Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dyslexia Resources

Cindy Baumert is the Executive Director of Dyslexia Solutions, Inc., a not-for-profit 501c3 corporation that supplies RAD Prism glasses to people who struggle with dyslexia. I talked to Cindy after she read an article on my blog about vision therapy.

Dyslexia is often misunderstood and most people assume that it refers to transposing some letters in a word. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, dyslexia is the most prevalent learning disability (LD) and is a neurological problem. The formal definition as identified by the International Dyslexia Association is “characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, some early signs of dyslexia include:
• Trouble learning common nursery rhymes, such as “Jack and Jill”
• Difficulty learning (and remembering) the names of letters in the alphabet
• Seems to be unable to recognize letters in his/her own name
• Mispronounces familiar words; persistent “baby talk”
• Doesn’t recognize rhyming patterns like cat, bat, rat
• Reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters on the page—will say “puppy” instead of the written word “dog” in an illustrated page with a dog shown
• Does not understand that words come apart
• Complains about how hard reading is, or “disappearing” when it is time to read
• Cannot sound out even simple words like cat, map, nap
• Does not associate letters with sounds, such as the letter b with the “b” sound

They also mention some strengths that are common in people with dyslexia that include a larger vocabulary for the age group, a great imagination, excellent problem or puzzle solving ability, and excellent comprehension of spoken stories, among other things.

Cindy, how did Dyslexia Solutions Inc. get started and how do the prism lenses work?

The RAD Prism came about from years of investigation by Dr. Robert Dahlem, DVM (yes, a veterinarian) in his quest to help his son who was diagnosed severely dyslexic who continued to struggle with learning how to read despite high levels of intelligence and attending a private school specializing in instructional methods for dyslexia. What Dr. Dahlem discovered in observing the population of students at the specialized school was a high rate of facial asymmetry, specifically that the left pupil placement was closer to the nose than the right. Dr. Dahlem also investigated every biological system in the human body to try to trace the symptoms of dyslexia and it’s cause.

Upon experimenting with the phenomenon of facial asymmetry and it’s affect on how the brain interpreted information, Dr. Dahlem discovered that by placing a prism of a specific base size in the right eye only helped his son, who had normal vision and eye functionality, to perceive the written word correctly and be able to read fluently. At that point, Dr. Dahlem considered his investigation a success, pleased with the results that his son was receiving from his invention he looked forward to concentrating on his veterinary practices.

But the story did not end there, for friends of his son who were plagued by the same symptoms asked to try the prism and they saw the same improvement. Through word of mouth, Dr. Dahlem started to see individuals who would come to his veterinary hospital to find out if the prism would also help them or their child. When the number of people reached in the hundreds, Dr. Dahlem decided that this invention might not be a fluke that only helped his son and formed a non-profit in 2006 for the mission of evaluating the effectiveness of the RAD Prism in the general population.

In 2008, I became the Executive Director of the non-profit and Dr. Dahlem returned to being a full time veterinarian at his animal hospitals. We developed a website for the general public to have access to the RAD Prism to evaluate and give us feedback.

I did an article on vision problems and vision therapy recently. How is this approach similar and different? Do you help different populations?

Anyone who wants to evaluate the RAD prism may do so. I don’t know how the RAD Prism compares to vision therapy, but to my knowledge vision therapy is meant to correct visual deficits such as convergence insufficiency. We encourage anyone who is going to try the RAD Prism to first be evaluated by an eye-care professional to rule out any issue with the eye that might be causing reading difficulty.

How can low-income families afford the glasses?

Low-income families who cannot afford the fee are encouraged to work with their local civic organizations such as the Optimist and Lions Club, as well as school PTAs and family resource centers. We do charge a fee to receive the RAD Prism to cover the cost of the manufacturing and distribution of the RAD Prism, but we refund anyone who wants to return the prism for any reason, we replace broken frames free of charge and we trade sizes of RAD Prism free of charge.

Can schools get the glasses to help identify students that are dyslexic, rather than mentally or visually impaired?

In addition to the PTA or other fund raisers, schools have used federal IDEA funds to cover the fee.

For more information on the RAD Prism glasses from Dyslexia Solutions, go to:

Another great resource on dyslexia, including more early signs, strengths, strategies, reading lists, and much more, visit the website at Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Strengths Movement - an Interview with Jenifer Fox

Jenifer Fox is the author of “Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them”, a book that radically proposes a change from our current focus on improving weaknesses as a means for academic achievement to a strengths-based paradigm. She passionately makes the case that not only will children feel more empowered, confident, and self-aware with this paradigm, it helps them to optimize their education and their career choices. The book contains workbook tools to help to identify strengths at any age, making it a great book for parents, teens, graduates, and those searching for a new career. It ought to be required reading before leaving school! Also included in the book is an outline of the Affinities Program that she developed at her school. I admired the book’s premise and was delighted at the opportunity to interview Jenifer.

In the book you mentioned a painful time in college trying earnestly to understand math without any compassion or cooperation from your professor. It seems that adversity for you became empowering. Why not let kids struggle with their weaknesses like you did, much in the way a butterfly struggles out of the cocoon?

I think a much better approach is letting kids struggle with their strengths. A butterfly is struggling against its strengths. Developing talent is always hard work. If adversity led to my success just think of how far I could have gone with a focus on my strengths. Adversity was painful. It was like poking a needle through the cocoon and saying, "take that, it'll help you grow". I don't know why some people are resilient but most are not. Life in its best state has struggle built in. Struggle is good. There is a difference between struggle and challenge. Our schools often make kids feel punctured through the core.

