Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Reflections on a Research Career: Research as Detective Work

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Reflections on a Research Career: Research as Detective Work

Article excerpt

I was sure I would be a ballet dancer, or at least a star of musical theater. I loved to dance and always had, from the time I could walk I studied very seriously, long hours, many days each week I loved the discipline, the control, the practicing, the beauty of it all. But the truth had to be faced--I just wasn't all that good! So, I thought I'd be a neurosurgeon. My father had been a neurologist. I was fascinated with how the brain worked, and with what might be wrong when it didn't work. But I found out that you had to take lots of chemistry before they would consider you for medical school. I hated chemistry! I struggled through it in high school and didn't do well. I hated not doing well! I gave that up, too.


So I settled on being a detective. That's what you became when you studied with Helmer Myklebust, at the Institute for Language Disorders at Northwestern University. Your training was in sleuthing. Your target was the cognitive processing of a child who was not learning to speak, to understand speech, to read, to write, to do arithmetic, to make sense of the world around him. Your mission was to figure this child out, to understand how he thought, how he listened, how he looked, how he processed information, and then, most challenging of all, how to teach him! Dr. Myklebust was a genius at this sort of detective work--a genius and an inspiration. I took my first courses at Northwestern during summer school of 1960, after my sophomore year at McGill University, and I never looked back. My path was set. I would be his kind of detective!

It was easy to be passionate about children with learning disabilities in those early days. We knew so little. We had so much to find out. Under Myklebust's tutelage, we approached each child as a detective approaches a new case. We looked for clues in what the child could and could not do, how he or she learned, how to get through to that brain where others had failed. He had us search relentlessly "for the right way in" so that a child could be helped to learn how to understand, or communicate, or read, or write, or calculate, or behave in a socially appropriate manner. If a child didn't learn, we were responsible. We hadn't figured her out well enough yet. We hadn't found the right way to teach her. We hadn't been good enough detectives.

This training in the clinician-as-detective, diagnostician-as-detective, teacher-as-detective paradigm grounded my work--my teaching of teachers, my clinical studies of children, and, eventually, my research. I've devoted my career to trying to understand how things are, why they are the way they are, and how to make them better! What my colleagues and I have discovered has not always been good news. And the changes that we made did not often take hold. Yet, every now and then, the pieces have fallen into place. One teacher, one school, or one school district has used our detective work to improve the delivery of educational services to children with disabilities. The result has been truly rewarding, but it's not what has kept me going. It is the passion to "find out," to see clearly, to understand. I keep searching for yet one more elusive clue that might help solve the mysteries of failing children and failing schools.

The Early Days

I began my research career trying to understand what is the matter with students who are not learning to read, trying to figure out what it was that children with "dyslexia" could not do. My earliest research (see Figure 1) was an exploration of the neurological and psychological mechanisms underlying the reading difficulties of students diagnosed as learning disabled. I designed several paired-associate learning tasks for "dyslexic" students and normally reading control students. The tasks were either intrasensory (associating two visual nonsense shapes, or two spoken nonsense words) or intersensory (associating a spoken nonsense word with a visual nonsense shape; or associating a visual nonsense shape with a spoken nonsense word). …

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