Annals of Education

 

Kids can get keen for learning!

By Dr. Edmond Dixon
Special to True North Perspective
 
Dr. Edmond J. Dixon is a former teacher and principal with 28 years experience in Ontario education.  His research is focused on giving teachers practical tools for helping struggling students in the classroom. He is the author of Keen For Learning: Why Some Kids Don’t Succeed in the Classroom – and What We Can Do About It. More information is at www.KeenForLearning.org.

"Let's Face it; I'm stupid. You know it, I know it, and my parents know it."

School has been back for more than a month and seats in classrooms across Ontario are full. We’re into the nitty gritty of the learning season.

Sadly, a quarter of those seats will be empty before those students graduate because 20% to 25% of students will drop out. It happens every year and has remained surprisingly consistent for many years.

As a result, the future of these students will be radically different from those who stay in school. Statistically, dropouts will have more trouble entering and staying in the work force, they’ll earn less, have higher rates of imprisonment and drug use and even have shorter life spans than their more educated peers.

Those who quit school may be labelled as disengaged, lazy, slow, or troubled. Their teachers may be classed as uninspiring, unaware or incompetent. The real issues of family problems, poverty, racism, or cultural bias may be thrown into the mix.

But what if there is another cause?  What if these struggling students simply learn differently?

In my view far too many students are in this predicament and it's time educators in Ontario took a hard look at another way to teach so these young people can learn in the classroom and remain engaged in school rather than becoming tragic statistics.

The quote that opens this article is from a student at a school where I was once principal. His profound belief that he was stupid coloured his school experiences, despite the fact that he was accomplished as a skate-boarder, popular with other students, known for his clever computer instant messaging skills, and possessed an acute sense of humour.

But he was lost in the classroom. The burning question is why was he able to demonstrate the ability to learn in one context but not the other?

The answer is that both research and our own daily observations confirm the existence of different student learning styles among people.

Those who fail in our schools tend to have one of two kinds of learning styles. They’re either kinesthetic and learn through movement and experience or intra-personal, which means they learn best through social interactions with others.

In both cases, these are the children teachers admonish to "sit down and be quiet" in class. But when that happens, they stop learning.

In the best case scenario, they bide their time in the classroom until they leave; alternately, they rebel, become discipline problems and are sent to the office, suspended or expelled.

In the worst case scenario, they become convinced that they cannot learn in a classroom and are affected for the rest of their lives as they avoid situations where they might have to do "school" learning, thereby cutting themselves off from many learning and retraining opportunities.

These students have always been with us but in the past schools didn’t educate them until they were adults. Most left school early, went to work in trades, manufacturing or some other experiential situation where they could develop their skills and abilities in a kinesthetic or intrapersonal fashion.

As a result, they could build successful lives once they left school. Unfortunately, those opportunities no longer exist for high-school dropouts.

The Ontario government recognizes this in its requirement that all students stay in school until 18 years of age, and that means that schools today must find ways of effectively teaching those who would have left in earlier times.

Educators have responded with the idea of "differentiating" instruction to students but so far there have not been enough helpful ideas for teachers to use in accomplishing this.

A practical application of brain research can help point the way. Due to the advances in technology such as Magnetic Resonant Imaging, we are learning more than we ever knew before about how the brain learns. We now know that movement and emotion are powerful tools in helping learning happen because they trigger engagement and create new neural pathways that strengthen the understanding of what is being learned.

This research allows us to develop simple exercises for the classroom context. We have discovered that if educators use an activity that allows a student to move, playfully approach the curriculum material, see it from a different perspective using their bodies, and create a story around it, we can supercharge learning — particularly for the 25% of students who struggle.

When using these activities in schools we have concrete evidence that students who are disengaged in school become passionate about learning, achieve higher and even take a leadership role in the classroom.

Why?

Because they were allowed to learn and process information in the way that best suited their learning style. It can happen in any classroom and does not replace the reading and writing tasks that occur, it just enhances them.

It's time educators in Ontario examined more closely the idea of letting students get out of their seats to learn in the classroom — so that they will be less likely to permanently vacate those seats before graduation.