by Ellen Doman
I work with children all around the world who are having difficulties learning, typically due to issues with auditory processing and working memory. These children come to us with many different labels and diagnoses but when it comes to education the significant factor is processing, the relative weakness of the short-term auditory memory and the correlating weakness of the working memory and executive function. A huge compounding issue, however, is the absolute wrong mindedness of the curriculum approach.
I sometimes think that the people designing the curriculum that I see in countries around the world have never actually worked with a diverse group of students. Not only are these curriculum approaches wrong-minded but there are a thousand different things we could be teaching these children instead of wasting time dragging them through educational approaches that do not make sense.
I can take a year, and have, attempting to alter this wrong curriculum approach to make some sense to a child with a processing delay and we end the year with the child having the weakest understanding of what he just “learned” and very little knowledge of anything else. Why are we doing this? The educational approaches used in the fifties, the much-maligned mastery curriculum approach, taught the basics of reading and math in a very concrete manner. Children, in fact, spent an entire school year mastering individual steps in mathematics. In the meantime, because the teaching of math was clear-cut and we were not teaching five different ways to solve one problem or piling language into what is basically a visual task, there was time for literature and the building of vocabulary as well as learning a great deal about our world.
We read whole books and lots of them. The teachers took time and read to us. It was a wonderfully rich input of language. We didn’t spend time working on written expression until we had a great foundation in literature modeling for us how language should and could be used. We weren’t asked to interpret the motivation of the characters until high school. We weren’t writing paragraphs about how problems in stories compared to each other so much as reading and listening to more stories and poetry. As a result of this enriched auditory environment, we became good listeners and readers with strong vocabularies. This approach allowed and enabled our processing to develop. It gave us time to build better working memory and executive function. There was a lot of what we call input and a lot less output.
Now I can look back on the amount of literature we were exposed to, the level of our vocabularies at a young age, and the habit of reading and understanding what we read, and I marvel at it. Take a look at one of the common short stories for students in those days, stories by Washington Irving. You’ll laugh or cry at the level of vocabulary that was commonly understood by students. Not only did we understand the vocabulary, we were entertained by it.
As we work to try to pull struggling students through a curriculum that baffles many parents, we end up not teaching them so many other things that are interesting and relevant. Children love learning Geography. It’s fun and easy to teach. It’s interesting if taught well and surely it is relevant to this world in which we live. Children love to learn about Science if they can see what it is about and how it works and impacts on their day-to-day life. The world is fascinating and waiting to be discovered by each generation. Children with processing challenges are at little to no disadvantage when it comes to learning so very many interesting things about our world. Why aren’t we teaching it to them in a way that they can learn it? Why are we withholding the world in favor of attempting to teach five different ways to do a long division problem particularly when the child could have learned ONE way to do it in about 5 minutes?
How many great books are the children missing? Listening to books is one of many ways that we build vocabulary, auditory attention and an understanding of grammar. Reading content that is interesting and adds new vocabulary gradually serves multiple purposes. Whether we are teaching Fibonacci numbers in nature which is so much fun, or where a comet goes when it leaves our galaxy, or how battles were won and lost, or what the bones in a whale look like we are teaching a love of learning, a curiosity about the world and an increased ability to think and learn. Intensity has a huge impact on learning. It is an essential part of learning.
Let’s face it. If a child doesn’t succeed at math and isn’t successful in reading and building vocabulary, then we haven’t succeeded in preparing that child for adult life. In addition, if we don’t present that child with a world that is full of wonders, problems, and a vastness to be explored, we have boxed them in to a smaller existence and more limited possibilities. It is essential for children with processing difficulties to get help improving this processing and while we are doing this it should be the right of every child to be educated well.
We are on the wrong path and a lot of us know that. Let’s fix it.