Future Reflections                                                                                           Convention 2004

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The Essence of Education is Repetition

by Peggy Elliott

Peggy Elliott
Peggy Elliott

Editor’s Note: NOPBC was both unfortunate and fortunate in our keynote speaker for our June 28, Annual Parents Seminar at the 2003 NFB Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Sally Mangold, our scheduled speaker, had a severe reaction to some medication and was too ill to join us. That was our misfortune. Our good fortune was that long-time Federation leader, Peggy Elliott, was available to fill in for Sally. The following article is an edited and slightly expanded version of the speech she gave that morning. It begins with my introduction:

NOPBC President, Barbara Cheadle: The nice thing about being a part of the National Federation of the Blind is that I have an almost endless resource of wonderful people who are talented, experienced, and articulate. These are people I can call at the last minute, even at midnight, and say, “Can you give a major presentation in the morning to a large group of people?” And they will say, “Well sure, I can do that.” And you know what, I know they can. We have such a woman with us today. The Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind, Peggy Elliott, is also president of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa. She has long been interested in the issues of parents and children. She is here to substitute for Sally Mangold who, because of illness, could not be with us today. Here is Peggy Elliott:

Barbara, I want to thank you for that. I’m not sure I can thank you for the call at midnight, but I’ll do my best to step into Sally’s shoes. I’ve known Sally for a long time and I’m sorry she’s not here also. I have been delegated to talk about a topic that I think is very important, but I’ll use different catch phrases from those Sally would use. So maybe next time you can get her catch phrases from her.

Today, the catch phrase I want to talk about is this: the essence of education is repetition. I think this is a fundamental concept and approach to looking at life—the essence of education is repetition.

Now, I assume that there are many people in this room who swim. Right? Do you know how to swim, everybody? How many people know how to do the butterfly stroke? Yeah. Good. Now, I am sure that no one who says they know how to do the butterfly stoke learned it because the instructor stood in front of them and said, “The way you do the butterfly stoke is that you move your arms rhythmically over your head, and then you kick rhythmically with your feet together. That’s how you do the butterfly stroke.”

Now, did anyone learn how to do the butterfly when I told you that? I don’t think so. I could have done a longer and more detailed description, but it wouldn’t have made much difference. The truth is, the single telling of how something is done does not convey the skill of doing it.

Here’s another way to learn how to swim using the butterfly stroke. I’ll give you a book about swimming the butterfly. You read the whole book and then you’ll know how to swim the butterfly. Anybody believe that? Nope, not going to work.

So telling somebody, one time, how to do something or telling him or her in detail by means of written communication how to do something, does not transfer the skill.

The essence of education is repetition. Not just repetition in telling someone, but also repetition in doing the skill.

Obviously, what I am talking about is the set of skills that I call life-coping skills. These are skills that are universal to all people. I’m not talking just about blind people. All of us as adults or potential adults in society need a set of life-coping skills in order to function in society. As with education, the essence of learning life-coping skills is repetition. You can’t convey the skill by telling somebody once and you can’t just read a book about it. You have to do it, and do it, and do it.

Let’s take the example of elevator buttons. You can tell a blind kid about elevator buttons and figure that you’ve done the job. Now they know about it and so that task is over. But it’s not—not even if you go into a full, detailed presentation about all the different possible locations of elevator buttons, how to find the button, or how to distinguish the up button from the down button while also explaining in detail the function of elevator buttons in the first place. If the kid has never touched the button, never actually handled the job of calling the elevator—and not just once, but repeatedly over and over and over on many trips through many different elevator lobbies—he or she may have the concept but he or she does not have the skill. And this goes for all kids, whether sighted or blind.

The essence of education is repetition. This means every time you go into an elevator lobby, your blind kid needs to help find the elevator button. Someday, your child will be the only person in an elevator lobby. Will he or she think nothing of it because of years of practice finding the button every time he or she went out with you? Or will your child be nervous and anxious because, although he or she knows the button is there—somewhere—the kid can’t remember exactly what you said about how to operate an elevator, and the memory of the three or four times he or she actually did it is a little fuzzy, too. The essence of education is repetition.

Here’s another one: standing in line. Lots of people ask me, “How do you stand in line if you can’t see?” So, how do you achieve the skill of moving forward when you can’t see the person in front of you? I walked into the post office yesterday in my little hometown and there was a great big long line. It was like Christmas. I don’t know why there were so many people in the post office. The way the post office is situated the entrance takes you right into the middle of any line that forms. So, I unknowingly walked into the middle and somebody says, “No, no, that’s okay,” and essentially gave me permission to line cut.

I said, “No, it’s not okay. I’ll go to the end of the line.” How many times do we as blind people end up being pushed to the head of the line because we’re not paying attention or are willing to take advantage of being blind? Everybody thinks we can’t wait in line, but we can. Waiting in line—simple skill—everybody does it every day. You can tell your kids how to do it, which really won’t help much, or you can assertively create or take advantage of situations in which he or she learns how to do it for him- or herself by practicing it over and over.

Opening packages—another very simple skill. If you don’t know when you pick up a milk carton that there’s going to be a little tab underneath the cap that you need to remove, and if you don’t know how to remove that tab, then the skill of opening a package is really not under your control. Now, I’d be fairly confident that anybody who has a blind kid knows that blind kids can open a CD package. I bet that’s not a problem. But what about other kinds of packages? How about bars of soap? How about ibuprofen jars? All kinds of opening skills, regular life-coping skills. Show me once, I don’t have it. Let me practice doing it daily in real-life situations and eventually I have a skill that will serve me well for a lifetime of independence. The essence of education is repetition.

