A Tour of Learning Diversity

By Wenda Sheard.

For the past six months I’ve been working full time as a research specialist exploring the educational and workforce lives of people with disabilities. Some people might question how a person deeply committed to the unique social and emotional needs of gifted children and adults could also be deeply concerned about the needs of people with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities. For me, the answer is simple: I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I believe that educational advocates, to be effective, must understand how education policies affect all children, and must be willing to advocate for the best possible education for all children. The key to successful education policy lies not in arguing for one group of children at the expense of another; the key lies in arguing for the best interests of all children.

The best interests of all children lie in treating each child as a unique individual. The best schools resist attempts to fit children into molds. The best schools refrain from moving children in lockstep, headed to identical diplomas in identical timeframes. The best schools decline to fly banners proclaiming “we strive for excellence” under circumstances where the same definition of “excellence” is applied to all children regardless of differences in body, mind, and spirit. The best schools embrace diversity in all senses of the word, including diversity of learning styles and learning speeds.

The rest of this article offers a tour of the brain research articles and education policy statistics that compel me to advocate for all children. On the tour I’ll point out what scientists are discovering about learning diversity, and what students and educators are experiencing in diverse classrooms across our country and beyond. Because so many students aspire but fail to graduate from college, I’ve extended the tour into education policy on the college level.

I hope the information will inspire people to learn more, and thus become better advocates for the social, emotional, and academic needs of all students.

Stop One: Learning Diversity at Birth

Some learning diversity is present at birth. Molfese and Molfese (1997) tested newborns and found that brain information recorded in response to auditory events within 36 hours after birth can be used to predict the reading performance of children eight years later. Subsequent work by Molfese and Molfese exploring the brain responses and abilities of young children is equally fascinating.

Begley (2008) reports on research finding that nearly 30 percent of children are born with genes that result in their brains having fewer dopamine receptors than normal. Having few dopamine receptors is linked to an inability to learn from mistakes, and to less activity in the brain’s frontal cortex, the site of higher-order thinking. In her article, Begley quotes Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University as saying, “individual genetic differences are the 800-pound gorilla of child development.” In the future will schools know which students have a genetic propensity to have less activity in the frontal cortex? Will schools be able to provide experiences to meet the unique needs of those students?

Williams and O’Donovan (2006) and other researchers have found evidence that dyslexia has genetic components. Lepkowska (2008) reported that some scientists who have researched the genetics of dyslexia contend that early intervention with children of parents with dyslexia can combat the development of literacy problems. What would happen if we provided early interventions to children whose parents have dyslexia? Could early interventions help prevent literacy and other problems associated with dyslexia?

Stop Two: Learning Diversity during the Preschool Years

Other aspects of learning diversity originate during the preschool years. Hart and Risley (1995, 2003) found that preschool children from professional families hear more than three times the number of words per hour than do preschool children from families living on welfare. They also found that by the time the children were four years old, the vocabularies of the children from professional families were larger than the vocabularies of the parents of the children living on welfare. How much do vocabulary size differences affect the futures of young children? What, if anything should we do in response to this astonishing finding that four year olds in professional families have larger vocabularies than the parents of families living in poverty?

Scientists are beginning to discover early signs of learning disabilities. Campbell and von Stauffenberg (2009) found that children’s performances between 36 months of age and first grade on measures of resistance to temptation, delay of gratification, response inhibition, attention, and planning predicted whether the children would have symptoms of ADD or ADHD in third grade. Does impulsivity at 36 months of age cause ADD or ADHD in third grade? If we teach impulsive young children to resist temptation and to delay gratification, will that reduce their incidence of ADD or ADHD?

Stop Three: Experiences during the School Years

A child’s experiences during the school years can vary dramatically depending on where the child attends school. Although as a nation we strive to provide children with equal educational opportunity, statistics show that educational experiences vary greatly from one school district to the next. Sadly, those variations have almost nothing to do with the learning needs of individual children. To the contrary, those variations can exacerbate the need for individualized learning for many students.

In the Hartford, Connecticut public schools, where over 95% of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, less than 17% of fourth graders meet the state goal in reading and only 11% of tenth graders meet the state goal in reading. The average SAT score in Hartford is under 400 in reading, math, and writing. By contrast, some school districts in wealthy Connecticut towns have average SAT scores nearly two standard deviations higher. If we take a set of identical twins and place one in Hartford schools for twelve years and other in the schools of a wealthy Connecticut town for twelve years, would we see any differences that occurred, not due to any funding differences or teacher quality differences, but as a result of their exposure to significantly different sets of classmates? If we take a different set of identical twins, would we see different results? Would any of these four children need individualized help in one school system, but not the other?