Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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As many of our children head back to school they will be handed short self-report questionnaires to determine their “learning style.” A recent study found that over 90% of teachers still believe that children learn better if they receive information in their preferred learning style. Despite the evidence.

It’s a well-meaning notion – most teachers sincerely want to reach all of the children in their classes. And children generally find it fun to be given an opportunity to tell their teachers how they prefer to learn (of course many children would probably say they learn best by video gaming, but that isn’t likely to be among the options on the questionnaire!)

What are “Learning Styles?” There are more than 70 different theories or models of learning styles including: “left vs right brain,” “concrete vs abstract,” holistic vs serialist,” and so on. But by far the most popular model sorts children into three “types:” visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. The visual learner is said to learn best by seeing graphs, charts, videos, and other visual displays. The auditory learner is said to learn best though aural or heard information – by listening. The kinesthetic learner needs movement and hands-on tasks to maximize their learning.

The way students are identified as being one “type” or another is by filling out a self-report questionnaire with items such as: “I like to learn with posters, videos and pictures” and “If I have to solve a problem, it helps me to move while I think.”

Where did the notion originate? The idea likely grew in popularity from the combined effects of the self-esteem movement (all children are special and deserve respect of their differences), the need for teachers to teach a wide variety of children utilizing differentiation in mixed classrooms, and findings in neuroscience that different areas of the cortex have specific roles in visual, auditory, and sensory processing. I believe it caught on because it’s one of those ideas that sounds scientific and intuitively reasonable.

Is there any scientific evidence to support of the notion of learning styles? The answer is no.

And it’s not simply a matter of “the absence of evidence doesn’t mean the evidence of absence.” On the contrary, for years researchers have tried to make a connection through hundreds of studies. In 2009, Psychological Science in the Public Interest commissioned cognitive psychologists to evaluate the research on learning styles to determine whether there is credible evidence to support using learning styles in instruction. They came to a clear conclusion: “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous,” they “found virtually no evidence” supporting the idea that “instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preference of the learner.” Many studies suffered from weak research design, rendering them unconvincing. Others which did have effective experimental designs “found results that flatly contradict the popular” assumptions about learning styles. In sum, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.”

Students who implement study strategies based on their self-reported learning style do no better than students who don’t.

In addition, evidence shows that learning style questionnaires are unreliable because people’s self-reported preferences are poorly correlated with their actual performance. In other words, a person might think they learn better, say, visually rather than verbally, but their performance may say otherwise. And of course learning will depend on the nature of the material we’re being taught. Can you imagine trying to learn French grammar pictorially or learning geometry purely verbally?

Learning will also depend on the distinct cognitive abilities profile of the learner – something far more complex than any simple notion of a “learning style.” A student with dyslexia may well learn better by listening than reading. A student with an auditory processing disorder may learn better by reading. A student with ADHD may benefit from opportunities to get up and move around.

What should parents do? If your child brings home results from a learning styles questionnaire, explain to them that what it means is that their teacher wants them to learn and that they should help their teacher out by letting them know when they don’t understand a concept being taught.

I was asked to write an article for the December, 2017 issue of the 2e Twice Exceptional Newsletter, a bi-monthly subscription ($35/year) online newsletter for “those who raise, educate, and counsel high-ability (gifted) children who also have learning challenges.” It’s a wonderful publication and one I recommend for everyone who lives and breathes 2e. As the focus of the December issue was on relationships, they asked me to write about the importance of the student/teacher relationship, and what might be done to try to facilitate the development of positive ones. My article, in full, can be found here: 2E Newsletter Student Teacher Relationship Article.

But let me summarize a few key points as we head into a new semester.

Positive student-teacher relationships are important to virtually all students. But they are especially important for students who are “at risk.” And twice exceptional learners are at risk for underachievement, boredom, bullying, anxiety, depression, social disconnectedness, being misunderstood, and are prone to daily frustration. A good school year can be “made” by a relationship with a teacher who appears to like and bond with the student. A bad year can be “made” by a teacher who doesn’t. Strong student-teacher relationships can increase student motivation, grades, social outcomes, and emotional well-being at every stage in the student’s development, from early elementary school through college and graduate school. Clearly, they’re important.

Here are some things parents and students can each do to try to facilitate them.

Steps Parents can Take:

• Teach your child to be his or her own advocate. For obvious reasons (power differential, age difference) parents often need to take on the role of advocate for their child in school. However to the extent that the student can advocate for his or herself, it can be particularly effective. Teachers tend to be more open to requests and concerns expressed by students (and can be somewhat wary or skeptical of what they perceive as “helicopter” parenting).