In the National Federation of the Blind we teach the mental attitude, “I can do it.” (When I wrote that down in Braille I found out it was really cool because it’s all single word symbols: I C D X.) “I can do it” is an assertion of possibility, an assertion of potential. I can do it. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m sure that I can. The second part of this mental attitude is equally simple, equally profound: it’s up to me. When I walk into an elevator lobby I assume that I can find the button and operate the elevator. When I go into a public building and need to stand in line, I assume that I can do it gracefully. When I go to the drug store or the grocery store I assume I’ll be able to figure out how to open whatever packaged product I want to buy. All the simple life-coping skills that adults in America routinely exercise—I assume it’s up to me to exercise those same skills. Sometimes people tend to think they’ve got the essence of NFB philosophy if they have embraced the “I can do it” attitude, but that’s not true. “I can do it” is not complete without “It’s up to me” and “I do do it.” (In Braille “I do do it” is also made up of single cell words: I D D X.)

Now, I can describe the attitude of “It’s up to me” and “I do do it.” I can tell you about it just like I can tell you how to swim the butterfly, but I can’t give it to you, and you can’t give it to your kids. The only way it works is if you create opportunities for them to learn it for themselves. The essence of education is repetition. If your kid is going to grow up into a blind adult who has the skills and the confidence to be truly independent, then that kid must actively practice the “It’s up to me” and “I do do it” attitudes.

I want to suggest very strongly that you use the NFB convention this coming week as a place to emphasize life-coping skills and IDDX. I grew up as a kid with remaining vision. I remember the horror show of being constantly asked, “Can you see this?” That’s what your life is filled with when you are a low-vision kid and it conditions you that if you can see it’s okay and if you can’t, it’s not. You’re also conditioned “Don’t touch. Don’t touch. Don’t touch.” I suspect that most of us who grew up as partially sighted children missed a whole bunch because we were not encouraged to touch the world around us so we could understand how it fit together and how we could operate the stuff in it. I believe that “I can do it” and “It’s up to me” can only be instilled in my heart if I get my hands out there and touch it.

So, how does this operate? How can you make opportunities for your kids to practice at this convention? That’s not hard. There are lots of natural opportunities at a convention to practice operating elevators and standing in line. You can encourage your kids to touch stuff and let them talk to each other and the blind adults here at the convention about what they are learning by touching. This includes touching stuff with their canes. What’s in the back of this meeting room? A table with pitchers of water and water glasses. Don’t just tell them about the water then go and get water for them. Expect them to get the water for themselves. Let them go, encourage them to explore, and share their excitement as they discover things for themselves. For example, how about letting the kid say, “If I go this way, what will happen? Will my cane tell me what I need to know?” Make a pledge to yourself to take the time to let the kid go the wrong way and then figure it out for him- or herself with gentle patience, loving encouragement, and very little help from you. Make a pledge to do as little sighted guide this week as possible! Practice, practice, practice, and more practice of “It’s up to me” is the only way that your child can fulfill the promise of “I can do it.” It’s the only way to turn ICDX into IDDX.

The goal for our blind kids is not simply to teach skills, either by merely talking about the skill or by having the kid do the task once under your close supervision. Rather, the goal is to get the kid to figure out how to do stuff for him- or herself, to make decisions, and to take responsibility by believing that, whatever the task is, “it’s up to me.”

I hate to have to say how many times I talk to blind students who are struggling in college. Sadly, they want to blame their failure on the college. They say, “My college is not providing me with books.” Or “My college is not providing me with note takers.” And “My college is not providing me with people to take me from class to class.” “My college is not providing me with . . .” well, whatever it is the blind student thinks that he or she should have. But the real problem is that these students never adopted the mental attitudes “It’s up to me” and “I do do it.” They don’t know how to take charge and make things happen.

I hope that kids with families in this room don’t have this kind of failure when they reach college or exit high school. I think the key is to start using the IEP as a tool to promote the “It’s up to me” attitude. For example, put it in the IEP that by her junior year the student will independently order her own tape, Braille, or large print books. Pick one class in high school and prohibit Braille. Now, don’t get me wrong—I love Braille. I’m reading it right now. But your child won’t have Braille available to him or her at all times in college or the real world, and every student needs to learn how to use live people as readers. So, put in the IEP that your kid will use live readers for one class per year. Think proactively about transferring not just the “I can do it” attitude, but also the “It’s up to me” mentality. Use the IEP as a tool to achieve the goal that your kid will come out of high school saying, “I do do it,” whatever “it” is. IDDX!

So at home and at school, the essence of education is repetition. When your child becomes an adult you want them to believe “I can do it.” You also want your child to believe that, whatever the task is, “It’s up to me to get it done.” I hope none of you wants to raise a blind child who, as a blind adult, always finds someone else to blame or uses blindness as an excuse for failures. If we can end up with our blind kids believing and practicing “I can do it” and “It’s up to me” then you, the parents, and we in the National Federation of the Blind have done our job right. Remember, I can do it. It’s up to me. Or, to end with those single-word Braille signs: ICDX and, more importantly, IDDX!

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