Way, way, way back when I was working on my bachelor degree in special education at Arizona State University, I watched with the rest of my class covering special education categories and labels, a 25-minute film that changed forever how I looked at instructing anyone in any subject.
The video focused on a former special education teacher named Marc Gold who sported the coolest ponytail. But it wasn’t just the cool ponytail that captured my interest while watching the video. It was his approach he was promoting in teaching the severely and profoundly handicapped to perform meaningful work.
At the time, I was working full time in many different roles at an institution in the west valley that housed mentally and physically adults and children. The ideas Dr. Gold promoted had direct application for me at the time. But those ideas he taught have stuck with me over 40 years.
“Try Another Way” is the name of the training concept developed by Dr. Gold and his associates as a method of training mentally handicapped adults to perform meaningful jobs they could be paid for. At first, the training system was designed to educate these adults on how to brush their teeth and other areas of self-help. They then began to apply their training method to other areas including job training.
The method used in “Try Another Way” uses mostly non-verbal communication that includes the phrase, “Try another way”. The 25-minute video highlights two adults and the process used to train both of them on how to build a bicycle brake. Part of the method of training allowed the adults being trained to make mistakes without being shown the correct method of putting the brake together but instead allowing them to find the solution themselves.
The “Try Another Way” training was used to break our cultures limitations and boundaries set for this group of adults. It was successful in training them to actually outperform those workers who were not mentally handicapped and performing the same tasks of constructing bicycle brakes or circuit boards.
The video I watched in the mid ’70s is still available at the Minnesota Department of Administration Council on Developmental Disabilities web site.
As admirable and as important the work accomplished with these adults Dr. Gold worked with was and is, for me, the values and basic ideas he promoted, thoughts no one else expressed in school up until that time of the video or for that matter anytime later in my education, inspired me.
Here are some quotes from Dr. Gold.
“This is a bicycle brake. Since 1967, when we began this research, it has had a major impact on the development of my philosophy and on the techniques that have generated from our research. Its principle impact has been to point out the discrepancy between what people think are the abilities of the severely handicapped, the mild and severely, and profoundly retarded, and they’re really capable of doing.”
“The behaviors our children show are a reflection of our incompetence, not theirs.”
“This is Barbara. She is 19 years old and for the last 11 years has lived in an institution. According to her records, her IQ is 11. Whatever that means.”
“One of the things that’s very interesting is no relationship in any of our data between how a person performs on an IQ test and how he performs on these tasks. Eugene’s IQ score is 32. When you find no relationship between a person’s ability to perform on a test like that and his ability to learn and then produce tasks like this it raises some very serious questions.”
At the time, I was going to school full time and working full time. The place I was working at is now closed. But at the time, Valley of the Sun School was a private residential school and home for the severely mentally and physically handicapped, birth through 21 years of age.
I began using immediately these unique principles I had just been exposed to. As I have ever since, as a teacher and administrator to improve my own educational model.
For example, when I hear someone explain to me the previous education background of a new student entering my class, whether it’s the behavior concerns, the low IQ, the lack of skills in reading, writing or math, or all of the above, I’m thinking, What clues are being discussed about what he can really do? Can he recognize any words? Can he count at all? Is he able to hold a pencil or write any words? If the answer is “Yes!” then I know from past experiences, the learning possibilities are endless for this student.
I know his limitations in learning will be on my limitations and me as a teacher, not on his competence or incompetence. One of the joys and daily challenges of teaching is each student is a unique challenge to motivate and educate. And I consistently observe in my own teaching, the successes or failures of my own students are largely on me.
From the moment I read Dr. Gold’s comment, the comment on the IQ of 11, “Whatever that means? ”I have mentally and sometimes verbally challenged comments from people around me who say a student cannot do such and such because of his IQ or scores on a test.
When I hear those words, I return to my previous experiences with similar students or students with IQ’s of 15, 36 or 70 I have had the pleasure to work with. Then I explain to those sitting with me why they are wrong if the student is someone I have already worked with. If the student is someone I don’t know anything about, I work a plan out in my head on how to move the student forward towards success.
Dr. Gold was someone who challenged the conventional thinking of his time with providing training towards meaningful work for an adult population that did not have those opportunities before. He was also someone who had a cool ponytail.