• Teach your child social skills helpful in developing sound relationships with all people, including teachers (e.g., listening, turn-taking, conversational give-and-take, respect, complimenting others).

• Ask for a meeting to provide a “heads up” about your child. Explain their strengths and weaknesses, susceptibilities and personality. Ask for help addressing both exceptionalities – your child’s strengths and areas of weakness.

• Check in on a regular (but not excessive) basis to see how things are going and ask what you can do on your end to  help. Perhaps you can reinforce desired behaviors at home (e.g., waiting before blurting out an answer).

• Be a squeaky wheel – but a polite one. The squeaky wheel often does “get the grease.” Don’t hesitate to be direct about asking the teacher to meet your child’s needs. Stay on top of what’s going on in the classroom. But try to be polite and collaborative. A teacher may make more of an effort for a family they like.

• If things go wrong – your child comes home in tears or the teacher sends home behavioral warnings on a daily basis – it’s time to take action. Ask for a meeting with the teacher first. Go with an open mind. Listen, take notes. Patiently explain what you think may be happening from your child’s perspective. Try not to be too defensive. Suggest strategies that may be effective. If things don’t improve, then enlist the help of the principal, school psychologist, or an outside consultant.

Steps Students can Take:

• The more mature student can work deliberately on personal and advocacy skills conducive to developing good student-teacher relations, but even young children can learn helpful strategies.

• Make efforts to establish a personal relationship with your teacher. Ask if you can meet one-on-one so you can get to know each another. Talk about your needs. Stay after class to chat for a few minutes. Go to office hours. Share your interests and successes outside of school with your teacher. The better your teacher knows you and understands the person you are and the person you want to be, the more likely and better able he or she will be to help you toward your goals.

• Show appreciation by thanking your teacher for a lesson you enjoyed, for their feedback on a paper you wrote, or for the way they made a topic come alive for you. Positive feedback makes people feel warmly toward the person giving it.

• Show respect. Be polite. Try to listen and not talk to peers when the teacher is talking. Say “please” and “thank you.” If you feel that instruction is pointless or boring, explain this privately to the teacher rather than as an aside to your classmates.

• Ask for and accept help. Let your teacher know when you don’t understand something. Or when you already know the material and need something different or more advanced.

• Try to be patient, but also (politely) persistent in asking for the additional help, clarification or any accommodation you may need.

A good relationship with even one caring teacher can literally change a student’s life. We shouldn’t rely on chance and hope that such a relationship will develop spontaneously, but rather can try to set the stage and take proactive steps to try to help it happen.

Ever since my mind-blowing trip to the Galapagos last January I’ve been thinking about evolution, the environment, and organism-environment interaction. Each island in the Galapagos has a slightly different environment, and the islands as a whole are very different from the Ecuadorean mainland. The animals who ended up flourishing on the islands adapted to their environment. Or they moved on.

I’m a psychologist, not an ecologist. The world I concern myself with is that of children and their development. But it occurs to me that we often don’t spend enough time thinking about that from an ecological perspective. An organism is an individual living animal, plant, or single-celled life form. A child is an “organism.” An environment is the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal or plant lives or operates. School is an “environment.” The child and their school are part of an ecosystem, and they have important impacts on one another.

When something is not working well in the child-school ecosystem we often focus on what’s “wrong” with the child and why they don’t “fit in.” We sometimes pathologize the child’s behavior and diagnose ADHD, a learning disability, autism, or a behavioral disorder. The diagnosis may fit, but I often wonder whether the same child would be diagnosed with the same disability if they were in an environment better suited to them as an individual. Would the twice exceptional student who blurts out answers and won’t do what the teacher tells him to do be diagnosed with ADHD in a school where he could control his own pace of learning? Perhaps a move to a different environment would allow that particular organism – that child – to flourish.

I know that we often feel stuck with the school our child attends. We may have moved to a public school district specifically for the highly ranked schools. We may have gone through an onerous private school admission process to get a spot for our child at what we thought would be the best possible school. But sometimes it just isn’t working out and attention should be paid to not just the child and what might be “wrong” with him or her, but also to the environment and what might be “wrong” with it – for that child. The school your child attends may be perfectly fine for some children and even optimal for others. But it may not be the best fit for your child.

Many of us may have had the experience (I know I have) of spending our political capital in the principal’s office requesting a specific teacher because we heard from other parents how wonderful he or she was, only to discover that the teacher we begged for wasn’t so great for our child. Or discovering that although our daughter thrived at XYZ school, our son doesn’t. I don’t think one can always generalize and describe a school as a “good school” or a “bad school,” or a teacher as a “good teacher” or a “bad teacher.” Good for who? Bad for who?

