What’s affecting how children learn?

Three years ago my first graders failed to make it through the entire sequence of first grade skills by June.  At the time, I assumed that it was a one off–a particular group of children who needed more time than the school year offered us. The following year, I experienced the same thing and then again the year after that. With a trend of three years, it began to become clear that something else was going on.

My turn to participate in the self-study came at a time when I was starting to question whether the ways in which children are learning have begun to shift. With this question a whole host of other questions arose for me. Do they simply need more time? Different types of instruction? Different expectations? Different materials? Are brains developing differently? And if so, how, and what does that mean for schools, for educators and for me?

My students all need academic support. With my first graders, I use an adapted form of an Orton Gillingham technique- the method that is universally considered the best for children who need reading support. The teaching is sequenced and structured and though I bring in supplemental materials and activities, the process of learning to read is broken down and taught in a systematic way with lots of repetition and spiraling back for review.  Though I still feel confident in the approach and materials, I am curious about why it is taking at-risk children longer to learn how to read and why they need more support than in the past. Referrals for outside support and evaluations are up and I believe that this is in part because children are not responding to in-school, small group instruction, as they have in the past. They need more repetitions, more exposure, more personalized instruction than in the past. They start first grade with fewer skills and have a harder time acquiring them.

Are cultural shifts affecting how children learn? Are brains developing differently? What does that mean for a teacher with an “old “ brain that may be wired differently? Do we need to start to think differently? Use different materials? Should I adjust my time-table? Are children receiving less exposure to early language? To nursery rhymes? To word play? Does that matter? Do children use electronic devices in place of looking at books or talking to parents on the subway? On car and plane trips? Are families talking less at meals? Are children being asked to do less at home which would help them understand how to sequence? How often do children see their parents reading? And do they see them read books, newspapers, magazines? How do they internalize the conventions of print when they are not exposed to those behaviors? And maybe the biggest question, does it matter? Are we prioritizing skills that should not be prioritized in the same way as in the past and are there other skills that are being undervalued? And if we agree that learning to read is still a top priority, but recognize that some of the daily living experiences that helped children learn to read no longer exist, what do we do?

We know that a typically developing child will acquire reading in the course of instruction at school, but what about children with learning difficulties? What do these shifts mean for them and what do they mean for me as the person responsible for supporting them?

Over the course of this year I plan to talk to teachers at other schools to get a sense of what they are observing and how they are responding to shifting needs. I am looking into how to better support our early childhood students without moving into an academic EC model, and I have registered for the learning and the brain conference in the spring. A number of books have begun to explore these questions and while I will not likely have time to read them all this year, I would like to compile a list of books so that moving forward I can begin to dig deeper into these questions.

One thought on “What’s affecting how children learn?”

  1. Harriet, thanks for posting. I really appreciate the vulnerability that you’ve taken on here (i.e., what it means for us as teachers and learners when we notice that something essential in the landscape has changed). Do we dig in and hold on fast to our tried and true practices or do we open them for investigation with the understanding that this may reveal a demand for new ways of working and learning (for students and teachers)? What emerges for me as you probe beneath the surface of all of the questions that you raise here is a powerful ethic of care that drives your work. How might we best meet the needs of our students? How are these needs being influenced by the larger world? And most important for the context of the self-study, how might we have to change ourselves in order to better live out this ethic of care ?

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