The strengths you write about fit within multiple intelligences, not just academic. Can you give some examples? How do these multiple intelligences work in a school setting?

I think kids live in two realms: what they do and what their relationships are. The ways they learn will determine how their strengths are activated in the two realms. One of the things we expect but don't teach is how to get along with others. On the end, it is arguably more important than what you know.

What is the difference between strengths and talents or strengths and interests?

Great question. This is the core of my philosophy and I think my definition separates me from other strengths thinkers. An interest is like a topic. It is general. For example, I am interested in writing. A strength is about how you feel doing something. It is a verb. It is the feeling of being energized, excited, and tuned in. A talent is what you are good at. You may not be energized by everything you are good at. I am good at wallpapering. But it doesn't energize me. I am energized by singing, though I have no talent for it. People have the best chance at developing true talent in their areas of strength because they will devote more time to those activities. As I said before, developing talent takes time and focus. It's easier to focus if you are energized by it.

Education in a public setting is standards-based, including standardized testing, requiring students to focus on subjects that may not be of interest to them, or that may outside of their strengths. What is essential to learn or know in school and what is or could be in the category of an elective?

I think we need to ask what can schools teach that can't be learned somewhere else? It used to be the teacher was the expert, the access to information that only could be gotten by their extensive education. Teachers were revered for their knowledge. They were the computer of the past. We don't need to teach subjects anymore. We need to teach literacy, social skills, creativity, problem solving, how to get along, persevere and do the right thing. We need a national conversation on a new national curriculum that includes emotional and physical health.

A conventional public education often sets a pace for the child whether that pace matches the child or not. How do you determine what is a pacing issue (like being forced to learn to read too early) or a strengths issue?

Great question. Strengths are what energize you. You like doing it. Your question is about development. We all develop and grow at different rates and times. I don't think there is a definitive answer to this. I will say that I think our pedagogy is limited. We think it's impossible to differentiate in a large classroom. I don't think so. Any teacher can list all the weaknesses of over 30 students in their classrooms. So why is it suddenly so difficult to see what they are energized by?
There are many different alternative schools that attempt to notice a child’s strengths and nurture them.

What education models seem to do a better job of this than others?

Montesorri, Waldorf, and a lot of Independent schools.

How can all schools implement this strengths curriculum?

I am in the process of making a six-week, multimedia, activity-based version of the Affinities Program called Planet Strengths. All a school needs is a VCR and the desire for student success. This program is active, media driven and kid-centered. It's going to blow schools away when it comes out.

What can parents do to help a child to know himself and his strengths and capitalize them?

Parents can ask kids questions. They should resist giving advice and applying their own autobiography. Strengths are about how a person feels. To encourage understanding about feelings, you need to ask a lot of questions.

What kind of inroads have you made in the public school arena and in the political arena with your ideas?

I have schools in Texas, Philadelphia, and California test marketing the program for success with a grant from the Best Buy Foundation.

For more information on the Strengths Movement, go to

Friday, June 19, 2009

Vision Therapy for Treating Learning Disabilities

When my son was in first grade at a public school he had a difficult time conforming to the reading pace they prescribed. Their way of helping him was to give him more of the same work to catch him up, keeping him in for recess and providing even more homework to do during free time. They did not have the knowledge or the resources to help him and it proved to be a very damaging year to his confidence and curiosity as a learner. As he was a late summer birthday and one of the youngest in his class, we decided to repeat first grade, though this time in a school that would honor his pace and nourish more than his academic output. We wanted a school that not only had art, but that integrated the arts throughout the curriculum. We wanted a school that did not set their curriculum and lesson plans by standardized testing. We were finished with worksheets! We chose a Waldorf school and the year could not have been more different. It was wonderful!

Before the year began, my son had a first grade readiness assessment through the Waldorf school that felt to him like a playdate. The assessment covered story telling, drawing, balance, singing, jumping and much more. It was incredibly comprehensive and through it they learned that he had a problem with eye tracking and it was deemed likely that this contributed to his reading troubles (along with his readiness). Because Waldorf teaches reading more gradually, not expecting full, independent reading until third grade, this was written up as something to watch for now. Within a month of that new school year his teacher noticed some vision problems and referred us to Accelerated Visual Performance, where we learned a lot about vision problems.

Dr. Manniko estimates that 20% of students in K-12 are learning disabled and of that group, 80% of these children experience visual problems that cause their learning issues. The diagnoses go beyond the 20/20 visual acuity, uncovering issues like amblyopia (lazy eye), strabismus (crossed eyes), general binocular problems (eyes failing to work together), etc. In addition to an eye examination, the child puts on a pair of special goggles and reads as a Visagraph tracks eye movements. It measures reading speed, next line identification, eye movement efficiency, backward movement and a number of other factors involved in reading.

According to Dr. Manniko, “Individuals who are learning disabled generally make significantly more eye movements and spend greater time focusing on each word, while getting less information than a strong reader. A common pattern among learning disabled individuals is that their eyes do not function together, hindering their reading comprehension.”

My son was diagnosed with Exophoria (his eyes pointed outward and had trouble working together at that angle) and Accomodation Disfunction (he had trouble seeing clearly when looking back and forth from far to near, like from blackboard to paper on his desk). Dr. Manniko and his staff set up a vision therapy program for him to help him overcome these problems. This also resembled a playdate twice a week for a few months. He wore goggles that resembled overlarge Harry Potter glasses with adjustable lenses. The lenses helped his eyes to work together better. While wearing the lenses he threw basketballs, jumped on trampolines, walked the balance beams and played games that involved finding, tracking or aiming among other exercises.

