LifeStreams Learning at Garth Homer Society

Garth Homer Society logoGuest poster Mitchell Temkin is CEO of the Garth Homer Society. The mission of GHS is to support those with developmental and other disabilities in making a life, a home, and a place in the world. The Victoria Foundation was pleased to fund the first stage of the LifeStreams Learning Project.

Garth Homer Society

A colleague recently sent me a dispiriting research report on the topic of high school transition: “Improving Post-High School Outcomes for Transition-Age Students with Disabilities: An Evidence Review.” The report was prepared for the Institute for Education Sciences in the United States by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance and published by the U.S. Department of Education in August 2013.

The report reviewed studies of programs aimed at improving transition outcomes, but only those studies that met rigorous research standards. The top studies reviewed indicate that the benefits of these programs were at best slightly positive in terms of improving transition outcomes. Even when outcomes were positive, the report says, “the extent of evidence was small.”

In short, according to the researchers, few of the transition programs seem to work very well.

This finding, however, is not consistent with much of our day-to-day experience as service providers. Time and again at the Garth Homer Society, we see even the most challenged individuals learn, grow, and change. I think often of B., a severely autistic young man who came to GHS a number of years ago. When he arrived, B. was almost unable to communicate, and often barely able to be among people at all.

Since then, B. has blossomed. Just the other day I encountered him in a busy, crowded hallway. It took me a moment to realize it, but he was actually carrying on three cheerful conversations at once with folks that were passing, a veritable chatterbox in his own way. For B. that is a remarkable achievement, one that would have been almost unimaginable just a few years ago.

Again and again we see the real evidence of how much learning potential our clients really have. However, when asked what it is they actually do to help our young clients learn and grow, staff often find it difficult to describe. They speak a lot about “seeing past the disability” or “addressing the whole person” or “engaging with real friendship,” but much less about the very specific things they are noticing and doing that help our clients learn and grow.

To my mind this merely suggests that our front-line staff, like so many other people involved in social services, are highly competent and capable, but on balance much more intuitive than procedural in their work. And to me that means that if we really want to understand in detail how learning happens for our clients, then we need to find a way to capture and build on the remarkably empathic, intuitive abilities of our staff so that we can turn what they do so well intuitively into a systematic approach to learning.

That is precisely what we are trying to do in our LifeStreams Learning program. Funded by the Victoria Foundation, the TELUS Victoria Community Board, and Coast Capital, LifeStreams Learning will provide a comprehensive, postsecondary learning path for young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities in order to maximize their potential for both employment and inclusion.

To launch LifeStreams we are working with Edudata Canada, a research unit in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. Edudata has built online learning management software that is currently being used in public schools to assist teachers in more effectively tailoring learning to individual student needs. The software is designed to help teachers understand better how specific actions they take in supporting individual students are connected to specific learning outcomes. We are working with Edudata to adapt this system for use with our special population, in a learning environment without a fixed curriculum.

“Capturing intuition” to enable learning for a group of young people whose opportunities are far too few — it’s a bold idea and a bit of a gamble, but maybe, just maybe, we can make it work.