Braille Monitor                                                           April 2007

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Structured Discovery in Cane Travel
Constructivism in Action


by Matthew M. Maurer, Edward C. Bell, Eric Woods, and Roland Allen

Dr. Matt MaurerFrom the Editor: The following article first appeared in Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 88, No. 04, December 2006, pp. 304-307. It is reprinted here with permission. The authors have names you will recognize: Matthew M. Maurer is a professor of education at Butler University, Indianapolis, where he teaches classes in educational and assistive technology. Edward C. Bell is director of professional development and research at the Institute on Blindness, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston. Eric Woods is a cane travel instructor and youth services coordinator at the Colorado Center for the Blind, Littleton. And Roland Allen is a cane travel instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, Ruston. We have come to appreciate the value of structured discovery in training blind people to travel safely and confidently, but it is fascinating to watch them fit the method into the larger field of educational practice. This is what they say:

There is a general sense today that constructivist teaching isn't up to the task of preparing students for high-stakes exams. But the authors describe a highly effective constructivist approach used to teach students in a learning situation that takes the meaning of "high stakes" to another level.

Many educators today would call themselves constructivists. Yet we often lack the courage of our convictions. We say we believe in constructivist approaches, but we don't feel we have the time to use them. We see the test battery looming, and the high stakes attached to it push us back to a more didactic approach.1

But a small group of educators have important lessons to teach us about constructivist teaching: they are the teachers of cane travel. Cane travel refers to a set of skills a person who is blind or who has low levels of vision uses to navigate the world independently. The stakes involved are certainly high, but teachers of cane travel maintain a steadfast dedication to constructivism.

To begin to understand the context in which this kind of learning takes place, imagine the lives of people who are blind. First, let's imagine a young man in his midtwenties who has lost sight as a result of diabetes. Many people in this situation go through a period of depression and simply hole up at home. Blindness for our imaginary young man is a new condition, so he has no skills with which to navigate and may fear going out into the world.

Imagine another person—this time a girl who was born blind. Her parents, feeling a natural concern for her safety, may overprotect their daughter. In limiting the chances that she may come to harm, they may also limit her opportunities to go out and experience the world.
Both of these scenarios are real, and they offer skilled educators a chance to make a profound difference in people's lives. If a blind person can learn to travel independently, the freedom gained is enormous. That person can experience the world firsthand and can decide when and how to do so. The development of solid cane travel skills can deliver that freedom and independence.

Leaders within the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), over several decades of dedicated work, have developed methods for teaching cane travel.2 Much of this work was done by individuals who are blind themselves, and these techniques are today collectively referred to as “structured discovery” or the “structured discovery method.”3 This method is used in many training centers across the nation, but three of the strongest examples are found in the three training centers that are affiliated with the NFB: the Louisiana Center for the Blind, the Colorado Center for the Blind, and BLIND, Incorporated, in Minnesota.4

Although you will not find the word "constructivism" in any of the existing literature about structured discovery, it is a dominant element of the method. Elliot Eisner offers the following concise description of constructivism:

We have come to realize that meaning matters and that it is not something that can be imparted from teacher to student. In a sense, all teachers can do is to "make noises in the environment." By this I mean that we in education have no main line into the brains of our students. We are shapers of the environment, stimulators, motivators, guides, consultants, resources. But in the end what children make of what we provide is a function of what they construe from what we offer. Meanings are not given, they are made.5

Instructors using structured discovery intentionally guide their students in the construction of their own knowledge and skill with respect to independent travel. The method has a defined scope and sequence that begins with instruction covering the knowledge base necessary for independent travel. The constructivist aspect of the method is largely employed in the extended-practice portion of the training. The cornerstone of the method is the philosophy that undergirds it, an understanding that students must construct travel strategies for themselves making use of the guidance of experts. Moreover, students must learn to solve the myriad problems associated with traveling independently while using a cane.

Consider what is at stake in independent travel. When you are dealing with students crossing busy streets, boarding buses or trains, and generally navigating their world, the stakes are high indeed, and the constructivist approach works. Successful instruction leads to safe travel.6

As an example of how the technique works, consider the following transcript of a travel lesson. The student is a young teen who is about two weeks into the early guided practice phase of her learning. She is walking in step, when she suddenly comes to an abrupt stop. Note that both the instructor and the student are blind, so when they point, they make physical contact to do so.

Instructor: Why did you stop?

Student: I think I am at a corner.

Instructor: Why do you think you are at a corner?

Student: I don't know.

Instructor: What did you feel with your cane?

Student: Oh, yeah, it's going up.

Instructor: Good. How else might you have known you were at a corner?

Student: [Pausing.] Um, I don't know.

Instructor: Did you feel anything else with your cane?

Student: Well, it is a little more rough right here.

Instructor: Good, you felt a little texture change. What do you hear?

Student: Well, there is traffic over there. [Pointing to the left.]

Instructor: Good, what does that tell you?

Student: Well, that I am next to the street.

Instructor: Good. Does it tell you anything about the intersection?

Student: No. [Pausing.] Well, it might, if a car turned here.

Instructor: Yeah, that would help, but how else might you know you were about to walk into the street?

Student: I don't know.

Instructor: What else do you hear?

