Aspeis need to know what their assignment actually is

Lately, I have neglected posting on the topic of Aspergers.  Still, judging by the relative traffic among my posts, there is a need for more information there:  both Aspies and educators are still looking for help.

Last December, I received the following comment:

I have an Aspie student, and when asked to produce 2 sentences about a topic in class, will just sit and think the entire period producing nothing… (I do believe that he is thinking about the topic). The topic has been given to student prior to class. Is this an unreasonable task? This is an 7th grade gifted autistic student.

I understand the perfectionism issue and that they may be unsure that it is good enough to put on paper, but in an educational setting I would like some suggestions to assist the regular Language Arts teacher. This is a graded assignment to be done in class.

Thanks in advance for any ideas you may have.

Deb Herr
Special Education Teacher

While I gave a quick reply at that time, this is a very important point which deserves a lot of attention.  So, I had attempted to write up a proper response.

It wasn’t right – so I edited t.

Then I fixed it up some.

Then t needed shortening down a bit.  So, I cut a bunch of stuff out.

Too much of the key ‘stuff’ was gone.  I started a re-write.  From scratch…

…and so on, and so on.

It is now October.  I have still not published the post – it is not ‘right’ yet!!!!

NO, I am NOT joking!

So, now, I will publish the draft I have, without re-reading it, with all the flaws, errors, sentence fragments and all – or I will NEVER publish this…

Here it goes:

Both my sons are in the gifted program.  One has gone through grade 7 several years ago, one is going to get there in not too distant a future – so, I am familiar with the level of development of a gifted Aspie of that age group.

Just to be sure, I asked my older son if he remembered being in that situation himself.  He did…and was in perfect agreement with me as to what thought-processes this student would be going through: trying to figure out what the assignment means!

Being in the gifted program means the student is smart.  By the time they get to grade 7, smart Aspies understand perfectly well that when a teacher asks for ‘any two sentences on a topic’, the absolutely last thing this means is any two sentences on a topic’!

Experience would have taught them that…by now.  And not in a nice way.

But, it would not have taught them what it is that the teacher/assignment does mean – or how to guess it….

So, I think it most likely that the student spent the time trying to figure out what the assignment actually was!  And, with so little information provided to the student, I really don’t see how anyone could figure it out!

Therefore, my answer is that yes, it is unreasonable an Aspie or an Autie gifted student, in grade 7, to complete an assignment of ‘writing 2 sentences on a given topic‘.

Reasons:

  • The assignment is non-specific.
  • The parameters are not defined.
  • The goals of the assignment are not known.
  • The expectations are unclear (or, in this case, clearly misrepresented).

BUT!!!

There IS a solution!

Aspies – and high-functioning Auties – are very good at meeting very specific goals.  I know that teachers are not used to approaching teaching this way, but, they would get WAY better results from this class of students if they were absolutely clear with them what the point of the assignment is, what the goal is, and what the evaluation criteria will be.

This worked for me – and my sons, as well as a few other kids I worked with:

First, we establish that in order to produce marks, teachers have to produce metrics:  marks which measure the student’s skill-set development in several areas.  This may seem like a game, but, because teachers have to work within such a large system, metrics were required.  And, these metrics are used to evaluate the student.

To an Aspie/Autie student, this can be an important revelation.  It is not an intuitive leap, to conclude this, because we usually believe what we are told – and from the earliest age, we are told that the point of school is to learn.  But, of course, it isn’t!  The point of school is to PROVE what we have learned… There is no place in school for ‘learning’ without proving (through earning marks) that/what one has learned.

Explaining that the point of doing assignments is to ‘earn points/marks’ can be liberating for an Aspie student.  After all, ‘getting on the high-score board’ is possible, even if one has not yet ‘defeated the boss’!