According to Dr. Manniko, visual training programs can help to improve reading speed, comprehension and accuracy. Though he does not claim it is a direct ‘cure’ for learning disabilities, he does say that it is effective in resolving associated visual problems, which he says are sometimes associated with ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia. Dr. Manniko even told me that a large percentage of prisoners have these undiagnosed vision problems and in one program they tested and performed vision therapy on a prison population with these issues and were able to reduce the recidivism rate by 50%! He is not claiming that people with vision problems will wind up in jail, but he pointed out that these are often the children that struggle and give up and don’t get the help that they need to function easily in society, so they turn to other means.

Even though he is not expected to read independently for another year or two, my son is now able to read! Waldorf and Vision Therapy have been largely responsible for restoring my son’s confidence, curiosity, and creativity. He is much happier kid with a stronger self-image. I frequently think about the kids that go undiagnosed and struggle in schools that cannot help them and feel so much empathy for them. I would love to see this kind of vision testing brought into schools. Dr. Manniko told me that the equipment needed for testing is not prohibitively expensive and that a technician can perform all of the work. How wonderful it would be to get all schools access to such a resource to help many of their struggling students!

For more information on Waldorf, go to For more information on Vision Therapy, go to

Monday, June 15, 2009

Race to Nowhere - an Interview with Filmmaker Vicki Abeles

I had heard about a film called “Race to Nowhere” that was in the works and I was lucky to catch a few moments of Vicki Abeles’ time to ask her about the film. Vicki founded Reel Link Films in 2007 and “Race to Nowhere”, their first film will premier this year. The documentary is a look into the stressful, activity-packed lives of students who are feeling the pressure to achieve.

What is the film about?

Race to Nowhere is a film examining the current state of childhood and education in America. The film asks the question, are we preparing the next generation for healthy, productive lives.

What brought about your work on this film?

After a series of wake up call in my family and community I set out to understand why childhood today looked so different than what I remembered from my own youth.

What change or work would you like to see as the result of this film?

Our intent is to start a national dialogue on education and the pressures our children and educators are under in the hopes of galvanizing change.

I often think there is a sense of economic fear that causes us to want our children to succeed, but there is a more sinister motive at play in that we put the burden of global competitiveness squarely on the shoulders of our children and expect them to rescue us and assure us a spot at the top of the competition. Do you think that is what is part of the pressure we put on them in school?

So much of what we see today seems to be the result of parental fears as well as fear at a national level that we are somehow slipping behind in this flattened world.

There are many models and ideas of education (Democratic Schools, Educating for Human Greatness, De-Schooling Society) that propose to allow students to learn and excel at what is interesting to them and teachers are more facilitators. In these models we don’t worry so much about setting a standard that everyone must live up to, whether they are interested or not. What are your thoughts on these kinds of models?

I think there are many experts in the field of education better equipped to handle this question. That said, I believe we need to move away from today's one size fits all approach and make education relevant to our kids and the 21st century.

The consequences of the pressure to succeed, meaning get good grades and high test scores, are many. Kids do not get play time, recess time, down time. Programs that smack of fun or are in any way less than academic, like art, drama, music, or even gym class are routinely cut to save money and time to devote to more academic studies. Why are these programs or activities important? Why is balance important?

Play is the work of childhood, and adolescents have the important work of figuring out who they are. When we sacrifice the downtime needed for these important developmental stages, we see many unintended consequences from stress and anxiety, to depression, disengaged learning, and a failure to develop life skills that are critical to adulthood. We fail to recognize the importance developing the right side of the brain - critical for future innovation.

How do we address the developmental needs of the whole child beyond academics (physical, emotional, social, etc.)?

We recognize that children develop at different rates, and have different strengths and challenges. We allow the down time to play, explore, work on social interactions, so vital to healthy adulthood.

Do you think standardized testing is the cause of the pressure to succeed? Are there other causes?

As you pointed out, fear drives so much of the pressure. Some of it comes from parents, some is student and peer driven and some comes from the teachers who are also feeling the pressure to hit the scores and satisfy the parents. A number of other factors contribute to the pressure. Broad standards that require teachers to teach to multiple choice tests, the media driven perception that there are only 20 colleges that will lead to success, a test and homework driven education model, and the pressure to build "resumes" for the college application.

Expert after expert in the field of child development, pediatrics, psychology and education have continually pointed to the necessity and the effectiveness of play-based Kindergarten, but more and more it is becoming learning-centered with the pressure to read and write at ever-earlier ages. What are the consequences?

There are many unintended consequences: loss of childhood; increasing rates of physical and emotional health issues in childhood (I am also concerned about the long term implications of seeing these medical problems at such a young age); sleep deprivation; use of performance enhancing medications to get through this pressure cooker system; compromised values because of a desire to get the grade at any cost; kids are dropping out; arriving in college burnt out; mental health offices on college campuses are stretched beyond capacity; the college drop out rate is high; and industry is telling us the graduates lack the skills to succeed in the workforce.

Daniel Pink, author of a Whole New Mind talks about the urgent need for creativity in schools and the work place. Sir Ken Robinson talks about finding your element, your passion and how that can more easily be accomplished through a richer curriculum. How does a school district with limited funds meet these needs and still foster academic achievement?

I believe schools can include these programs by first recognizing their importance in developing whole human beings. If we start moving away from the mentality of inexpensive, multiple choice tests focused on broad standards, teachers can build these programs into their curriculum with project based learning, etc. As well, businesses and local communities can work in partnership with local schools to help build these programs. First, we have to recognize the importance of these programs to the development of healthy, productive people. Transforming education and childhood doesn't require the funds to develop new technology or cures for a new disease. There are plenty of experts in the fields of education and child development that have solutions. We need to first raise awareness and engage in a national dialogue.

