OPINION

Children With Learning Problems - It's the Schools, not the Kids, Stupid!

December 02, 2008
Deepa Krishnan

It's a problem fairly common in schools, but we don't know how big it is. It has solutions, but we don't know how to implement them. All we've done so far, is sit by, and let children blunder on.

I'm talking about kids with difficulties in reading, writing and math.

No one really knows how many children in India have learning disabilities (LD), but it looks like a staggering 20 to 50 million might be affected. And still, there are very few schools that have any mechanisms in place to identify children with LD, or offer remedial therapy. The real tragedy is that LD children are not "stupid" - some of the brightest minds of our time, from Einstein to Edison to Pasteur, have had LD.

This Saturday, I went to an LD conference at the Hyatt, a gathering of educators, teachers, researchers and parents. The conference was hosted by Tata Interactive Systems, as part of their CSR initiative. As several speakers presented their thoughts and experiences, I learnt a lot about LD.

 

What I found most frustrating was when I realised that the real problem is not with the kids. The real failure seems to be of school boards, administrators, and teachers. A survey of school teachers across CBSE, ICSE and SSC schools in Mumbai, conducted by the Bombay Teachers Training College, shows very low levels of real awareness amongst teachers ("Oh, I didn't realise, you mean like Taare Zamin Par?").

If those who are entrusted with teaching our children are themselves blind, then where do the rest of us go?

For the past 2 years, my mother has been tutoring a little girl from the slum nearby. Pranali has problems with the Marathi and the English alphabet. She's also bad with numbers and multiplication tables. But she's a very bright child, with twinkling eyes and winning ways, and can recite poetry and lessons beautifully. My mother's patience, her fair but firm handling, and her genuine love are making Pranali blossom. The child loves coming to our house, loves to write her squiggles, and is almost tragic in her eagerness to please. If my mother moves away to another room, the girl follows her. "Mi ithe basu ka?", she asks......"Can I sit here (near you)?" It is like a flower finding the warmth of the sun and wanting to bask in it forever. It is the first time the child has found love and understanding, instead of strict balwadi teachers with frowning faces.

Last year, she passed her second standard exams, and has now moved to the third standard. To help with her third standard Marathi lessons, my mom enrolled for Marathi language classes nearby. I am amazed at my mother's dedication. "I promised Pranali's mother", my mom said. "So I'm going to do the best I can."

When I compare this with the thousands of other children subject to the tyranny of indifferent balwadi and municipal teachers, I'm telling you, it's enough to make me cry.

There are some small glimmers of hope. The B.Ed curriculum just got modified to include lessons on learning disabilities (finally!). At Sion Hospital, Dr. Kulkarni is doing some outstanding work in testing, diagnosis and remedial therapy (that's her in the photo below, a small grey haired lady with an iron will). Parents in Bombay are increasingly driving change at schools. Some schools already have counsellors and special needs educators, and more schools are waking up to the need. Last month, the school I went to, SIES, appointed a counsellor and is going to have a Special Needs Teacher from the next academic year.

There is progress, yes, but it is frustratingly slow. Several questions remain unanswered - for example, is there lower dyslexia in studying Indian languages than in English? Are Devnagri graphemes easier for those with dysgraphia? Does living in joint families, where there are different speech cadences, make a difference to infants? Does losing traditional lullabies result in increased LD? Do Indian girls have more LD, given the potentially lower attention in childhood? How early can we diagnose LD in India, and through what mechanism? Does improving balwadi nutrition programmes offer high rewards in improving performance of children LD?

Many questions come rushing at me when I think of the social and cultural issues involved in something as complex and widespread as LD. Every one of these could make a significant research topic, if only the funds (and the academic will) were there! I am deeply grateful Tata Interactive is putting not just money, but also thoughtful and invovled effort behind this. More power to them.

Deepa Krishnan has a consulting practice in banking technology. She owns Mumbai Magic and Delhi Magic, companies that offer insightful, off-beat city tours.
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#1
smallsquirrel
December 2, 2008
09:03 AM

nice piece deepa. and good on your mum. if each person did just as she is doing, we would significantly reduce the kinds of tragedies we see around the world. that child your mum is helping will always remember that help and will hopefully one day reach out to someone else.

