Saturday, February 7, 2015

Blindness as a social construction - looking at expectations

Over the school holiday period I got rather addicted to listening to podcasts (Serial should get a mention here) and came across a new series called Invisibilia which looks at the invisible forces that control human behaviour.

The episode called "How to become Batman" looks at whether blindness is a social construction i.e. can others expectation help someone who is blind to see? Now I found this all fascinating of course because in a past life I was an Orientation and Mobility specialist working with visually impaired children. I saw first hand the effects of expectation on children's ability to be independent in a "sighted" world.

Daniel Kish and his way of using echolocation is one of the main subjects of this podcast. Daniel as a young child taught himself how to navigate his surroundings and was known for some time as "that blind kid who could ride a bike". He now teaches others how to use this technique and to gain vision through doing so. There is a real poignant moment in the recording when he is working with a young child and letting him walk towards a busy road.  As the child approaches the road his Godmother runs to stop him in fear for his life.  This is so common for visually impaired children, for people to stop them from taking those risks that allow them to learn.

If we apply this to the "sighted" world, how often do we stop children from taking those risks that are integral for their learning and their sense of self? Is failure a social construction? Carol Dweck also features on this podcast.  I am a big fan of her growth mindset research. So much so that I used it with my class last year. Carol reiterates that sometimes we may not even be aware of the expectations we are conveying to others. It can be as subtle as the distance we stand from somebody. Our expectations can change the behaviour of another person.

We have to be so careful as teachers about the expectations we have for students. National standards and summative assessment can trick us into fixed mindsets about student achievement. For example, if we think they are not good at maths then they will live up to that expectation.

So back to my original thoughts about the social construction of blindness... if we say somebody can't do something because they are blind then it is us forcing them to not see. If we say a student is not capable of achieving then again the fault lies with us. So think of this for all students, different genders, ethnicities, socio-economic status, disability/abilities... our expectations hold so much strength.