Teaching Children: Adjustment to Individual Differences

After I blogged about my belief that a good teacher tries to bring out what is inside their students (not just transfer brain contents), a reader named Terri Fites commented:

We homeschool, and I see lots of what you said in my kids.

I asked her to elaborate. She replied:

Here is where I learned the most starting on day one of kindergarten with my first child five years ago; it is my job to identify strengths, weaknesses, and to help the learner achieve the goal using what they can. For example, I was embarrassed and appalled that my first child didn’t read or show any interest in reading to herself until about second grade (7 years old). However, I continued to provide the necessary environment–reading wonderful books aloud, having her read a sentence from our selections, occasionally forcing her to read from her own readers. She had a great verbal understanding and would listen to anything I read aloud to her. Eventually, slowly, she transitioned and has NO issues with reading now. Her strength is verbal understanding and listening comprehension. Her weakness is focus on her own activities and sitting still.

My second child came along and was strong in different ways that I had to discover and appreciate. Her verbal skills, although perfectly normal, are not her strength, but music rises out of her at every moment. Clearly we have to do more than music. Using this strength, I make sure to provide plenty of musical CDs in Spanish for Spanish (which she struggles with–we have had tutors come for years with the intent the girls become fluent). We memorize and recite poetry routinely as part of our lessons, and she “sets” hers to song/music. When we do math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication flash cards), she does best if she hears them in a sing-song voice. Her strengths are effort, music, rhythm, and art. Her weaknesses are verbal reasoning and remembering verbal types of things (not so prominent in math and geography skills so her spatial and math skills overcome this problem remembering things).

I would say, particularly in elementary school, that although the reading, writing, and arithmetic skills needed should not be optional–the timing of learning them and the method of learning them ought to be fluid to a degree. Everybody should learn to read but we’re losing kids because they’re not developmentally ready until second or third grade for some of these verbal/reading things. By then the bulk of the spelling and phonics rules have been expected to have been learned and the child is probably destined to be a poor speller, decoder, and poor at reading aloud. (This would be my husband. Obviously he was able to overcome this, but his spelling and read aloud are not pleasant. He says he remembers the year when words and reading just started coming together for him. Unfortunately, that was fifth grade. Did he need to learn to read and spell then in fifth grade!? I’d argue NO! But, in this case, recognition of a child/type of child is important. He is very, very logical, and the way that spelling/phonics is taught now/then is NOT so logical. A rule is given here. It is broken here. It is ignored here. No explanation is given. A kid learns long A as a_e here or -ay there, but not all the other combinations that make the long A sound– and certainly not all together in a lesson sequence!!!: ea, ae, ei, eigh, ai, etc. The logical child gives up. There are programs out there like Orton Gillingham, for example, designed to teach the “rules” of English in such a logical manner. Or I design my own curriculum. But this is not an option for most school teachers. Autonomy is being denied.) And now, multiplication is being moved forward in school grades, too. And analytical, thinking math is being moved forward. I think we’ll lose students! Good students! “I’m no good at math.” Geesh. Because you can’t do story problems in second grade? Because you’re still mastering the facts and you’re being pushed into application too early?

6 Replies to “Teaching Children: Adjustment to Individual Differences”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve long held a belief that we should do away with fixed time lengths for grades (as in, Third Grade is a nine month length of time). This doesn’t make any sense, and we don’t need a very advanced appreciation of different learning styles to understand this. Some kids learn math relatively faster than others, some develop reading comprehension faster, etc. We should split up reading, writing, math into separate classes. When a student displays mastery of a certain level of, say, math, that student moves on to the next level of math. It shouldn’t matter whether that mastery is achieved at the same time as other students, or whether it takes one month or 18 months. Moving between levels should be fluid. Any given math class may contain older students who are learning math at a relatively slower pace, and younger students who are learning math at a relatively quicker pace.

    Additional benefit: outlier students learning any particular subjects at extremely slow rates can much more easily be identified and assisted, then would be the case when a block of students move from grade level to grade level every year, all together, in all subjects, at the same time.

    A system like this should theoretically work fairly well until high school, when students begin selecting their own courses and specializing with languages, arts, AP courses, etc.

    1. I skipped fourth grade but it shouldn’t have taken such a massive dislocation to make the work challenging for me. Likewise, I remember one student was held back a grade. That was awful. I still remember what a good artist he was. Much better to start with the idea that everybody has their own strengths and their own speed.

  2. Reply of davids sounds great! Why can’t it be done this way? Seth’s reply reminds me of how I don’t allow my kids to use the word “smart.” Makes me cringe. They can say…John knows his chemistry or Janie plays piano like a champ or Sally uses the biggest words I have ever heard. But not “smart.” That artistic student described could draw anything and Seth could obviously spell well, read well, and get all his math work right–each child “smart” in their own right. Sadly, both probably felt so alienated by the handling of their strengths by the academic institution.

  3. first child didn’t read or show any interest in reading to herself until about second grade (7 years old)

    FWIW, that’s the Finnish model. Waldorf too. Students of both systems seem to do OK for themselves.

    The standard American education model seems to have the idea that brains are empty buckets into which we pour knowledge at some pre-ordained and invariate, X. Ergo, if we want smarter people we must begin pouring knowledge sooner. Of course, the truth is smarter people are able to learn and remember at rates far greater than X, multiples in the case of geniuses. And dumber people retain at rates far below X. And then there is the difference in capacities. Finally, on top of those, as Terri’s story illustrates, different people learn and remember things differently depending on how the material is presented and conveyed.

    It’s all so messy when your goal is to use early 20th century mass production techniques to optimize throughput.

  4. davids: what you’re describing is pretty much the Montessori method used by the elementary school my daughter attended in the Netherlands. Each child works independently, either individually or in small groups of two or three, on modules of math, reading, etc., which are identified by colors and flora/fauna rather than any visible hierarchy (1, 2, or A, B, etc.). The teacher checks your progress when you’ve finished the green fish module in math, for instance, and tells you to go on to the pink tulips. Each child progresses at their own pace, with as much help from the teacher as they need. First through third grade are all in the same room, working through the same modules. Of course this is very demanding of the teachers!

  5. I liked this story. One of my sisters could read before first grade, the other struggled for some time. They are both of them very smart, and very different, individuals.

    Not too long ago it occurred to me that the educational system in this country is a disaster. I went from being generally against home schooling in most circumstances to supportive of it in most circumstances. It’s not the teachers, the vast majority want to be good teachers, but even great teachers in our system are only allowed to be good. Nor do I think that the upcoming for-profit reforms will improve things for most kids.

    So when I heard my nephew will be home schooled, I thought, great.

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