Showing posts with label auditory sequential learners - left brained learners. Show all posts
Showing posts with label auditory sequential learners - left brained learners. Show all posts

Friday, November 06, 2009

Part 11 Series My Experience With and Theories about Learning Styles

More Learning about Brain Dominance

In the last post in this series I shared that hearing the lectures of Dianne Craft opened my eyes to brain dominance, about how to teach right-brained learners and some ideas about helping “struggling learners” with “blocked learning gates”. My head was swimming with information after that April 2008 conference.

Since I felt my older son needed help I read a lot about right-brained learners after hearing Dianne Craft speak in the spring of 2008. I changed some of his homeschooling and immediately improvement and easier learning happened. I realized I wanted more ideas to start implementing them in the fall of 2008.

I spent that summer reading writings by other people about right-brained learners. One thing I learned was that some experts feel that ADD and ADHD kids as well as highly creative children and dyslexic labeled people often have the traits associated with the right-brained learner. This does not mean that all ‘visual learners’ have any learning disability or any condition. However in seeking to read about right-brained learners, writers often cross into discussions of dyslexia and ADD. I found this tricky at first and was almost tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, since my child has neither a dyslexia nor ADD label, I thought that maybe what was being said about helping those struggling learners (using right-brained teaching methods) may not work. However I did find that right-brained teaching methods did work with my son even though some writers refer to these as tactics to help “ADD kids”.

It can be messy work dealing with labels. Sometimes picking apart the teaching method from the label and using the method on a child with a different label or without that label does work. I try not to get hung up on labels. This is why I don’t like debating semantics.

I am not pleased with the limited books published with right-brained teaching strategies. I’d like to see more books published on this topic. Some that are in print are not easy to find. Most cannot be found in public libraries so involve making a purchase to access the information. Ideally I’d like a very well written book about homeschooling right-brained children. The homeschooling parent has many concerns that parents of schooled children do not deal with. School parents are concerned with reacting and adapting what their children are forced to deal with at school, or they are fighting the schools to make accommodations for their child while the child is in school. Homeschooled parents have more freedom. We can change educational methods or styles. We can use custom tailored teaching methods. We can choose to avoid certain experiences. We need some help finding the best match of packaged curriculum or books. It would be nice to know which things to look for in outside paid classes and experiential learning. Lastly some guidelines about how much time teaching certain subjects is reasonable so we either do not over-teach and burn out kids out or under-teach and wind up with the educational standard bar set too low.

A very helpful list of traits of the left brained (concrete sequential) and right brained (visual spatial) learner can be found on Linda Silverman’s site:
Article Title: Visual Spatial Learners

Please do not get hung up on the fact that the site if for gifted children. The entire label of gifted and the related debate is another can of worms which I will not get into right now and have so far avoided blogging about.

Books about Left-Brained Learner Children

I have not read books about left-brained children and learning. I think this is because so many of our teaching methods and materials are for left-brained kids. Books that tell how to teach often are what I’d call “left brain” methods. The old textbook, read it and answer questions at the back is probably a left brained method, it certainly is NOT a right brained method. The method of giving a lecture starting with small tidbits of information that builds up over time to finally in the end give a big picture overview is the opposite way than a right brainer’s mind works, they want the big confusing picture of the unknown thing first then to learn what made it that way.

If you pick up teacher’s manuals most of the work in them is suited to the left-brained learner. Exceptions would be unit studies or “multidiscipline studies”. Anything with hands-on activities mixed in with academic content is not a left-brain learning method.

Attending a museum and being confronted with many exhibits is not the nice slowly metered out presentation of information that left brainers like. It can be overload for left brainers but be easy and ‘just right’ for right brainers.

I don’t have lists of books to share about left brained teaching methods because I feel that by default the American public education system and traditional schooling of private schools has been set up by left brainers, taught by left brainers and biased toward easy learning by left brained kids. Left brainers are the default “normal” in America and the right brainers are considered different, abnormal or to be suffering from a disorder. I don’t like that paradigm but it is what I think exists.

Books about Right-Brained Learner Children

The book that was the most helpful was “Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World” by Jeffrey Freed M.A.T.. This book has a subtitle that mentions ADD. Freed states that he feels that 95% of ADD diagnosed people are right-brained learners but not all right-brained learners have ADD. This 256 page book is geared toward mainstream parents of schooled kids who are struggling to learn in school and was published by Simon & Schuster. The book teaches parents some learning strategies to help a child with their homework or to re-teach what was taught with left-brained methods inside the classroom. I have taken some of these methods to adapt them for homeschooling. Parents of non-ADD children may tire of all the discussion about the ADD label and ADD treatment. I would say if you want a book to read on this topic to read this book. You can read sample pages of this book on Google Books. It is also not expensive when bought at discount from Eleven dollars seems to me to be a small investment of money compared to educational testing, tutoring, and psychological consults. It’s about the cost of three cups of Starbucks coffee.

Another book that I own that was less helpful to me was “Unicorns Are Real: A Right-Brained Approach to Learning” by Barbara Meister Vitale. This is a 118 page book with very large font and lots of white space on its pages. It has ideas for teaching strategies. This seems geared toward elementary grade children and younger. I’m not as impressed by this book but if you feel you need more information and ideas for young kids especially go for it.

Another book I don’t own as it is not easy to come by is Linda Kreger Silverman’s book “Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual Spatial Learner” . I have never found this in a library. As of today it is still not available new on See this page at the Gifted Development Center where copies of the book may be able to be purchased.

I have not yet read a book that is not easy to come by, called “Raising Topsy Turvy Kids: Successfully Parenting Your Visual Spatial Child” by Alexandra Shires Golon, published in 2004. One mother told me this book is more about parenting than teaching strategies or helping the child learn.

Golen published a second book in April 2008 which I didn’t know existed until I was researching this topic today. It is published by Prufrock Press and is titled: “Visual-Spatial Learners”. I probably will wind up buying this soon.

In April 2009 I attended the MassHope Christian Homeschool convention as I do almost every year. I was surprised to find a speaker talking again about brain dominance and teaching children with learning disabilities. This speaker’s name was Linda Kane and she has certification as a neurodevelopmental therapist. Her company is called Hope and a Future. They work in consultation with parents to design a neurodevelopmental approach to help the child’s weak areas. She runs a company that can consult with homeschooling parents (or any parents) to formulate a customized teaching and therapy plan.

Kane spoke of neurological disorganization. She spoke of kids who were mixed-dominant as struggling to learn and usually having troubles in other areas (being overly emotional for one thing). One take away impression I had was the desire to get the child’s neurological system functioning more in alignment the way it should be then learning comes easier and things fall into place. She says they can “lose the label” by having symptoms of a disorder or even medical conditions disappear forever.

I attended all of the sessions given by Linda Kane and purchased the audio recordings of the lectures to listen to at home since I again was on information overload.

One thing struck me that was said by both Dianne Craft and Linda Kane. They both feel that children with an LD or who are right-brained learners can and do learn with different presentations of the information. Both feel the child needs certain kinds of teaching. I was listening to one of Kane’s lectures on CD yesterday and she accused some parents of not teaching in their homeschool. She said math worksheets are not teaching, worksheets are practice. Kids working in isolation are not teaching, and that parents should be doing active teaching. Ouch. I recall Craft saying the good news about homeschooling right brainers is there is currently no curriculum they can buy that is the magic bullet that is good news as there is no money to spend on expensive materials. What the homeschool parent-teacher must do is adapt left-brained curriculum with homemade inexpensive materials (paper and colored markers) and one’s imagination. That means time and energy on the part of the parent and time put into educating oneself about teaching with different methods.

Our Progress

I’ve been implementing various right-brained teaching techniques over this last year and half with very good results. My mind is always open to new ideas and teaching methods. I want my right brained child to be successful at learning.

In the next installment I will talk a bit about my younger son the very left-brained learner. I’ll also soon discuss blocked learning gates and what our behavioral optometrist told me about his theories about children’s weaknesses, strengths and neural pathways. This series is almost finished!

Part 10 Series My Experience With and Theories about Learning Styles

In former installments in this series I discussed my older son’s diagnosis of an eye tracking problem, convergence insufficiency, which limited his ability to read and learn from written text. During the time before the diagnosis and before the treatment began he learned a lot from hearing me read aloud or by listening to audio books for both our academic homeschooling lessons and for fiction pleasure reading.

Honestly I’d never thought about it before but looking back with 20/20 hindsight, there was a mismatch between his learning styles test (primary visual-images, secondary kinesthetic) because most of his learning was favored to be from auditory channels. He did learn a lot by watching documentaries or having real life experiences. He would learn a lot by doing nothing but passively watching good video programs. I found it impossible to arrange a full academic curriculum out of documentaries and traveling to museums and historic sites. The idea of a video based education also cannot be accomplished for things like spelling, grammar, writing composition, and math. Watching Schoolhouse Rock videos only gets a person so far with learning language arts, for example.