LDs are a big problem, even here. I did not know I had dyslexia until college (US college, which is later than Indian college) when I went to study Russian and could not comprehend the alphabet. no one thought to test me as my english scores were always very good. but my maths were another story. Now in the US we just label every LD kid as ADHD and medicate the holy hell out of them. (shakes head)

I am not sure what the necessary qualifications are for teaching in India, but they should make it compulsory for all teachers to learn about LD. The second most important thing is to get the kids help, which does not mean pulling them out of mainstream classes.

there are so many factors that can contribute to LD... poor nutrition of the mother when pregnant, poor nutrition of the child, lack of stimulation as an infant, lack of input as a toddler, on and on and on. But the good thing is that many of these things can be partially if not completely undone (or coping mechanisms learned) so that these kids can not only survive but also thrive and learn and grow!

#2
kerty
December 2, 2008
10:12 AM

Learning Disability can be create by number of reasons

1) Medical - child suffers from medical condition that limits his learning ability

2) Economic - child can not spend time for studies because of economic or social condition of his family

3) Aptitude - Child has other interests and his attention is divided into non-study related interests

4) Attitude - Child simply does not care to learn. He simply likes to play and goof. He does not value studies and nothing can make him see the importance of studies.

How should schools adept to Learning disabilities?

- Should they isolate kids with special needs and tailor carriculum to their individual disabilities?

- Should carriculm be lowered and tailored to learning ability of each child? Currently, carriculum remains fixed for all children in the class and children try to adept to the carriculum we measure merit by how well each child adept to carriculum fixed for whole class. Does that mean we remove the concept of merit and achievement from education?

- The whole idea of education is to make child learn, grow grade by grade, acquire minimum merit/threshold set for each grade, emphasize math and science as foundation of learning. Wouldn't compromising it amount to lowering the education to lowest denominators - as they say in USA, dumbing down the kids? Indian kids do well there, because their parents still subscribe to Indian notion of education, not dumbed down notion of education where arts, sports, music, and other narrow special-interests predominate kid's mindshare.

Is this a form of cultural war? Are we going to subject Indian education too to cultural wars?

#3
Deepa Krishnan
URL
December 2, 2008
11:58 AM

Kerty -

Some people learn differently because their brains are wired differently. Differently doesn't mean "worse". It just means "different". The list of such differently wired people includes Einstein, Rockefeller, Galileo, Edison, Mozart, The Wright Brothers, Leonardo da Vinci
John F. Kennedy, Tom Cruise, Charles Schwab, Harry Belafonte, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Disney, John Lennon, Louis Pasteur. These are people who have significantly contributed to the world by making leaps of imagination, in business, art, science and other areas. These are the assets of humankind, and deserve better treatment than ridicule and scorn at school.

Learning disability is caused by these reasons (my notes from Dr. Kulkarni's lecture):
1) Genetic predisposition
2) Early brain injury
3) Infectious and metabolic disorders
4) Exposure of the mother to toxins (in utero exposure) such as alcholo, lead
5) Malnutrition of mother

No "dumbing down" is required. Children with LD need additional help, with special aids and lesson plans. Please google, you will find lots of resources on how countries around the world are handling this. Once you have read something, please feel free to voice your informed opinion. Maybe you can come up with a good practical solution for India.

#4
Vinod Joseph
December 2, 2008
12:36 PM

Deepa, I agree with you. Every teacher must undergo training in working with children who have LD. At least, teachers must be able to identify children with LD. Not all children with LD need to go to special schools. The bulk of them can be educated in ordinary schools. Society has a duty to accommodate people with handicaps and schools should be no exception.

#5
Deepa Krishnan
URL
December 2, 2008
12:54 PM

Vinod, they are not handicapped. They are just different, like left-handed people are different from right-handed people.

#6
Ravi Kulkarni
URL
December 2, 2008
01:45 PM

Dear Deepa,

I appreciate your sentiments, but not necessarily the title. It is true that the kids with LD need help. The title should have been: "Children With Learning Problems - It's the Parents, not the Kids, Stupid!". Parents are children's first teachers and they bear the primary responsibility.

Just imagine an Indian school. There are 40 (if they are lucky) children vying for attention of a primary school teacher. How in the world is he or she expected to pay attention to individual children's learning, leave alone those with LD. This is the basic problem in the US and in India.

There are some factors that are causing LD, not listed above. These are:

Excessive TV/Video Games
Too much soda/sugar in diet
Lack of parental attention during early years

Biggest bang for the buck could be obtained by training parents to take proper care of their children. By the time a child arrives at school it is already too late. Soft skills like paying attention, speaking clearly etc are best acquired at the ages 0-6, not afterwards.

