Tactile Learning: Italian and US Experiences

from left to right: Claude Almansi, Frank B. Withrow and Tiziana Castorinaby Claude Almansi, Frank B. Withrow, and Tiziana Castorina

[Note: I started writing about the project of Liceo Artistico De Fabris, then I asked for feedback from Frank B. Withrow, because he has written about his experience in enabling tactile learning in “Technology Can Help Deaf-Blind Infants” and from Roberta Ranzani, with whom I have collaborated in several subtitling and educational projects. Frank sent the text about tactile books and the American Printing House for the Blind. Roberta mentioned a tactile astronomy workshop for the blind that took place in Venice. A friend of hers, Tiziana Castorina, had attended, and Roberta asked her for a description. Thanks to Tizana and Frank for allowing me to post their texts here, and to Roberta for her suggestion and for the introduction to Tiziana – CA]

Claude Almansi: Tactile books — Liceo Artistico De Fabris

On June 29, 2011,  Roberto Ellero sent me the URL of a video he made about a project by Prof. Adriana Sasso and her students at the Liceo Artistico “De Fabris” (Nove, Vicenza, Italy — liceo means secondary school): creating tactile books for blind and sight-impaired children.

From the video, it seemed that this project could be relevant to previous discussions here about project-based  learning: for example, see “Project Based vs Problem Based Learning” by Jan Schwartz (June 26, 2011), in reply to Jim Shimabukuro’s “A Quick and Dirty Look at Project-Based Learning” (May 20, 2011). So I asked Roberto if it would be alright to subtitle it in English (well, in Italian and French too). He agreed, so here goes:

(LIBRI TATTILI – Liceo Artistico di Nove (Vicenza). Uploaded by rellero, June 29, 2011. More information, in Italian, about the project: LIBRI TATTILI – Creazione di una favola tattile per bambini non vedenti e ipovedenti.)

At 5:10 of the video, asked about what she will retain of this project, Veronica, one of the students, replies:

Well, it has been very demanding and above all, entering such a different world has been very difficult. At first, I created objects according to my view of things, so I created little men with a face, a body, arms, hands. Then I became aware that it was too complex and that it was of use to me, but not to the children. So I completely changed my representing way.

This awareness of other people’s world perception, and the capacity to adapt accordingly, is essential in life. It is the same awareness Diderot tried to foster with his Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient  (Letter about the blind for sighted people’s use). Yet would Veronica and her school mates have internalized it as efficiently by studying Diderot’s text as they have, literally hands-on, in this project?

Frank B. Withrow — Tactile books: American Printing House for the Blind

At one time I was the federal program manager for the American Printing House for the Blind. Among other things, we funded the Kurzweil Reading machine (PDF) for the blind. We also experimented with tactile books, and there were some successful publications especially in the area of geography. I might also say that we were involved with a Congressional investigation since we provided copies of Playboy and a Congressman confused our playboy and tactile books.

I believe tactile books can help blind people develop a broader understanding, but I think there must be much more study of what tactile information is relevant.

I also am aware of a blind marine scientist who, through tactile examination of I believe conch shells, discovered more information than sighted scientists doing the same study.

I think tactile books are a valuable area of study.

No, we did not have a tactile center fold in the Playboy issues — only the Braille text.

Tiziana Castorina — Tactile astronomy workshop for the blind and visually impaired

A model of the sun rays striking the earth at the Summer solstice. The rays are made with drinking straws

Tactile summer solstice model — Astronomy workshop for the blind and sight-impaired, directed by Andrea Miccoli (Venice, May 21, 2011). Click on the picture to go to the page for the workshop on astronomiapontina.it.

Astronomy is clearly a science almost entirely based on visual observation. Therefore, people who cannot see must make a bigger effort than a sighted person because they must abstract and imagine what a sighted person can see with his/her own eyes.

As a consequence, for a blind person, many concrete concepts — planets, their orbits and their influence on earth’s seasons — become abstract, intangible. This is similar to what happens with colors: for someone sighted, the difference between red and blue is obvious, whereas it is merely theorical for someone blind who has no idea of what “red” and “blue” are.

Thanks to the solid tools made for this workshop, we have been able to “see” and transform the images into something concrete, thus making it more realistic. In fact, a mere verbal description often limits perception. You have to use imagination to make sense of a description, whereas touch allows you to understand immediately and enables you to explore more deeply.

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