My Eyes Open to Brain Dominance

This story begins in April 2008. This is the same month that my older son got his official diagnosis of convergence insufficiency. I was feeling overwhelmed and worried about that and I did not want to attend the big homeschool convention that I’d attended year after year. I was fried. A friend of mine was jazzed up about hearing a certain speaker talk because a learning styles certified person had told her one of her children was ‘very right brained’ and she would benefit from learning more about right-brained learners in lectures at that convention to be given by someone I’d never heard of before, Dianne Craft. This friend is persuasive and she talked me into going to the conference and going to hear Craft speak. I had no desire to hear her talk as I knew nothing about this and felt then the information would be of no use to me and that my “brain was full” of enough worry, stress, and self-education about my son’s new LD diagnosis.

So I was surprised and happy that I did attend a session by Dianne Craft. The first one I heard was titled “Smart Kids Who Hate to Write”. My kids hate to do writing composition and penmanship so I figured it sounded like my kids, let me hear what she has to say. In the talk she mentioned right-brained learners and her list of traits was my older son exactly. Dianne Craft was hopeful (not doomsday in her outlook) and she seemed excited to teach some learning techniques for right-brained learners. That talk actually mentions dysgraphia also.

Craft also in other talks discussed some LDs and what she calls “learning gates”. She discussed that people have a ‘reading gate’, a ‘writing gate’ and a ‘hearing gate’ and that if one is blocked learning is hindered. Various issues with different LD or neurological or medical diagnoses can block one or more gates. If the gate is blocked the learner has to learn using other methods. I intimated that they adapt themselves; I don’t recall her making that statement exactly. So in my older son’s case one could say that with his neurological processing disorder (eye tracking problem, convergence insufficiency) his ‘reading gate’ was blocked, leaving the other gates open to learning.

Many teachers, homeschoolers and even the most radical unschoolers believe that children cannot be stopped from learning and indeed they want to learn. Kids find a way to learn. Very young children want to learn (even babies) and they can be determined to learn by the various methods available to them. They pick up and learn things we don’t even want them to learn if they observe it (think of something bad or even dangerous they watched in a movie or that some kid did in their presence that they repeat or try to do themselves). If you accept this idea then you can see how a learner who has trouble learning from reading would find it easier to learn by auditory or kinesthetic methods. This has been the experience that I saw with my son. He was very open to learning by watching visual images in documentaries (or on any TV show) and he was happy to listen to audio books and to be read aloud to, so he did learn in those ways as those ‘gates’ were not blocked.

One thing I learned about Dianne Craft is she has a dedication to help children learn. If a child is weak in their ability to learn with a certain method of delivery ideally the teacher would tailor learning so that the content can indeed be learned. At the same time the weaknesses are being tended to, to try to fix or improve the weak areas to get things in more of a balance. One example is the use of occupational therapy exercises and techniques to help the child. Craft teaches parents to do these things rather than referring the child to an occupational therapist for regular therapy sessions. By doing exercises at home the family can save hundreds of dollars EACH WEEK and they can be done more frequently. Who has $500 a WEEK to pay for visits of that frequency? She sells a book that teaches parents OT exercises so they can do them at home.

Children with other diagnoses such as ADD/ADHD, Autism, a label of gifted and labels can have blocked learning gates or LDs. I feel that the things that Craft discusses can be of use to some kids with or without a label or these conditions. It is important to know that if a child has one or more labels they may be helped with some of these methods. Please don’t take the label as a reason to stop trying to help a child learn. What I’m saying is, if your child has one or more diagnoses, you might learn something from Craft that can help your child. Also children without an LD who may be strong visual learners (right brained) may benefit from using some of these methods too.

Dianne Craft also has some arrangement with HSLDA, as another special needs specialist does. HSLDA members can phone HSLDA and ask to speak to a special needs consultant about homeschooling a special needs child. If you do this, Dianne Craft may be the one to help you with a free phone consult.

Dianne Craft also runs a practice where she can evaluate your child for a fee, and recommend a plan for your unique child.

At present other than her Brain Integration manual Dianne Craft has not published a book that you can learn from. However on her website you can purchase audio lectures or DVD video lectures to listen to. You may hear her speak at a homeschooling conference and/or you may purchase past audio lecture recordings if they are available. (Some can be purchased by accessing host homeschool organization websites and ordering online.)

Craft also feels there are some biological links to these learning challenges usually due to the child’s nutritional intake or reacting to certain foods eaten. For example she feels that some children are suffering from Candida, an overgrowth of yeast with one side effect being making learning difficult. In other cases intake of sugar or being too low on essential fatty acids can hurt learning. Some parents who have no interest in those things or who deny the role of food and nutrition in a person’s health, mood or thinking and learning ability might have issues with those topics that Dianne Craft speaks about. I wish those doubting parents who are at wit’s end about their child’s struggles to learn would just open their minds and listen and give it a try. For example there are published medical studies about the benefits of supplementing with essential fatty acids (fish oils) with certain struggling learners, so some of this has been proven in the scientific sense. If dietary changes work then wouldn’t that be wonderful? Some parents are desperate to try anything. Is it really a big deal to consider trying a few changes? I don’t think it is. If you still are closed-minded to the role of nutrition some of the other things that Dianne Craft has to say may be of use to you. Take what you like and leave the rest behind. (Her series about this refers to these topics as “biology of learning”.)

Anyhow my biggest take-away from hearing Dianne Craft speak was that I realized my older son is a “very right-brained learner” (or call it visual-spatial learner or whatever you want to call it).

I realized my younger son, a fast learner who was precocious, is a “very left-brained learner”. I learned some things about left-brained learners that explained my son’s attraction to and desire to have certain things certain ways with his homeschooling, especially why he seems lost when I give allow him autonomy and to direct his own time. He wants clear assignments, schedules, to do lists and thrives on checking off completed work, being graded and seeing a list of work accomplished. He wants to compare himself to others and wants high scores and to feel he achieved something. Some of my younger son’s disappointments and disharmony have been caused by me using methods and daily routines that seemed great to me (left to my own devices and not having to work for an employer I’m much more to the ‘right-brained’ way of living).

In trying to teach both kids the same way with the same daily routines, in an attempt to make homeschooling easier and to do everything together, my younger son has sometimes felt out of sorts and lost. He loves workbook learning with pages to complete, being graded and feels a great sense of accomplishment from that kinds of learning (which has horrified me as my ideal vision of homeschooling included none of that kind of stuff).

I’ll share also that I fall more in the middle. I’m able to flex back and forth. If I have to sit still in a lecture, take notes and study for a test I can do that. I have learned study methods that allow me to memorize content even if I have no interest in it at all. If a job requires me to do things in a very left-brained manner to comply with corporate procedure, I can do it easily. I may not like it, it may not feel natural, but I adapt and Just Do It. However left to my own devices when I can live in freedom I am much more of a very right brained person. Some of these tests to determine right or left brained dominance are hard for me to answer accurately as I’m flexible. I loved a neat desk at my former job and I filed everything away neatly in case I needed access to it quickly so I could perform my job responsibly. But at home my desk is a mess and I prefer piles and stacks and rarely file things in vertical file folders. Yet the test question of “what is you desk like” is not a clear cut answer for me.

Another question sometimes asked is about planning things or being spontaneous. I’ve figured out for myself only recently that I love being spontaneous yet when others have expectations of me I prefer to plan things out. For example when I had a Cub Scout Co-Leader I felt to work cooperatively with her we should have clear communication about the next meeting’s date and time and we should have some agreement about what would be done. Without that we might each show up for the meeting planning to do all the work ourselves or have completely different ideas about what was to be done. I struggled with her because she wanted no pre-planning. She would say she’d lead the meeting then show up with no plan and no materials. She’d flip through the book and wing the teaching based on what could be done right then just by talking (because we had no rope to teach a knot or no art supplies to paint with). I would have been happy to teach the art projects and in fact had all the materials at home we could have used if only I’d known she wanted to do that project.

After working with my kids and some other people in learning environments including my former work as a corporate trainer, teaching new hires, I know people are different. They are different not just in their personal preferences but sometimes learning can really be hindered based on certain circumstances. Some people cannot learn if there is a certain amount of noise, or visual distraction in the area. Those who experience this or have witnessed this in real life with a child or other people they know do not deny that this is real. Yet some people think all of this is baloney and that if a person “just tried harder” they’d get past it and would learn.

I have a theory that some people who deny the existence of brain dominance or learning styles are either flexible themselves, like I am, or they have never experienced working with children or adults who are very much to one side of the pendulum or the other. When working with someone who is all the way to the left or the right, it is easy to see how that can be problematic especially when there is no choice but to try to learn using rigid materials or methods that conflict with the person’s ability.

In no way am I saying that children should be coddled. I am not advocating for creating bratty children who demand to have all their learning experiences fun and exciting. I am not looking for labels to make an excuse for a child. My concern is about realizing a child’s unique nature and trying to teach in ways that make learning stick. I don’t want to accept going through the motions to teach things a certain way even with a well-respected brand of curriculum and to force the learner to do the work and have no real mastery or no real learning happen.