Once this groundwork has been laid, it is important to explain both the teacher’s goals for this assignment (what the teacher will be measuring for the needed metrics) and the student’s goals (what bits of what will earn points/marks).   This bit can be hard on teachers, because they have to explain both the explicit goals and the implied ones – most teachers do not go through this step explicitly themselves.

Yes – most assignments at the grade 7 level come with a ‘marking rubric’.  At least, in my area they do.  But these are so filled with vague notions and ‘weasel-words’ that they are worse than useless!  “The student demonstrated some understanding…. The student demonstrated good understanding…”  What the hell does THAT mean?

What is the difference between ‘little’ and ‘some’ and ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ in this context – and HOW is it measured?

Obviously, I can tell that ‘excellent’ will get a higher grade than ‘poor’ – but how do I know what demonstrates ‘excellent’ and what demonstrates ‘poor’ – or any of the other non-specific terms used – in this particular instance, to the satisfaction of this particular teacher?

If the teacher cannot stand there and provide a specific, accurate answer on how the grading will be done – how can the student be expected to guess what expectations to perform to?

This is so much easier for maths and sciences.  When a teacher assigns a problem, the student knows not just WHAT ‘the right answer is’ – she/he knows what form the answer is to take.

This is woefully not true of ‘soft’ subjects.  Not only do different teachers consider completely different ‘things’ to be ‘the right’ answer (try writing up interpretation of renaissance poetry for a ‘born-again’ teacher), the format itself is undefined….  Yet you are judged how your performance measures up to something the teacher cannot quantitatively define:  expectations!

It seems criminal that ‘educators’ are blind to this…

One Response to “Aspeis need to know what their assignment actually is”

  1. Zoe Says:

    I have Asperger’s, and am 16. I run into the problem of interpreting class assignments ALL THE TIME. I get straight As in history, but spent hours trying to figure out exactly what it was my teacher meant by telling us to “use News articles as evidence” in our last essay. She told us to attach the articles, but little else… Should we be using articles that make our point? Should we be using ones that contain evidence for our point? How do we present this evidence? I wasn’t even sure what it was I didn’t understand at the time, to be honest, just that I did NOT understand.

    I finally figured it out, but only after spending well over 7 hours agonizing and writing without knowing what in the world I was supposed to write. By the time I did figure it out, I barely had time to make it fit what the teacher wanted, and it was well and truly the worst thing I’ve ever written, even if she did give it an A. >_> Next time I might not bother spending hours on it. Better to get a C than go through such BS again.

    The reason the specifics of the assignment were obvious to the teacher but not to me is because this essay, though only ever called by her a “position paper”, was supposed to be EXACTLY the same as all of our past essays, in the exact same format. She never mentioned this clearly in class once.

    And, of course, she asked the most open question she could possibly find, without ANY specifications. We were asked a VERY broad question about world politics that was only vaguely relevant to our current historical material. I didn’t even know where to start, before I ran into the problem of what it was exactly she wanted from me. I swear she wishes she was a language arts teacher…

    This is just one occasion. This happens to me all the time. I’m beginning to dislike school over it.

    Honestly, what I need is a set of clear rules by which to write various types of assignments. Preferably written down, on paper, and WAY longer than that BS she put in our syllabus. God, I wish to hell she’d bother.

    Xan says:

    Precisely!

    I once dealt with a teacher who defined the ‘goal’ of the project as ‘student learns to learn independently’.

    OK, I said, that is your goal as the teacher – to teach the student to learn independently. But, the student has to hand something in: what are the ‘goals’ this stuff that is being handed in will be judged against? What are the ‘goals’ for the ‘student’?

    She could not tell me. Her brain was stuck in ‘the goal is to teach students to learn independently’ – but she could not even understand the question that the students needed some idea about HOW they will be evaluated as having succeeded or not in these ‘goals’….

    Instead, she got angry and belligerent…

    Teachers like that can turn the best subject into torture….while still thinking themselves to be excellent and ‘progressive’ educators.

    Luckily, not all teachers are like that!


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