Student: Nothing, just the traffic over there.

Instructor: Listen far away. Do you hear anything far away?

Student: [Pausing and listening.] Oh yeah, I can hear traffic down that way. [Pointing to the right.]

Instructor: What does that tell you?

Student: That there is a street over there.

Instructor: Good. What street do you think that is?

Student: I don't know. [Pausing.] Oh, it must be Vienna.

Instructor: Yeah, good, Vienna. We traveled on Vienna yesterday. What was the traffic like?

Student: Busy. About as busy as Trenton.

Instructor: So, as you were walking along back there, could you hear the traffic on Vienna?

Student: I don't know. I wasn't really listening for it.

Instructor: Well, what was to the east of you as you walked along?

Student: You mean that way? [Student points to the right.]

Instructor: Yes.

Student: [Uncertainty in her voice.] I think there were buildings all along there.

Instructor: Remember on Monday when we checked that out?

Student: [Now with certainty.] Oh, yeah, there are buildings all along there.

Instructor: Do you think you could hear the traffic through the buildings?

Student: No.

Instructor: So what does that tell you?

Student: If I hear the traffic from the next street, I'm at a corner?

Instructor: Good. But you have to be careful about that. It might be something like a parking lot or a park or something, so you have to use your head. You might not be at a corner, but it is another piece of information you can use.

In this short interaction the instructor asked the student nineteen questions, reinforced her answers when they were leading in a positive direction, and redirected her thinking only when she was giving up or getting off track. The result of this small bit of instruction is anything but small in its importance to the student's learning. She constructed several ideas that she will probably retain and use in the future. By guiding the student toward her own discovery of the ideas of different sound profiles, for example, the teacher has enabled her to gain deep understanding of the concepts, and that makes it likely that she will be able to build on those concepts as she develops her travel skills.

Another important feature of structured discovery as it is practiced by the NFB training centers is the use of sleepshades. Students and instructors who have even minimal vision wear sleepshades while they learn. The sleepshades block out any remaining vision. The idea is that a student with some residual vision will tend to use that vision as the primary sense when traveling. In learning cane travel, the goal is for the student to learn techniques that are wholly nonvisual in nature. The student's residual vision often becomes a strong deterrent to learning. In effect the vision interferes—sometimes subconsciously—with the student's ability to construct the knowledge and skills of nonvisual travel.

In addition, students with limited vision who rely on this sense while learning cane travel can often become fatigued—physically or mentally—by the amount of energy they must expend. Physical fatigue can result from using the eyes to scan continually for curbs or obstacles. Mental fatigue can come from continuing to use old skills while simultaneously attempting to acquire and integrate new skills. The use of sleepshades reduces both fatigue and distraction and so increases a student's ability to focus on constructing the necessary learning. The result is a significant improvement in the ability of the student to construct the knowledge and skills of nonvisual travel as well as a significant shortening of the time it takes.

The idea behind having a sighted instructor wear sleepshades is conceptually different. As any good teacher knows, what we say has a small impact on learners, while what we do has a much stronger effect. Thus the majority of the cane travel instructors at the NFB training centers are themselves blind, but those who are sighted routinely don sleepshades when they work with students. There is no more powerful way to convey that safe travel is possible for the blind learner than by demonstrating it directly, and there is no one better to teach safe travel than someone who practices it every single day.

As all educators continue to teach in a climate of high accountability, it is important to make use of the most effective techniques at our disposal and to resist the temptation simply to teach students to perform well on written tests.7 The structured discovery method can serve as a model for us to follow. We must begin by choosing powerful settings for learning. Then we need to take the time and effort to ask questions that lead students, and we must patiently guide their thinking until they construct the knowledge and skills they need.
The final lesson we can draw from structured discovery as it is practiced in teaching cane travel at the NFB training centers is that of leading by example. If, as teachers we can metaphorically don sleepshades, our students may make dramatic emotional shifts in their learning. If we, ourselves, are the active, inquiring learners we wish our students to be, it is likely that they will follow our example.

1. Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, "The Courage to Be Constructivist," Educational Leadership, November 1999, pp. 18-24.

2. Maria Morais, Paul Lorenson, Roland Allen, Edward C. Bell, Arlene Hill, and Eric Woods, Techniques Used by Blind Cane Travel Instructors (Baltimore: National Federation of the Blind, 1997).

3. James Omvig, "The Characteristics of an NFB Orientation Center," Braille Monitor, April 2005, pp. 211-16.

4. A. G. Dodds, A Report to N.R.I.B. on a Visit to Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired: Blind Mobility Research Unit (Nottingham, U.K.: University of Nottingham, Report No. 138 to the Royal National Institute for the Blind, 1984), pp. 2-87.

5. Elliot W Eisner, "The Use and Limits of Performance Testing," Phi Delta Kappan, May 1999, p. 658.

6. James Baxter, "Stepping Out in All Weather," Braille Monitor, July 2004, pp. 495-97; and Connie Bernard, "Stepping Out," Future Reflections, No. 4 (Convention Report), 2004, pp. 35-36.

7. James O. Lee, "Implementing High Standards in Urban Schools: Problems and Solutions," Phi Delta Kappan, February 2003, pp. 449-55.

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