Having said all that, I do agree that teachers could do better if they are provided with proper training. But they only play a marginal role in the makeup of a child. We need to put more responsibility on the parents first.

Regards,

Ravi

#7
Ravi Kulkarni
URL
December 2, 2008
01:49 PM

My comment above should read:

There are some factors that are causing LD, not just listed above. These are:

Excessive TV/Video Games
Too much soda/sugar in diet
Lack of parental attention during early years

#8
kerty
December 2, 2008
01:57 PM

Deepa

"Once you have read something, please feel free to voice your informed opinion. Maybe you can come up with a good practical solution for India."

The problem is not with lack of informed opinions. The problem is with the agenda that also rides on good intentions. Ideas, however good, are ultimately implemented by politicians and you would not want to vouch for their agenda. The concerns I raised are real, not ill-informed.

I am glad the people you mentioned could rise above their handicaps and turn out to be excellent role models - and most of them did it without any special treatment. They rose thru the system, without needing patronization from schools or government. And now-a-days, market is so empowered to be sensitive to the demand, that it can come up with technological, medical and educational products to tackle specialized human needs. We do not need to dumb down whole school system or integrate political agenda to solve educational problems.

#9
Vinod Joseph
December 2, 2008
03:17 PM

Deepa # 5

"Vinod, they are not handicapped. They are just different, like left-handed people are different from right-handed people."

Deepa, Dylexsia is not same as being left-handed.

I did not used the word 'handicap' with reference to children with Dylexsia, though in a sense Dylexsia is a handicap. What I meant was that, just as society must make allowances for people with handicaps like those who are hearing impaired or those who are blind, schools must make special provisions for children with LD.

#10
Chaitanya S
December 2, 2008
09:11 PM

Why doesn't this article touch upon the fact that children should work harder at school to overcome their disability ? Even kids with no learning disabilities work really hard at school to excel in their studies.

Though it is said that Einstein was a slow learner as a kid, he always excelled at Mathematics. Edison was known for his persistence. From an early age they were self taught and curious about things round them. I don't think they received any "special help" because of their disorder.

Hence achievements of the people in the article should be put in perspective. Drawing a correlation between their disorder and success is incorrect. The actual correlation is between their efforts and the resulting success.

#11
smallsquirrel
December 2, 2008
09:21 PM

chai... are you kidding me with this? why is it that every time that learning disabilities are brought up you act as if people just need a bit more effort and it all goes away. you cannot TRY dyslexia away.

this is the problem. you take a kid with say, legitimate ADHD. they already feel bad about themselves because they have no idea why, no matter how hard they try, they cannot pay attention. then you badger them to simply try harder? um, that will only result in more frustration and more agitation.

they key is not in trying harder, the key is in trying, well, DIFFERENT.

you seem to not get that learning disabilities are not a willful act on the part of the person. would you tell someone who was blind to try harder to see? that is about how much sense you are making. they do not need to try to see, they need to use their other senses to make up for the sight which is lost.

#12
Aditi
December 2, 2008
10:09 PM

SS take some consolation in the fact that Chaitanya doesn't have his facts right. Edison actually went through a lot of struggle at school and was later home schooled painstakingly by his mother who found creative ways and techniques for him to understand things. He has documented his gratitude to his mother without whom he would've been as good as handicapped. His teachers had dismissed him as "addled".

More importantly, one would think mankind has come a long way since the time of Thomas Edison and so now we would do something about children with learning disorders at the school level. Lets hope some of them don't end up with teachers like Chaitanya who think that getting over a learning disability is just about the kid "not working hard enough".

I guess when you haven't actually experienced a learning disorder or don't have a child with learning disabilities you can afford the nonchalance with which Chaitanya here comments on how learning disabled kids could just work "harder". Looks like Aamir Khan's directorial debut didn't reach some places. :)

#13
kaffir
December 3, 2008
01:13 AM

I'd recommend a movie called "The Boys of Baraka" if you haven't seen it already. While it's not about LD or dyslexic kids, but rather about inner-city kids from Baltimore, I think there are some parallels and the lessons from it can be applied to India.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0444608/

I'm wondering if anyone has read Tagore's ideas on the issue of education and learning, and whether such ideas would be relevant here.

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