Learning Disabilities: diagnosing what’s wrong or discovering what works?

Nancy’s art classes were famous for helping students of all ages discover their creativity, and in the process, become proficient at using a variety of media to express their artistic visions. But, Harry, age 10, was a challenge for her. He plunged into each project energetically and worked quickly with great focus, but after fifteen minutes would lose interest. Encouraging him to stick with it did not work.

When Harry’s mother told Nancy he had ADHD, her first reaction was why didn’t you tell me sooner? Her second was to decide that since Harry was incapable of staying with a project longer than 15 minutes, she would allow him to quit in the middle and move on to something else.

This strategy, however, proved frustrating; Nancy could see it was not helping Harry develop his considerable artistic ability. She began to search for an alternative approach.

She discovered it in her own practice of journaling, a way to give the mind a chance to process artistic ideas freed from the need for a PRODUCT.


That day she introduced her new approach to the class. “The mind is a much more powerful tool than we know, and we often fail to use all the power we have because we allow ourselves to get into ruts. Today, I want to give you a new discipline—a technique for getting out of mental ruts. I want you to work on your project for 15 minutes and then stop, open your journals and write or draw in them for at least 10 minutes and then go back to your project.”

All the students, including Harry, got down to work. After fifteen minutes Nancy said, “O.K. go to your journals.” Of course, this time Harry was not ready to stop. Nancy gave it five more minutes and then said, “O.K. Everyone should be in their journals now.” She had to go over to three students (including Harry) to get them to take their journal break (which is what she was already calling it.)

After ten minutes of journaling she invited the students to go back to their art projects; some, including Harry stayed in their journals. Five minutes more, and Nancy told them to again go back to their art projects. At the end of the 90- minute period, Harry held up his finished painting, beaming with delight.

Epilogue: The next day in math class, when Harry got stuck on a math problem, he asked his teacher if he could write in his journal, and she agreed.

Of course, the game is not over. Harry is still learning better ways to create works of art and Nancy is still designing disciplines to help Harry learn. But Nancy is playing the right game, and Harry is learning.

What are the ingredients of success?
a) Nancy’s puzzlement at Harry’s brain
b) Nancy’s trial-and-error process
c) Noticing and respecting how Harry naturally worked
d) Thinking that what might work for Harry might also work for the class
e) Perseverance
f) Hearing that Harry has ADHD

All of the above, of course, but the least of these is “f.”

Mel Levine, founder of All Kinds of Minds, used to say “Go directly from description to prescription. Skip diagnosis.” Maybe skipping diagnosis is too radical an idea given the way school systems work, but what is more valuable, finding a name for what’s wrong, or helping a student discover what works? A teacher’s job is to help students get their brains to work for them; the curriculum is the vehicle for making this happen.

A teacher’s job is to help students get their brains to work for them; the curriculum is the vehicle for making this happen.

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10 Responses to Learning Disabilities: diagnosing what’s wrong or discovering what works?

  1. Jeremy Davidson says:

    Nancy broke up the class session into digestible chunks, which is a great strategy for many learners, and in doing so, she gave Harry a tool to try out in Math class. One feature of ADHD that gets less press than distractibility, impulsivity or inattention is hyperfocus. In product-oriented lessons and activities, hyperfocus can coexist with—or masquerade among—the quiet diligence of other students. Moreover, Harry’s abilities to self-monitor and advocate for himself in Math class are the real winners here. Self-awareness, self-monitoring, and strengthened self-concept as a learner are but a few of the most important tools that Harry will take with him throughout his life. It is our job as educators to give him opportunities to develop and practice using those tools.

  2. Molly Leith says:

    This is such a great resource, Thank you!

  3. Rick says:

    it’s nice to be in a community of such educators. Thank you.

  4. Erika Lipkes says:

    After checking out your website, I am going to pass it along and share it with my Mills colleagues. I love this story about how Nancy realized that the artistic process was more important than the end product. As an artist, it is really important to find your process and understand how you work. In my own process, I learn starting from a technical approach to art (develop craft). I need to understand how to use the materials and techniques of a given medium before I can feel free to express my own creativity. Every student is a unique and individual learner, and it is the task of the teacher to “psychologize” the subject matter, as according to John Dewey. Dewey says that we need to represent the subject in various ways that are relevant to our students’ lives. In Nancy’s case, she found a way for her students to reflect on their own process through journaling. Journaling allows the students to reflect on how the art is significant to their own lives and tracks their learning process. Journals are a useful tool for the teacher as well, as the journals become to assess what kind of learners their students are: what they are becoming frustrated with, what things they enjoy, what is working/not working, etc.

    Any thoughts to add?

  5. Rick says:

    Thank you. What an excellent response. How nice for you to note that “Relevant to our students’ lives” is, in Harry’s case, how his brain works. Indeed what could be more relevant to Harry (as well as to his teachers.)

  6. What struck me most about this post is that’s exactly how I work in my own studio–taking periodic journalling breaks in order to release emotion and tension in my mind that may be getting in the way of the creative process (rarely to write about the paintings themselves).
    What a stroke of genius on Nancy’s part to recognize that this natural part of her own routine might be just what this child needed–and probably many others in the class. It might be interesting to observe this journaling art class over a period of time and see how everyone’s work grew!

  7. Rick says:

    Thank you, yes. And when it comes to apparent “learning disabilities” might there be other disciplines in many subjects that teachers could try. If one behavior that presents as a learning disability can lead to new teaching techniques that work for many kids, could it be the tip of a ice berg? Might there be many disciplines that teachers could devise that would help kids through learning challenges?

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  9. Corey March says:

    I have ADHD and so does my grandfather (a man at the top of his field http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nevin_scrimshaw). I have never treated it like a disability and he was part of a generation that didn’t know it existed. There is a tendancy to label all learning differences like ADHD as handicaps similar to something like down syndrome and treat them the same. I’m glad this teacher was able to find a better way of working around it.

    My own has been to acknowledge that the brain is hyperactive and needs somewhere to “bounce”. If you bounce mentally away from the task at hand, there is the potential to just kindof bounce off into the corner. The coping mechanism I use (and the teacher used in a way and my grandfather uses) is to have a place ready to bounce to. A two-part or multifaceted activity, music playing, or in the case of my grandfather, old musicals playing on the tv while he writes his papers and speeches.

    The two-part activity means that suddenly this isn’t a handicap- it’s an ability to multi-task. If there is space to do that (as this teacher made) then one can stay productive.

    As an artist, I always have at least two art projects I’m working on at the same time, and they are usually multifaceted. That way I never get stuck and lose studio time. Also, I always listen to music while I work.

    I’ve seen parents and teachers take away things like music from ADHD kids because to the teacher it seems distracting… but it may be that it’s an essential part of their process. I think the key is to remember that different thing work for different people.

  10. Rick says:

    Thank you for this elaboration. I have always thought it might be better named: attentional surplus, and you right, it is not a deficit or a disorder, just a gift to learn how to use and master. As Mel Levine used to say: “Don’t diagnose. Go directly from description to prescription.”

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