To learn more about the film and to see a trailer, visit:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What on Earth is Earthschooling? An Interview with Kristie Burns

Kristie Burns is an earthschooling mother of three children, ages 10, 12 and 14. Kristie works from home as a healer, artist and teacher. She ran a Waldorf Enrichment school from 2000-2004 and now provides curriculum, lesson plans and tips for other parents wanting to start their own co-ops, enrich their child's education, or embark on the earthschooling journey.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics reported that approximately 1.5 million children (2.9 percent of school-age children) were being homeschooled in the spring of 2007, representing a 36 percent relative increase since 2003 and a 74 percent relative increase since 1999. In your experience, what factors have contributed to the rise in homeschooling?

One is the amount of resources that are now available to do homeschooling. When I was homeschooling my kids 10 years ago, the resources were not the same. The Internet makes these resources so available and easily accessed and it offers encouragement. You can ask questions, gets answers, get support, get ideas, see other people doing it successfully to inspire you to do it. Another factor is that public schools have started to cooperate with homeschools and offer them programs and assistance. It has given it a sense of acceptance and a stamp of approval that way.

How can homeschools avoid a sense of isolation?

Connecting with the available resources is easy these days. It’s almost the opposite problem. Before it was isolating, but recently I did a conference on information overload. Now there are so many opportunities in your community that you have to be selective – not every field trip or event or gathering is necessary. This would not have been an issue before.

Where do I start if I want to homeschool?

Each person needs to examine what is the motivation and inspiration behind the desire to homeschool. The place to start seems to be Yahoo Groups because there are lots of central conversations and these branch off with smaller groups and forums. On the Yahoo Groups page you can find groups for homeschooling boys, secular homeschooling, Montessori homeschooling, etc. … there are so many different flavors. A lot of people join 8-10 to start and pair it down to 2 or 3 once they get a sense for the style and feel most comfortable with a few of them. Here is a link to a yahoo group that is focused on Waldorf: (

The evidence suggests that homeschooled students tend to do as well as or sometimes better than their institutionally-schooled peers and Stanford, Yale, and Harvard have some of the most homeschool-friendly policies. How are homeschooled students well prepared for college and life?

Kids really adapt to their environment and if given the opportunity to learn, they will learn. It really depends on their environment. Some schools do this well, but homeschools tend to be more flexible, more able and willing to tailor the education to meet the child’s need, and to offer free time that the child needs to access creativity and intellect. One-on-one attention matters for some children, but not as much for others. Some do better with lots of kids around to influence them and motivate them. There are all sorts of learning styles. It’s all about what the child needs and what the child is provided by their learning environment. Homeschooling offers more opportunity to adapt and you know your child best. There is no perfect approach for everyone.

How do you provide a broad, challenging, balanced curriculum?

Balance is a combination of the child and the curriculum. There is no balanced curriculum. For instance, my son thinks in numbers and was doing his sister’s math problems in Kindergarten, so he needs to balance that with more creative experiences, knitting, time in nature. My youngest daughter is significantly creative, writing 100-page books in a few days. Balance for her is about balancing that creativity with a sense of discipline, a sense of order and organization – thinking in a different way, using both sides of the brain. That’s another reason homeschooling is great is because it is easier to create a balance in the day, there is no formula for it. As for challenging, there is a wonderful side of homeschooling that is very creative and experiential, but even if you don’t like math, you really do have to do your math. If there is resistance you have to find some way to overcome that and give them a broad educational experience. That part is not as fun, but it is part of the challenge. Continue to feed those breakthroughs and know what is appropriate for each age group to be learning. It gives you an idea of what to aim for realistically.

What led you to this work?

I was a photographer and an herbalist (and still am but not full time any more). I would do photo assignments and do consulting and classes and then when my children came along the number of people coming over and frequent travel started becoming disruptive. I tried to think of what I could do that would work better with my children. I started a co-op Waldorf School, and I ended up running it. It was Waldorf enrichment and then became a Kindergarten and it kept growing. Running this school took up all of my time in the evenings to do lesson plans, creating everything from scratch. This was in the Middle East where those resources and Internet access were very limited. There were 27 different cultures, and although it was Waldorf, I adapted it to match the seasons, cultures, and settings. If I didn’t find the perfect story, I would create it. It was a lot of work. After I ended up leaving the country, I was sad to not use these materials that were meant to be used for the next 10 years. Thus began the process of putting it online, which was a huge challenge and still occupies a lot of my work hours.

How do you currently help homeschool families?

Right now I offer lesson plans, curriculum, and enrichment through the website. I love feeling like I am part of people’s homeschooling experience. I still remember vividly how hard I worked on these materials and I am always updating them and adding to them. I love that they can be of use to people so that they don’t have to be overwhelmed like I was. The material that other people offer in Waldorf is very traditional; sometimes it doesn’t resonate with people. What I offer is created for many different cultures and settings. It is more adaptable and helpful to a wider audience. I hope that showing people the diversity that Steiner built into Waldorf education will bring more people into the community.

What is earthschooling?

