Learning strategies

In writing this, I hope to share some of the learning strategies that I have used both in the classroom as a teacher, and as a mum with my own kids…

image credit - Amy Johnson

The signs that suggested Will had learning differences

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Will has always has been just Will! A cheeky grin, a great sense of humour and the gift of the gab. Will was an inquisitive toddler, intrigued with all things vehicular. His continual questions, "Why is...?," "What is…?”, whilst exasperating on long car journeys, had us congratulating ourselves as parents that Will was obviously eager to learn about his world.

But then things changed. At primary school, Will struggled with the mechanical aspect handwriting, printing slowly and mixing capital and lowercase letters. He found creative writing challenging and wrote slowly, often only producing two or three simple sentences using unadventurous vocabulary. Naming and visualizing 2D and 3D shapes was almost impossible and as for solving mathematical word problems, well they might as well have been in Martian!

But hey, none of that mattered because Will had his strengths and everyone is different, right. Will was very sociable and could engage anyone in a conversation, especially one about sport. He seemed to have acquired an amazing knowledge of the world of football and cricket and was able to recall players, teams, games and results with ease. I am a teacher by profession and this alone should have rung alarm bells but this was Will, and no one had ever even hinted that anything might be awry. And besides he excelled at verbal presentations, using a varied and adventurous vocabulary.

So what if he couldn't ride a bike or tie his shoe-laces. As Will moved through Secondary school his academic weaknesses became more noticeable but his strengths, particularly his charm and verbal competence, seemed to keep him afloat and no-one seemed overly concerned. Except that at home he was now spending every minute of his down time trying to keep up with his homework.

Having a social life wasn't an option - there was no time left after schoolwork was done. His handwriting speed was becoming an issue and even when using a word processing program he worked slowly, he had no idea how to plan or structure his work. Minutes quickly turned into hours for Will and the simplest homework tasks resulted in evenings of frustration. Our attempts to help him with his homework invariably ended in raised, exasperated voices, slamming doors and angry silences as we failed to understand how Will seemed to be unable to follow what we were saying or how, at 13, he still didn’t know that a shape with three sides is a triangle!

And why was he still forgetting things we asked him to do as soon as we'd asked him? Was he just being a really obnoxious teenager or was there more to this than we realized?

There was more to it. Eventually, when Will was 15, we decided to pay for him to have an educational assessment. And it was from this that we learnt that Will, had dyslexic tendencies and a very poor working memory. Lots of things about the way he functioned suddenly made sense... ...but then there was the guilt. How, for 15 years, had we not known this? Why had we been so frustrated with him over all those seemingly insignificant things like repeatedly forgetting his sports kit? And why had this not been picked up at school?

And what was working memory. Well, we had to look that one up. Working memory is referred to by psychologists as our ability to hold information in the mind and mentally manipulate it over a short period of time. Many everyday activities rely on working memory, things like;

  • remembering PIN numbers and telephone numbers long enough to find something to write them down on
  • doing mental arithmetic, for example calculating the cost of several items
  • following spoken directions
  • remembering someone's name long enough to enable you to introduce them to someone else
  • Remembering how much of an ingredient you need in a recipe and what to do with it when you have just read the recipe but are no longer looking at the page

Working memory capacity is limited and varies between individuals. Information can easily be lost from the working memory, especially if you are;

  • distracted, e.g. when a phone rings, an email pings in your inbox, a dog barks etc.
  • trying to hold too much information in the working memory
  • engaging in demanding tasks where the mental processing needed reduces the amount of space left in the working memory to store information e.g. working out the answer to a sum in your head

And why is working memory important in learning?

  1. Learning activities often make high demands on the working memory. For example; Will struggles to hold what he wants to write in his mind whilst simultaneously trying spell the individual words, spelling is another mentally challenging activity for him. This means that he writes painfully slowly and rarely completes pieces of writing. This impacts his learning progress and it is slower than his peers.

  2. Poor working memory makes following lengthy instructions challenging. Will forgets the instructions before he has completed them. This means that often he cannot engage properly in learning opportunities. It can appear that he has not being paying attention. He has! He has just forgotten what it is that he has to do.

  3. Working memory helps us remember where we have got to in complicated mental activities. For example; Will struggles to follow the instruction to write down a sentence a teacher has just spoken. He struggles to hold what the teacher has said in his working memory long enough to write it down. As he focuses on writing down the individual words making up the sentence he loses his place and forgets what comes next. He will often repeat or miss out words and letters.

Will is now 25 and has also been diagnosed with adult ADHD. (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Whilst Will still faces challenges, understanding his own strengths and weaknesses has really helped him. He now understands that he learns differently to many of his peers but he can achieve anything he wants when he uses learning strategies tailored to his strengths and weaknesses.  

Check out a series of blog posts about the learning and organizational strategies that have helped Will succeed both academically and socially here.

Image credit - Amy Johnson