Saturday, August 2, 2014

Further thoughts on MILE

I learned one new word – Subitizing – ability to automatically see small sets of items as a unit and short cut counting.   (So as an example – seeing the dots on a die and “just knowing” how many are there is subitizing)  There is a whole paper on what Subitizing is and some research history on theories of how we develop it hereI can easily see how this is a skill our kids probably have a hard time with and develop more slowly (if at all) and how it affects their math abilities. 

A lot of the MILE program background theory seems to rest on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development  (ZPD) Concept.  (ZPD) describes the area between a child’s level of independent performance (what he/she can do alone) and the child’s level of assisted performance (what he/she can do with support). Skills and understandings contained within a child’s ZPD are the ones that have not yet emerged but could emerge if the child engaged in interactions with knowledgeable others (peers and adults) or in other supportive contexts (such as make-believe play). According to Vygotsky, the most effective instruction is the kind that is aimed not at the child’s level of independent performance but is instead aimed within the ZPD. This instruction does more than increase a child’s repertoire of skills and understandings; it actually produces gains in child development.

This kind of intrigues me because Vygotsk’s work was done in Russian schools where rates of fetal alcohol exposure are rather high.  In the US Vygotsk’s work can be seen in practice in Tools of the Mind Programs, which I have had an interest for a while.  Seeing his concepts pop up again makes me even more interested in finding out more about that.

So, Day Two was almost all practice of the MILE method with emphasis on the FAR approach.  There were no actual kids with FASD present to practice with – which is a drawback of the training program but sort of understandable because, well, the logistics would be mind boggling.  You could not expect the same kids to sit through the same lessons over and over again even if they were neurotypical.  They try to overcome this by requiring you to complete a 4 week training plan and submit at least 3 videos of you conducting those sessions before you will be considered certified and get credit for the class. They will provide feedback after each submission and may request more than three before providing certification.  I am interested to see what comes from doing those.  No one said what would happen if you did not meet their expectations after additional submissions.  I wonder if it is possible to “fail” this class and not get certifications.  Considering how hard  and non-intuitive it can be to work with prenatally exposed persons  I would hope the answer to that is yes.

Going back to my Day one observations – which were jotted on a digital note pad as we went through material and trying to be more thoughtful about my first impressions I would have to say my overall impression of MILE is that it has had success because it focuses on teaching in the manner that folks with FASD learn.  Slower pacing, more frequent repetitions, teaching at the developmental level not age or grade level, making concepts concrete with manipulatives, a focus on the learning environment and making a positive relationship between the MILE coach and the student.

I’m really in the air over their position on FASD’s issues with Cause and Effect Thinking.  First of all, there were three instructors and the one that went over this first really pushed my buttons.  She made the bald statement that the belief that people with FASD cannot learn cause and effect thinking is a myth and even animals can learn it from behavior mod.  I was so flabbergasted at how unbelievably insulting comparing my child to a dog was that I couldn’t even blast the woman.  And then fortunately or unfortunately her portion of the session was over and she was gone – not to return for the rest of the class.

Conversations with the other two folks moderated that stance quite a bit.  They agreed that deficits in cause and effect thinking were a hallmark of FASD.  Their theory is that this type of thinking is very rarely specifically and explicitly taught so, since there are many skills our children do not learn without explicit teaching, we cannot know if explicit repetitive teaching of cause and effect – in concrete ways, with multiple repetitions in multiple contexts, would improve that ability.  They believe it will and they believe the research on the effectiveness of MILE shows it is.

I am not a research PhD but it seems to me that the success of their program in improving math skills could just as easily indicate they have improved adding, subtracting etc. without improving cause and effect thinking.  Their intervention around the meta cognitive part is the FAR (Focus/Plan, Act Reflect) structure or scaffolding they build each lesson on.  I think because FAR adds structure it is again teaching in the way affected persons learn best.  So are they really improving cognition / developing the brain?  I don’t know.  If the method works to help a person learn basic math skills I’m not sure it matters. 

However, if the idea is over applied – like I jotted down in my rambling notes the first day – if the research papers and program proliferation leads to people believing that the FASD brain can be “cured”, if it sets up more unreachable expectations for folks already beset by them – they I think this can be harmful.**  They acknowledge that in their study results only 2/3 of the students really improved in Math skills so this method (taken as a whole not just the FAR portion) may not work for all fetal alcohol exposed children.  They don’t totally ignore the idea that some may not be capable of learning the cause and effect but I think they are kind of blind to the possibility that the explicit teaching of the metacognitive skills may not be creating the improvement in math.  Just the teaching in ways that meet FASD needs 1:1, repetitive, relational, concrete etc may be causing all the improvement they do see.  And the kids that seem to be generalizing the “focus act reflect” methodology are just parroting something they know the researchers like – not really internalizing it or going to be able to generalize it.

They are planning to do another study applying this FAR method to a completely different set of skills (not Math related) as a way of “checking” the effectiveness of it.  But if they are going to use all the same already known effective teaching methods for folks with FASD then I have to wonder if they really will have proved anything about FAR itself.  I think I really gravitate toward FAR because I am very much a planner personally and  it appeals to me because of that.  It’s also very like the Plan Do Check Act model that a lot of quality control is built on.  (Quality and statistical analysis is my day job after all.)

There was one of the researchers that was really open to continued dialog and I’m hoping to continue to my conversations with her via e-mail because the class itself is really compressed and probably too short for what it really needs to be.   All in All I'm glad I went.  I can see me using this program with Little Man to give him the additional time he needs to build skills the public schools are forced to go through too fast for him.  I can also see the value in having an "evidence based program" endorsed by the CDC to bring to the school that insists that the one on one component, slower processing pace, need for repetition, concrete / manipulatives etc. are all required.  

** So the big debate I got into with them at the beginning was over terminology and how certain terms are really harmful to our kids in trying to develop understanding - for example the tendency for people to discount pFAS as less serious than FAS when the difference may only be facial features and someone with "partial" FAS may be just as cognitively impacted or MORE so than someone with the facial features that gets a "full" FAS diagnosis.    

You can see my initial thoughts from during class here

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