Our children – the gifted, twice-exceptional, learning disabled, differently wired – are unique. They are organisms that need specific kinds of nutrients and environments in which to thrive. If your child isn’t developing optimally, it might be time to consider a change of environment. Optimal development happens when the organism/environment interaction promotes growth.

I realize that changing schools may not be convenient and can involve risks. But it might be among the best things you ever do for your child. I know parents who have made the sacrifice of moving to another state so their child could attend a better-fit school. And heroes who take on homeschooling. These parents have made bold decisions to try to find or create the best environment for their child to thrive.

When my son was 11 he begged me to not send him back to the school he had been attending. This was after spending the summer at two Johns Hopkins CTY camps (let this be a warning: it can be dangerous to let your child experience the joy of an optimal learning environment). We took him seriously, lost our deposit at his old school, and had to scramble to find a new school for him to attend. We ended up finding a small, funky, ‘”unschool” for gifted kids where I’m not sure he learned much, but he was happy. We call this his “first gap year.” He went on to do well at a wonderful middle school, high school, and the college of his choice. To this day he credits the finding of his academic and social “sea legs” to the “gap year” he had in the 6th grade. And he thanks us for listening to him.

I feel badly he had to ask.

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Debbie Reber, founder of TiLT Parenting, an online destination with a blog and weekly podcasts on parenting “differently wired” kids. Our podcast interview was on assessing and supporting twice-exceptional learners.

TiLT is a terrific resource. Recent podcast topics include: Using a Strengths-Based Approach to Support Differently-Wired Kids and The Connection between Creativity and Neurodiversity. Debbie is a New York Times bestselling author, life-coach, and speaker who worked in children’s television before she moved with her family to Amsterdam where she home-schools her son, Asher. She’s a mom-blogger/website doyenne with a highly professional approach. But what I find most impressive about Debbie is her story, her courage, and how her attitude developed into the philosophy that guides TiLT.

Debbie reacted to the frustrations, stress, and challenges of raising her 2e child by deciding to radically shift her parenting attitude and her family’s experience.

Like many of us, she started down the parenting road with no idea she’d soon have a lot more to handle than she’d expected. A year of colic followed by an intense and strong-willed toddler-hood, with regular notes home from preschool teachers about problems, made Debbie and her husband begin to wonder what was going on.

I love this paragraph about her son at age two:

By his second birthday, our little guy was regularly turning heads, both with his ridiculous vocabulary and his apocalyptic conniptions. Anyone who spent any time with Asher couldn’t help but notice that he talked in complex sentences pretty much nonstop. And the tantrums? They just seemed somehow bigger than typical toddler fare. When other parents witnessed an Asher tantrum go down, I’d see shock and awe in their eyes.

For the next four years they scrambled to find a school fit (three schools in three years) while they pursued one evaluation after another. The conflicting labels left them more confused than ever. They piled on the support, only to find little in the way of improvement. Meanwhile Debbie was growing increasingly frustrated, isolated, and struggled with “a fierce sense of personal incompetence, guilt, and failure.”

A realization that this just wasn’t working for their family was well-timed with a move abroad. This provided the opportunity to start over with a different approach. Debbie and her husband decided to: “toss out everything we thought we knew about parenting and education and forge our own path.” Their home-school adventure began.

Debbie realized in the first few months that her biggest source of conflict was with her own thinking about what her life as a mom should be like. She still struggled with occasional feelings of jealousy of friends who were raising “normal kids,” and still worried about her son’s future, but gradually her thinking changed from what she thought her life as a mom should look like to what her momhood could look like.

Debbie’s family is thriving. Now, she’s “on a mission to change the experience we as parents have in raising these kids so that they can go through their lives and interact with the world around them in a way that will help them thrive.” Her philosophy is summed up in the TiLT Manifesto which proposes “a new parenting paradigm, one that embraces difference and uniqueness in children, says no to fear and guilt and isolation, and celebrates and supports our kids, and us, in our experience.”

What’s the take home message? Parents of children who are different can make a conscious decision to stop trying to parent the child they thought and dreamed they would have and instead parent the child they do have. It’s hard, because we all have expectations about what parenting will bring and it’s tough to let that image go. It takes a lot of courage to accept that what might be best for your family is to reject what everyone else is doing. Forget about traditional school and team sports. Stop trying to “fix” your child and help them fit in and instead try to change your child’s environment to fit them.

