By Sharon Hensley, MA
Almaden Valley Christian School
each child’s learning problem is unique, almost all children with
learning difficulties share the characteristic of a passive learning
Do you ever feel that your teaching goes in one ear and out the
other? Have you ever felt
like you’ve reviewed the basics so many times that you should be
awarded a PhD in “3rd Grade Studies”?
If so – you may be dealing with a passive learner.
Although each child’s learning problem is unique, almost all
children with learning difficulties share the characteristic of a
passive learning style. By
passive learning, I mean that most children with learning problems
wait for information to walk up on its own, hit their heads, and sink
into their memories without any effort on their part.
This, of course, rarely happens!
But passive learners don’t recognize that an alternative way
of learning exists. This passive style of learning may only be evident in a
mildly learning disabled child in their struggle areas. In more severely handicapped children, we can see this
problem across all learning situations.
How can we as teachers combat the passive tendencies of our
children? In this
article, I am going to discuss three principles to help activate your
passive learner. These principles are: Discuss
Learning Realities, Develop Passions, Demand Active Thinking.
Now, none of these principles are magical cures to your
child’s learning issues, but consistently applied, they can improve
your child’s overall learning and memory.
I have even used these principles with my severely autistic
daughter and have seen the benefits.
The place to start is with the facts.
It is important that your child have an understanding of the
effort involved in learning and the specific difficulties their own
learning problems cause in the learning process.
It has always amazed me how many learning disabled children
truly believe that “everyone else just knows stuff” and that other
people do not have to work at learning.
It is very important for these children to understand that
learning requires effort for everyone – not just them.
One analogy I have found successful is to compare our brain
with a computer. The
computer can be plugged in, turned on and have all the right software;
but it doesn’t have any information unless someone sits down and
does the work to put the information into the computer.
Our brains are like that too.
The brain is turned on, but we have to do the work to put
information into it. After
we’ve done the work of putting the information in, however, we
aren’t done. We also
have to save the information so it will be there when we come back to
work again. On the
computer, we can click the save icon, but our brains don’t have a
save button – we have to think of ways to help our brain remember
and save information (this is called a memory strategy!).
Obviously, this analogy only goes so far, and has to be adapted
for younger children. However,
the idea behind it – that learning takes work - is the point that
each of our children need to be reminded of.
In addition to discussing the need to be active in the learning
process, children need to understand something about their own
learning difficulties. Many
parents worry that if they tell their child about his learning
disability that the child will use this as an excuse for not trying.
My experience, however, is that this is usually not the case.
Most kids already know that they don’t read as well as their
sister or cousin. They
already have a sense that school is more difficult for them than for
others. But without
adequate information, they will often assume their learning problem to
be far worse than it really is. For
children with mild attention and learning problems, I highly recommend
Dr. Mel Levine’s books, “All Kinds of Minds” and “Keeping A
Head in School” (www.avcsbooks.com).
Both give very good explanations of learning difficulties aimed
at helping children understand how their brains work.
As we explain their learning difficulties to our kids, it is
important that we acknowledge to them that we understand how hard
learning is for them. We
need to let them know we are on their team and will do whatever we can
to support them. But we need to be honest too.
We need to help them see that working through their difficult
areas will be hard, but that doesn’t mean we can just skip those
areas or tasks. Their
learning challenges are something that God can and will use in their
lives to make them into the person He intends for them to be, so they
can’t just be avoided or ignored.
At the same time that we help our kids take ownership of their
learning challenges, we also need to help them see their own strengths
and learn how to capitalize on them.
By helping our children identify and develop the areas that
they are good at and passionate about, we give them an avenue for
active learning that can actually teach them HOW to learn effectively.
Since it is always easier to learn something when we are
motivated and actively engaged, we can use the interests of our
children to help them better understand how they learn best.
If a child has an interest in a particular area (for example,
baseball), you can help him see that he is capable of learning.
And you can ask him to think through HOW he learns a new play
or a new strategy. Basically,
you use your child’s strength to help them understand their own
You can also use an area of interest to make difficult learning
areas more “palatable.” Reading,
writing and research subjects (such as history) can be done using an
area of interest instead of standard textbooks or readers.
I used this approach with one of my daughters who was a
somewhat unmotivated learner. Her
passion was (and is) horses and much of her school work used this
passion to help her maintain her interest.
Today, she has her own business as a horse trainer and lesson
instructor. So you never
know if a passion will turn into a career!
Once you have had the “understanding” talk and have done
what is reasonable to make learning more meaningful, it is time to dig
in your heels and demand maximum thinking effort from your student.
Although we have touched on the concept of “activating the
brain,” we are now referring to something more specific.
Namely, that your student not only KNOW about active learning,
but that he now APPLY these ideas to specific learning situations.
