Cognitive style theorists stress that school tasks can contribute to learning disabilities when they require students to use problem-solving strategies that they find unnatural. A person's cognitive style (his or her preferred way of looking at and interacting with the world) tends to remain stable throughout life and is influenced by such factors as personality, heredity, and brain injury.
Recall Jonah, the hyperactive first grader. His teacher asks him to find an educational game to play quietly while she works with a reading group. He flits from game to game, never finishes any of them, and he gains little from the experience. His classmate Juli, given the same instructions, chooses one game and plays it over and over, intrigued by its details and trying to get a better score each time. Time is up long before she even thinks about trying a different game. When the teacher asks these two children to tell the reading group which games are available, Jonah's hand flies into the air because he's tried them all. But when she asks them to demonstrate a game, Juli is the one ready with an answer.
Is one child a better learner? In general, our society favors Juli's reflective approach. She's more task oriented, takes more time to arrive at solutions, and likes to analyze and memorize details. School tasks are more compatible with Juli's disposition than Jonah's. But Jonah's impulsive style has benefits too. When the teacher asks the children to find her pen in the classroom, Jonah's ability to scan the environment rapidly works well. Ask Jonah to find the movie theater listings in the newspaper, and he locates them quicker than Juli, who methodically goes through each page one at a time.
Cognitive style theorists presume that in many cases students who are experiencing learning problems have intact learning abilities, but their styles of learning are inappropriate for the classroom demands. This leads to underachievement and cumulative information deficits. On the other hand, when curricular demands match students' preferred learning styles and when students are taught more effective learning strategies, these students can learn well.
The next section discusses the most common learning styles found among students with learning disabilities.
Impulsive and Reflective Learners
Impulsive learners are more highly represented among students with LD than among average students. Their style is characterized by underfocused attention, distractibility, and premature decision making. They are restless, can't concentrate for long, forge ahead before understanding directions, and have social difficulties because they don't stop to consider the consequences of their actions. Overly reflective learners, at the other end of the continuum, are overfocused, delay decision making for what seems like forever, concentrate so long on bits of information that they miss the main point.
Jerome Kagan and his colleagues used the Matching Familiar Figures Test to study impulsive and reflective styles. Kagan and others believed that reflective children are slower, and correct, because they fear being wrong. Impulsive children, on the other hand, get through tasks fast because they aren't concerned enough to take the time to avoid errors. Other researchers countered that these children are fast or slow because of differences in their information-processing approaches. Reflective children prefer to analyze fine details, which takes time. In contrast, impulsive children prefer to focus on the overall picture, which takes less time. They claimed that reflective children are superior to impulsive children only when analyzing details. On items requiring more global analysis, such as recognizing outlines and themes, impulsive children are equal if not superior, to reflective children-and faster.
In a very clever study of hyperactive 4- to 6-year-old low achievers and typical learners of equal intelligence, Zentall and Gohs gave children blocks with drawings of abstract designs. The children had to decide which block to place on a stand after being given either a global cue ("it looks like a ray gun or a man's shirt")—or a detail cue ("it has a hole in the middle"). When the children had trouble making up their minds and needed an additional cue, they would sound a buzzer. If a global cue had been given first, they would get a detail cue next, and vice versa. Hyperactive children sounded the buzzer more often after a detail cue; the average learners did the opposite, needing more information when given a global cue. In other words, global information seems to be more meaningful to the hyperactive, poor learner than detailed information. These children don't know how to go about analyzing material that is detailed (the preponderence of schoolwork) even if they do take more time. It doesn't work to simply tell impulsive students to "slow down and you'll get it": They need to be shown how to focus on details when scanning material and why such a strategy is helpful.
The school curriculum favors the reflective learner because schoolwork most often demands attention to details and taking time to think through an answer. Although impulsive children do have an advantage when it comes to getting an overview of a situation quickly, being sensitive to social cues, solving problems that don't contain the answers, and absorbing incidental information, unfortunately the demands of the school curriculum for the most part are not suited to this global learning style. Therefore, these children's failure is aggravated.
