LEARN HAVENHEALTH HAVEN
WORK HAVENEARTH HAVEN
DHARMA HAVENSCIENCE HAVEN
Top of Page
Studies of how adults and children actually use language have led to understanding how various communicative choices made by teachers and trainers can foster or suppress learning. Professor Rita Weiss and some of her students in the Department of Communication Disorders and Speech Science, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, developed a method for helping adults understand how to communicate more effectively with children and to create classrooms where children would naturally communicate among themselves while working together. The training program came to be called INREAL.
I worked as INREAL's scientific consultant for several years and on one occasion was asked to recheck the statistical analysis of an evaluation study. The study had been done in the early years of the project. The experimental design was simple and elegant: A group of specially trained speech and language specialists were assigned to a randomly selected sample of preschool and kindergarten classrooms; specialists with comparable amounts of experience but traditional training were assigned to a sample of randomly selected control classrooms. They reported that the INREAL training had led to a statistically significant improvement in the children's learning, which was reflected by a reduction in their need for special educational services in the first through third grades. I discovered that INREAL's former statistical consultant had made a minor error which had a large effect. The corrected results were much more impressive than what had been reported:
When the children were followed into First, Second and Third Grade in the public schools, children from preschool and/or kindergarten classrooms served by INREAL-trained therapists needed half as many special educational services as did the children from control preschool and kindergarten classrooms. This was true even though none of the staff of the elementary schools knew about the existence of the study until the follow-up ended.
Retention in grade (commonly called "failing") was included as a special educational service, because it costs the school system money. When the cost of all the special educational services was added up, and the savings for the INREAL children was subtracted from the cost of the special training, it became clear that the system had recovered its investment in its teachers by the end of the first year of First Grade.
INREAL training stresses the value of genuine communication, defined as conversation among people who share mutual respect and mutual interest in some topic. The exchange is not limited to words alone--all kinds of nonverbal signals like eye contact, facial and manual gestures, and manipulation of available and relevant objects come into play. Whatever the participants' prior knowledge may have been, they will come to understand the topic more deeply as the conversation proceeds and as they think about it later. INREAL calls this "interactive" learning, but we prefer to call it "natural learning." It is how people of all ages naturally learn together when none of the individuals is imposing a system of extrinsic motivation.
The training then contrasts this natural learning through genuine communication with what typically happens in schools at all levels. Usually, the teacher or professor is believed to know which material the student should learn, how it is to be learned, and how to determine if the learning has succeeded. Efforts are encouraged by rewards extrinsic to the students' engagement with the material--praise, a good grade, a gold star, a degree. Similarly, deviation from the teacher's intentions invites extrinsic punishment--criticism, poor grades, being required to repeat the course or the year. Much if not most of the material is soon forgotten, even by the "best" students. What is remembered tends not to transfer successfully to practical situations where no teacher is available to assign problems.
Some processes used in standard educational practice can have severe negative side effects. For example, fear of being wrong is often learned very, very well. Teaching fear of being wrong, as a side effect of any effort to teach anything else, is a grievous error. Yet fear of being wrong is simply the reverse side of being proud of being right--and pride in knowledge is widely considered a necessary motivator. Rewarding knowledge is extrinsic motivation, just as punishing mistakes is: teaching someone to be proud of what they already know and ashamed of any ignorance is certain to limit their ability go beyond what they currently believe to be true. Bertrand Russell, the eminent mathematician and philosopher, wrote that in order to be capable of discovering anything new one must be able to live with an unfinished world view.
INREAL spends much more time teaching and demonstrating what works than criticizing what does not work. In general, the best way to learn how to do something is to do it, with guidance from someone who already knows how. In many cases it is the only way. The ability to read x-rays, or to distinguish the various types of white blood cells, or to ride a bicycle, or to write a clear description of a process--all are learned only in the doing. The way to help people learn to communicate effectively, solve problems together, plan an activity, evaluate a process, learn more about some topic, is to help them do it, in an atmosphere that encourages taking risks that sometimes lead to mistakes. This is true at the day-care center, and it is still true in and after graduate school. Natural learning has no need for extrinsic rewards and punishments--the activities that result in learning are intrinsically enjoyable.
Nearly all adults are able to have genuine conversations with people they know well; but our professional educators have been trained to use "educational" modes of communication when working with students, modes that depend on extrinsic motivation--and all of us have been conditioned by years of schooling to assume that these methods are necessary. (Probably no one is still alive who went to school before the current methods were introduced, a hundred years ago.) INREAL training allows people to experience their own habitual use of relatively ineffective modes of communication. Participants make videos of themselves interacting with someone else. Guided by the trainers, they learn to analyze the videos, noting the frequency of certain kinds of behaviors that are known to enhance or degrade the quality of the interaction.
In addition to becoming more aware of their communicative choices and of the effects of those choices, the trainees are also taught specific skills for changing their work place to make genuine communication and natural learning possible--changes in the environment and changes in policy.
Over the years I heard many stories of how students had benefitted from working with adults who had been given this training. The example that stands out most vividly right now is the time one of the reading specialists, full of joy and awe, told me how she had just taught a boy who had been labeled "retarded" how to begin reading, in a single thirty-minute session (which had been intended as a preliminary evaluation screening). The most common success stories were teachers who no longer felt burnt out, parents who were delighted by what they saw their children doing, and children who were no longer labeled as "behavior problems" because the teachers had learned that to encourage students' conversation benefits learning.
