Want to Improve Learning? Just Ask. By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

It’s hard to resist the temptation to make a few New Year’s resolutions each year—resolutions that typically focus on something we want to change to improve ourselves. We look to people we admire for their success (whatever that might mean to us—popularity, wealth, fitness, power, balance) for our inspiration. Rarely do we contemplate that a role model’s current success may have resulted from his or her own resolve to conquer a lifetime of challenges. Yet for so many of today’s successful adults, the road involved taking a long-haul view—and looking to others for help over hurdles along the way.

I’ve learned a great deal about resolve from many of the successful individuals who have been involved with All Kinds of Minds. Two individuals in particular come to mind. For both, as students who struggled in school, a promising adult life seemed elusive. Both of them have written terrific books that can inspire those who are helping students “stuck” in a learning struggle chart a roadmap for long- term success.

Paul Orfalea’s story has been highlighted by Fortune magazine as an example of the many CEOs who struggled with learning as children. Paul, who founded Kinko’s, recounts his journey from a student on whom most educators gave up to successful businessman in his autobiography, Copy This! Paul also graciously agreed to reflect on this journey in the forward to All Kinds of Minds’ forthcoming book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds: Boosting Student Success by Embracing Learning Variation.”

All Kinds of Minds trustee Gary Cohen also struggled with learning issues throughout school. His neurodevelopmental profile shows weaknesses in aspects of memory, grapho-motor skills and attention. Gary, founder of the executive coaching firm CO2 Partners, recalls that these made school “devastating” for him. “If I had to sit and listen to a teacher talk and write down notes in order to get information in, I just couldn’t,” he says. “Of course I was grades behind as a result.”

Like Paul Orfalea, he benefited from parents who never gave up the search to find the educational services he needed. Gary also credits a handful of teachers throughout his schooling who helped him cope with his struggles and find joy in learning. He recalls how a teacher taught him to create pictorial images in his head to understand math. Gary became very good at math–an asset that gives him an edge as a businessman. “I can look at a company’s financials and actually envision the business from those statements,” he says.

Understanding how his mind worked—and what the stumbling blocks were—also enabled Gary to work around his learning weaknesses. He credits this as a main factor in his success as an entrepreneur and executive coach. “My strategy was to partner with the brainiacs,” he says. “I’d table up with the smart kids and get them to help me. And I learned how to ask questions.”

Asking questions helped Gary become a successful learner in two ways. “First, it helped with my attention issues—asking questions refocused me on the topic. Second, it helped me learn how to learn—how to seek out information in a way that I can internalize.”

This questioning skill is the subject of Gary’s recently published book, Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions, now in its second printing. “This isn’t just a book for people in business,” Gary notes. “It’s about leadership in any setting. I keep having parents tell me that they’ve used these ideas with their kids, and it has worked!”

The book’s primary message is that in any leadership situation, asking questions helps you uncover important information, create accountability and trust, and make better decisions—an idea that will resonate with educators seeking insight into and connection with complex learners. Indeed, asking questions of students, parents and other adults who are part of a learner’s life is critical to getting the needed data to make the best decisions about strategies for unique minds.

Paul’s and Gary’s stories are testimonies to the kinds of success that educators can help promote by using the All Kinds of Minds approach. They remind us why we should not give up on students who are struggling with learning differences—and they are examples of how the hard work and creativity required to overcome learning weaknesses can ultimately contribute to success.

They also remind me that truly meaningful success rarely stems from a resolution to simply change or “fix” something we don’t like. So my resolution this year? Ask more questions.

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