Because of the opportunities that are available, today’s world is all about opportunities, information, and choices. Because of that and because we move more frequently, life today is so fluid. We need another term for homeschooling. To me, earthschooling signifies the adaptability and fluidity; you are focused on the education of your child to the needs of the moment without artificial barriers. It allows you to follow the flow of life. You can make the choices about tutoring, enrichment, afterschool, lesson plans, and curriculum without some rigid model to follow. If a certain style isn’t’ working, like Waldorf’s approach to math at a certain age, it gives permission and flexibility to give your children what they need in a different educational modality. Also, it is not just at home, it is grocery shopping, on a vacation, playing in nature, etc. It doesn’t stop; it’s a natural flow of life.
For more information on earthschooling visit: or

For more information on Kristie's work in art go to: and in healing go to: or

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Changing the Way we Teach Math - an Interview with Paul Lockhart of "A Mathematician's Lament"

I came across an essay called “A Mathematician’s Lament” and was so moved by it that I had to share it. The essay starts with a musician having a bad dream that his craft is now compulsorily taught in schools in the way that we teach mathematics currently—devoid of beauty and fun. It goes on to show how math could be taught as art, full of meaning and pleasure and discovery. The essay became a book and I recently interviewed the author, Paul Lockhart on the subject of math and education.

How did you come to be a math teacher? Was it the result of a positive math education or in spite of bad math teaching?

I didn’t do particularly well in math. I think I got a D in eighth grade. Math instruction then was what it continues to be: a training course in the manipulation of symbols without meaning, procedures to learn and tasks to perform. It’s a lot like being at the DMV. It is a thing you have to do. You might see the validity and necessity of it, but you derive no pleasure from it and it’s certainly not something you would choose to do.

I stumbled on math accidentally, through puzzles with my grandfather and in finding my dad’s college textbooks and putting them together. It was then that I saw the wonderland of structure and beauty. It is so sad that so few people know about that. So for me, a big part of being a mathematician is being a teacher.

The world of research mathematicians is one of infinite mystery, with brave, intrepid mental explorers. Then there is the world of school and they have nothing to do with each other. Few mathematicians are interested in the lowly world of elementary school mathematics. Some have tried to help, but found it an infuriating instrument of torture, and left. In a small space of time I try to get across what it is to be a mathematician in a real, natural, and meaningful way.

I started teaching at 18 in an after-school program. I fell in love with telling kids about cool ideas. I went to graduate school and became a math professor, which was fun for a while, but I grew to feel that the world of the university was rather corrupt. I am an idealist and I was disappointed to discover that the university was not an ivory tower for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but a machine for profit. I didn’t want to be part of that world. Also, by the time I got my students they were 20 and they were ruined already. They were tragically incapable of starting over or engaging in the real mathematics’ charm, mystery and beauty. So I felt that teaching high school would give me an opportunity to get to them earlier. But they are still mostly dysfunctional as mathematical thinkers and their math wounds run too deep. I have gone progressively down the chain, and am now teaching first and third graders as well.

How is it that schools fail to teach math in a way that shares with others its beauty and art?

School takes something real and chops it up into meaningless pieces with no organic whole to it. Learning doesn’t happen when it is so disconnected. What goes on in schools is not about learning. Instead you study something, take a test, and a few months later you have no memory or concern about that thing you supposedly “learned.” School is authority compliance testing and in the end you get a certificate of endurance. What we call “smart” is the ability to memorize meaningless data and retrieve it like a trained seal. The whole school thing is pretty nightmarish. Even in an enlightened, affluent, private setting it’s still there. I cringe when I hear a fellow teacher complaining about cheaters. How many more signals do you need to see that this is not interesting, that they are not learning?

I walk into a third grade classroom and on the board is the kids’ whole schedule. There is no natural flow through the day; it’s all cut up into pieces. An eight-year old should not have an end-time to her water coloring! It should be a natural flow through the day with time for daydreaming—that is what living an intellectual life is! If she feels she’s come to the end of her painting, and then wants to stop and play, that is a beautiful thing. Our school culture is quite insane, actually. A third grader recently told me at the start of the year that she only wanted to learn enough in my class to get a good score on the SAT so that she could get into Yale.

Think about what we ourselves do as learners and notice that you learn what you care about—you will pursue what you want and you will remember it. The emphasis in schools is on teaching, not learning. Real teaching is an uncovering or re-awakening. It is inspiration and revelation, not evaluation. The meaning of “student” in Latin is “having zeal.” Learning is not important, it is fun. There is no more noble purpose than enjoyment, fun, love and care for others. If kids are having fun then they are learning. I don’t believe in the utility of education as it is now understood. School should be about learning, thinking, creating, dreaming and exploring. Right now it is an engine of worker production to supply human capital for the economy.

We all went through this awful math experience. Then people grow up, have a kid or two, and now they suddenly believe in it and want their kids to have this same miserable math education? I don’t get it. “This was boring and awful in eighth grade, and it has not been useful to me as a successful adult, but I really want my child to do it.” I would understand it more if parents were storming the barricades in protest! People who admit no math ability feel that their opinion about math instruction is valid. That is mystifying. I can’t dance, but I know that, so I don’t give any dancing advice.

There is a myth that math will get you economic security, so parents fear that their child will not be able to handle adding some numbers together. Man has the ability to count. Left to their own devices they will figure it out. It is too early for 6, 7, 8 year olds to understand an abstract decimal code and 13th-century technologies. A 12-year-old would be ready to understand this and, without the fear and loathing for math, they would learn it so quickly and willingly.

After reading your book, I feel I was cheated in my math education. How can math instruction look and feel different?

The simple conclusion I have come to is that it should be treated as an apprenticeship, just like an 18th-century carpenter who has a dozen apprentices learning the trade. As a master carpenter, you teach your apprentices to pay attention to various details. You foster an understanding of what this art is all about. You teach them to measure and saw, but also to regard their work lovingly and to feel a connection to it.

