mortar schools in our area, and though the experience was difficult for them and was one which they desperately wanted to leave, switching them to homeschool represented a “change” and presented us with a unique set of problems that have persisted for years.

I have often wondered what our homeschooling experience would have been like had we started homeschooling our children right from preschool without ever sending them to a traditional brick and mortar school. There have been many times throughout the years when I’ve realized that my boys would have more effectively learned many things if we had had the freedom to approach subjects in ways more suited to their learning styles and interests from the very beginning. And, I think their whole attitude towards school and learning would be much more positive – at this point, if I called playing video games “school,” they wouldn’t go anywhere near their game consoles ever again!

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The question of when to start homeschooling your children is an extremely complex one, and there are equally compelling reasons to complete their entire pre-college education at home as there are to divide that education between brick and mortar schools and your very own living room. I often feel that had I started teaching Aristotle and Archimedes at home beginning with preschool, we would have been able to do the more creative, hands-on, fun type of projects that would have fostered a love of learning and boosted their natural curiosity. Furthermore, they would have been educated in this way from the beginning and would not have had to adjust to a change from traditional lectures, textbooks, worksheets, and classroom operations. An adjustment that has brought serious tears, frustration, and setbacks to both boys and their mom alike.

Aristotle is fundamentally an auditory learner though he does possess some strong visual and kinesthetic abilities that are only limited by his sensory and neuromuscular difficulties. As a result of his auditory learning style, he actually excels in the traditional brick and mortar school’s curriculum structure. He easily listens to a lecture, reads printed material, and completes standard worksheets, but he literally hates this format and longs to complete more creative endeavors such as model building, watching a play, or doing an experiment. However, whenever we tried to incorporate these types of assignments, he quickly became frustrated and discouraged because in his mind that is not how school is done, and it is too overwhelming to learn any concept in a new way, even a way that he actually wants. Many children with autism have extreme difficulty with “rigid” thinking and get stuck with a single viewpoint that no amount of reasoning or demonstration can modify. Aristotle simply can’t think outside of the “learning box” he already knows. I suspect that if we had homeschooled Aristotle from the beginning incorporating many of these projects, he would have acquired a different “learning box” and would be comfortable with and enjoy this type of education.

lego-300pxAnd, what about Archimedes? Archimedes is a very visual, kinesthetic learner who struggled terribly with the traditional public school’s structure. While he has more easily made the transition to the visual, hands-on type projects that better suit his learning style, he suffers significantly from the many deficiencies in his understanding of the foundations of math and language that weren’t laid effectively when he was in an environment not conducive to his learning style.

Do my experiences suggest that homeschooling from the beginning is the best choice? Not necessarily. Attending a traditional school, even for a brief time, exposed my boys to the type of learning environment they will most likely encounter in a typical university classroom. A lecture in a room full of other people, worksheets, notetaking, and standardized tests will at least be familiar to them and won’t represent another overwhelming “change” in their school life. I also benefitted immensely from the wisdom and experience of their teachers, therapists, and fellow parents which ultimately saved me valuable time in understanding how best to educate my unique children once I did bring them home.

However, if I could reset time and do things all over again, I think I would chose to homeschool Aristotle and Archimedes from the very beginning. I think we could have built a curriculum and learning environment that would have given Aristotle a more varied and enjoyable way to experience education and Archimedes a more substantial foundation on which to learn all the wonderful things this world has to offer. I might have even been able to help them accept change and the loss of a blue light a little more easily.

Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Learners

I am probably giving away my age here (I now understand why my mother told everyone she was only 29 for years), but when I was in school, there were simply good students and poor students. If you were lucky enough to be a good student, it meant that you were disciplined, respectful, and innately smart. If you were unfortunate enough to be a poor student, it meant that you were lazy, inattentive, and destined to a life of failure. Students listened to lectures and completed worksheets, and everyone was expected to do well in this setting. If you didn’t, it was your fault for not trying hard enough.                                                 Oli

While the concept of different learning styles was probably known among educators way back then, the use of alternate teaching techniques to accommodate these different learning modalities was rarely employed. I am willing to bet that many of those supposedly poor students were actually trying extremely hard to do well but couldn’t succeed because their individual learning styles did not correspond to the teaching methods used in traditional schools.

