| Volume 59 | Number 3
Understanding Learning Differences
Welcome to EL Extra. We have designed questions to help you and your colleagues foster meaningful discussions around this issue of Educational Leadership.
These questions will not cover all aspects of this issue, but we hope that they will help you generate a conversation around key ideas. Feel free to adapt the questions to be more relevant to your school or school district. Although you can consider many of the questions on your own, we encourage you to use them in pairs, small groups, or even large study groups.
What do we know about learning and development? In "Webs of Skill: How Students Learn" (p. 6), Kurt W. Fisher and L. Todd Rose show the variations of development that are evident among students and within each student. Understanding learning differences entails understanding variations not only in a class of individuals, but also within each individual.
In small groups, examine your own learning differences. Who relies primarily on visual information? Who prefers to listen to sounds and music to learn? Who prefers to act out or model knowledge? Do individuals in the group use one kind of learning for some subjects and other kinds of learning for other subjects?
Fischer and Rose also point out that learners can often perform at an optimal level with strong contextual support before they are able to perform independently at a functional level. Consider their example (p. 11) of the adult who understands difficult concepts when in class but cannot articulate them to others afterwards. Share examples of how you needed a lot of contextual support before being able to work with knowledge or a skill at a functional level.
At a larger meeting, make a group presentation of the learning differences you discovered among and within individuals. How do these examples offer insights into how students learn?
Now, uncover the math child within by reading Marcia D'Arcangelo's interview with neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth ("Wired for Mathematics,” p. 14). What can lions teach us about math? What difference does it make if we know the area of the brain responsible for math? Was Barbie right—are there really gender differences in our ability to learn math? How do we promote understanding for our students—not just rote drill?
According to Thomas Armstrong (“IKSWAL: Interesting Kids Saddled with Alienating Labels,” p. 38), we often label children too much—to the detriment of their academic careers and their emotional well-being. Should we then speak of learning differences, not disabilities? Armstrong believes that even the term learning difference is a euphemism for an “alienating” label. For different perspectives on learning disabilities and disorders, read the articles by Rosemary Tannock and Rhonda Martinussen (p. 20), Dorothy M. Vacca (p. 26), Eric Jensen (p. 32), Armstrong (p. 38), and Jennifer Piehler Zickel and Ellen Arnold (p. 71). In pairs, taking one article for each twosome, summarize and defend the premise of each article. What are some differences in the authors' positions? What are some similarities?
In a larger group, discuss the teaching strategies that the various authors recommend. For example, for a child with a "sluggish brain," Jensen recommends that teachers "break lessons down into smaller units" (p. 33). For what other types of students do you think this strategy would prove beneficial? And note that Zickel and Arnold continually made the point that their goal-setting and self-advocacy activities were available to all students in their inclusive class.
Off the Scale
Gifted students—the eternal dilemma for many teachers. Whether they are underachievers like Bart Simpson or they excitedly perform algebra at age four, gifted children show great individual differences, too. In study groups, explore the articles by Carolyn M. Callahan (p. 42) and J. Christine Gould, Peggy Thorpe, and Valerie Weeks (p. 47). In individual journals, reflect on one or two gifted students you know—either in your classroom or among your acquaintances. How do these students defy the stereotypes? How have they coped with life, with school? What are some of the articles' concrete strategies that might help these gifted students? When you have time, delve into the references provided by the authors of these articles, such as Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and Carol Tomlinson's How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (now available in a 2nd edition from ASCD).
Get together with a few teacher/administrator friends and inspire one another by reading the Sandy Merritt's "Clearing the Hurdles of Inclusion" (p. 67), Elizabeth Zylstra's "A Year with Bobby" (p. 74), and V. Jane Millar's "Voices: The Coordinator: Two Inspirational Students" (p. 80). These articles show how inclusion works and offer practical suggestions for instructors and administrators. Here's an apt quote from Merritt's article about a student with multiple disabilities: "I learned that Kim was as capable of learning as my other students and that I could demonstrate my respect by holding higher expectations for her" (p. 68).
Improving Our Memory
Teachers are learners, too, and are always looking for ways to improve their memory—and that of their students. Read "Brain-Friendly Techniques for Improving Memory" by Jeanne King-Friedrichs (p. 76) and duplicate some of the exercises for learning about latitude (wiiiide) and longitude (looong). You will not only get a classroom full of laughing, joyous students, but you will probably learn more than you ever thought possible about this geographic topic. Note how the chanting lines of latitude and orange-cutting activities reflect what Butterworth said about “actively engaging students with numbers in different ways” (p. 19). And who says the strategies have to stay in the classroom? Maybe you can pick up an idea for remembering where you put your keys!
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