I have written in the past about the fact that at a certain point, usually in the middle grades, not all learning is fun anymore. Some things take practice and effort, which is not always fun or exciting. Having to work hard to do something is not easy and it can be downright frustrating at times. As the child tries to do more things (writing composition) and as the school or homeschool parent hold a child to a higher standard than in former early education years, sometimes not everything comes fast or easy. Speaking for myself, I’m unwilling to lower the standard for my children. I don’t want to only focus on their strengths or work to develop their strengths and to ignore the weak areas. For example I don’t want to just feel happy that one of my children is very good at verbal communication and do nothing about his undeveloped writing composition skills, his poor spelling and absent punctuation. I’d like a certain level of basic skills, a strong foundation, and if certain other content areas wind up being superior also, then so be it (i.e. a history buff, a talented painter, a fantastic musician etc.).

I guess what I’m striving for regarding our homeschooling journey is some middle ground where what can be easy to learn is taught in a way that allows easy learning that allows the child to still have the energy and the drive to apply themselves to learn the things that don’t come as easily to them. I don’t want to tap my child out of all his energy or bore him to tears on things that can be taught or learned using a different METHOD or different materials. I believe in situations such as the freedoms we have with homeschooling, that I’d like to make some of learning experiences easier for my children. Again I am not recommending lowering academic standards or dumbing down their education.

In the next installment I’ll share about a few other sources of information that helped me learn about brain dominance and learning and how some of the strategies that we tried worked out for us.

My children and I have been helped by what I've learned from attending lectures by Dianne Craft. If one person is helped in some way by reading this blog post my time to write it will have been worth it.

External Links

Dianne Craft’s website

Dianne Craft’s DVD about Right-Brained Children

Dianne Craft’s speaking topics to see what she lectures about

Dianne Craft’s speaking handouts (maybe you can glean something from these that may tempt you to hear her whole lectures)

Articles by Dianne Craft online for free reading

The HSLDA site has a section on struggling learners that has some information written by Dianne Craft. See this main page for many links from here for more information. This area of the site is open to the public; it is not locked for members only.

HSLDA members have phone access to “special needs coordinators”. See this page.

Disclosure: I received no pay for mentioning any of these resources or organizations.

Part 9 Series My Experience With and Theories about Learning Styles

Semantics and Debates of Validity of Reality of Brain Dominance

This next part of the story and my ideas has to do with what some call brain dominance. Before I go further I want to state that there is debate over the issue of brain dominance due to it being called brain dominance. Some people, laypeople as well as some scientists, like to discuss their disbelief in this idea due to the terms used. Frankly I don’t care what anyone calls it but some label must be used to term this thing which describes certain teaching methods and the learner’s learning strategies. (Later I will discuss some of these things, I hope my general statements are not confusing you.)

I know these things are real for my both of sons. I don’t understand the science behind it, I don’t know a lot about neurology and the brain. I only have so my time and energy to think about my children, home educating and teaching. To be honest I don’t care to know more about the brain’s white mater or gray matter or the corpus colossum or the other brain anatomy that scientists are still trying to understand with their relation to a person’s learning abilities and to their potentiality.

I care about my children and I choose to homeschool them. I want to know information to help me homeschool my children. If my children were in school these issues would still apply as they affect their learning, so this is not just a homeschool issue for me, it’s more of a parenting issue affecting every child and parent. My main concern is my own children. I need to concentrate on finding home teaching methods that work. Ideally I’d like my kids to learn and to master content. I would like the learning to be the fastest possible with the least amount of effort. If choosing certain materials or using certain teaching methods helps make those things happen for my children then I want to learn more about them and make it happen.

I had heard the terms “left brained” and “right brained” and “brain dominance” tossed about before but had not cared anything about it so didn’t know much about it. Some other terms debated but that need to be used in order to have a discussion that makes sense are:

Right-brained learner (right brained learner) also called Visual-spatial learner (visual spatial learner)

Left-brained learner (left brained learner) also called Concrete-Sequential learner (concrete sequential learner)

Some of the debates that people have about brain dominance are with the terms right and left brained. They pick apart the term and say “no person ever thinks on one side of their brain”. I acknowledge that it has been proven by MRI that both sides of the brain are used for different processes and no one has a shut off side of the brain unless they’ve had some terrible brain injury possibly.

I don’t care about the ‘why’ of these things. For example I just heard Dr. Temple Grandin, a highly-functioning person with Autism say that she feels her strong visual thinking is due to certain wide “cables” that are wider than normal. So it is being claimed that the brain’s physical characteristics affect thinking and learning and the potential and real life experiences of a person.

I am glad that scientists are exploring the brain. I am happy that new technology such as MRI is helping this exploration. However I am not waiting for conclusive scientific evidence before applying learning strategies to my child because my kids are here now and they need to learn right now.

Sometimes teachers know things about children for many years, they know what will work and what won't work or at what age it is futile to try to teach a child to do a certain thing. Then years later a scientist gives some biological explanation for it, such as the brain is focused on developing this thing at that age and it is not until a few years later that a child's mind is ready to do that thing, such as at what age is it reasonable to teach a child to write by hand neatly and in a small font. I don't care about the brain biology behind the ability to do that fine motor skill but I do have an awareness that if I knew nothing about that, if I tried to force my 12 month old to hold a pencil and write their name in small font it would be futile. I am trying to avoid similar missteps in higher level teaching in our homeschool.

If the scientists want to explore brain biology and try to match it to a person’s real life experiences with learning and working a job as an adult, that is fine. My concern is with my own kids in the here and now regarding their homeschooling. I am interested in theories and learning strategies as they are interesting to me and because I can apply them in practical ways to help my children learn.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Part 8 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 8: New State Homeschool Law?

This was really bad timing for me!

One month after getting those test results, my state (Connecticut) had a bill in the legislature regarding withdrawing children from school in order to homeschool. There had been a number of cases where as soon as families pulled their children out of public school in order to homeschool, the school staff turned them into the state’s DCF for educational neglect (and/or medical neglect and/or emotional neglect). The bill was to make it easier for a family to pull the child out of school and to start homeschooling without false investigations being launched against them. The bill would not affect current homeschoolers. That sounds good, doesn’t it?

At one point the bill was modified in committee and suddenly was a BAD bill for ALL homeschoolers. What started out as helpful for potential new homeschoolers trying to leave the public schools had turned bad for every single homeschooler in the state (even if the children had never been in public school). The revised bill placed more constraints on homeschoolers in our state including more government monitoring. We homeschoolers didn’t want any additional monitoring!

Being An Activist

I got involved with the bill by reading the bills and informing myself. I contacted my representatives to share my opinions.

I chatted on local homeschool discussion boards to try to get the word out. I phoned friends I knew were in the dark and clued them in. I called relatives and asked them to write letters about this to share their own opinions of it.

My children and I attended the public hearing in our capital. I marched in a protest alongside my children.

The worst part of this which I didn’t know would happen was I heard some horrible stories from parents falsely accused of educational neglect. Since some were turned in for educational neglect on day one or two of their homeschooling that makes them false reports in my opinion as how could the parent have failed to home educate them well when they’d only started that same day or were just one day into it? That’s impossible.

By hearing some terrible stories which included very bad things happening to kids in public school and on public school busses and about how the schools failed to remedy the situation, I got even more turned off to public schooling. You would not believe the stories if you heard them. I’m tempted to share the stories but will refrain. Some have been shared in newspaper stories.

Due to our negative experience with school testing and my experience with our homeschooling being judged by an outside party I didn’t like the idea of regular government evaluation of my child such as using test scores to evaluate my children!

It is a very strange feeling when you know something is real from being very involved in that thing for a long time then suddenly have an outside person judging the entire thing on small bits of information. When the data used to judge someone is filled with errors or the flaws in testing used to come up with scores and rankings is known, relying on those measures is not only questionable but is dangerous in my opinion.

On the one hand I wanted citizens to have more freedom to pull their children out of school so I worked toward passing that bill but when the bill’s content shifted, I want more government monitoring that the bill suddenly contained. The bill never made it to law.

How Our Homeschool Changed

Another effect this killed bill had on me was I increased my documentation of homeschool work that was done. I also made both of my children do work that honestly I’d rather not have them do but that schools do. I shifted some of our learning to methods that are more closely aligned with ‘the school way’.

At its worst I think this has just wasted some of our time and energy. I don’t think any of it was damaging to my children so am consoling myself with knowing that “doing that kind of work can’t harm a child”. Perhaps it might dull their curiosity and make them think some kinds of learning is boring but my hope is they’ll clearly see the more free homeschooling lessons we do are more fun and more effective while the school-y learning is boring and seems stupid. Some of the school-y stuff may be a means to an end. Maybe knowing better test taking abilities may help the child take the SAT and take community college courses in homeschool high school then might help them get into a good college to pursue the career of their choice.

Learning Styles?

