Listen up: Understanding the truth behind learning disabilities
Monday, March 20, 2017
Can you remember when you tried to learn something you really wanted to know how to do? And it didn't work the first time. Or the fifth time. Or even now — years later.
For me it has been sailing, which is my bliss and which I have been trying to master for decades. But I still don't get it intuitively, because you learn sailing by doing it. And I now know I don't easily learn that way.
If, over the years, someone had taught me logically, step by step, combined with spoken guided practice, I would have achieved the label "skipper" by now.
In essence, the underlying problem for students with learning difficulties is that the methods most of their teachers use make their brain uncomfortable and even scared. The amazing truth is that when you decide to teach them the way they learn — instead of the way you have always taught — improvement can be dramatic and can happen quite quickly.
So please humor me for a short time and fold your hands.
You always fold them this way because it feels comfortable. If I expected you to keep them folded this way while I spoke the content I wanted you to learn, you would not be distracted by your folded hands, unless you wanted to write something down.
Now, unfold them and refold them with the "other thumb" on top. Yikes! That feels really weird! If I expected you to keep them folded that way, the discomfort would eventually interfere with your ability to concentrate on my words.
You would be distracted by thoughts such as these: "I hate the way my hands feel right now! Does the teacher know they are still folded? Will I get into trouble if I unfold them?" Slowly, you become aware that you are not following the lesson, and eventually, you are unable to figure out what to do to catch up on what you have missed.
Through all my years of working with students with LD's, I have concluded the following:
1. Most students who do not do well in school do not learn by listening. Instead, they are more successful with tasks that tap their visual, tactile and/or kinesthetic learning preferences. Their learning challenges do not come because they are less intelligent than students who learn easily by listening.
They are quite simply "less lucky" than their successful classmates who have always experienced a match between their learning needs and their teachers' methods. Our job as educators is to find the right match for all our students and provide choices for learning tasks so students can learn targeted standards by selecting the activity that feels the most comfortable to their brains.
2. People who learn best by hearing are most comfortable with tasks that require logical, analytic and sequential thinking. Think back over something you taught today that some students just didn't understand. Please notice that most school tasks require those three kinds of thinking. Although that is changing with STEM and STEAM activities, there are still many students who struggle to understand the way something is being taught.
3. Visual, tactile and/or kinesthetic learners are usually not comfortable with the three types of thinking described in No. 2 above. Their preferred brain work is what we call "global" thinking. The most significant part of that truth is that they struggle mightily with understanding isolated pieces of information without being able to see how all the parts are related to a meaningful general idea.
4. The work of David Ausubel — who created the concept of "advance organizer" — can work miracles with formerly unsuccessful students who may actually come to the realization that the learning content is now more meaningful to them by declaring, "Oh, now I see what you are talking about."
Future articles will describe specific modifications teachers can use to create learning success for previously unsuccessful learners.
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- Grouping students: Heterogeneous, homogeneous and random structures
- ELL reading development: Modified guided reading, interventions, support
- The importance of hands-on learning and movement for English learners
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- Fostering STEM vocabulary development in ESL students
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