Empowering Students to Understand and Advocate for Their Own Learning Differences

By Dr. Mary Ann Wolf. 

We often ask teachers, coaches, principals and district leaders about their “why” and about those one or two children who drive their work in education. More often than not, educators hone in on that student who needed to be understood, who learned differently and who was able to thrive because the educator was able to personalize learning for him or her.

Riley is that student for me. He arrived in fifth grade unable to read at even a first-grade level. He was relatively withdrawn, but I quickly saw that he could take in and memorize facts that we talked about in class, especially in science or social studies. With this little bit of data and a realization that I had to try something else to help him succeed, I asked Riley if I gave him 10 words on flashcards every day whether he would practice them 10 times each at night. He told me he would.

Every day we added 10 more words — if I forgot, he reminded me. Every night, Riley practiced all of the cards until he had a vocabulary of 800 or 1,000 words and could put the words together. This isn’t an approach that works for most kids, but it boosted Riley’s confidence; by the end of the school year he was reading our fifth-grade texts and reading for his own enjoyment.

While I was able to recognize and support some of Riley’s learning differences, I knew there were at least 24 more students for whom I could not personalize to their learning differences every day. Today, however, much more is possible. The deeper understanding of cognitive science, the availability and possibility of having more data points about students beyond achievement and digital content that can be personalized and meet the needs of more students can lead to opportunities to address learning differences for every student.

Four years ago, we at the Friday Institute embarked on a journey with the Oak Foundation to take the latest cognitive science and understanding of pedagogy to help teachers better understand their students’ learning differences and strategies to support their learning. Using a strengths-based approach, we offered teachers opportunities to dive into an executive function, motivation and working memory.

Over 6,000 teachers have participated in the Learning Differences Massive Online Open Course for Educators (MOOC-Ed), and several hundred educators have submitted micro-credentials. Part of the teachers’ learning experience involved engaging with students about their learning. Again and again, teachers organically discussed that their aha moments that came when talking with students and how their students loved thinking about and developing strategies to support their own learning. This focus on learner agency that emerged led us to develop a course designed specifically for middle and high school students to allow them to dive into their own strengths and learning differences.

I am so excited that we are launching the Students LEAD (Students Learn, Explore, & Advocate Differently) course, a learning experience for middle and high school students and those transitioning to college. The voices in the course are not educators or adults. Instead, they are students who, through a partnership with Eye to Eye National, have succeeded and learned to address their learning differences on their pathway to college and graduation. These students are candid about what worked and what didn’t work, but they also help course students think about how to talk to allies and adults in their lives to get the support they need. The course dives into four “zones”: attention, time management and organization, expressing ideas and memory. Every zone in the course is full of information, strategies, technology apps and tools that students can use to support their learning needs.

Students LEAD empowers students to try strategies for themselves and be their own advocates. As they go through the course they complete an advocacy plan to use as a reference and share with their teachers, coaches, and parents. The plan is filled with information about their strengths, challenges and strategies students can use.

As I think back, I was able to work with Riley to personalize his learning around reading when the more traditional strategies even with one-on-one supports had not been successful. However, I can also imagine the potential of being able to help him more fully understand his own learning differences and develop strategies to support his lifelong learning. Having the combination of a teacher who understands learning differences and who empowers the student to self-advocate doesn’t just help in the moment, it helps the student through the rest of their lives.

We are excited to see how this approach will work for students who, like Riley, cannot quite put their finger on why they are struggling or who need new strategies to support their learning. The course includes tech tools that can help students, as well as teacher guides for educators who want to have their students take the class and have some face-to-face activities they can facilitate. The course is free and only takes 3–4 hours. We are excited to build on our pilot of 250 students and have our middle and high schoolers learn more about their own learning.

For more, see:

Dr. Mary Ann Wolf is director of digital learning programs at the Friday Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @maryannwolfed.

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