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Learning disability or learns differently?

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

For those who are comforted by labels and the certainty they provide, it is difficult to embrace the idea that we can unlock the potential of many of our students by determining how they learn. Once we decide that many diagnosed learning disabilities refer to having trouble in a school-based learning environment, we can move forward with defining individual learning styles, brain strengths and intelligences.

We’ve all been through the laborious process of having a student identified as having a learning disability. This process usually involves filling out a vast amount of paperwork and waiting sometimes over a year for the testing to occur. Then detailed results are shared with teachers and parents. The report usually includes various generic strategies for helping the student be more successful in the classroom — not necessarily to maximize their learning potential. The report then leads to the creation of an individual education plan and more paperwork and meetings. Meanwhile the student is feeling “disabled” solely because she doesn’t fit the traditional school structures and processes that haven’t really changed for years.

Almost 20 years ago, Pat Wolfe wrote about what we know from brain research that can be applied to education. At the time, the idea that IQ is not fixed at birth and that the brain develops over time in relation to the environment was groundbreaking and should have had significant impact on how we teach children in our schools. Wolfe continues her work today through Mind Matters.

Others working to bring brain research into our classrooms include Sarah-Jayne Blackmore and Uta Frith, authors of The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education, and Eric Jensen, author of Teaching With the Brain in Mind. Their work should become core content in teacher-training programs and in professional development programs. Even though their work should be game-changing, it has not been sufficiently linked to educational policy and practice.

When I first became a principal in 1980, I was exposed to the work of Rita Dunne in the area of Learning Styles. Fortunately, I was working in a school system that truly empowered principals and teachers to do whatever it took to reach their students. In our site-based management model, staff and community worked together to determine budget priorities, school organization and programming. We researched Rita Dunne’s work that defined 21 elements of learning styles and altered our classroom practices accordingly. Students were allowed to listen to music, move around the classroom, doodle or fiddle during a lesson, eat while learning, choose more comfortable seating and so on. Chaos did not reign. Teachers knew which of the 21 elements were significant for each child and guided them to choose accordingly. Results were incredible. Unfortunately, the current nod to learning styles focuses almost exclusively on visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning — all necessary, but not sufficient.

In 1983, Howard Gardner published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. At that time, he identified seven intelligences: linguistic, logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. In 1999, he added naturalistic and is informally considering two additional intelligences, existential and pedagogical. He has always cautioned that each of us has his own profile of intelligences and that an understanding of individual intelligences should be used to empower people not to limit them. Understanding multiple intelligences theory allows teachers and administrators to believe in the importance of honoring each student as an individual and to consider the relatively narrow focus and limited value of standardized testing.

So why haven’t these three research-based game-changers become common practice in our schools? There is a significant disconnect between research and policy, and procedure and action. Education has traditionally been very slow to change. Generally there has been a lot of pendulum change where we just go back and forth from the “basics” to “new programs” in literacy and numeracy. We go from memorization of math facts to new math, from whole language to phonics, from emphasis on the arts to emphasis on science, from time for physical education to time for basics only. The pendulum seems to be moving faster these days but the amplitude doesn’t seem to change much.

We need a model of continuous improvement model where we acknowledge that we are doing well and, based on new understandings and a constantly changing environment, we need to change and be a bit more right in what we do. We can’t be thinking that we are wrong now and any change will make everything right. That’s simply not the case. We must, however, keep up with the explosion of knowledge around us and even try to take the lead.

If we want to truly make a change for our students, if we want to spend less time identifying, labeling and doing paperwork and more time supporting each student as an individual who learns differently, here are a few key steps:

  • Commit to this as a shared belief for all staff and allocate sufficient resources to move forward.
  • Provide professional development opportunities both inside and outside the school. Just like our students, teachers are at different stages in their learning and learn in different ways.
  • Hold principals and teachers accountable for making the change.
  • Use the vast amount of research and recommendations that are available. Use the work of Howard Gardner in the area of Multiple Intelligences; the research by Pat Wolfe, Eric Jensen and others and the work of Rita Dunne to plan for individual students. Start with students who are awaiting testing for a learning disability. Find their learning strengths and talents. Don’t waste any more time.
  • Track your successes and spread the word!

Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of“Real Leadership Real Change.” She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education.

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