Summer Series – Understanding Common Learning Challenges

Welcome to our new summer blog series! Each week we’ll bring you insights into various learning challenges students may face. We’ll start with some of the skills that students must master to be successful in school, discuss the neurodevelopmental factors involved, and look at common obstacles that students may encounter on the road to mastery. We’ll also offer practical strategies that you can use to help students who may be struggling, and hope that you will join colleagues in a dialog about these posts.

Remember: You can also sign up to receive an e-mail each time our blog is updated so the summer series is delivered right to your inbox (look for the Email Subscription box to the right).

We hope you enjoy our summer blog series.

Series Post #1: Attention and Determining What’s Relevant

Students are required to absorb and process a great deal of information in school every day. During any given class, students must attend to information that ranges from detailed facts to complex concepts, to people such as teachers and peers, to instructions and assignments, and to managing the materials necessary in the class.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

A student’s processing controls direct how s/he “takes in” of all of this information. The processing controls of attention specifically help students select which information is most important and then use that information as needed. These controls act as a kind of gatekeeper, facilitating the initial understanding of information before storing it in memory.

The processing controls have five roles:

  1. Determining what information is relevant
  2. Determining how deeply to process information
  3. Figuring out the span of attention required for a particular task
  4. Controlling the extent to which incoming information triggers connections to other information
  5. Ensuring that all information, even that which is only minimally interesting, is processed

Let’s take a look at #1 today – determining what information is relevant.

Here are some signs that a student is competent in determining what’s relevant:

The student …

  • focuses well in class without looking around and/or being distracted by background noises
  • determines what information is needed to solve word problems or study for tests
  • detects the significance of information when summarizing, paraphrasing, and underlining

Here are some signs that a student is struggling with determining what’s relevant:

The student …

  • feels overwhelmed in school due to distraction by sights, sounds, smells, or other stimuli
  • is distracted from what is going on in the present while showing a preoccupation with the past or future
  • is socially distracted, focusing too much on peers

For those of you who like to attach terms to concepts, the process of selecting and thinking about which information stands out or is most important is called saliency determination.

Strategies to help students struggling in this area:

  • Help students use color coding as an effective organizing strategy themselves. For example, a routine can be established in class (e.g., green for main idea, red for details in reading; blue for essential information in math word problems, etc.) that students can integrate into their own note-taking.
  • Have students practice deleting unimportant information in written materials, math and science word problems, etc. Allow students to create their own math and science word problems, in which they insert and delete information, examining the difference between necessary and unnecessary information.
  • Stage tasks (break them into smaller steps) to help students focus on the most salient features (e.g., highlight the symbol [+,-] for a particular math calculation before calculating the answer, highlight the most important information in a math story problem).

We’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to help students learn how to determine what’s relevant. Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related Links:

More information and strategies about attending to important information

Research on the processing controls

More information about attention

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

By Guest Blogger: Donna Smart Isaacs, Teacher & All Kinds of Minds Facilitator

Two years ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine, accepting a teaching job in a two-room K-8 island school. In the process, I was required to take two standardized national competency tests (i.e., PRAXIS tests). Nearly 30 years of professional experience and expertise in the field of education—and my eligibility to teach in the state of Maine—were reduced to 240 multiple-choice questions.

Achieving a successful exam score was dependent on my knowledge of labels describing errant behaviors (e.g., pica—“eating everything in sight”) or facts I could easily find by pressing a button on my computer (e.g., identify and locate the origin of Buddhism on a map). Despite passing both tests, I left feeling insulted, angry and disillusioned with the state and future of education. The tests measured nothing more than my ability to perform on “high stakes” multiple-choice tests. I wondered—Is this the norm to which we’ve also reduced our students and schools?

Recently, my daughter returned home from her first semester of college explaining to me why she was satisfied with a “B+” in a course for which she had worked very hard to achieve an “A”: “I loved the course”, she said. “I performed well in all the class discussions and on all my papers, but I did poorly on the quizzes. I’m happy, though, because that tells me I understood the material. I might need to look up an author or a term, but I’m OK with that. I know how to do that.”

I felt proud of my daughter’s conclusion. A more common response I have encountered from students when they experience a task that seems meaningless and/or impossible is, “Why bother?” How many of our students become disillusioned and discouraged after a poor performance on a test? How often does failure result in a defeatist mindset being established and/or reinforced, turning a student off to school, or worse—to learning? (Greene, 2008) Likewise, being an effective teacher has little to do with performance on standardized tests.
I believe the following characteristics are essential for effective teaching:

  • Advocacy for students’ rights to equal access to learning outcomes
  • Modeling thirst for knowledge and desire for self improvement
  • Provision of a moral yardstick through both instruction and example (e.g., exhibition of respect)
  • Desire and ability to share experience and expertise—contribution to the professional development of others, and willingness to learn from colleagues, including 21st century skills
  • Creation and maintenance of an environment that feels simultaneously stimulating and safe to children
  • Understanding how people learn in general, and how individual students learn in particular; ability to leverage neurodevelopmental strengths and affinities to overcome areas of struggle (Levine. 2001, 2002)
  • Knowing the needs of the community; incorporating community service in learning tasks on local, national and global levels
  • Clarity and communication of purpose; ability to make learning tasks as authentic and meaningful as possible
  • Asking the right questions, and asking “higher order” questions that move students from “knowledge and understanding” to “application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation” of ideas (Bloom, 1954)
  • Establishment of collaborative partnerships with parents, colleagues and students