I try to create a mathematical community at each stage of development. Students are engaged in the practice of mathematics, meaning the questions and ideas that are being raised come from them, not me. The students write mathematical papers in prose and diagrams (not worksheets) to present their explanation of the problem they are working on. It is the greatest thing ever for them to discover the solution themselves. I want people to see the breathtaking beauty and be charmed and intrigued.

Aside for practical applications like tipping and balancing checkbook why do we need to learn math?

We don’t need to learn math, any more than we need to learn poetry and music. As for the practical world, arithmetic procedures are mechanizable. All you really need is a good sense of estimation and the ability to use a calculator. I teach third graders to use a calculator and balance a checkbook. We should not be training children to be arithmetic machines. We build calculators so we don’t have to do these boring tasks. Running a lemonade stand and having to make change is real, and that kind of thing is the best way to learn basic arithmetic.

Math is usually thought of as a left-brained, linear, logical activity. Would you comment on that?

Math is like music and art. You need to use everything you’ve got: imagination, intuition, rationality—your whole self. You find connections and shatter preconceived ideas. If you are a composer, there are things happening on every creative level.

Do you use textbooks? If not, what tools do you use.

Textbooks are an abomination. Just as an English class has you read directly from “As I Lay Dying,” written by the actual author/artist, Faulkner, we should also have math books written by working mathematicians, not a committee of “educators” working for a textbook company. I do not give assignments, quizzes, tests or homework. My students are happy about that, but they discover that it is actually far more serious and difficult work: it is 24 hours a day of obsession with triangles. It is immersion in the most fascinating thing ever.

To read the original essay, “A Mathematician’s Lament,” go to:

The expanded book version of A Mathematician’s Lament is available from

Friday, June 5, 2009

Anthroposophic Medicine's Take on ADD/ADHD - an Interview with Dr. Adam Blanning

Dr. Blanning, first please explain what Anthroposophic Medicine is.

Anthroposophic medicine is a holistic and human-centered approach to medicine. It is practiced by physicians who have done a conventional medical training, but expands conventional scientific views by incorporating an understanding of the laws of the living organism and the emotional and spiritual aspects of the human being. Instead of trying to define illness into particular categories and to standardize treatment for a given disease, Anthroposophic medicine really strives to recognize the unique aspects of an individual person’s constitution and biographical path.

What kind of health issues do you treat?

A broad range of acute and chronic illnesses, in both children and adults. My training is in family medicine, which I taught for several years at University of Colorado and New York Medical College. But now my practice is really focused on areas where there are holes in traditional medical treatments. I see a lot of children with developmental, learning, or behavioral concerns. Also, a lot of children and adults with digestive problems, allergies. People struggling with depression, fear, anxiety. People stuck in chronic illnesses. The common thread is that for many people there is the sense that a process is out of balance. That imbalance may or may not manifest in symptoms or abnormalities that can be measured on blood tests or other diagnostic studies. Or sometimes a person’s illness simply cannot be explained with blood tests or x-rays, or it only meets four out of five of the standard criteria. Then a person may not actually meet the definition of an illness, but he or she is clearly also not well. This is where an understanding of process is very helpful.

How does Anthroposophic medicine view the subject of ADD/ADHD?

The first step is to gain some freedom from the definition of ADD/ADHD, because I do not it to be therapeutically very useful. It is a description of the problematic behavior, but it does not necessarily really guide you in any healthy directions for solving the problem. Let me get more specific—a very important polarity in “attention deficit” behaviors is the difference between inattention (not noticing what the teacher is saying because you are absorbed in your own thoughts, or are unaware of your environment) and distraction (not noticing what the teacher is saying because you are absorbed in what your neighbor is doing and you are too aware of your immediate environment). Both can result in the same kind of learning issues—not taking in what the teacher is saying—but they are happening for completely different reasons.

One child, whom I will call “inattentive,” may be having trouble connecting with his or her environment, and is probably slow to wake-- often called dreamy. This child is generally more closed off from the world, still (without movement) in his body, with more activity happening in his head than in his limbs. This kind of child usually does not have the hyperactivity component (ADD).

A second child, whom we could call “inattentive,” immediately overflows into his environment. This child is in many ways at the mercy of the environment and is too wakeful, and totally absorbed by: the neighbor’s eraser, and how their own shoe fits, and a million other things that are going on. This child usually wakes quickly and is always exploring the environment with his limbs—“hyperactivity.” Of course both polarities are seen in both boys and girls.

How do you work with this problem?

Well, as a starting point, I generally do not prescribe stimulants like Ritalin. Stimulants can be helpful for getting a child more focused, but they do not help teach the child how to be more focused. In fact, when the medication is stopped, the same problems are usually still present, but now the child (or young adult) is just older. Stimulants are a temporary measure, but they do not really lead to a lasting improvement.

The approach that I use is one of looking at the behaviors or impressions that happen just before a child looses interest or contact with the focused activity. All of us have inclinations—to be dreamy, or to be always playing with something in our hands, or to be strongly influenced by low blood sugar, or to regularly move around. Those same inclinations are also reflected in how we sleep—do we wake quickly or slowly, is it easy or difficult to release from the impressions of the day when falling asleep; and in how we eat and in our digestion—we very commonly work with our food diet in the same way that way that we work with the “sensory diet” of the world around us. If these patterns are true, then they are consistent and point towards a specific therapy. It can be surprising that when someone comes to see me for a behavioral or learning problem I ask many questions about health history, digestion, sleep, habits, illness patterns, and relatively less about the behavior; and when someone is coming with a digestive problem I ask a lot about how that person notices and interacts with the world around them, and less about the actual digestive issue. The goal is really to gain a holistic understanding of each person’s situation and “constitution.”

