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Q: Why are we calling some children "learning disabled"?
Henry Ford's invention of the assembly line at the start of the last century introduced the concept of mass production that revolutionized how consumer products were manufactured. Prior to Ford's invention, each car was built individually by a team of skilled mechanics expert in virtually all aspects of automotive assembly. Ford realized that, by making each car identical to the next, he could eliminate the need for tradesmen skilled in all stages of assembly. Instead, the assembly could be broken down so that each mechanic worked at a station specializing in just a single phase of the process. Cars would be passed down a line from station to station as identical copies of each product were built, reducing costs and improving efficiency.
When Henry Ford was growing up, children who lived in rural parts of the country typically attended school in a one-room schoolhouse. Henry Ford went to such a school for eight years of his life. Ironically, as Henry Ford grew up, not only did our nation inherit the innovations he pioneered for mass-producing consumer-products, but we also moved toward a wholesale adoption of a system of education that in many ways resembled the assembly-line process Ford used to manufacture cars. Though the suggestion that schools treat children as if they are cars on an assembly line is in many ways preposterous, the belief persists that our current school system works best, matriculating students with the greatest efficiency, when children can be treated as if they are identical, one to the next, passed from station to station down a line from kindergarten to graduation.
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Obviously, children are not identically produced cars, and schools are not assembly lines. And yet, one of the greatest challenges facing teachers in the classroom is how to address the tremendous diversity present in each and every class, and cope with the range of learning differences a classroom can present. Students can differ in the way they learn for any number of reasons. These reasons can be socioeconomic: perhaps the student needs to take on an afterschool job to help out with the family and doesn't have time to study. Or, the reasons can be socio-cultural: perhaps the student is frequently up all night texting or playing video games and isn't getting the sleep she or he needs to learn effectively. Other reasons may be related to how students process information, such as whether they have difficulty sounding out words from their spellings, or whether they are easily distracted.
While the range of factors that determines the diversity of learning in a given classroom (top)
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can be exceedingly broad and complex, certain aspects of this diversity can be understood in terms of neuroscience. In this unit, we will examine some neurological factors that influence learning diversity, and will begin to think about the strategies that teachers can adopt to begin to address the needs a typical classroom presents.
Richard Konicek-Moran liked to tell the following story based on his research. He taught in New England where the weather is cold. All his students knew that when it's cold outside, you put on a down jacket to stay warm. Konicek-Moran was curious why his students thought the coat kept them warm. So, he gave his students thermometers and asked them to predict what would happen if their thermometer was wrapped up in a cocoon of down. Virtually all of his students predicted the temperature would go up. But, when they tried the experiment, they were surprised to see that wrapping a thermometer in down didn't make the temperature reading increase. Many blamed their equipment. They insisted that their thermometer had to be broken. So, they tried thermometer after thermometer only to discover that all of the thermometers in the classroom had to be broken! Very few arrived at the expected scientific explanation: that the jacket is just an insulator, incapable of generating its own heat.
In this example, the cause of the students' learning difficulties was clear. The children grew up in New England where it's cold, and their experience with down jackets led them to believe that down generates heat. But, in many cases, we can't so easily understand why some children appear to have difficulty learning. All too often, if we don't get the results we expect, when we don't understand, just like Koniceck-Moran's middle school students, we tend to blame the equipment: The child isn't learning because the child is "broken." Sometimes, we even go so far as to label children as "learning disabled": unteachable and incapable of learning.
As we'll discover in the following sections, neuroscience tells us that it's not that the child is "broken," but rather that our teaching approach may be inappropriate, given the needs of the child. Neuroscience can provide clues as to why certain forms of learning can be difficult for some people but easy for others. Armed with this knowledge, there are many things teachers can do to help students learn more effectively, and these are some of the ideas we will explore in this unit.