Dr. David Rose [Rethinking Learning Disabilities In The Age of Google]

David Rose is the Chief Education Officer for CAST and also lectures as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Rose has recently developed a neurological condition where he frequently loses vision. “There’s a wonderful irony in spending your life working with disabilities and to finally have one!” Rose admits intimidation at being sandwiched between Bobby McFerrin and Queen Latifah, but I am not concerned because the title of his talk gives weight to an important issue.

The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard defines the mandate for all digital files to be accessible in several formats. This means that students with vision and print disabilities should be able to receive their textbook in a format they can easily use and learn from. As a result, across the country, students with print disabilities are being given the digital copies (internet, Braille, etc.) from the textbook publisher. You can get copies of these from your local NIMAS representative.

Learning Disability v. Print Disability

Print disabled students include students with blindness, visual disabilities, physical limitations (can’t hold a book or turn the pages), and reading disabilities resulting from organic dysfunction. This has been the definition since the 1930s.

Advances in our understanding of learning

All learning and related disabilities are organic. Rose shows PET scan images of the human brain seeing and hearing words. The brain lights up in different ways as it sees, hears, and learns. As a person learns something, the front of the brain lights up. After the student has practiced the task several times, the lit section becomes dim – less brain energy is being used.  “This ability to watch learning happen has changed how we research it and how we approach it.”

We can see the Zone of Proximal Development by watching PET scan images – the brain lights up when it is acquiring new information at just the right difficulty level.

“How many of you are brain damaged? You are wildly underestimating yourselves. How many of you have had wine or coffee to drink or has driven behind a bus in New York? You are all organically brain damaged, it is just the degree to which you are damaged.”

Advances in our understanding of disability

“We think that when we are showing students the same thing we are standardizing things.” This view goes against the grain how our brains work. Rose shows an example of students with Williams Syndrome and Down Syndrome and how the first sees the details of an image (the Y) and the latter sees the big picture (the D). Neither sees the same image even though on paper the image includes the details and the larger picture.

Students struggle with reading because they do not have the recognition networks, strategic networks, and affective networks. They cannot recognize words, have a plan for reading, or do not have the scaffolding to be able to read.

“Disabilities used to be thought as residential in the individual…disabilities are in the exchange between the individual and his or her environment…what are the demands of the environment around you?”

In order to provide classroom materials for students with different print disabilities you might need to use paper, a computer, different colors, Braille, audio, etc. Changes and adjustments can be made for individuals.

Advances in technology and media

Buying digital books through Scholastic, etc. can be expensive. This is why Rose and CAST are partnering with Google to provide digital books for teachers and classrooms.

Check out CAST’s Bookbuilder, a free e-book building site for you and your students to use.

Essentially, Rose is encouraging teachers to use print as a tool in the classroom, but not to confine the use of print to books. “Unfortunately, we’ve constrained our teaching to what print can do.” We have lost the essence of the content because we are so concerned about fitting it into a textbook.


2 responses to this post.

  1. My grandson has Williams Syndrome. He’s 3 years old. Is there any information as to what is the best way for him to read? Should he use a computer, different color paper, letters, etc.

    Thanking you in advance.


    • Posted by Becky on March 10, 2010 at 7:43 am

      I don’t have much experience (yet) with different disabilities and have only dealt with Williams Syndrome within the context of graduate school lectures, so I would encourage you to ask his pediatrician where you can find literature about print materials for your grandson or if there are Williams Syndrome reading specialists.


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