I very regularly use natural or homeopathic medicines for a “constitutional” treatment, one that balances these strong inclinations. On occasion I also refer to different kinds of movement therapists or special educators that I work with. The work with the constitutional remedies is done over several months to a year, but there are often very good changes, with the eventual goal being that the child needs no medicine or treatment at all. Working on a constitutional level can also be helpful for working with imbalances or challenges on multiple levels, such as sleep, behavior, and illness patterns.

Why does ADD/ADHD seem to be so much on the rise?

We have somehow gotten into thinking that a growing child is a small-sized adult that simply needs to grow larger and then have a bulk of knowledge content poured in. But a child’s life is actually much more dynamic than that. I really don’t think that any child is born with perfect integration of their thoughts, senses and will impulses. These processes are always disjointed, and they have to be integrated. This integration happens through work—the work of physical activity, of imitation, of social interaction. Skipping over this integrative process by stressing early intellectual activity and computers is damaging, and it is certainly asking for problems down the road. The child’s body really is built, refined and improved by experience—not by watching experiences, but by doing experiences. Virtual realities do not count. On many levels we are robbing children of those opportunities. Then in grade school we suddenly expect children to be well integrated in their bodies and in their senses and get upset when they still seem to want to move or wiggle. Many, many of the behaviors that are identified as ADD/ADHD are really just attempts by the child to better integrate or orient themselves in their senses and in their limbs. We would not label a toddler ADHD, because all toddlers are by definition ADHD. In many circumstances the “attention deficit” child is trying to complete his or her integrative process at an older age because it has not been completed earlier on.

If schools were better at adjusting to the student than requiring the student to fit into the school’s frame work, there would probably be a lot less ADD/ADHD diagnoses. Can you comment on that? How can schools do a better job of helping kids succeed just as they are?

Certainly schools that appreciate the importance of this early integration process are more properly matching the child’s own development. The Waldorf schools do this beautifully. Using stimulant medications or simply trying to squelch these behaviors does of course make it easier to function in the classroom, but it does not answer the question of what is the child trying to achieve with these behaviors. It is rare that a child is acting out just to be belligerent—usually it is an expression of some hole that has not been worked through in the child’s development.

How can parents help with issues of attention, impulse control, and behavior?

Give your child opportunities to do experiences, not watch experiences. That is the great danger with so much media available to children—movies, TV, internet—which are indeed all virtual realities. They may seem entertaining for the senses, but they are really depriving a child of much needed opportunities for this developmental integration. Also feed them a diet that does not contain highly processed foods. Refined sugars and flours are like experiencing things through watching them on TV—they are quick and don’t take much actual initiative on your part, but they are not good physical nutrition, just like virtual realities are not good developmental nutrition.

Do nutrition, the arts, nature, and movement play any role in the improvement of these conditions?

Yes, exactly, you are getting the idea. The more a child can be given real experiences (running, climbing, singing, imitating, digging, planting, chewing) the greater the gift you are giving them for healthy development. What is strange is that a child will naturally do all of these things, and children have done them for millennia before we as a society started introducing so many abstractions and replacements. You can’t just skip over childhood—it is a process that has to be done. If we really allow small children to be small children and complete their integrative developmental tasks, and be patient, then we would see a lot fewer of these behavioral and educational challenges down the road.

For more information on Anthroposophic Medicine and Dr. Adam Blanning, go to:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

FairTest - An Interview with Bob Schaeffer

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) promotes fair and educationally sensible assessments of students, teachers, and schools. The group works to educate people on testing tools with the goal of eliminating standardized testing and other damaging evaluation tools that are counter to high-quality education. I recently interviewed Bob Schaeffer, one of the leaders of FairTest about this group’s work.

Despite the widespread criticism of No Child Left Behind (NLCB), why is it still going strong in our schools?

If the decision were in the hands of parents or professional educators, the so-called "No Child Left Behind" law would have been substantially reformed or even repealed years ago. Public opinion polls, such as the one done annually by Gallup for the Phi Delta Kappan magazine show that there is widespread and growing criticism of NCLB for narrowing curriculum, encouraging drilling for poorly-designed tests instead of high quality teaching and learning, and assuming a "one size fits all" approach is best for all children. The closer observers are to classrooms, the more clearly they see these problems. Unfortunately, NCLB was hatched "inside the Beltway" in Washington, DC. That is where its strongest supporters, professional politicians and the lobbyists who support them, are located. They cling to the illusion that high-stakes tests are a cheap, simple way to improve schools, even when there is overwhelming evidence that this scheme does not work. Until members of the public strongly press their elected representatives that NCLB must be overhauled, the law will remain in place despite the damage it is doing in many schools.

What other ways can be assess students in any grade?

Teachers and academic researchers have identified a number of superior ways to assess student performance, including portfolios of work, projects, presentations, and even low-stakes tests whose results are used to improve learning not blame and punish. Many classrooms, including those in the Coalition for Essential Schools and the Performance Assessment Consortium, regularly demonstrate that a richer , deeper, more meaningful education can be obtained once the restraints imposed by a fixation on standardized tests and their results. Graduates of these programs go on to excel in life.

How cost effective are alternative forms of assessment compared to the standardized variety?

When high quality assessments are built into the curriculum, for example by requiring regular reviews of collections of students' work by the classroom teacher, colleagues, administrators, parents and even members of the larger community, the costs are lower than those currently incurred to purchase commercial tests, buy the materials needed to prepare students for them, and train teachers to focus on what will be on the tests as well as pay for the innumerable hours spent in administering exams and analyzing scores.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that 730 colleges and universities around the nation offer the option of not taking the ACT or SAT for admissions. What criteria would you like to see higher education use for admissions?

