Braille Monitor                                                 March 2011

(back) (contents) (next)

Science and Philosophy
Guided Learning versus Structured Discovery

by James S. Nyman

James NymanFrom the Editor: The following article appeared in the winter 2011 newsletter of the Orientation Center of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind. It describes what we mean by the structured-discovery method of teaching cane travel and contrasts it with the more traditional method of instruction provided by the education and rehabilitation system. Here are the article and the headnote that accompanied it:

Dr. James S. Nyman is the former executive director of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. His career also included a time as a professor of political science and philosophy at UC Berkeley. His life has always been driven by his belief in people, especially blind people, and a desire to make a difference. For Dr. Nyman the opportunity to be the director of a state agency serving the blind led to much more than a dramatic change in the nature of services provided to blind people in Nebraska. His influence led to the convergence between a consumer-driven approach to rehabilitation and the emerging scientific framework of cognitive learning theory. This approach to blindness rehabilitation is now known as structured discovery.

This essay explores the distinctions between two approaches to providing training to blind people: the structured-discovery and guided models. Both approaches are familiar to education theorists, and each has its adherents. Elements of both are involved in actual practice but can be distinguished from each other. The guided model is underpinned by an academic education that claims scientific status in university programs. Cane travel instruction (generally called orientation and mobility) most fully exhibits the characteristics explored below, but other areas of blindness skill training are related. A more philosophically based approach emphasizes the role of the blind person as a learner. While each approach has its friends and its critics, neither can claim exclusivity in the field of blindness rehabilitation.

Out of the night: In 1875 the British poet William Ernest Henley composed a poem titled “Invictus.” In the poem, whose title is Latin for “unconquered,” he gives voice to the despair he feels over a medical episode in his life. He had had his left leg amputated below the knee and was threatened with a similar fate for his right leg. He captures the essence of his reaction to this drastic event in the opening lines of "Invictus":

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole.

By the end of his struggle, in the concluding lines he declares victory over his despair in these defiant words:           

"I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." Even though he found himself "in the fell clutch of circumstance" the spirit that freed him is that he has "not winced or cried aloud" and his "head is bloody but unbowed."

Henley portrays the dark and frightening world he sees before him as he confronts his disability, but blindness is often portrayed in even darker colors. In his poem he voices the admiration he feels for his own brave defiance of an unkind fate. Those who are blind will recognize a similar admiration that society heaps on us for the courageous way we are believed to deal with this dreadful condition. It is difficult to see how this admiration could rescue us from that “fell clutch of circumstance.” However much courage and defiance may ease the impact of blindness, they are, at best, only the first step back to normal life. They do little to help the transition. The true path lies in persistent effort guided by philosophy. No preaching, please:

What is this philosophy, and how does it guide our return? To begin with, it is easier to say what philosophy cannot do. Preaching the truth to the newly blinded can ring hollow at this stage. Perhaps I can illustrate this point with a story that purports to be true. Here's the story:

Once upon a time a long time ago in a faraway place, a rhinoceros and a butterfly fell madly in love. Unfortunately they found that they could not express this love in the ordinary way. After some discussion they decided that rhinoceros should consult with that well-known philosopher, Wise Old Owl. After waking Owl from his nap, Rhinoceros said, "Wise Old Owl, Butterfly and I have fallen madly in love but find we cannot consummate our love. What can we do?"

"The solution," said Wise Old Owl, "is very simple: you must become a butterfly."

"But," moaned Rhinoceros, "how can I do that?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said Wise Old Owl. "I only propose the solution; it's up to you to implement it."

Mr. Henley, and the rest of us I suspect, would find the butterfly solution difficult if not impossible to implement.

Perhaps more helpful is a statement in “Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic” by Kenneth Jernigan, former president of the National Federation of the Blind: "It has been wisely observed that philosophy bakes no bread. It has, with equal wisdom, been observed that without a philosophy no bread is baked." So how do we become bakers?

More than courage: To begin with, we should not disparage courage. We will often find it necessary to encourage the blind individual to initiate even modest steps toward an understanding of blindness, a chore that, we hope, may not prove as difficult as becoming a butterfly.

The first step may be recognition that blindness does not occur to each person in the same way. Differences of age, sex, culture, family, education, economic situation, personality, and visual status affect the range of responses. A butterfly solution rarely works. A more modest step based on a firm conviction that blindness can be managed by practical steps that can be learned will suggest itself. The key concept here is "can be learned." This concept immediately places the emphasis on the blind individual as a learner and casts the counselor in the role of the trainer.

The science model: Medical science has a well-documented claim to successful intervention in cases of physiological problems. Surgery can remove an offending growth or a bodily part to effect a cure. In these cases the patient need only submit to the procedure, often under anesthesia. This is a tempting model for the counselor who has been educated in behavioral and other human sciences. Those who are educated in the psychology of blindness have generally regarded their intervention as the decisive factor in returning the individual to a semblance of normal existence. This orientation governs their practice.

The loss of sight is thought to present professionals with a set of known limitations stemming from diminished visual functioning. They believe that their scientific knowledge equips them with the diagnostic tools needed to devise a rehabilitation plan for the client. Knowledge of training techniques and technological devices provides the instructor with the necessary tools to effect specific compensations for the particular functional limitation. Training based on the science model is devised and controlled by the professional. The blind individual is expected only to be responsive, carefully guided by the instructor, who will correct or reinforce behavior by extrinsic feedback as the process continues. Thus, confronted with a client who is blind, the counselor need only take charge of the individual's behavior and with patience and skill effect the equivalent of a cure.

