Braille Monitor                                                    November 2008

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Structured Discovery Learning: Its Historical Origins

by Allan Dodds

From the Editor: In the 1980s I remember reading in the Braille Monitor about a remarkable researcher from the United Kingdom who had come to the United States to observe travel instructors. He had watched NFB members at work teaching travel at the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired and recognized that something astonishing was going on. That researcher was Dr. Allan Dodds.

At the time he was employed as a research psychologist at the Blind Mobility Research Unit at the University of Nottingham, where he worked from 1975 to 1995, latterly as director of the unit. He appeared as an expert for the plaintiff in the case of Fred Schroeder v. the State of New Mexico, which represented the first legal challenge to discrimination against blind O&M instructors. He is currently employed as a consultant neuropsychologist and expert witness dealing with brain-injury assessment, rehabilitation, and employment matters. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to psychological knowledge, Dr. Dodds was elected a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and received the title of Chartered Scientist. He is the author of over fifty scientific publications on blindness and visual impairment and has written three textbooks for trainee O&M instructors.

Recently Dr. Dodds rediscovered some of his notes from that period spent in Nebraska. In the following article he describes what it was like to observe and talk with early students being taught to travel using the structured-discovery-learning method.

When Dr. James Nyman, former director of the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired, said in 2001, "We did not discover structured-discovery learning in Nebraska; structured-discovery learning discovered us," he was no more engaging in false modesty than he was speaking tongue in cheek. Dr. Nyman was simply telling the truth, i.e., that in Nebraska they had independently of any learning theory evolved a way of instruction that was as much a statement of their philosophy as it was an empirically proved method of fostering independent travel and living, but that they had no name for it until I happened to coin the term.

What Dr. Nyman meant by his carefully chosen words was that, although structured-discovery methods had been developed in-house, the term “structured-discovery learning” itself had not. As Dr. Nyman put it: "By the time Dodds arrived in 1984, blind individuals like James Walker, Fred Schroeder, and Christine Boone had refined those principles into a method of teaching that received the honorific title of structured-discovery learning.”

So how was it that the practice had become so well established and yet had not received a name? One answer is that it sometimes takes a fresh eye or ear to notice something that has become the norm within a culture. Another is that, because so much of independence training is practically based on trial and error, those practicing the method may not have had the luxury of standing back sufficiently from their practice to perceive its unique features and to categorize them.

That was a luxury afforded to me when Dr. Nyman invited me over to Nebraska after hearing that I was an advocate of blind persons’ helping themselves and others, a position that almost ended my professional research career in the United Kingdom and that was to lead me into great conflict with the sighted establishment. As well as providing me with the finest hospitality during my stay, Dr. Nyman and his colleagues allowed me to make tape-recordings of mobility lessons, in which I donned sleepshades and received tuition, and of seminars held with the students attending the current program.

Reading the many articles recently appearing in the Braille Monitor relating to structured-discovery learning rekindled my interest in the field which I had left some twelve years ago, and, after a brief rummage through some long-forgotten archives, I discovered in a somewhat unstructured way transcripts of the seminars that took place some twenty-four years ago. This material has never been published, and I believe that now it should, serving as a reminder of just how much self-belief lies at the root of successful independence.

Although I did not personally have the time to evaluate objectively the effectiveness of structured-discovery learning under blind instruction, the recipients of it had already done the job for me. One student expressed the problem of being taught by a sighted instructor.

People pick up on attitudes as on anything, and the underlying attitude that you are communicating to this blind person is, do you want to get around in the world? Do you want to travel just as effectively as a sighted person? And that's the sort of goal you want to reach. Well, what kind of message are you giving to the client when you are allowing only perfectly sighted people to do that?

Another student expressed a problem with the credibility or authenticity of a sighted instructor with the following comments.

You can train a mobility instructor under sleepshades so that they have an empathy for all kinds of problems, but you are still on a psychological out with these people. Whatever real frustrations they have about being blind, they'll develop an empathy for, but you've always got something nagging at the back of your mind: five o'clock comes, and they can whip off the sleepshade: wow, glad that's over! But a blind instructor is living with the blindness just the same way the client is. And those problems, those frustrations, those irritations--they don't go away at five o'clock.

An aspect of sighted instruction that came as a surprise to me was expressed well by another student.

Sighted instructors are really unique. They don't think you can bail yourself out. They can't stand there for thirty minutes or an hour whilst you're crying or if you get absolutely enraged. They step in real quick to bail you out. They are uncomfortable. They don't want to let you work it out on your own.

The use of visual occlusion as an essential part of mobility training was also commented upon by another student who had previously received instruction with the emphasis on using low-vision aids.

I did not learn the echo sounds and I didn't learn confidence from other people. In fact, I finished at the school for the blind, and they hadn't given me any help. I went to an adult rehabilitation program, where I had a sighted travel instructor. They used visual aids like binoculars and stuff. I still couldn't hear--I thought everyone was crazy when they told me buildings echoed and that there was a difference in the echo of small objects as opposed to large ones. And so I started using my sleepshades, and, when I came to this program, although I couldn't hear anything to begin with, now I do. Those sounds I gained from my sleepshades.

The early fostering of solo travel, which traditionally takes many weeks of instruction, was commented upon by another student who had been unsuccessfully trained by a sighted instructor before commencing the Nebraska course.

This is one of the biggest problems I'm having adjusting to this program, because in the past every travel teacher I've had has been right there, and my instructor and I have been going through this problem of me wanting to have her right there and not being confident to take a step on my own. And I'm going to get to that point. I think I was really inhibited by going through programs in the past where the instructor was there all the time.

Another student jokingly commented on the difference in course duration between training courses in the UK (twelve weeks) and that in Nebraska (nine months).

Cane travel teaches technique, certainly, but cane travel here teaches reasoning and thinking. That's what takes nine months, especially with me!

The presence or absence of an instructor during travel was commented on by another student, who pointed out the value of being allowed to learn from mistakes.

I've a tendency to go off and daydream if I'm not really concentrating on things. I remember one day last week I was coming up on what I thought was the parking lot here, and I was just tapping along, and I heard this car coming up behind me. I thought, aha! I'll just step out of the way and let this person park. And I stepped aside and this car went right on down past me. I was walking in the middle of the street. You know, when you realize what's happening and there's nobody there to save you except yourself, boy you should pay attention a lot more.

It is now almost a quarter of a century since I recorded these comments of students undertaking instruction at Nebraska, often with blind instructors. Back in the UK my impressions were unfavorably received by the sighted establishment, and a seminar was hosted by the Royal National Institute for the Blind to which I and a blind instructor from Nebraska were invited to counter the skepticism of those in charge of training instructors in the UK. Chaired by a distinguished blind academic, the symposium firmly laid to rest the myth that blind instructors could not be relied upon, and the RNIB undertook to admit visually impaired students on their official mobility instructor training course: a landmark decision.

Structured-discovery learning has now come of age, representing a true paradigm shift in rehabilitation thinking. To have played even a tiny part in its development will always remain a great source of pride and satisfaction to me, especially when I think of other areas of research that I engaged in for twenty years that only resulted in printed words in scientific journals. But the ultimate tribute must go to those blind pioneers who had the belief in themselves and the courage to practice in the face of opposition from the sighted establishment with a vested interest in their position. I conclude by offering my final thoughts on the subject: in matters of blindness, blind people know best, and the best thing that sighted people can do is to respect that fact.

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