While dealing in this kind of emergency mode, this fear based mindset that I was in for a while, learning styles went out the window for me. To document remedial work done I used school-y assignments that were not in alignment with any part of my older son’s learning styles or with my homeschool and educational philosophy. I knew he mastered the stuff before the remedial work was even done so I just wanted proof to show I did the remedial work in case we were evaluated by an outside party. I was cramming information and checking off boxes, something I normally don't like to do.

Later I’d revisit learning styles when my sons were to learn new information I preferred it to be learned faster and easier so if I could change my teaching techniques to be something that would help this effort then I was willing to try it.

Part 7 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 7: Thoughts on Test Results and Testing in General

A Confession

This story would not be complete if I did not share that my son’s test results freaked me out.

I didn’t like hearing that my son was behind in some areas even though other tests had him on grade level or even above grade level. I know what I taught my son. I know the work he produced. I felt he had mastered certain concepts yet a test said he didn’t. Which should I believe?

Some things he scored terribly on (contractions) he should have scored better at since he did know all about contractions and used them in his daily speaking. I did a review of contractions. He was annoyed and said he knew it all already why were we doing this? Indeed he did all the work with perfection, showing mastery in my opinion. Well at least I could document we did the work if we were ever questioned on it.

I explained in Part 6 that I changed the way we handled reading comprehension.

I gave him some practice with test trickery such as being careful about reading through all the multiple choice answers and slowly and carefully selecting really the best answer not just the first on the list that is correct but is not the most thorough answer.

Educational Neglect?

Those test results threw me into a tailspin also because some comments were made to me about the test results are credible and used in courts to show educational neglect. This was said along with telling me the deficit areas my son had. I was told that teachers are mandatory reporters to the state. This was a bit confusing to me as this woman was a teacher in the last state she lived in and was not currently teaching while she attended graduate school for this degree. She was not yet a mandatory reporter in this state. I didn’t quite know what she was trying to say. She said that these tests hold up in court as proof of educational neglect. I was reading between the lines and not liking what I was hearing. Was she going to report me for educational neglect?

What I definitely felt was that she was disappointed to think that my son had certain gaps in his learning. I can’t say I blame her for having that opinion. But real life and the test scores were not in alignment in my opinion, so an opinion based on those tests was wrong.

I was told that my son should have known what a “short a” is when in fact our phonics curriculum (Alpha Phonics) didn’t teach the terms, it just taught the child how to read the words. I felt the fact that he could decode at an eighth grade level according to one of her tests was proof he knew phonics but the teacher said no, that one test said he did not know phonics. Can you see how this exchange was crazy-making? Which test shall we choose to believe (plus based on witnessing the boy reading aloud and properly decoding) and which test shall we choose to discard and ignore?

I was told my son didn’t know how to subtract with borrowing because he made an error and added the math problem. That is ridiculous because my son very well did know how to subtract! The test shifted back and forth from adding to subtracting and I can only assume my son got on a roll with addition and didn’t pay attention to the different operation symbol. The teacher seemed angry at the idea that my fifth grade son could not subtract. I probably would be miffed by that too if I was the teacher. I have years of math teaching with a good math curriculum, and I have his math practice work here as proof that my son did learn and could do that kind of work. I resented judgment like that from an outside person when obviously the issue was that my son just messed up the test!

You see my son’s testing with the different tests all checking the same content could be looked at in different ways. A person could look only to the high scores with praise or they could look only to the low scores and claim there was a real problem. Since I got to see the inconsistencies in how different tests could yield such different scores the idea of a stranger judging my child on a score really bothered me. This also was in light of the circumstances I mentioned (death in the family, Lyme Disease, long testing times and fatigue).

Can you imagine the negative consequences a child may have if they are given just ONE test and the results are low? Can that test be trusted? I honestly don’t know!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Part 6 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 6: Getting an Expert’s Opinion About the Eye Tracking Problem and Changing Homeschool Plans

The first thing I did was ask around for a referral to a good behavioral optometrist and to ask who to avoid seeing. I heard the appointment with that doctor was not easy to get, so I called right away to get an appointment for a couple of months later.

The second step for me was to figure out what I could glean from those test results about academic content. I decided to re-teach some concepts that had already been taught, and I thought, mastered, but had not received high scores on the tests, just in case he really did not learn them (I had my doubts).

Another thing I did was decided to start a reading comprehension teaching program that veered from the Charlotte Mason method and was more in line with how the public schools teach and measure it. First I read a book about the modern ‘school way’ of teaching it. Then I decided to use a workbook based program. I’d teach the concepts and he’d do the work. The questions were multiple choice, fill in the blank and open-ended. I figured this doubled as practice for test taking too. I was hoping to cover all the bases while not abandoning the best parts of the Charlotte Mason method. In other words, work on dry and boring “public school like” work but still do the “great stuff” with different methods used in classical homeschooling and with good materials and narration, and also using the Charlotte Mason method when possible.

What the Behavioral Optometrist Said

The doctor said he was part of a year behind in reading speed, processing speed and the doctor said he had very small visual fields. He had convergence insufficiency which meant his two eyes were looking at two different things on the page; they were not converging (focusing) together to meld the text into one thing. Kids usually will try to focus on what one eye sees in order to read it. Some kids (not mine) tilt their heads to the side to see things out of one eye only and some squint or try to shut one eye to close out the second view. Imagine trying to read like when you look through binoculars and see two different views that don’t meld together. That is what my son was seeing when he was trying to read!

The doctor asked if he was behind in school. After saying we homeschool he asked how he was doing with learning. I explained that our method of homeschooling (Charlotte Mason) relied heavily on being read aloud to from more difficult books. He replied that unbeknownst to me I had been compensating for my son’s learning disability. By giving him input of information in an auditory fashion his weakness with obtaining content from reading text had been accidentally hidden or masked, thus I didn’t know it existed. I was speechless when he said that. I had never thought that the use of the Charlotte Mason method might actually hide a problem from being discovered. (In a future blog post I will tell about a discussion I had with this doctor in October 2009 about neurobiology and neural pathways as that is relevant to this discussion.)

I was reading aloud from higher level books starting in Kindergarten based on the Charlotte Mason method’s recommendation not to make up for deficits, but the result was the same, my son was learning content just fine as he was receiving most of it through auditory methods. But my choice to read aloud had masked the realization that my son was suffering with an LD connected to reading and visual processing. He said if my son was in school and being forced to learn using the methods the whole class was using he would do more poorly than his peers and he may have been flagged for having a problem with reading comprehension.

I will remind you at this point that my son’s learning styles test showed he was a visual (image) learner primarily and secondarily a kinesthetic learner. In last place was auditory. So the idea that for years he learned best by listening to books read aloud or on recorded audio books is something to ponder about the validity of learning styles or at least that one test my son took (from Discover Your Child’s Learning Style book).

Although his eyes were deemed 20/20 in the spring of his third grade year by an ophthalmologist (after my son said he had blurred vision) this doctor said at age 10 my son needed reading glasses for farsightedness. He has a mild prescription lens plus something called a “prism” in the lens to help with the convergence insufficiency.

We were told to have him use the glasses when he read so that is what he did. However about nine months later I asked about other close work and was told he should have been wearing them whenever doing close work, on the computer, doing math work, spelling, anything with handwriting, any reading, even fun comic book reading, and if playing handheld video games too.

Eye Tracking Treatment Started

My son began treatment for his condition which was convergence insufficiency. I have shared lots of details of that story in other blog posts (one is I've Been Learning About Convergence Insufficiency).

In summary he had syntonic phototherapy (see explanation in this post A Little Information About Syntonic Phototherapy) for 21 days in a row, after a wait time for the rental unit. After six months of no therapies, the doctor trained me to do what I believe are more traditional vision therapy eye exercises at home. A few months later he was changed to use a computer software program for increasing visual processing speed and retraining the mind to do quick recall of sequences of numbers. I note that some of these same exercises were discussed as neurodevelopmental techniques in lectures I heard at a homeschooling conference given by Lynda Kane. There was a three month interruption in that treatment in the summer of 2009 while my son recovered from infectious mononucleosis, when he was so wiped out with fatigue that the exercises were very difficult and seemed to be a total waste of time. The last tweak to his program implemented in October 2009 centers around learning strategies for spelling and vocabulary (one of his weak areas) and continuing with the computer program which I can describe as a visual processing speed exercise to retain the numbers seen on the screen after having them flashed at him for 2 or 3 seconds.

Results I Could See in His Schoolwork

His reading, spelling and math immediately improved once treatment began. He got passionate about reading and went on to read much longer and more difficult books, jumping from Andrew Clements books (grade 5 reading level) to reading the entire Eragon series (much longer and published for young adults). He was so happy to read some books and would stay up late at night as he was unable to stop reading them. I was overjoyed.

When Did Symptoms First Appear?

For clarification I’ll share this. It seems my son’s learning plateaued when in the fourth grade. There was a shift from good progress in grade three to stagnation in grade four.

In the summer between his grade three and grade four he had a terrible case of Lyme Disease. Our family had done a lot of hiking that spring. That is the same exact time that my other son got a bad case of Lyme Disease and also a second tick-borne (life threatening) illness called Ehrlichiosis. I also got Lyme at that same exact time. Our family had a terrible summer of trying to heal from these diseases.

