Much of my academic career has been as an educator teaching and mentoring bright learning “disabled” students whose capabilities of managing in a tightly prescribed world of standardized tests and lecture formatted, static classroom teaching environments, are always challenged. My early learning curve in understanding what the LD student has to put up with was virtually vertical. I had no previous experience with such learners, or if I had, I was oblivious to their difficulties, the stressors they had to endure, and the exhausting experience of keeping up.
No doubt, there were many such students in various classes I took as I was growing up and I don’t doubt that some of these “marginalized” students were the very one’s who sat as far away from the teacher as possible. Those of us who liked being up front, visible and affirmed by the teacher, looked at them as disinterested or bored or comic kids, some not very bright it seemed; many who ended up being constantly put back or not advancing to the next grade. That was the world of my generation. Such was the disdain we had. And at the same time we had a thoughtless disregard for their feelings and circumstances. Looking back on it now with some shame and sorrow, we at the time knew very little about their inner struggles, about their feelings and psychic exhaustion – only seeing them as the class clowns or the troublemakers.
It has been only in the past 30 years as a teacher and administrator working in a remarkable secondary school (whose mission was to work with these remarkable young men and women) and now as a mentor to high school and college students, LD and non-LD) – have I come to understand what a complex, non-linear process learning in all its forms, actually is. I was schooled in an older, traditional model. Repetitio est mater studiorum (learn by repetition and memory) was the mantra of my education. Rote and dusty. I still loved most of it because what I learned was interesting and I was pretty good a rote learning (as opposed to thinking). Such learning worked as proof in preparation for the SAT’s, but it was generally a vacuous, and insubstantial means for becoming an “fully-educated person”.
What I have learned as teacher however, is that the “teaching” techniques best suited for adolescents, whether LD or non-LD, are of the experiential kind; learning by doing and integrating multiple academic disciplines and skills as they would be blended in the lives we would actually live after leaving the academic world to live and work in the World.
Learning by doing, collaborating and mutual problem solving is an amazing tonic for all students, especially effective for the LD student who often has amazing capabilities that traditional learning modes do little to tap into.
It is an interesting note that some of the “best and brightest” students from some of the “best” independent boarding schools have for many years had the option to go off to “experiential sites” such as farms and natural mountain settings (managed by a consortium of those schools) for semester long academic experiential “schooling”. In this experiential environment they learn their English, mathematics, writing, various sciences, and cultural/ historical studies by living in a community that blends ideas and applications, making the reason for school much more tangible and meaningful to those adolescent minds which thrive on “the doing” and “thinking” blend. This is true learning with its incorporation of ideas, facts, applied experimentation, group collaboration, individual and joint critical thinking and problem solving, and the natural development of understanding through experience; the hallmark of how the adolescent mind learns and thrives.
This experiential learning flies in the face of the “industrial educational model which the “modern” American educational system is still recovering from, a hang-over from an outmoded economic model.
The viability of the future American culture will be dependent on adopting much more robust experiential learning, in which all students can thrive. This model is a form of learning that LD students are good at, no matter if they are dyslexic, ADD/ADHD, or slower processors as well as those that struggle with social integration. And because thinking outside of the box is a much more common phenomena for the LD student, it is ideal for innovation and creativity which adds value to the non-LD student’s experience and forces then to think more creatively and broadly.
The future of the next generation and of the American culture will hang on the abilities of a majority of students (LD and non-LD) to adapt, experiment, practice success through trial, error (failure), learning how to be independent thinkers; creators who are fluid, flexible and resilient in what with be a very complex future of rapid and profound change. To pull this off, all students will need create careers founded on fluid and short-lived, project based cohorts with special talents of thinking and application, to address specific challenges and the broader long-term dramatic issues of their time.
It is really now the time for the academic establishment to articulate a vision of the future and a means to achieve that vision through true innovative teaching and dynamic learning for all. It is doable. It just requires courage and self-less leadership from all of the communities, at all levels. This is something a real America, “the City on the Hill” should be able to do. We’ll see……