The expertise of the training counselor may also extend to devising modifications to the individual's domestic environment or more generally in the wider world. Each modification is designed to enable the person with known visual limitations to live in the world. Accountability for performance on this model parallels that of the medical profession. The health care industry has been criticized in recent years because its method of accountability has been based more on procedures than on outcomes. Medical services, in the form of sophisticated diagnostic tests, can be readily documented. Similarly, the services provided by the specialist in the blindness field and the results obtained are recorded in the case file. Accountability is assured by reference to the record maintained by the provider. Thus even the evidence of effectiveness is under the control of the professional.

When we adopt the commonplace distinction between guided and discovery learning, the roles of the instructor and the blind student become clear. In the guided model the instructor, academically educated in the science of blindness, designs and delivers training. The student learns it either well or poorly, and the instructor measures success by some appropriate test, scoring the student on a scale of achievement. While it may have been experimentally shown that guided instruction can be more effective for initial training and testing for specific technical skills, performance based on the guided model tends to be limited to those specific skills. The skills are liable to degrade unless reinforced by regular practice. It is not necessary for the student to know the science behind the training, only to execute the acquired skills to a prescribed standard.

The philosophy model: The characterization of the science model presented above almost certainly does not describe the practice of any given professional in the field. I have deliberately exaggerated some features in order to emphasize certain tendencies. Nevertheless, control of the process through expertise is a standard feature of academic education. When the training is deemed successful, how does the counselor relinquish control and transfer it to the blind person? In practice the locus of control may have gradually shifted to the increasingly competent individual. But relinquishing control by case closure when training has been completed is ending the process where it should have begun.

A more philosophical approach would be to initiate steps to center control in the blind person. How can this be done? I said earlier that preaching the well-known verities is much like proposing a butterfly solution, as, for example, when we declare that, "With proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to a mere physical nuisance." However valid this assertion may be, it is more like the conclusion of a philosophical argument than the starting point of an inquiry. In this essay we treat philosophy as an activity of encountering the world. The encounter occurs when the nonvisual senses are actively engaged in exploring the world and reason is employed to solve problems that confront us. Philosophy is not a set of doctrines that can be proved by argument; it must meet the test of experience. That experience is not merely passive reception of impressions but active exploration of the world as we pursue our goals and activities.

Those who possess normal or near normal vision from infancy learn to rely on visual feedback as they live and move in the world. This intrinsic feedback forms part of a complex interaction with their surroundings. In the ordinary course of maturing, the curious child frequently seeks guidance from others. By contrast, those who are blind from childhood or become blind later in life typically acquire some alternative nonvisual methods for interacting with the world. Acquisition of blindness skills will vary, depending on the initiative of the blind person and the quality of guidance from others. Methods for actively gathering limited auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile information can be readily learned by the enterprising individual. For the rest, the person who has been blind from childhood, or who has been sheltered and protected from the reality of blindness, is likely to rely on vital knowledge of the environment communicated by others from their visual standpoint. As a result, information gathered and interpreted by those others becomes the basis of his or her interaction with the world. When the counselor reinforces this reliance, the control of environmental knowledge remains with those others. A counselor who understands this danger will soon introduce the blind person to more systematic nonvisual techniques for obtaining and processing information about the environment.

Most of this knowledge is derived from reflection by generations of blind people on their shared experience in developing alternative techniques for accessing relevant information. This is the foundation of the philosophical approach known as structured-discovery learning. It is the theoretical basis of an approach that guides the practice of those who are committed to this philosophy of teaching. Its core belief is that people who learn how to access and process information about the world independently will retain the ability longer and apply it over a wider range of situations.

Accessing information by sensory means is, however, only the beginning of a process that leads to interacting with the world. The information must be interpreted in order to guide behavior. While a person who gains his or her knowledge of the world visually may appear to respond naturally and automatically, in reality some mental activity has occurred between reception and response. In the case of blind people this process must be learned by conscious attention until it has the same habitual status as that involving visual contact with the world. Learning the most efficient methods of reasoning on tactile, auditory, kinesthetic, vestibular and—in a limited way—even olfactory and gustatory sensory input requires a systematic effort. Effectiveness can be improved by conscious attention to the methods of reasoning. It is this reasoning activity that constitutes the philosophical approach.

The method called structured-discovery learning starts by putting the learner in charge of acquiring information about the situation that the instructor has initiated. The student is expected to make discoveries through the sensory information that he or she has consciously gathered. Conclusions based on reasoning about the acquired information will enable the individual to identify the nature of the problem being confronted. Memory of past encounters with the world and general knowledge of physical environments enable the person to make decisions on the best way to solve the problem that the situation has posed.

Reflection on the experience of solving problems that have been deliberately constructed or confronted in the course of activity can lead to useful generalizations. This process of generalization from the solving of practical problems can be enhanced by the counselor or other blind people by means of a well-designed strategy of follow-up. This should always begin with the student’s being asked to identify how he or she has discovered the information. Solving the problem may be guided step by step by others but must never be decreed by the instructor on the basis of extrinsic feedback. On the other hand, intrinsic feedback generated by active probing leaves the student in control of the process. Conscious attention to the methods of problem-solving and decision-making is the key to the development of the cognitive tools that are essential for coming to know and act in the world. Confidence in these tools and reliance on intrinsic feedback are the core of this philosophy of blindness. In the end it is this philosophy that helps us bake the bread that nourishes our conviction that blindness can, indeed, be reduced to a mere physical nuisance.

(back) (contents) (next)