It was proposed to me by my son’s doctor that the Lyme for my older son progressed to stage 2 which involves the neurological system. This can cause processing disorders (learning disabilities) in children. This all makes perfect sense to me because my son was not a challenge from the start of his homeschool life; a big shift happened between the end of grade three and the beginning of grade five. Some other challenges were forgetting math facts that he used to know, and his spelling went backwards all of a sudden such as not knowing how to spell “had” and “went” and doing really weird spelling error such as leaving out major letters that are key to the word’s pronunciation such as leaving the “b” out of “notebook” when repeating back that the word spelled was “notebook” and by orally spelling it correctly then looking down at the written word he just finished writing and being surprised there was no “b” in it. His ability to spell went out the window. Lastly he seemed to forget every single phonics rule he had already learned that allowed him to learn to read in the first place which seemed nonsensical to me.

A Learning Disability

This diagnosis is a learning disability. I had trouble adjusting to the fact that my son had a diagnosis label and was no longer just ‘normal’ or ‘average’. I had taken it for granted that my son was just a typical kid.

In an attempt to provide my son with the best treatments and to give him a good quality education I needed to educate myself about this condition. The next phase included finding out some general issues regarding learning and kids with learning disabilities. I learned that motivation can be an issue, poor self-esteem can be felt but hidden by kids and numerous other things. It helped me to find out some general information that can apply to all kids (and adults) with an LD.

Homeschooling an LD Kid?

A few times I worried about homeschooling a child with an LD. I wondered if schools might better handle this. After dealing with my son and his known condition for a year and nine months my outlook is that homeschooling is working out just great. I worry that the load of school work in the traditional schools may not be a good fit for any child with an LD. They have on and off days. Some days they are tapped out of energy. These things are not in alignment with the demands of traditional schools.

If he was in school he may have low self-esteem due to comparing his performance to that of his peers. I can only imagine how quickly a hurt child can turn into an angry child and then turn off to learning in general and start to hate school. I also can imagine that I’d have to deal with the teachers, asking for accommodations, being his advocate and so forth. That takes a lot of time to work to try to change the normal routines of a system. Frankly I think homeschooling him is easier for me than doing that!

It remains a challenge to both provide my son with an adequate or excellent home education plus allow for relaxed lessons or looser schedules to accommodate his LD issues and his recent mono! I have not let go of certain high educational standards yet. I want my son to be prepared to enter the career field of his choice. At present that is engineering which requires a college degree. The engineering degree is a difficult one heavy in math and science. If he is to pursue that degree he will have a lot of hard work in his middle school and definitely in high school. So having a label and an LD is not an excuse for him to let go of his dreams and hopes. I just have a hard time being both the mom and the teacher sometimes. I have to spend time educating myself on these LD issues and the specific conditions. I have to research teaching methods and tweak the curriculum’s recommendations sometimes. Making customized changes takes time and effort. It creates more work for me, more than “just” homeschooling.

So far I think I’m doing well with handling homeschooling a child with an LD.

And I’m keeping meticulous records just in case anyone accuses our family of educational neglect.

And I continue to monitor state government and will always work to protect homeschooling freedoms in my state. I am happy that education is a state issue not a federal issue as I feel I have more power as a citizen to work with my state legislature, I feel their ears and hearts are more open than that of our reps in our federal government.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Part 5 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

The Testing Process and the Results

Note: I had not shared all this information in detail on my blog in the past as I worried of possible negative ramifications from doing so. What if someone filed an educational neglect charge against our family based on what I shared about these test results?

Since we are two years out from this testing and I have further information to discredit some of these results I’m no longer scared to share this story.

It is my hope that perhaps some parent with a child in school or at home may learn something from our experience with a battery of tests. I pity the school children who are subjects of just one test and get a label from that one test. The fact is the test may be sub-par and the result may be wrong. I can only hope that perhaps a quick and easy test is done first and if the child does poorly, that more extensive testing is done to verify and double-check the results. Still I have questions about testing accuracy. If the child is not fully engaged, if the tests run too long, if the child grows bored or has a bad attitude during testing (including from feeling low self-esteem or being worried over what the result may show) the test result could be disastrous, a falsely lower score than reality.


The Testing Timeframe

I had no stake in this test. I didn't worry about the results. There would be no negative consequences to doing this, or so I thought.

Due to the student teacher’s class deadlines there was a push to get this done. Issues that arose during testing were not a consideration for the student teacher to question the validity of the tests. To give tests in subpar conditions then treat the results as if they were totally accurate and perfect is a bit ridiculous. Given what my son went through in this timeframe, if an accurate result was desired the testing should have been rescheduled for a month or more down the road. Given the two separate things that happened, this would mean two postponements should have occurred. I let the testing continue as it was to help this student teacher and I understood her deadline and the importance of finishing this up on time. The student teacher was also praising my son's performance and behavior so I though the results would be good or fantastic.

Not all the restuls were great. I beat myself up about this for a long time. This is something I didn't even share with some of my closest friends and something I tried to hide from my blog readers. However in 20/20 hindsight now that two years has gone by, I feel I was too hard on myself and perhaps my son too, about what the results showed.

The tests were done over about two and a half months if my memory is correct. The visits were usually weekly. The testing was done in my home and was usually 90-120 minutes in length; some went longer than two hours. I was at home but in another room during the testing. I kept my younger son occupied and quiet by playing quiet games with him so he would not disturb the testing.

Problems During Testing

Two monkey wrenches were thrown into this testing process.

One was the fact that my son contracted Lyme Disease during the testing including having fever symptoms and headache during one testing period. He was on antibiotic therapy after the diagnosis and was still not feeling well during treatment. Lyme can affect the thinking process and memory and can cause “brain fog” and indeed he was having that as I saw his learning negatively affected during that time.

Second, a very close relative died. My father-in-law finally passed away after suffering with Cancer. He had a decline in health during the last few weeks of his life, during the testing period. (Our family helped him a lot and we were busy caring for him, my son was with him often, seeing his decline. This was a very emotional time for our whole family and my children were there to see it all. At the time of his death, my children were present in the next room. The rest of our family was at his bedside but I felt that was a bit too much for my boys aged seven and ten to actually see happen since neither me or my husband had ever been bedside to watch a person pass away and we didn’t know what to expect. Additionally some of the other family members were very emotional and that would have upset my kids (who could not hear everything since they were watching television).

One testing session was given two days after the four day long family gatherings and funeral finally ended. That was an emotionally grueling week and my children’s sleep schedules were off due to all the activities. The teacher was under a tight deadline since the death was near the end of her class, and insisted on doing the testing, not wanting to cancel the appointment the week we were busy with the funeral.

Lastly my son admitted to intentionally guessing and not paying attention then making up answers because he was burned out, especially in sequencing testing where he was flashed 4-6 numbers or letters on a card and was told to state back what he saw. If the card said CABBCA and he said GXUTMS, I’m sorry but that is not a processing issue or dyslexia that is a nonsense answer done on purpose. You see for some answers, my son was giving gibberish letters and numbers which had no resemblance to what was there so I could not resist asking him what was he thinking? And that’s when he said he was just making up some of the answers!

Getting the Test Results

In January 2008 I finally got the test results. To be honest I was expecting to hear he was on grade level or slightly above. I had no worries other than what I knew about him guessing on some of the answers.

The Big Picture or Parroting?

One thing the teacher noted was her surprise at something he did which she did not like at all. This has to do with seeing things in a big picture context. For the open ended oral questions, she said often he’d include on topic information which was not in the passage that had been read. I asked for some examples and I was shown them. I recognized information that my son had learned at a museum a year earlier and explained that to her, how he had taken the new information from the reading test and mixed it together with what he already knew and his answers were synthesized into one coherent answer. Another test item had data from a unit study we did when my son was in first grade and had not covered again since! I was so happy because he retained that old information and infused new information in proper context and learned! I took that as an education success story.

I should also mention that our homeschool method has never been about parroting back information or practicing spitting back just exactly what was said twisted up a bit and with a few words switched out so as to not look like plagiarism. The Charlotte Mason method is dead set against parroting. The method encourages the learner to take in information, make it his own by picking out parts of it that speak to him and impress him and then narrating about that. The only wrong action in a narration is to state back wrong facts or misunderstood information. If a student winds up discussing a certain element from a history lesson such as how the society built roads and managed the community and another student focuses on the way people dressed at the time and another focuses on battles and dates, that is fine!

But the teacher said this accurate telling of information that included bits from other sources properly placed in context caused her a problem for scoring, and sometimes she marked the answers incorrect as she wanted him to say only what he’d just learned form that one passage in the test (parroting). She said she repeatedly asked him to only reply with the information from the passage just read but that he didn’t always comply. I asked if he said the right information from that reading and extra information was included that was from another source, to me that meant he learned from both the new information and the old. She disagreed, saying the only way to gauge if reading comprehension was achieved is if the student only parrots back what was in that exact passage.