Effective teachers possess a combination of skills, knowledge and talent (Buckingham & Curt, 1999). Skills can be studied, observed, imitated, practiced—and even perfected. Knowledge can be learned from concerted study and/or experience. Talent, however, combines practice and hard work with passion. Talent includes fostering instincts and intuitions, creativity and self-knowledge. The ability to engage students in the moment with a tone, gesture, rhythm, song or a sparkle of humor—is not included in college teacher preparation programs, nor can it be assessed by the Educational Testing Service’s multiple-choice PRAXIS tests.

In order to attain a shared vision of what makes teachers effective, we must agree on what it is we want our students to accomplish. Effective teaching and learning are not achieved through studying cookie cutter recipes. Likewise, we must resist the temptation to trivialize practice and performance measures by reducing them to standardized “competency” tests. Our goal should be to attract and retain passionate, effective teachers who possess the characteristics listed above and more—who will teach our nation’s children with necessary skill, knowledge and talent, and who will cultivate students’ potential to access and participate in 21st century global society.

Visit ReThink Learning Now to read about other perspectives on teacher effectiveness.

About the Author: Donna Smart Isaacs was a Special Education teacher for 15 years prior to working for 5 years as a senior learning specialist at the Center for School Success in West Lebanon, NH.  She is a national facilitator for both the School Reform Initiative and the All Kinds of Minds Institute.  She currently lives on an island off the coast of Maine, where she teaches in a two-room K-8 school.

Wanted: Revolutionaries to Transform the Teaching Profession into the Learning Profession. Apply Within!

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

The Teachers of 2030,” in the May 2010 issue of Educational Leadership, is a thought-provoking article about the future of the teaching profession. Authors Renee Moore and Barnett Berry draw attention to the fact that an important voice is missing from current education policy discussions – particularly those around teacher effectiveness and student learning – the teacher’s. They make a compelling case that we must bring the teacher perspective from the margins to center stage, and they provide insight into how practicing educators often have a more inspiring vision for changes that could better support learning than those who are currently dominating the microphone in today’s national education discourse.

The article’s Teachers of 2030 see what many of the futurists quoted in our book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds, describe. They envision a future where the Internet facilitates more “personalized learning,” where accountability systems are tied to individual student growth, where learning comes from both “near and far,” and where “teacherpreneurism” facilitates the deployment of educator expertise in new, varied, and creative ways. These ideas echo a similar vision suggested by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in their 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, which contends that these changes are coming and will be here faster than most of us realize.

Underlying all of these futuristic ideas about the teaching profession is that it will – and must – transform into a learning profession. Thus, I challenge the teachers and other educators who have taken part in All Kinds of Minds’ work over the past decade to speak up and lend your voices to bringing about this transformation. Why? Because I believe this transformation is what will broadly enable breakthrough knowledge about learning variation to help our most complex learners find success, and at the same time help us re-invent education for the benefit of all.

So how do we begin to create a learning profession? I invite you to spend some time this summer reflecting on this question – and engaging with us and with each other in a conversation about it.

Here are some ideas to get this conversation started:

  • Take 15 minutes and watch Sir Ken Robinson’s recent TED talk, in which he suggests that we are facing a second climate crisis — one that involves human resources instead of natural resources. He argues that we make poor use of talent and that schools are the biggest contributor to dislocating people from their talents. He notes that as with natural resources, we often have to dig deep to discover individual talent resources. Sir Robinson asks, “Can we start a learning revolution to end the human resource crisis?”
  • Stacy Parker-Fisher, program officer at the Oak Foundation, wonders about creating a “learning expert corps” modeled after Teach for America. “What would schools do if they had learning experts come in for a few years as part of their human capital systems? How would they use them?”
  • Karen Triplett, an All Kinds of Minds facilitator in North Carolina, dreams of running a summer “Mind Camp” for students. “Imagine: It would be an experience where everyone would discover their learning profiles. They would unearth their talents and strengths, claim their passions and affinities, and learn strategies for dealing with the things they just aren’t wired to naturally do well.”
  • A California charter school featured on John Merrow’s Learning Matters launched a brilliant idea for the last six weeks of school following end-of-year testing. Teachers are given the freedom to teach what they love and create “selectives” for students. Student groups put on a theatrical production, take part in a local government initiative, delve into a genre of literature, create instructional media games. Teachers and students alike get to pursue what they love to learn and do, and it’s a great way to discover talents and affinities.

What steps can we pledge to take as today’s learning revolutionaries? How can we work toward making the understanding of an individual’s learning profile the foundation for each student’s educational trajectory? In what other ways can we bring a stronger focus on using affinities and passions to guide a student’s mastery of key tasks, processes and scholarship?

Raise your voice. Become a revolutionary. Post a comment here or our Facebook page. Create a YouTube presentation and share it with us. React to these ideas and offer up your own. Share what you think we need to do to transform the teaching profession into the learning profession.