I've always believed that learning is a forever kind of thing. It doesn't stop when you finish school. And it certainly doesn't stop when you retire. I can testify to that.
When I retired from the School of Engineering in 1994 after spending my entire career in university education, I decided it was time to take stock and ask: What do I really want to do? What core thing calls to me, what just feels like me? And you know what? The answer was teaching and learning: seeking truth with others. So then I had to ask: How can I broaden the learning situations I enjoy beyond the University? What paths can I follow next?
As it turned out, the first path I took was very close to home. I live across a park from Brock Road School, and as I was driving by one day, I wondered if the school could use me as a volunteer. My daughter is a teacher in Guelph, so I know how many demands there are on teachers these days. And I understood there wasn't as much opportunity for students to read aloud in class as there used to be. So I volunteered to spend several hours a week sitting with small groups of grade 5 and 6 students and listening to them read. They don't necessarily have reading problems; it's just a chance for all of them to do more reading out loud.
The school system has received a lot of criticism in recent years. When children can't read well, for example, it's the schools that get the blame. But I think the bigger picture includes looking at how families have changed. There just doesn't seem to be much time for parents and children to spend reading together these days. And perhaps with each new generation, the reading habit has faded a little bit more. Here's a telling example: At a recent parent/teacher meeting in Guelph, when a teacher suggested to a set of parents that they spend some time reading with their children, one responded: "I've heard some parents do that - is it really true?"
With this kind of modern-day family model, it's not surprising that some children aren't getting a sense of the importance and excitement of reading and learning. It's no wonder kids say: "What do you mean this is supposed to be fun?" What the Brock Road and other reading programs do is provide a different kind of model, one that says: "It's OK to read out loud. This is how we learn, and it's fun to do it this way. It's even OK to make mistakes, and no one should be ridiculed for doing that."
Over the course of a year, I see quite a change in the students I work with, although I don't claim to take credit for it. I gain a lot of satisfaction from their progress, but more important, I'm really happy for them because reading opens so many doors and opportunities. In addition to the boost in the students' reading skills, I see a real change in their confidence level. That's exciting for me and so important for them.
About the same time that I began volunteering at Brock Road School, I ventured along another new teaching path when I heard about Action Read, Guelph's program for adults who want to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.
Surveys have shown that 22 per cent of Canadians 16 and older have profound difficulty handling basic literacy tasks that are encountered in everyday life. Twenty-six per cent of Canadians over 16 have some difficulty with literacy tasks if printed information is unfamiliar or the material is not clearly formatted. Those are astounding statistics, but before I signed on with Action Read, that's all they were to me - statistics. In all my years at Guelph, I rarely had occasion to come across a student with a learning disability.
One of the biggest challenges for me was getting beyond my own misconceptions about what a learning disability is. I had the notion that if someone had a disability such as dyslexia, that person was just a bit slow, and all it would take was some work with the person and he or she would be able to function like anyone else. As I soon learned, that's not the case. It's not a question of IQ. It's not a matter of: "If I just do this exercise five more times, I'll be fine." A learning disability is much like a physical disability - you just can't see it.
One of the people I received training from at Action Read helped put it all into perspective for me when she presented the following scenario: Say you need to wear glasses, but they get broken. You could still drive home without them, but you'd have to be extra cautious, you'd drive slowly, and it wouldn't be easy. It would require more of your energy and some new strategies. Then say you were told tomorrow that you would never have a pair of glasses again. You'd still be able to carry on, and if you were allowed to keep driving, you'd find strategies to do it. But it would always take more energy than it would take anyone else.
While volunteering with Action Read, I've met people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have developed phenomenal strategies for coping with their inability to read or write. One man, for example, avoids having to order from a menu when he's eating out by always going to the same restaurants and always ordering the same thing. And he never counts out money; he just hands over a $10 or $20 bill and lets the sales clerk make change. After I heard him mention this, I sat down with him one day to discuss money and discovered that he does, in fact, know all the values of bills and can make change if he takes the time. But he doesn't feel confident enough to make change quickly, so to avoid drawing attention to himself, he just hands over the cash.
For those who can't read or write, covering it up becomes a natural part of who they are. It raises the question: "With these strategies they've learned, do they really need to improve their reading and writing skills?" In some cases, they're doing just fine.
The crunch comes, however, when people with limited literacy skills are looking for a job. If they're lucky, they'll find an employer who recognizes the good things they can bring to a job and will make adjustments to help them. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced society, many employers are not so tolerant and accommodating.
In addition to the paths I've followed to Brock Road School and Action Read, I tutor high school students in mathematics, and all these experiences have given me a chance to explore some different dimensions of teaching and learning, a subject I find endlessly fascinating. They've also given me a chance to grow and learn myself and, I hope, help others do the same.
Whether I'm working with children, high school students or adults, what I enjoy most is the same thing I enjoyed most about working with university students and colleagues - seeking the truth and sharing the excitement. And seeing people discover that learning can be incredible fun. I know it is for me. That's why I plan to keep doing it forever.
University professor emeritus Trevor Dickinson taught in the School of Engineering from 1967 to 1994 and has been honoured for his teaching excellence with a 3M Fellowship and the University's John Bell Award.