Later when I had time to ponder this it occurred to me how difficult that can be, I know it would be for me. Think about this for a minute. Let’s say you know X about a topic then read a new passage. While reading you are trying to understand it and in so doing some assimilation with prior knowledge in your mind is thought about. Then to answer a battery of test questions about what was read you would have to concentrate back on just what was read at that last reading to be aware to not reply in open-ended questions with any single thing that was known formerly.

This was my first taste of when school test measurements may not match to the bigger picture of what we want learning to be. I thought also that teachers wanted this type of “big picture” learning but apparently not all of them do. I thought that learning was about setting a foundation then building upon it. As a person grows older the knowledge builds up and up and information and ideas intersect and weave together with connections happening all over the place. I asked myself, “Is it not the goal of teaching and reading new material to link it to past information learned, make connections, synthesize it and understand the new information in a bigger picture way?” I still can’t understand a teaching model used in public school where this type of learning is not the goal. I remain totally miffed about this.

Perhaps the answer is that the goal of public education in America is truly not what the publicly stated goal is, but this is not something I’ve researched thoroughly or chosen to buy in to. I am speaking of the idea that our country wants robot like compliant citizens to be passive participants in what factory owners or corporations want from a workforce or what our government wants from its citizens. That theory is laid out in “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto if you want to learn more about that. If that book is too much for you consider reading “Dumbing Us Down” by the same author.

Results All Over the Place
I will also share my son got some excellent scores on the testing, so the picture painted of him was all over the place. In the same content areas, he was deemed ahead in some areas, behind in others, and on grade level in others. The tests themselves were scattered even when testing the same thing, thus leaving me with little confidence about school testing of academic ability!

For example one phonics test said “doesn’t know enough phonics to be able to decode and learn to read and needs remedial phonics work” when in fact he can read and did score on another test “decoding words with phonics at a grade eight level”. (My son was in grade five, second month at that time.)

I consoled myself also with the information that his verbal communication portion of an IQ test tested at age 17 which impressed the teacher very much. A person cannot be a good oral communicator if they can’t think or if they don’t have any content to discuss, right? At least that very high score balanced out the writing composition which was all over the place from grade 5, grade 4 and grade 1! Also I didn’t believe the grade level score for two of the tests. I checked these writing pieces he did for homework which I had copies of against the Flesch-Kinkaid scores in Microsoft Word and instead of coming out below grade 5 level, and they scored grades 4 and 5. So what is up with her scoring system?

A Problem with the Tests Themselves?

When I heard the results I asked about the inconsistency. I wanted to know how the same kid could score below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level on reading comprehension when tested by the same person in the same time frame. She looked at the tests and made the connection for the first time that he scored well on the short passages of one or two paragraphs but did worse on the longer tests. The test with 1.5 pages of reading he did the worst on.

She also mentioned that on the long passage test he was skipping some lines and losing his place on the line. She said she noted he could not answer questions on data he missed due to skipping lines or skipping words (which she said makes perfect sense). She said she thought me may have had an eye tracking problem, that she saw his eyes jumping around or searching to find his place when he got lost on the page, but was quick to say she’d not yet learned about what that exactly is. I told her I have some friends with kids under treatment for eye tracking problems and I’d get him to a qualified doctor for an evaluation.

The eye tracking thing really surprised me because in the past he had never skipped words or lost his place on the line. I used to have him read aloud to me and he never used to do that. But in third grade I stopped having him read aloud since he was doing so well (and never skipped a line or lost his place on the line) and he went on to silent reading. In third grade he was reading Boxcar Children series of books which was on grade level. For fourth grade he was battling with me to move on to harder reading, longer books and such. I read about eye tracking problems and saw many symptoms that my son had but they were things that parents and teachers often dismiss with things like “not all boys like to read long books in fourth and fifth grade” or “boys love to read comics” and “not every kids is a bookworm”.

Learning Styles?

To be honest I was still touting the benefits of being aware of a child’s learning style but I was not using the data from his tests very much (I’d retested him over the years) in a very thorough way. I was focusing more on doing what works for him and also doing what is recommended by the classical homeschool method and the Charlotte Mason method.

After doing his fiction reading for reading practice he seemed ‘tapped out’ of energy to read any more. (I later learned this is a huge issue for kids with any kind of learning disability or who struggle with an area of weakness. One source of this information in book form is "The Motivation Breakthrough" by Richard LaVoie.) I saw this "tapped out of learning energy" starting in about grade three and it continued up to that point when he was in grade five. I had continued using heavy Charlotte Mason influences and classical methods from "The Well Trained Mind" (book) but was still relying on a lot of reading aloud for educational content not just to follow those homeschooling methods as I thought they were wonderful but also because my son had no energy or desire to switch to independent reading for history, science, and other content.

I was also surprised on retesting my kid’s learning styles when they were in grade 2 and 5 that they scored exactly the same as each other for learning styles. They learn very differently and want different things from their learning experiences so this mystified me. (I will explain more details in the Brain Dominance portion of this series that helped things fall into place.) I just left the question dangling unanswered but I did wonder if learning style were really accurate. Again I was not obsessing over learning styles. I felt they were something that might be helpful, one part of the puzzle, but they were not the ‘end all and be all’.

Books Mentioned in This Post

The book I used for learning styles was:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Part 4: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part Four: In Which I Offer My Son Up as a Guinea Pig for Testing

I am sharing these stories in chronological order but this point is where three things converge. The fact that my older son might have a learning disability was brought to my attention in January 2008 after some testing was done by a student teacher in the fall of 2007. The appointment with the doctor and the actual diagnosis was in April 2008. Also in April 2008, I learned about what is called brain dominance and its affect on learning. These events affected me in ways that profoundly shifted my thinking about children and learning. I also went through a priority shift during this time due to learning all these things and being faced with addressing new challenges. Lastly a state legislative issue that threatened homeschooling freedom affected me greatly as did learning of numerous false reports to the state for educational neglect of homeschooled children and worried about how our homeschool may be judged by an outsider.

At this point a few issues meld together to form my opinions. To make my points and to explain my reason for thinking what I do, I need to tell about each part. I can’t discuss my opinions about learning styles unless I include “brain dominance” (or whatever you prefer to call it) and also discuss my son’s new learning disability. I can’t talk about one or two without talking about the others. I tried to talk about our story in a vague and general way but worried that readers won't understand or will think I'm just tossing about opinions based on nothing concrete. I have a reason for thinking the things I do!


My older son loved (and still loves as a preteen) being read aloud to. I’d been reading aloud to him since he was a baby. He sat more still than my friends say they think boys should be able to do. He loved the illustrations in picture books and seemed to be a visual learner. By that I mean he was very interested in the illustrations and images on the page (he could care less about the text). He also learned a lot from watching documentaries.

My son was not ‘always on the go’ nor was he one of the kids who must move, run, or jump around while listening to a book read aloud or practicing math facts. He didn’t “need to move to learn” even though is learning style was equally visual (pictures) and kinesthetic. (Some homeschooling mothers I know whose kids seem to me to have undiagnosed ADHD or at least be “wild” or seem to have impulse control problems claim their learning style testing shows the child is a kinesthetic learner and credit that for their child’s physical actions.) He learned easily from watching people do things with their hands also but I never classified him as a kid who needed to touch things and do projects related to learning, but give him some LEGOs and he can play alone or with other kids with them for eight hours. He loved making art and doing hand crafts. He never much cared for ‘hands on’ educational projects, acting things out or dressing up like historical characters.  Learning activities that “they say” kinesthetic learners want and thrive on were a turn-off for this son despite his test score saying he was a kinesthetic learner.

My son has a photographic memory. He can remember events attended and places visited in vivid detail. His earliest memory goes back to about his first birthday. Emotional incidents have a large impact on him and those things are more permanently stamped into his mind. Small incidents that upset him may leave a scar while positive emotion incidents seem to be very important for shaping his persona in a positive way (this is harder to credit than the clear, bad experiences’ negative impact). Something like a spanking is etched in his memory forever. I cannot imagine what his mind and heart would be like if spankings or other pain infliction methods were used on him regularly. Although I'm against spanking I did try it a couple of times and it really seemed to scar his mind and heart and it wasn't effective at stopping the problems anyway (other methods worked). I think the emotion has some connection to his memory because he doesn’t have a photographic memory for words, math facts or academic information but for experiences, interpersonal communications (detailed recall of full conversations or exchanges witnessed) or linked to places (travel etc.).

Because I was reading to him from higher level books than his independent reading level, and because we visited museums with displays geared toward adults, and by watching documentaries for adults, he got exposed to higher level information and understood it. He absorbed it like a sponge. I did these things because they worked for my son and also because I was following the Charlotte Mason method which recommended reading from higher level books than the child could read to themselves. I did not do those things because the learning styles test said to do them. I just looked at that son’s test from when he was early age seven and he was equally scored as a visual learner (pictures not text) and kinesthetic. Auditory was low which I recall confused me since he learned so much content that was read aloud to him.

