How Teachers Should Research a Student’s “Learning Disability”

“I think Malcolm has a learning disability,” said second grade teacher Barbara one day in my office. “He can’t seem to get 25 – 16. I have taught him six different ways to do it. He just can’t get it. I think we should get him tested.”

“Well, sounds like maybe you’re right. Give it a week and then set up a meeting with his parents. I’d like to be there. I’m curious.”
Three days later Barbara was back in my office with a big smile on her face. “He did it! He got 25 – 16.”
“Wow, terrific. Seventh time’s the charm. What did you do right?”

“I asked him. I asked him to tell me how he saw the problem, and as he was telling me, he solved it. I said, ‘Wow, you just discovered a way of solving that problem I never thought of. I am going to call it the Malcolm Method.'”
math tutor - Google SearchGood teachers know it’s their job to understand the learning styles of their students, and to challenge them appropriately. But when their teaching doesn’t “work,” and they get frustrated, standard procedure in American schooling includes having a child “evaluated” by a professional learning specialist.

Yet, while teachers know how limited their knowledge is, they should also know that “experts” are even more limited–actually the most ignorant of all. Someone who has only spent a couple of hours with a child in his office hasn’t seen the student in action in the classroom and hasn’t observed the action-research that a good teacher has been doing in her efforts to discover a student’s learning style.
All too often teachers and parents forget that their greatest resource in understanding a child is right in front of them: the child’s genius–his inner teacher, advisor and guide.

Barbara’s experience is a reminder to all that STEP ONE in any strategy is to look to the child’s genius first before bringing in an “expert” and diagnosing. The world’s leading authority on what kinds of challenges a child needs for the optimization of his education, is the child’s genius. Notice, engage, love and believe in the child’s genius.

If you don’t know how a child thinks, the first step is to ask him. 

Genius: Not a Rare Gift
Genius and the Raising of Smart People

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9 Responses to How Teachers Should Research a Student’s “Learning Disability”

  1. Julie Bragdon says:

    Great article Rick – and a good reminder to to ask the child first! thank you.

  2. Excellent. In fact, if all we did was expose our children to people who working on projects, or mastering a skill, or providing a service, or playing a game, etc., and ask them what they think, not only would we find out where they are and where they want to go, we would learn something about ourselves and what we know and want too. Learning, including skill development, works best as a partnership with a goal or purpose, and that is where the most valuable learning takes place. In a math teaching environment, so what if 25 – 16 = 9? If you are (because you want to be) a cashier in the classroom store, well, then it matters, and the answer will be not only learned, but the whole value of learning how to add and subtract will be learned as well.

    By the way, the teacher in the example became a partner as soon as she stopped teaching and starting learning. Thanks much for getting me to see so much in this.

  3. Christopher Imhof says:

    Hey Rick,
    We met at the NAIS conference. Hope all is well. Julie Bragdon has me linked to your page and Ive been finding a wealth of information; especially in regards to my own kids, over my students. Ive forwarded many of your articles to my wife, who is now quoting stuff to me from it. My talk was fair, although I had a big turn-out, and good reaction. I guess people not leaving in the middle or end indicates something. It was such a huge topic it probably is worth a dissertation or a book to synthesize the information and data in one place. Overall, glad it was over so I could enjoy the conference. Looking forward to connecting with you in the future, I’ll keep in touch.
    Christopher Imhof
    Montessori School of Denver

  4. Rick says:

    Thank you, Julie and Chris. You Montessori teachers certainly know about keeping the student in the driver’s seat. And Marty, I am glad you lit upon the idea that the teacher became a partner with the student when she started learning from him.

  5. Rick says:

    Chris, I would love to know what your wife is quoting to you.

  6. Laurie says:

    Hi Rick!
    I love the idea of asking children how they think and learning more about their unique problem solving strategies! Not only would this illuminate how they approach tasks at school, but this can allow us to more intimately know our children and marvel at how amazing they are! This should most definitely be a first step before evaluating for a learning disability. However, if this isn’t enough to resolve the issue, you have seemingly (and probably unintentionally) denigrated the work of the “experts” who may be involved in subsequent steps for identifying the problem. If I were the parent of a child having academic struggles and I read this article, I may have little confidence in and resist working with a leaning disability specialist if they are “the most ignorant of all.” This may have disastrous consequences for the child who truly has a learning issue. Rather than refer to these experts as ignorant, perhaps a better approach would be to educate people about the process of learning disability identification and what a good evaluation looks like – teacher/parent interview, class observation, testing, and, among many other things, asking the child how they are approaching the task! If your years working in education has resulted in the impression that these “experts” truly are ignorant, then on behalf of “experts” everywhere, I apologize that you haven’t had a more positive experience in learning what these specialists have to offer – especially as we work to uncover the child’s genius!

  7. Rick says:

    Laurie, Thank you. A) I stand corrected. That was a very important point most eloquently articulated.
    B) Outstanding example of how to deliver negative feedback.
    Thank you so much on both counts. You are a consummate professional.

  8. Susan says:

    When all else fails, go to the person who can do something about it.

  9. Rick says:

    Hmmm. Maybe you shouldn’t wait till all has failed, right?

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