“The Acquisition of a Child by a Learning Disability” by Ray McDermott (in Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context, Chaiklin & Lave, 1991) is an essay that I consider to be one of the most influential pieces of work in my career as an educator, and as a tech integration specialist, in particular. I recently had reason to revisit this article, and found myself still moved by some of its central points: 1) learning (especially in schools) is an inherently social process, influenced by peers, relationships, and social dynamics, and is not a trait to be found in the heads of individuals; 2) as educators, we have an implicit role in the formation, arrangement, and at times, the foreclosure, of childrens’ learning opportunities through this social process; and 3) though children try on different identities throughout their educational experiences and their adolescent development, they sometimes, perhaps all too often, carry those identities which society (read: peers, teachers, schools) ascribes to them.
I’ve recently found myself asking, and being asked by several colleagues, why are we going one-to-one? What is the point of bringing iPads into the classroom? I don’t have a canned response or a rehearsed answers to these questions, which is a good thing, I suppose, but when I think about how to respond, I’m often drawn to thinking about McDermott’s essay. Let me see if I can make that connection here.
McDermott illustrates the central points mentioned above through the story of Adam, a student who has been labeled “learning disabled” (LD) because of the difficulty he experiences in accomplishing certain school-based tasks (e.g., following a recipe in cooking club, staying on task during classroom lessons, and finally – and most challenging for Adam – performing in testing situations). McDermott’s take in this essay is to consider the contexts in which Adam does well, and those in which he does less well, by examining the various demands and constraints placed on Adam in each setting. By “demands,” McDermott is not just talking about learning outcomes, he also means the demands placed on Adam to avoid displaying his LD to the world, appearing incompetent to his classmates, and failing to accomplish certain “simple” tasks. As the demands placed on Adam differ from contexts to context, he looks more-so or less-so competent, sociable, charming, and helpful. School is a struggle for Adam, but life in the outside world is not. Because Adam’s ability to perform various academic or real-life tasks didn’t equate across settings (school and non-school), McDermott sought to describe the various contexts in which Adam was being asked to learn, and how the properties of the contexts influenced when Adam appeared LD, and when he did not.In teasing out the different aspects of each context, McDermott highlighted the resources available to Adam at each moment – language, learning materials, peers, teachers, etc. He then showed how certain arbitrary constraints limiting Adam’s access to these resources made different tasks more challenging for him. When he has a peer to help him read a math problem or organize his work, Adam performs fine; his LD is invisible. But when he is forced to work alone on isolated questions that have been removed from the context of his real life experience, or when the tools he would normally use to work his way through a problem have been taken away, he struggles, gives up, and “appears LD”. Extrapolating this tale of Adam’s experience, I feel I can respond a little bit to why I believe schools adopt, or should adopt, one-to-one programs. By placing tools into the hands of our students that have real-life application, that give them access to resources and information, and that can help them explore, organize, rehearse, and make salient their own thinking, we take a step towards making labels like “Learning Disabled” disappear. When we compound these kinds of activities with opportunities to engage autonomously in the learning process (such as through exploration, research, and multimedia production, etc.), we start to create contexts that enable students, rather than limit, or “disable” them. And when we provide students with tools that they can adopt and use in personalized ways, we further advance this notion. The iPad is just one example of a tool that can be used to suit this purpose, but like anything else in the classroom, for it to be effective, students must also have the opportunity to use it for activities like the ones just mentioned. That, my friends, is the crux. How do we, as educators, create those opportunities for our students?