I did not have him reading ‘on grade level’ nonfiction books for academic reasons for kids as I felt the information was too simplified and dumbed down in order to deliver it in a reading level they are able to comprehend. For example a book I could read to him about space exploration had so much more information than on grade level space exploration easy readers. I had clear indications that what my son learned from read-alouds, audio books, videos, and museum trips was being learned and retained. My son could make unbelievable connections. When reading a book about Egypt, when narrating he linked it to something he saw a year ago on a documentary, in the right context. To me that is what we want from learning. (We have so far never used textbooks such as I used in public school for learning about topics such as science and history. The homeschooling methods we chose to use seek to avoid these boring and often dumbed down tomes at all costs.)

A Panel of Tests

At age ten I offered my son up as a guinea pig. A post came across a local homeschool discussion board asking if any children could be test subjects for a student teacher. The woman was an experienced middle school teacher who was getting her master’s degree to be a reading specialist. She had to give a full battery of tests to one child in order to learn how to administer them. This was her first time administering these tests. For her grade she had to do a big report on the child including making recommendations for addressing any weaknesses. One purpose of the exercise was to realize how different tests exist that test the same concepts but the tests are weaker or stronger than each other (all these tests are presently used). I was told different schools use different tests (the same school might not use two tests; someone at the school has chosen which will be used and which will not be used). Some are considered more credible than others. (The fact that any schools use the sub-par tests is confusing to me, why don’t they all use only the most accurate tests? But I digress.)

I thought my son had fantastic reading comprehension based on his oral narrations which was a key element of the Charlotte Mason home education method. This was my son’s first time taking tests like this. He seemed to tolerate it well, being patient, calm, and polite. The teacher complimented me many times on how easy it was to work with him and what a ‘great kid’ he was.

Bottom Line Lesson Learned

If you teach with a certain goal and method and then you test a student using different standards and methods, the student may not score well. In some academic areas where defined content is learned if that is tested, the student may perform well. However even in some cases such as something as seemingly clear cut as math, this may not work.

For example if I homeschool my children using old style math such as I learned in public school in the 1970s and 1980s, if they took the Connecticut Mastery Test and were asked to estimate first not just do the operation, then write a paragraph explaining their thought process and show two ways the problem could be solved, my kids may get that wrong. I do not have my children writing out in words how they do math. I do not teach guesswork methods of math. I focus on concrete operations not guesswork as a primary objective.

Lastly anything having to do with a calculator may not work out well as my children are banned from using them to do schoolwork. Thus if I teach my kids to read and they can read and enjoy the selection and learn from it they still may not fare will doing testing that focuses on other objectives.

One test prep booklet with real test examples was asking my child to guess at emotions of characters in the selection with subjective answers such as after a young child was lost at the zoo my son said the mother would be happy when the child was found but the right answer was the mother would be angry with the child for having wandered off. In our family this mother would have been happy!

So one impression I had of testing was to be careful that if an alternative education method is used (even a popular homeschooling method) that effective learning might not be clearly shown on standardized tests that are built to measure learning effectiveness used in a different model of education.

I know that some studies show that homeschoolers score well in standardized tests and that homeschoolers outperform public schools in those studies. However I question who is taking those tests. Are those homeschooled students just having public school replicated at home (albeit maybe adding in religious content or some great extra learning experiences)? Are the test takers using alternative learning methods such as unschooling? Are kids who are late readers given the test at the young ages when they can't read (they'd fail, wouldn't they?). Are any of those students suffering with learning disabilities taking those tests? I don’t know.

I’ll share more details of the testing and the results in my next post. I wanted to share this in one post but it was too long!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Part 3: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part Three: What My Younger Son Taught Me

While teaching my older son, such as when I was reading a book aloud, my younger son who was three years younger than my older, began learning alongside his brother. I was doing what I thought was right for my older son per his learning styles yet I could not stop my younger one from learning just by being present when I was teaching my older son.

At age three my younger son sat in my lap while I played regular BINGO and sight word BINGO with my older son. By looking at the numbers I called out he learned the numbers by sight and to read left to right, up to 75 (see story here). He asked to find the words for me on our sight word BINGO card so I’d show the card directly to him and let him find it (he did it with ease).

Later when three, he could count to over 150. I know this because I had bought dot to dot books for my older son that went over 150 trying to get my son to practice math work under the disguise of fun dot to dot puzzles (it worked by the way). My little guy wanted to do that specific book but I was giving him books that went up to 20. I said he couldn’t have the book with higher numbers because he couldn’t count that high but when he could do it, I'd give him a book like that. He replied, “Yes I can”. I asked him to show me, and he went on to do it. I was flabbergasted. I had never taught him those numbers in any lesson (and his brother, at that age had no clue about counting very high let alone anywhere near or over one hundred).

At three and a half my son knew letter sounds without me teaching him, and the letters by name. He would play with toys near my older son and I while my son was doing phonics lessons, I don’t know if that played a part in it. He did also ask for me to put my finger under the words as I read from picture books. That was something that I had never done before with my older son. I know other people do that, but I had not (just like others recommend using funny voices when reading aloud but I never could bring myself to do that).

At three and a half, my son could decode very short words. He did this not because I asked but when we would see signs or words he’d tell me what they said, much to my amazement. He asked to learn to read, he wanted to use “the red book” that his brother used (Alpha Phonics). I was holding him back though.

On his fourth birthday he received a gift of an educational cartoon (Leap Frog) and after one viewing was decoding larger words. He begged to learn to read. I didn’t want him reading yet as I was trying to savor his youth as I was pretty sure he was to be our last baby.

But in September he demanded to ‘do school’ like his brother so at age 4 and 3 months, I set in to teach him to read using Alpha Phonics. He recalled near the end of my older son doing that curriculum I rewarded with an ice cream cone after doing ten lessons (generally took 8-10 school days). That I did out of desperation to try to motivate my son to finish up. My younger son said to be fair he wanted the same thing and I agreed. However what I didn’t realize was that he’d always to 5 lessons a day and sometimes all ten in one sitting!! He would do phonics for 40-50 minutes straight with determination and never getting frustrated. He flew through the curriculum in three months and was fluently reading at that point.

I gave that son the learning styles test. I didn’t use the results very much to be honest. This is because this kid picked up everything very easily, from any source. He asked to learn and do more than I wanted him to do. He begged for workbooks when I hated them and didn’t want my kids wasting their time doing them. Since he was so precocious, learning things so fast and earlier than the schools recommend teaching them, I didn’t pay much attention to what the test said was his learning style. I focused more on giving my son what he needed or begged for. This wound up resulting in doing homeschooling differently than I had wanted to do but I felt that if he needed workbooks and loved them who was I to refuse him that request? We were generally using the Charlotte Mason method but since I customized things based on his requests maybe the style was more eclectic or some would argue we were unschooling (doing what my son requested).

Now that younger son of mine is nine years old and in fourth grade. I still don’t see in real life, any proof that the learning styles he tests out to be have any relevance in his life. I don’t base curriculum choices on his learning styles test result, I base them on real life experiences and his requests.

I was also miffed about learning styles because my two sons tested exactly the same. In case you are not familiar with the test in the book “Discover Your Child’s Learning Style” the children take the test on their own so the parent is not skewing the result to match what the parent thinks about the child. My two boys are very different in their approach to learning and other details such as which wants to work independently and which wanted me by his side, which wanted workbook type learning and which hated workbooks and so forth. I could not understand how these two children could test the same and be so different.

Then two years ago, when my boys were in grades 5 and 2, I discovered ‘brain dominance’ and it all fell into place. I’ll discuss that topic in an upcoming post.

Books and Products Mentioned in This Post

Friday, October 16, 2009

Part 2: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part 2: Kindergarten for My Oldest Child

When homeschool Kindergarten began for my oldest child I was still unschooling. I should note for anyone who is curious about ages, my son was just 5 years and two weeks old when Kindergarten began. In my geographic area it is now common for boys to be held back a year ("red shirted", they call it) in hopes that they will be developmentally ready to learn or sit still. I didn’t red shirt my son. Actually since we homeschooled I didn’t care much for labels of grades (but would later realize that to do anything like Scouts or even homeschool classes he had to have a grade number assigned to him).

I was worried about teaching reading because it was such a big topic in America. Reading is said to be so important for young children to be able to do. Preschools do pre-reading activities starting at very young ages. Toys are sold with phonics sounds and given to one and two year old’s. So many reading aids are sold to parents of schooled kids. Tutor companies cater to kids who cannot learn to read in school. I had a fear that I’d not be able to teach my child to read. This fear was furthered by the debates over phonics vs. sight reading. I also wanted to teach my son to read in Kindergarten to get everyone off my back: friends, neighbors, and relatives. You see in those early days I was still hearing opposition to our decision to homeschool. Even loving relatives didn't know if I should be entrusted with the education of our children (since I was not a certified school teacher).