If you have a severely handicapped child, you may not think
this is possible, but on a very basic level it is possible with any
child. But the real key
to achieving this type of learning for our students is that we as
teachers have to combat the temptation to be “passive teachers” as
well. By this I mean we
don’t give answers, but instead help our children develop thinking,
memory and learning strategies.
Fighting the tendency to be passive teachers is actually harder
than it sounds. When we,
as teachers, set specific goals for our students to achieve, it is
tempting to “help” the child achieve the goal by supplying too
much help, too many cues, or even the answers when they are
struggling. Since it is
easy to take our worth as teachers from the successful achievement of
goals, we may not even notice what we are doing.
Often, when people bring a child for me to work with while they
observe, the first thing they try and do is jump in and help the child
perform well for me. But
when I tell them that I need to see what the student knows without
help, it suddenly occurs to most mothers how much their child only
“knows” because of the cues or help he receives from mom!
When that is the case, we immediately start developing a plan
for increasing independent thinking and memory strategies.
Of course, there is a place for direct teaching.
We certainly do give our students the correct answers and
information when we first introduce a skill or concept.
But we need to combat the tendency to make this the only type
of teaching they receive. Let
me share a model of active teaching/learning that will help make this
balance more clear. It is
the “Watch-Do-Teach” model.
There is a TV series you may have see with medical students on
the show being taught with this model.
The idea is that the students watch a procedure once, do the
procedure with supervision the next time, then teach the procedure to
another student. Now, that is a much faster learning time line than our
learning challenged children could cope with!
But let’s look at the concept beyond the speed and we will
see that it gives us an exceptional teaching model.
First of all, WATCH reminds us that we need to give direct
instruction of new material. For
many of our kids, we also have to continue to give direct instruction
of previously taught material because of memory issues (repetition is
the key word for many of our kids!).
However, if we stop here, we are not activating our learners.
The next step, DO, reminds us that we need to stop after the
initial explanation and ask our student to demonstrate that he can do
what was just taught. In
addition, the DO step should also involve challenging the student to
think through the process of how he is going to remember what was
learned. The more severe
our child’s handicap, the more limited he will be at this step, but
even very severe children can be taught basic memory skills.
The final step, TEACH, is vital to the active learning process.
In this stage we are reminded that when our child says “I
don’t know how to do this,” that our first response should be to
challenge them to figure out how they can remind themselves of the
process that was previously learned.
This may involve thinking of the memory strategy that was
discussed the day before or thinking of how to look up an example of
the process (perhaps in previous work or in a reference material).
The possibilities at this point are endless because the student
is being challenged to think and take an active role in his learning.
Let me give two specific examples of these steps using a
severely handicapped student (my autistic, mentally retarded daughter,
Alison) and a mildly Learning Disabled student.
When I have used this teaching formula with Alison, I had to
stay very basic. For
example, if I was introducing new reading words, I would start with
WATCH by taking her through each word sound by sound and then teaching
her the sign (she is non-verbal).
For DO, I would then have her read the new story which
contained the words I had just introduced.
If she did not remember a new word when we came to it, I would
remind her that this was a new word and ask her to think of the new
words we had just worked on. Then
I would have her finger spell the word while I sounded out each sound.
Once she signed the correct sign, I would have her spell and
sign the word again to reinforce it.
Later in the week, when these new words came up again in
reading, the TEACH stage would be used, but in a modified way.
Since Alison could not articulate memory strategies, I would
have her spell any words that she did not remember and then ask her to
try and think of the word by reading the sentence to her without the
word to see if she could use context to figure it out.
Then we might play a matching game to reinforce the words and
For a child with less severe difficulties the process would be
basically the same except at the TEACH stage.
If I was teaching a math concept, for example, I would teach it
and demonstrate it, then ask the student to show me that he could do a
couple of problems without help while I watched.
After that, if he had questions, I would ask him to go back to
the problems he had already done and explain the process to me.
If he couldn’t, I would re-teach it, ask him to do it again
and ask him to explain it as he did the problem.
I would then challenge him to think of HOW he was going to
remember the process for the next time (and yes – looking at an
example IS an acceptable way of reminding yourself how to do
something!). If you need
a good resource for teaching memory strategies check out “HELP for
Memory” from Linguisystems (www.linguisystems.com).
As I said at the beginning, this is not a magic formula.
As with all good teaching, it requires work on our part and on
the part of our children. However,
as we become more active teachers we learn that we help our children
the most when we stop helping them too much!
Hensley has a Masters in Special Education and is director of Almaden
Valley Christian School, a home education service in Morgan Hill, CA for families of children with learning
differences, difficulties and disabilities.
Sharon is also a homeschooling mom of three and author.