Learner differences and learning needs

Language and Labels

Every child is a distinctive collection of talents, abilities, and limitations. Some students have learning disabilities, communication disorders, emotional or behavioral disorders, intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, impaired vision or difficulties hearing, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injury, remarkable gifts, and talents, or some combination. Even though we will use terms like these throughout the chapter, a caution is in order: Labeling students is a controversial issue

A label does not tell which methods to use with individual students. For example, few specific “treatments” automatically follow from a “diagnosis” of behavioral disorder; many different teaching strategies and materials are appropriate. Further, the labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Everyone—teachers, parents, classmates, and even the students themselves—may see a label as a stigma that cannot be changed. Evidence indicates, for example, that teachers and counselors guide student’s labeled learning disabled into less-demanding courses in high school. This may seem reasonable, but this guide to lower-level courses goes beyond what could be expected based on the students’ actual abilities.

Multiple Intelligences

While Howard Gardner was a developmental psychologist doing research with two very different groups—students who are artistically gifted at Harvard’s Project Zero and patients with brain injuries at Boston’s Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center—he started thinking about a new theory of intelligence. Time and time again at the VA Medical Center, Gardner observed brain-injured patients who were lost spatially but could do all kinds of verbal tasks and other patients who had the opposite set of abilities and problems. He also worked with young children at Project Zero who could draw expertly but not craft a good sentence and vice versa. Gardner concluded that there are several separate mental abilities and developed his now-famous theory of multiple intelligences (MI) which describes at least eight separate intelligence.

Multiple Intelligences: Lessons for Teachers

After years of work on his MI theory, Gardner believes two lessons are most important for teachers (2009). First, teachers should take the individual differences among students seriously and differentiate their instruction to connect with each student. Much of this book will help you do just that. Second, any discipline, skill, or concept should be taught in several appropriate ways (but not eight ways every time). Anything worth knowing has different representations and multiple connections to various ways of thinking. And understandings can be expressed in words, images, movements, tables, charts, numbers, equations, poetry, and on and on. These two big ideas should guide educational interventions, but Gardner stresses that his theory itself is not an educational intervention. The MI theory expands our thinking about abilities and avenues for teaching, but learning is still hard work, even if there are multiple paths to knowledge.

Intelligence as a Process

As you can see, the theories of Spearman, Castell and Horn, Carroll, and Gardner tend to describe how individuals differ in the content of intelligence—different abilities. Work in cognitive psychology has emphasized instead the information processing that is common to all people. How do humans gather and use the information to solve problems and behave intelligently? New views of intelligence are emerging from this work. The debates in the 2006 issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences emphasized working memory capacity, the ability to focus attention and inhibit impulses, and emotional self-regulation as aspects of fluid cognitive abilities.

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Labels and diagnostic classifications can easily become both stigmas and self-fulfilling prophecies, but they can also open doors to special programs and help teachers develop appropriate instructional strategies.

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