My mother was taught to read using sight word methods and was labeled dyslexic in public school. She graduated high school with terrible self-esteem about this and rarely reads anything. The exception is she has read very dry technical books which I feel are difficult reading level if it is a topic she is highly interested in, and she does understand it and applies the content in real life. She has taught herself things from books written by and for gemologists about precious stones, how to propagate and cross breed African Violet plants and show them to win prizes as well as teaching herself difficult handcrafts like custom designing and making stained glass windows.  She thinks she is stupid and unteachable. When she sees a Dick and Jane reader she becomes quickly angry as she has so many bad feelings about her experience with those books!

My father was also taught with sight reading methods in school and supplemented at home with sight reading flash cards (which I know own) and he began Kindergarten when aged four years, nine months (Connecticut allows this) and mind you that was in the 1940s before anything such as preschool ever existed for 'Kindergarten readiness prep'. He was flagged in Kindergarten as not being on track developmentally as his penmanship was poor (looks normal to me, I saw all of his saved school papers!) My grandmother was so freaked out she brought him to Yale for an evaluation at the famous Geselle Institute child development center! I have a copy of this report. My father didn’t think he was good at school, did not enjoy it, and dropped out of high school in order to ‘live in the real world’ and to 'be an adult'. Later he earned his GED and took a few night college courses. He is still happy with his decision to drop out. He reads the city newspaper daily but has not read a single book since high school in the 1960s. In case you're wondering he is of the hippie generation but was definatly not a hippie. He worked hard at his jobs and conceived a child when he was 21 (with me) and went on to get married and became a family man.

(In case you are curious, as to my parent's view of education they felt children should use public school since their taxes paid for it. "Get our money's worth!". They left the education of me and my brother to the school. I recall being helped with homework in grades four and under but after that I was on my own. My parents were what the schools would now call "hands off" or "uninvolved". Honestly we never spoke of education or the importance of learning. We were just told "do your homework as the teacher says to do it". And we earned a few dollars for A grades on our report cards.)

Besides my thoughts on what outsiders thought of our Kindergarten year and on learning to read, I put the pressure on myself to teach my child to read in his Kindergarten year. I was trying to keep up with the public school schedule even though my state’s homeschool laws are not detailed (they don’t say what must be learned or taught in what grade). I decided that if I could teach him to read which Americans think is such a hard thing to do, that I could teach my kids anything in homeschooling. I figured if I failed at teaching them to read then I’d fail at homeschooling so was prepared to give it up.

My son had every single reading readiness sign that exists in the check lists. Yet with phonics or sight reading methods he could not learn to read. He even found it a struggle to learn the names of the letters of the alphabet at first, finally mastering that either shortly before Kindergarten or in the beginning of Kindergarten. When he knew the sounds it was an effort to blend them together /c/-/a/-/t/ was dragged out and not easily said as ‘cat’. I kept teaching him to read then would give up and shelve the program for a couple of months then retry it again. I first blamed the curriculum so kept shopping for another product. I amassed a collection of phonics reading programs. There was no magic bullet. Hard work in short lessons on a regular basis is what worked. The motto could have been Nike's "Just Do It".

I looked into a program that was largely sight reading based but did not like the guessing games and wanted my son to decode the word not say a word based on an illustration on the page. It was “Teach Your Child to Read With Children’s Books”. Plus that didn’t work either.

Finally in the late winter of his Kindergarten year my son was able to learn phonics. It was, to me, slow and grueling. Lessons lasted generally 5-10 minutes (trying for 10) but I tried to stop the lesson before any frustration erupted. My son did not like the lessons and just wanted to keep playing. But he played all day long so I felt strongly that 5-10 minutes of a lesson that I wanted him to do was perfectly reasonable to ask of him. The phonics program that worked in the end was “Alpha Phonics” by Sam Blumenfeld.

Actually at that time I began to worry about my parenting style. I used attachment parenting and he did have limits. He was a well behaved boy and we had a harmonious family life. He would do what I said. He didn’t do ‘bad things’. He didn’t cause trouble. He’d make reasonable requests and I would agree. We did not use pain infliction punishment methods (i.e. spanking or slapping) nor did I use “violent” communication tactics like shaming, belittling or mean talking to induce shame. The word ‘no’ was not used much in this home, not because he was a demanding brat that got what he wanted but because he was a reasonable kid and didn’t make requests for things that I should deny. Such as we didn’t keep candy in the house as we were trying to eat healthfully so we never battled about having ‘just one more piece of candy’.

My son had a good life. He had lots of toys and we did fun things as a family. He was used to having an enjoyable life. So when he refused to sit and do phonics I was actually hurt. I didn’t ask him to do much that he didn’t want to do so I wanted him to not argue about doing phonics for 5-10 minutes 4-5 times a week. He resisted though. I worried that perhaps I over-indulged him or let him think that life was all about fun and games so now that something took effort to learn he was not willing to do it.

It didn’t help when I read Christian homeschoolers discuss defiance of authority and that children who battle their parents are sinning by breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Some Christians have pointed to attachment parenting and gentle discipline as creating monsters, and a monster is what some would have labeled my ‘defiant’ son based only on our exchanges about doing the phonics lessons (the behavior was not present any other time). In the end I stuck to doing what felt right in my heart and it has turned out well. My son is now twelve and is a really nice kid. I’ve received many compliments on my son behaving well and being a friendly, likeable person. He does not have an angry heart. I feel that a good amount of bad behavior or poor attitudes in children is due to having an angry heart (whether imposed by things done to them by parents, peers, or others in their life).

About learning styles, before that Kindergarten year I discovered a book written by two school teachers on the topic “Discover Your Child’s Learning Style”. They said how schools have not kept up to date with new research and information learned about learning styles. They blamed children not learning on ineffective teaching. They argued that now that more is known about learning, developmental stages and brain biology that teachers should be more flexible with their teaching methods or the timing. I did the tests in and found them helpful to a point. The book was not written for homeschoolers (even at this point in time none exists) that shows exactly what curriculums work with that style or modality and none give details about teaching methods. Honestly a book could be written by a homeschooling parent for homeschooling parents that contains detailed information about teaching techniques and curriculum and product choices.

So I believed at that time, that learning styles could help in some way. I did not obsess over learning styles or claim they are a cure all for everything.

The last thing I’ll share in this segment is that by the spring of Kindergarten my son was no longer happy with wide open days of no structure. He wanted some structure to learning, to know what was coming next, to have a plan in place. I looked again at the classical method (a la the book “The Well Trained Mind” which was given to me as a gift from a veteran successful homeschooling family) but it didn’t seem a best fit for us at that time. I began to research the Charlotte Mason method after hearing a happy homeschooling mother praise the method. I read “A Charlotte Mason Companion” by Karen Andreola. I began to use Charlotte Mason methods slowly and by the beginning of grade one we were a full fledged Charlotte Mason family doing short lessons. The rest of our days were more learner-driven like unschooling, which I still liked very much but felt it didn’t mesh well with my son.

So regarding reading, we were doing phonics instruction regularly at the end of Kindergarten, broke for the summer, then resumed using it in September of his grade one year. He finished the program and was reading well in my opinion.

I felt that kids of that age needed open ended time for playing. I didn’t want homeschooling lessons to be long and drawn out. I wanted plenty of time for my child to play. I provided him with good toys that allow for the use of his imagination. He loved to play on his own (and with his brother) and he thrived when given a whole afternoon of playing at whatever he wanted. Back then the major focus was still on playing with wooden train sets, building elaborate layouts and he was just starting to play with LEGO and a little with K’Nex. He played board games like (adult) Monopoly and Parcheesi and some card games. He played no video games but did fool around with some educational computer software games (which I felt taught him little). He loved doing open ended art projects and doing crafts. At that point we were doing arts and crafts every single day usually for about two hours.

At that point in my homeschooling experience I felt what was most integral was the developmental stages of my young child, more than learning styles. I felt that if a child was taught when they were ready to be taught the learning would come fast and easy. I felt that pushing formal academics on a too-young child was a waste of time for everyone and stress-inducing for the child. I wanted my kids to be kids and felt there was a lot of time in the future for more strict, formal academic lessons. I was also still in the mindset that almost all learning could be made fun if the teacher was creative and flexible enough but already knew from real life experience that no matter how hard the teacher tries some things that the learner cannot learn easily just has to be tolerated and “gotten through”. I hoped to not force too much onto my children that was difficult, but recognized that something as vital as reading was non-negotiable.

The last thing I'll share is that those times were some of the happiest in our family. I really enjoyed my young children. I loved being with them. I felt I was doing important work by being an at-home mother. I enjoyed homeschooling despite the reading struggle. I did not resent my younger son for being a normal toddler. I found ways to keep my toddler happy while finding time to have uninterrupted time with my older son. We had a lot of fun and laughs back then. I regret nothing about those years and the unschooling method we used for so many years. We had a happy family and in those times no problems were yet present (no Cancer of our parents yet, no unemployment, no deaths in the family etc.). Those were good times!

Books I Read That Were Mentioned in This Post

Attachment Parenting related books by Dr. William Sears--

Dr. Sear's parenting book for Christians which is the attachment parenting method in keeping with Scriptures---