• Yan Kit Chan

Learning to true-learn

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

Can I cook?

Cooking is a lot of fun, I generally enjoy cooking - it’s one of the activities that actually has a consumable result, after just a bit of effort.

I wouldn’t consider myself to know how to cook though, I am able to follow some instructions from a recipe, I have some common sense in cooking and baking like using high heat to sear meat which seals the goodies in meat inside, blanching chunky vegetables before stir-frying which makes the result soft but not in an overcooked way. Following instructions to produce a certain dish is quite different to knowing how to cook however, take the very simple shortbread as an example:

In weight terms, mix together 3:2:1 ratio of plain flour, butter, and sugar. Bake for 20 minutes under low heat of around 170 or slightly higher heat for 15 minutes

That’s it! This instruction is about the best and simplest way to turn a mix of sugar, butter and flour into something amazing - a very high return on effort. But can someone be said to know how to bake if they can make this? Even if they are able to make 100 other lovely desserts by memorising the instructions?

True learning

Everyone can easily follow this instruction, but I dare say not many people understand the cooking of shortbread: what happens if we change the amount of butter, what if we substitute some (say a third) of the plain flour with corn flour (try it it’s good), what if we mix the dough for too long and it becomes too smooth, what if we chill the dough before baking ... I do not understand how varying all these things change the result, and this is what I think really learning to make shortbread means vs simply following some instructions.

This distinction between following instructions to produce something vs true learning is very important for both visually impaired people and their coach, teachers, parents, even friends, to be mindful of, if the visually impaired is to be successful at integrating to the society where majority of people can see. Let me share two examples based on experience I had in school.

Where am I?

In special schools for blind people, there’d be mobility lessons that teach students how to use a cane, how to navigate the streets, use public transport etc. These were very useful lessons that gave me the confidence to go out on my own, but a lot of the lessons were concentrated on how to go specifically from A to B, but not how to go from anywhere to anywhere else, to the point that when I first arrived at university right after college, I was supposed to wait for some mobility lessons so that someone could show me how to go from a totally new set of A’s B’s and c’s – how to go to the lectures, how to go to the bank etc. I didn’t wait of course, I was fortunate to have parents who let me go out to explore on my own from when I was around 12, I’m sure I’ve gotten lost a few times but I’m still in one piece now.

My confidence came from my general curiosity and not fear of anything; I believe that many more blind people can benefit from true learning in mobility if they are taught the right thing, regardless of their character.

To truly teach a blind person mobility skills that can last for a life time, more effort should be spent on teaching them a few things:

· General knowledge about navigation in a variety of situations

· How to ask strangers for help

· and most importantly how the blind person can become a trainer to inform sighted friends, colleagues, even strangers to how they can help blind people effectively.

The last point is a whole topic in its own right, let’s elaborate on it just a little.

Train the trainer

In the two countries I have lived in – Britain and Hong Kong, there are very good resources blind people can tap into, if I move to a new place, I can ask someone official to help me orientate, to help me learn how to get to shops, transport, etc. however it would be even better if every person the blind person knows or comes across by chance, has the potential to be that official person who has received some training on helping blind people, better still if all these people can give some tailored advice for that blind person in those specific circumstances as every blind person is an individual. This is why the blind person needs to know how to help others help them, this can be as simple as asking questions like “help me find some fix landmarks that can be found by a cane to build up a map of where things are”, “give me a very general description of the layout of the town so I have a few reference points, this can be anything from the noise of a fountain, smell of crispy cream doughnuts, whatever.”

The more the blind person is able to do this training themselves, the more integrated they will be in the society – their friends and colleagues will have a greater understanding of them, their social interactions with others will become more natural, and I can guarantee that they will also make many more friends by being the trainer themselves.

True learning to use the computer

Another thing every school for blind people would teach is how to use a computer. Blind people use screen reader software to interact with computers, the screen reader would read out loud what’s on the screen, generally speaking a blind person would mostly or totally rely on keyboard to interact with the computer rather than a mouse. This makes using the computer quite different for blind people, and the lessons I had in school tended to focus on how to work with certain applications like Word, Excel, what keys to press to perform certain things. This is another example of not providing true learning. Shortcut keys are good to learn and are designed for performing functions quickly, but not supposed to be the exclusive way to interact with an application. There should be much more focus on teaching blind people the screen layout, how to use the menu bar and Ribbons, this makes it possible for the blind person to extend that knowledge to all other applications, and although screen layout isn’t immediately useful for a blind person, learning about it provides the language in which they can communicate with sighted people, this is especially useful at work - a blind person needs to work much harder to adapt at work than to expect others to adapt to them (another topic for another time).

True learning again

It’s wonderful that teachers in school have prepared me well as a blind person to go into the normal society, and by chance I happen to be a naturally confident person who is not afraid of trying and exploring; I strongly believe that with a minor modification to what we teach blind people, we can give them the skills they can use throughout their life that will help them integrate deeply into the normal society, and earn more natural friends.

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