FairTest recently updated its list of test-optional colleges and found that there are now more than 815 accredited, bachelor-degree granting universities which do not require all or many applicants to submit ACT/SAT results before admissions decisions are made. These schools have universally found that deemphasizing test scores results in improved academic quality as well as more diversity in their student bodies. Instead of focusing on how well teenagers filled in standardized exam bubbles in three-and-a-half hours on a Saturday morning, admissions offices look at academic performance over time --in the forms of grades, class rank, and course rigor --, extracurricular activities, community service, leadership, obstacles overcome, long-term interests, and other characteristics. Considered together, these factors are better guides to predicting college success than test-taking skills ever can be.

How much money do you estimate goes to testing corporations that could go to teacher salaries and materials?

There is no accurate way to measure the size of the testing industry, in part because so many firms are involved handling different parts of the process (e.g. designing test forms, printing test forms, running scoring machines, producing test-prep materials, training teachers to coach students toward higher scores, interpreting results etc.). Indeed, one academic attempt to come up with a reasonable estimate ended up producing a book titled "The Fractured Marketplace for Standardized Testing," documenting how complicated the assessment business has become. What we do know is that the three major companies involved in the college and graduate school admissions market, the College Board, Educational Testing Service and ACT, have combined revenues of almost $2 billion per year. Add to that the hundreds of millions of grade K to 12 tests administered in public schools across the nation -- due to "No Child Left Behind" every student must take at least 17 before graduating from high school, and many states add additional standardized exam requirements -- and the industry size must be in the tens of billions of dollars annually, if not more than $100 billion. These figures only include the direct costs of testing -- coaching materials, forms, and scoring. An even greater expense is the immense amount of classroom educator time spent preparing students to take exams, administering them and analyzing their scores. Clearly a tremendous amount of money is being spent on standardized exams which would better be devoted to improving teaching and learning.

I have heard about scandals in SAT scoring. Can you tell me what you have learned?

The scores of more than 4,400 students who had taken the October 2005 SAT were misreported, sometimes by as much as 450 points on the three-part test's 600 - 2400 point scale. The College Board, which sponsors the SAT, did not admit to the mistake until March, 2006 after some admissions and scholarship awards had been made based on the erroneous scores. To this day, the College Board has not offered a credible explanation of what happened or why it took five months to report the problem to test-takers, high schools and colleges. The available evidence suggests that a number of answer sheets somehow became damp and stretched, throwing off the machines that automatically tally scores. No one knows how or where water or humidity contaminated the paper. The College Board did, however, settle a lawsuit for $3 million to avoid a lengthy investigation of the fiasco in a court of law where testimony must be truthful or risk penalties for perjury and internal company documents are subject to review by plaintiffs and outside experts. As a results, students who received faulty scores were paid at least $275 with greater compensation available to those who could show greater damages. The incident demonstrates, once again, that standardized tests are not flawless, "objective" instruments of mental measurement, as their proponents often imply.

It seems that IQ, SAT and ACT are highly fluid numbers that we put a lot of weight toward understanding a person’s intelligence. These scores can change if retested and can be prepared for by studying its contents and memorizing facts. Isn’t this the tail wagging the dog?

If tests accurately assessed enduring human traits, such as "intelligence" and "aptitude," reported scores for the same person would not change significantly from one administration to another. Yet, a number of researchers have shown that short-term, intensive training can boost results on the SAT (and other tests) by tens of points, if not hundreds. That means students whose parents can afford expensive test-prep courses have a much greater opportunity to pump up their college application credentials, further tilting the admissions playing field in their favor. Large score gains also undermine the credibility of standardized testing industry firms which claim their products measure meaningful knowledge, not test-taking skills

I’ve heard that these tests are often discriminatory against minorities and low-income groups. How so?

The test-makers themselves admit that exams such as the SAT underpredict college performance for females and students whose home language is not English. The nature of the tests, fast-paced, multiple-choice "games," often including odd language and esoteric problem types, places a premium on speed and strategic guessing. This build in a disadvantage against groups.which may either read more slowly in order to translate unfamiliar words, those inclined to linger over complicated items rather than filling in an answer and moving on, and individuals who are hesitant about offering a response unless they are certain of its accuracy. These may all be good skills in college and life, but they result in lost points on standardized exams.

It is said that Emotional Intelligence is a stronger predictor of success in college and work life. All things being equal, how can colleges and companies take that into account when looking for the most likely to succeed student or employee?

Skilled admissions professionals, particularly those at test-optional institutions, know how to evaluate an applicant from a comprehensive or "holistic" perspective. The process takes into account multiple factors, not just "the numbers" of test scores and grades, including an assessment of the student's course-taking patterns, learning growth, and academic honors balanced by other considerations such as family background, career interest, unique skills and, at some institutions, emotional intelligence..

What is the purpose of education in your view and how has standardized testing changed that?

The purpose of education has been an unresolved subject of debate at least since the beginning of recorded history. FairTest believes children should "learn how to learn," developing a range of knowledge, skills and experiences that enables them to become productive participants in 21st Century society. An over-emphasis on standardized exams, which can measure little more than factual recall, dumbs-down teaching and learning so that some schools become little more than test-preparation centers. To encourage an emphasis on higher level thinking skills, cross-content learning, and real-world competencies, politicians must be persuaded to back away from their fixation on simple-minded tests and encourage what really matters by moving toward performance-based assessments.

For more information about FairTest, see: