Thursday, November 01, 2007

How do we learn how to learn?

How do we learn how to learn? It seems like an odd question to ask. But it's one that I've been mulling over in the context with my younger son. With a learning profile similar to his brother's (and mine, for that matter), he struggles with organizing and consolidating what he knows.

If you want to put a label on his profile, the alphabet soup that the psychologist came up with is "NLD", or non-verbal learning disability.

In practice, what this means is he has trouble when:
  • the work moves from the concrete to the abstract,
  • an assignment is ambiguous,
  • he is given a complex project that must be broken into component parts,
  • he must organize and synthesize information
In elementary school, he did well academically because the learning was almost always more concrete than abstract, the assignments specific (easier when the only demands come from a single teacher), the projects organized for him, and models of finished work provided. This year, he started middle school and moved into a larger building with 4 times the number of students and moved from 1 main teacher to 6 teachers.

He is a bright young man, articulate, eager to learn, and with an enormous memory. To any teacher, he looks the model of a successful student.

His social studies teacher contacted me last week because he had received two consecutive 0% on geography quizzes. The teacher asked my son why he thought he had done so poorly and my son's answer was that he didn't have time to study.

That's not really the problem. The problem is he doesn't understand what studying is, nor does he know how to do it. It took me a little bit to figure this out. I watched him attempt to study his geography. What he would do was stare at maps for a good half hour to forty five minutes and declare himself done.

Today, I hit on a metaphor that I hope was helpful to him. If you are target shooting and want to hit a bull's eye, you would want to use a pistol versus a shotgun. The pistol is more accurate. With the shotgun, you could pepper the target with shot and hope that maybe one of them would hit the bull's eye. That's how he was studying. Look at everything, but without having the context, and hope that he would answer the test question right.

I taught him a 3 step process to studying today:

1--Define the target
Find out what material you are responsible for learning for the next test. Be specific. "I need to identify all the major rivers in western Europe" is more specific than "I have to know the geography of Europe."

Practice, staying focused on the specifics that you'll need to know. Study actively, not passively, ie, *do* something rather than just read. Answer practice test questions or use a sample map, for example, to fill in the blanks.

3--Assess Look at the how much of the material you got right. For example, returning to your atlas, look at the number of Rivers you answered correctly and those you answered incorrectly. Highlight your wrong answers and go back to step one. These are your new targets.

This is probably obvious to many, many children. It's just not to my child. His mind hopscotches all over the place, following thoughts that interest him. This, to my thinking, is a good thing. He is highly creative and takes imaginative leaps. However, he needs to learn how to do the more systematic thinking or risk failing in school.

I wish someone had taken the time to teach me study and learning skills. It would have saved a lot of heartbreak in college and graduate school.

1 comment:

Alyric said...

Sounds like excellent advice and it really is not obvious that the methods of organisation are not immediately self-evident to brains that like to wander and like to examine all the details before coming to a conclusion. Also - from my experience - the forms of testing and how to do them successfully need to be addressed. My child was completely mystified by multiple choice until the mechanics were explained.