A very good friend of mine, Padmavathy, works with both children and adults who have to cope with a range of learning disabilities. Art and craft is one of her therapies for them. She encourages most of the students who come to her for help (all those whom she feels will benefit from this) to paint, draw, make things with paper: anything that they are either happy doing or are able to do. With a little bit of assistance, or even just guidance, many of them are able to create handicrafts, such as candle holders, candles, trays, handmade paper notebooks, etc. Their paintings, more often than not, speak much more than a thousand words. Paddu (short for Padmavathy) has put up stalls in various places to sell the lovely items made by her children and adults as well, and uses the proceeds to help those who need her guidance but cannot pay for her counselling.
Paddu and I had a long chat one evening about what I thought was a very peculiar, odd problem. Every time she puts up a stall and states clearly that all the items on display have been made by either children or adults with learning disabilities, who are termed ‘differently abled’ these days, she is always asked, either in Tamizh or in English: “Did they do this by themselves?” or, “Didn’t you help them?, or, worse, “How much of this is YOUR work?” She says that she never knows what to tell them and is usually at a loss for an answer, for if she said that it was done solely by the person concerned, who could be autistic, or suffer from Down’s Syndrome, or just intellectually challenged or have to cope with developmental delays, it may not be completely true, for at some point, she may have had to provide some kind of guidance or even assistance. However, this does not mean that the painting, or the coat hanger or the tie and dye scarf or the notebook has not been made by the person concerned. I am not writing here only about things done or made by those with a learning disability. This kind of query is actually applicable to all of us, for we are all learners, teachers and doers and this is even more true when it comes to children.
At some time or other in our lives, when we are invited for a lunch or dinner by a friend or relative, a proud mother (and occasionally these days, once in a while, a proud father) will state that the curry has been made by the ten-year-old son or daughter of the house, or that many of the chappatis were rolled out by the kids. None of us even think of asking whether the parent helped. Instead we eat the curry and compliment the child for having made something very well. If what is made is superb, we may suspect that some amount of help has been rendered, but such help is always discounted, or rather ignored and seen as inconsequential. It is the achievement that is valued. But this wee bit of discounting alone is not what I want to highlight. Let us think about the rolling out of chappatis. When our children are taught to roll out rotis, their initial efforts will never resemble any known shape, whether circle, triangle, or square, although these are shapes that the children know and can draw with ease. The chappati will look something like the map of India. But this Indian map chappati (usually the result of a bit of help from the mother or caregiver) is always valued by the adults and more importantly, eaten with great pride by the parent. Even if the chappati tastes like leather, it will get eaten and declared as superb. With time, however, all of us know that the same child will roll out chappatis that are perfectly round; the amount of initial assistance, and later guidance or advice will decrease.
We are able to value and praise an assisted Indian map chappati, and also lie through our teeth to swear that a curry was made WITHOUT ANY HELP by our children, because we know that with time, practice and effort, our children will eventually learn to do all this on their own; we praise the initial efforts because that is the encouragement that will make them practice more. At another level, if one of our children has a slight deformity, or any other disability, we know that more help from us will be needed, but again, the help we provide always continues to be discounted.
All human beings, whether old or young, when they learn to do something, are helped by others. This does not mean that they are not learning, or more importantly, showing growth. The quality and quantity of this help varies according to the capability of the individual. The shape of the chappati and the assistance or guidance provided are, more often than not, in inverse proportion. Also, the valuing of the map of India chappati depends on the age and ability of the child concerned. A first attempt by a fledgling cook is appreciated; the same map of India if produced by a child closer to 20 is likely to be criticized.
But in most circumstances, we know that what the child can do with help today, will eventually be accomplished independently, a week, a month or a year later. As the child grows, the nature of learning and the nature of growth changes and with it, so does the nature of help. As caregivers we modify our help or guidance accordingly. When we know it is not needed, we allow the work to be done independently.
This applies not only to children but also to us adults. Most of us have learnt to use a cell phone, if not the computer. Some of us have become quite competent; others still need help to save numbers or send messages or handle other complicated tasks with smart phones. But none of us state that such adults are not users of cell phones! What they can do on their own, they manage! What they cannot do, they get done with help from others. Similarly, when someone is taught a new skill, and particularly when it is difficult to accomplish, some level of help has to be given by the caregiver, or parent or teacher. As learning happens, assistance diminishes. The child who needed help even to knead chappati dough, will later need help only to make the round balls and to roll the rotis out. At a later stage, only help with rolling will be needed. At an even later stage, the rolled out chappati may just be given a finishing touch (with one or two more turns of the rolling pin) by the caregiver. Assistance is provided at all these stages, but there is also growth in the child/learner. The progression from kneading to making round balls to rolling out the chappatis is valuable learner growth.
The difference is that this kind of help enables learning to happen and is always learner-centric. This is the essence of the Vygotskian notion of the zone of proximal development. It is fine-tuned and calibrated and at the centre of all human actions and learning. None of us lead isolated lives where we perform actions as though we are in solitary confinement. We need to remember that other than when our children are expected to sit for examinations where they have to be certified, no one is expected to do anything in life absolutely alone. But we also need to remember that these examination ‘performances’ are practiced and rehearsed, never just done then and there. No one takes an examination without preparing for it. At another level, artists, sculptors, and carpenters paint and draw, create sculptures or articles on their own but that too after years of experience and a lot of enabled and aided practice. If those artisans have to be given a certificate, they need to show that they accomplished that activity on their own. But in real life, we are not expected to do that. We only need to ask ourselves whether doctors diagnose cases completely on their own or whether a brilliant lawyer who argues a case in court and wins, has done so, completely on her own, or aided by a whole lot of assistants who did the homework for her.
We do not ask if doctors and lawyers work totally independently; as long as our problem is solved, we have no issues. We pay whatever is asked for. But when it comes to something made by someone, particularly when it is a person with some kind of learning difficulty, we get suspicious. We need to value what adults and children can do, and not become strict examiners who expect individual performance and perfection.
The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.