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Q: What can teachers do about learning differences in the classroom?
Let us review the steps that educators can take to honor and build upon the learning diversity in their classrooms.
- Whether or not a person is considered to have a "disability" depends on a dynamic interaction between the demands of the task and the strengths of the person. Sometimes, a person who appears impaired in one context will perform at superlative levels when the context is changed. Teachers can improve the performance of their students simply by changing the context of their teaching and by giving students opportunities to find alternate ways to learn, even if these alternatives may not be traditionally used in schools.
- Labels such as "learning disabled" can hurt, and can trigger an automatic neurological reaction associated with negative emotions that further impairs learning so as to deepen the struggles a student may face. Using negative labels creates a threat based on a negative stereotype, which interferes powerfully with school success. Be supportive and encourage the student to work with you to find a solution: "Of course this is hard, and of course you will be able to do it. But we're going to have to get creative with how we approach this, and I need you to work with me to help figure out the best way."
- If students struggle with certain ways of thinking, the task we are asking them to do is probably not well matched to their neurology. As a consequence, if we are asking students to do something that was never designed for their brains, they will have to work very hard. As a teacher, it's important to respect the extra work the student is going to have to do. For example, the task of reading was designed over the centuries to work well with a certain set of neurological capabilities. If a student's neurology is not well matched to this task, this student will need to force her or his brain to perform in ways that are less than optimal. This takes work, and the student will have to work harder than most other people. Teachers can recognize this extra effort by accommodating for extra time or allowing the use of calculators, which are not cheating. Help the student feel comfortable accepting this compensation.
- If students don't pay attention, it does not necessarily mean they are being disrespectful or lacking in discipline. Yelling at students to "pay attention" is not likely to help, and will probably hurt. Attention is a semiautomatic neurological response that helps people deal with the overwhelmingly vast amount of information constantly bombarding their senses. Though people can control some aspects of attention, many are automatic and outside a person's control. Traditional approaches to learning place strong demands on attention and short-term memory. People can become "learning disabled" by overloading their capacity for attention or memory. Teachers can help people learn more effectively by eliminating any unessential demands (top)
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- on attention or memory and by generally revising instructional methods so that the demands on attention and memory are minimized.
- Some forms of learning, such as learning the gist of a sound (implicit learning needed to distinguish a banjo from a guitar), occur with little conscious awareness, and do not place the same demands on neural networks for attention. Such forms of learning, though not emphasized in schools, are vitally important in many aspects of life.
- People vary in their abilities for attention, and people are sometimes very sensitive to changes in their environment, while others may not notice such changes. Some people who have difficulties with the forms of learning that place heavy demands on attention may not experience difficulties with the forms of learning that are associated with "gist."
- Attention networks act like a seesaw, by enhancing some information while inhibiting other information. Focused attention can inhibit peripheral awareness and reduce a person's awareness of gist. Therefore, strong abilities for attention can hinder learning of gist, leading to a situation where a person who is "learning impaired" outperforms the person otherwise considered "unimpaired."
- New research suggests that people with dyslexia sometimes exhibit enhanced abilities for peripheral awareness that lead to advantages important in fields such as science, mathematics, or art. Many people with "learning disabilities" perform at very high levels in careers where their special abilities are well matched to the demands of the field. Educators can reach and help many more students to learn by emphasizing skills that are important and valued in real-world contexts, as opposed to "school science" contexts that tend to be artificial and overemphasize demands on memorization and attention.
- People learn in many different ways; therefore, teachers should devise assessments that encourage alternate ways to show individual competencies and progress, and that honor each student's own strengths and approach.