Debbie is an inspiration. We can’t all move overseas and home-school like Debbie does, but there is wisdom to be gained from her story and great information on her website. Check it out.

 

Brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

As adults we respect and admire the accomplishments of renegades and creative minds like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Nikolai Tesla, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Vincent van Gogh, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg, and Robin Williams. They’re the inventors, imaginers, healers, explorers, creators, and inspirers who change the world. Without minds like theirs society would not move forward. We need them more than ever today.

But these very same individuals, as children, were the kinds of student teachers found most difficult, parents worried about and lost sleep over, and whose peers scorned or bullied them. Why? For the very same qualities that made them so successful as adults. Being different, rebelling against the status quo, refusing (or being constitutionally unable) to fit in, breaking or questioning the rules.

Most parents want their children to be happy, make friends, and do well in school and extracurricular activities like sports and music. Down the road they want them to get into a good college and launch a career that supports them and provides job satisfaction. Get married, have a family. Maybe they will even make a meaningful contribution to society.

But what many parents don’t realize or lose sight of in the trenches of elementary, middle, and high school is that for some children – especially twice-exceptional and gifted children – being “successful” in traditional ways as a child is not necessarily a good predictor of being successful as an adult.

I was guilty of this kind of myopic thinking as a parent myself, before an encounter made me rethink my values. My children were happy and had friends before formal schooling began, but once they started Kindergarten things began to go downhill. Teachers sent home notices about their behavior (inattentive, questioned authority, lacking focus, failed to complete assignments, etc.). Grades were spotty. Playdate invitations were less frequent than they would have liked. Uninterested in and not very good at organized sports, they were basically off the grid in terms of the kinds of extracurricular interests their peers were engaging in. The things they did like to do – building and taking things apart for my son and imagination and telling stories for my daughter – weren’t easily shared with peers and certainly didn’t give them any attention in the community. They were diagnosed with giftedness, learning disabilities, and ADHD, and I spent countless nights lying awake in bed worrying about their futures.

My “awakening” happened after an elementary school band concert when my then 4th grade daughter was called to the stage to play a clarinet solo she’d practiced for weeks in front of about 200 people. She stood there for a full minute rifling through her music and then said: “I’m afraid I forgot my sheet music for the piece I was supposed to play. So I think it’s appropriate under the circumstances to play “If I Only Had a Brain” by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.” I’m embarrassed to say now that I was mortified. I had hoped she’d play her piece brilliantly, reflecting glory on me as her proud parent. After the concert a man in front of me turned around and complimented her performance. I said, “Thank you – you’re too kind. It would have been nice if she had done the piece she practiced.” He responded: “You should be proud to have a daughter who can think on her feet, improvise, and deal creatively and with humor with the cards she’s been dealt. That’s much more important in the long run.” His words brought me up short.

I thought about it a lot. I realized I had wanted my child to excel in ways others in our community would judge to be impressive. How shallow of me! I had also been trying to shape her into some image in my mind of the “perfect” child. Top student, accomplished musician, popular, athletic. My own (questionable) values had gotten in the way of my appreciating my daughter for who she was and seeing the unique strengths she did possess. Inventive. Confident. Creative. Funny. Smart.

This was about the same time I went back to school for a PhD, so I was able to study motivation and achievement from a developmental perspective. I learned that the many of the attributes it takes to be a “successful” young student (compliance, diligence, eagerness to please, ability to memorize) are quite different from those required to be a successful older student and adult (challenging the status quo, intrinsic motivation, pursuit of one’s own interests, open-mindedness, a questioning mind). I also learned that individuals who pursue their genuine interests – and don’t let themselves be influenced by what everyone else is doing – are more successful as adults. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on the joy of experiencing “flow” and how flow is also associated with achievement were particularly inspiring. I learned that popularity through high school is negatively correlated with achievement in most fields for girls. And, as students move through school the demands shift from more lower-level tasks like memorization of math facts and tidy handwriting to higher-level tasks like reading complex text and understanding it. Thomas West’s ground-breaking book In the Mind’s Eye (1997) about creativity in visual thinkers was the first to get me thinking about the possibility that even having a “disability” could confer certain advantages. Now I’m a firm believer that being wired differently can enable certain “superpowers” that most people can’t tap into in the same way.

Children who are “different” have enormous potential. As parents, we should try to keep the long-view in sight. Applaud and develop our children’s individuality. Encourage their pursuit of unusual interests and passions. Let them know we value them the way they are, and don’t want them to try to be like everyone else. It may take courage, but the results are worth it. Our misfits, rebels, trouble-makers, and square pegs in round holes may be the ones who change the world.