Both of my children had a couple of experienced and extremely talented, primary school teachers who first introduced me to the idea of different learning styles. I used to volunteer frequently at my boys’ school, and I had noticed that some of the kids responded quite differently to different projects. They would excel at a coloring exercise but struggle immensely with a listening activity. I was soon researching all I could about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and started to understand why these students were performing so disparately on different assignments.

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When I began homeschooling my boys, I thought I was armed and ready with this newly acquired knowledge coupled with my suspicions of which type of learning style each of my children possessed. Has anyone else noticed, that as soon as you think you have this education thing all figured out, some new issue emerges, and you feel like you’re back at square one?

Well, it turns out there is a lot more to learning styles than just visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. There are numerous sub-types of each of these categories and any individual learner may possess a unique combination of any or all of the various styles. These personal learning preferences represent difficult enough issues to address when teaching, but there is also a fundamental, overriding framework through which students learn new concepts that must also be recognized to effectively instruct them. This framework is referred to as top-down and bottom-up learning.                                                           yves_guillou_double_arrow

Bottom-up learners tend to learn things best in small sequential steps that gradually build upon each other until you have a complete concept. These learners are comfortable mastering each incremental step without necessarily being aware of what the final product or process will be. A bottom-up learner will learn to nail two boards together, then learn how to connect groups of boards, then learn how to cut a hole in the boards, etc until they have built an entire house complete with windows, doors, and chimneys. They do not NEED to know beforehand that the skills they are learning will eventually be used to complete a home. I am unequivocally a bottom-up learner.

Top-down learners tend to learn things best when they can visualize the final concept or product and are then allowed to deduce the steps used to get to that final destination. These learners absolutely NEED to know what the final idea is before they learn any of the steps used to achieve that concept. A top-down learner must see the completed house before they can master nailing two boards together, then connecting groups of boards, and then cutting holes in the boards. Both Aristotle and Archimedes are one-hundred percent top-down learners.

“Great,” you say! You’re a homeschooling mom who knows that Aristotle is a top-down, auditory learner and that Archimedes is a top-down, visual-spatial (unbelievably visual-spatial), kinesthetic learner. You’re all set! You can now choose appropriate curriculum, experiments, and projects that will complement their learning styles. You can now demonstrate or explain complex concepts in terms they will easily comprehend. Well, sort of. The problem lies in the fact that I am a bottom-up learner, and I have an incredibly difficult time understanding the boys’ top-down perspective.

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Intellectually, I understand the concept of top-down learning, but when it comes to actually presenting a new topic in a true top-down fashion and structuring the delivery of information in a way that works for my sons, I am often completely at a loss as to how to do this effectively. I simply don’t see things in a top-down way.

My husband is also a top-down learner and tells me, as do the boys, that he just “sees” the answer to problems. In fact, he often cannot explain the steps one would take to find the answer; he just knows it.

Aristotle and Archimedes also have an extremely difficult time showing their work in part because they also just see the answer or because they have developed their own way of solving the problem. Aristotle has frequently amazed me with his explanations of how he adds two numbers together; he divides the first number by 3 and multiplies the answer by 10 and then subtracts 24 and then adds 13 or some other long set of calculations. I kid you not that these strange and, in my mind, excessively difficult and seemingly unnecessary, extra manipulations always gave him the correct answer to all his practice math problems. He had deduced his own method of solving equations because he “saw” that was the way to do it.

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Although this is an ongoing area of frustration for me, I have found that providing an overview of a topic and an actual real-world example of the concept has been helpful for my boys. I have also learned to trust that whatever technique they have developed to address problems is usually very effective, accurate, and reliable. I am doubtful that I will ever be able to truly comprehend how Aristotle and Archimedes process information, but it is something that I work on every single day in the hopes that I can teach them in a way that is understandable and workable for them!