As the INREAL program evolved, the training was adapted for an ever widening range of professions, working with clients or students from an ever widening range of ages. First the regular classroom teachers wanted to be trained; then people working with older children; then parents and specialists working with even younger children. Eventually the training came to be given to people working with all age groups--from parents whose children had not yet been born to nurses working with senile patients; and to professionals and parents working with the whole gamut of handicapping conditions and multiple handicaps together with so-called "normal" and so-called "gifted" children. The INREAL defines learning enviroments that are optimal for all these groups at any age, apparently, although most of the effort has been with younger children.
The frontiers that remained were the effort to continue to improve the quality and cost effectiveness of the training and the implementation of the new learning in actual educational practice. It seemed obvious that this material should be taught at the level of the colleges and professional schools that train educators and therapists, and efforts were made toward identifying appropriate institutions--institutions interested in incorporating the INREAL model in their training programs--institutions that would work toward incorporating INREAL as the method of teaching and as the teaching philosophy being taught, as theory and by example.
However, with all the heartwarming successes came some bitter disappointments. A few trainees simply could not stand the idea of watching themselves on videotape. Many trainees never completed the work required for certification; and some INREAL certified specialists were never able to fully implement their new understanding in the classroom, even after repeated "follow-up" visits by trainers. There was just not enough support in the daily working environment for changes of the magnitude and scope required: The principals didn't understand, the parents didn't understand, and the other teachers didn't understand. "What is he doing--is he doing INREAL?" "It looks like he's just playing with the children!"
What an irony--for a teacher who has received several thousand dollars' worth (counting the teacher's released time) of special training, all aimed toward helping her understand that young children learn better through play and working together than from workbooks, and who has been courageous enough to actually rearrange her classroom so that this more effective learning could occur, to hear "She's playing with the kids" uttered as criticism!
The training staff, headed by Dr. Elizabeth Heublein, decided that training individual "self-selected" teachers and therapists was not reliable as a means for transforming even classrooms, let alone schools. Something had to be done to foster consistent, local support. The solution that emerged from problem-solving sessions was to train teams of people who would all be working in a particular school. With team members supporting each other in the effort to put the INREAL model into effect, the success rate has been much higher.
Other obstacles emerged in the area of finance. Of course, everyone involved wanted to make the new model available to as many schools as possible--as soon as possible. But often not enough INREAL certified trainers were available to meet the demand for training--more trainers had to be developed, but this was a slow process. Further, many communities expressed interest but believed that they could not afford such seemingly expensive training. Communities were just not used to in-service training that required a full forty hours of staff members' paid time just for the initial training, and that might require three years to be fully implemented if fully supported by school administrators, board members and parents. Of course, they were also not used to the idea that the schools could change so thoroughly that they would allow each child to learn at his or her most natural (and optimal) rate at that particular age, in each area of the curriculum. Especially hard to accept was the notion that the school district would save money in the process. Clear examples were needed of entire schools implementing INREAL's methods.
The coordinators decided to focus on a few sites where there was enough commitment to see the project through to the development of a model school--everyone in a particular building trained, at least to the level of understanding the basic facts about communication and learning, and the goals and methods of implementation. The school administrators, especially, had to be willing to undertake at least this level of training. Model classrooms would be developed, and peer support teams would work to advance the level of understanding of all interested staff and parents. That would allow the community to study what they could expect in cost savings and other benefits such as reduced staff turnover, increased student success, parent satisfaction and parent involvement. One major goal was to cultivate a few of the most skillful and influential teachers as trainers, so that travel expenses and the other extra expenses of using imported trainers could be reduced as much as possible.
The new success stories, coming from a few entire schools, were inspiring. The slow pace of lasting change may be frustrating at times, but a group of committed and well informed people can transform a school into an environment that fosters genuine communication at all levels--one where natural learning is the full-time job of everybody in the system.
In 1989 I began working at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, at Yale University, with the staff of the Office of Public Education. They have adapted INREAL's principles to giving tours in the museum. Instead of giving talks about the objects on display and asking directive questions, the instructors were trained to invite the group to look around the room at the various objects, and then sit down together and ask the instructors questions (genuine communication) and to discuss the objects together. As in the schools, the results were astounding: the staff no longer felt burnt out; and the teachers who brought the groups were amazed at the depth of interest and knowledge revealed by the students' questions. Realizing that the best way to empower teachers to foster genuine communication and natural learning is to train them that way, the staff is practicing what they teach, adapting INREAL to the training of museum instructors. Clearly, the INREAL Model can be used in working with adults as well as children.
Top of Page
INREAL training is not currently available.
Some of the methods used by INREAL are also taught by other groups:
"Reasoning is developed as children are doing things that interest them. The goal of constructivist education is to create an atmosphere that inspires children to explore, to experiment, to make mistakes, and have wonderful ideas." Early Education Resources and Links from the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.
An international group with similar goals and some of the same methods is The Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education
Net Quest Learning Links
Top of Page
Dharma Haven Home Page
Support Dharma Haven
While you Save on Books and Music
Your Comments and Suggestions
Revised on April 14, 1999
Copyright © 1999 Dharma Haven
Top of Page