Low Conceptual and High Conceptual Learners
David Hunt described low conceptual learners as categorical thinkers who depend on rules and have trouble generating their own concepts or weighing a number of alternatives. They have a hard time directing their own learning. He described high conceptual learners, on the other hand, as students who generate their own concepts, provide their own rules, consider different viewpoints, and flexibly shift among alternative strategies when solving problems. They are more inquiring, self-assertive, and capable of independently handling complex conceptual material. The majority of students with learning disabilities are low conceptual thinkers.
Studies find that low conceptual students learn better from highly teacher-directed instruction than from a discovery approach, and when a rule is presented before rather than after an example so that the student knows what to be looking for. The low conceptual student needs to be told all the information that requires attention and the exact point being illustrated by examples. High conceptual learners can learn equally well no matter what the method, but they prefer discovvery approaches that give them more freedom in learning.
On a simple "memorize the story" task, one researcher found that good learners preferred to be asked questions after they had heard a folk tale because they liked to organize the information in their own way. Poor learners, however, could retell the tale only if they heard the questions right before the story was read, so they could be more focused in listening for the appropriate information.
School tasks generally favor the high conceptual learner. Teachers frequently encourage students to discover relationships for themselves with questions like "How could we solve this problem?" or "Why did that happen?" They less often directly provide key concepts or precise choices to ponder, yet this is just what the poor learner needs—an orderly approach to learning that provides focus and reduces confusion by coming right out and telling the child the pertinent facts and ideas. For many students with LD teaching approaches that are more structured and explicit are just what they need to promote greater integration and generalization of information. The teacher's lower-level questions (e.g., fact and sequence) will build the foundation for higher-level inferences. We must be prepared to adapt our teaching approaches to match these students' preferred instructional styles.
Simultaneous and Successive Learners
Imagine that you and your l0-year-old nephew Ken have just arrived at a busy airport. You head to the hotel van pickup board where 50 hotel pictures and logos line the wall. While you're still searching for your hotel, Ken shouts "There it is!" Why did he come up with the answer so fast while you were still scanning the wall, up one column of logos and down the next? You used a successive (analytical) approach, which takes time, while Ken used a simultaneous (global) approach, which is faster. For Ken, the logo just jumped out at him as in a 3-D movie.
Youngsters who prefer a simultaneous processing strategy do better on spatial-conceptual tasks such as deciding whether two different-shaped beakers contain the same amount of liquid, or whether two lines are still the same length when the distance between them increases. They readily grasp spatial language concepts such as "taller than," "below," or "inside," and they can see the big picture when organizing compositions. Successive learners, in contrast, are better at understanding the sequencing of language and sound, and thus are better at learning to read and comprehend.
Problems arise when students bring inappropriate successive or simultaneous styles to a task. Children who learn well typically use a simultaneous approach ~o visual and motor tasks, but successive approaches to auditory and verbal tasks. Unfortunately, children with LD may approach these tasks with the least-suited strategy. Even if they eventually solve a problem, it takes longer and is more effortful, thereby depleting enjoyment in the accomplishment and leaving little room for higher-level reasoning. If the child looks at the world in an overly global way, he or she will miss important details. On the other hand, if the child's approach to learning is always analytical, details will cloud the overall meaning. The detail-bound child is also more likely to miss social cues that could help the child fit in better.
The stories of Ariel and JJ illustrate how overly rigid styles, either successive or simultaneous, can interfere with learning. Although both of their teachers adapted their methods to suit each child's preferred learning strategy, these children still needed to be shown how to be more flexible in their styles. Ariel's boring, overly successive style was helped when her teacher asked her to first tell her classmates her conclusion before she launched into the endless details of a story—"where is this leading?" The teacher shifted copying from the board to the beginning of class to give Ariel more time to copy and alleviate her stress about finishing on time. Brainstorming sessions helped Ariel outline her work better. JJ, who leaps to conclusions, was helped when his teacher drew sticks next to numerals so he could count out the math answers rather than guess. The teacher also asked JJ to forecast what would happen in a story to help him focus on details and time sequences. Task modifications like these adapt to children's conceptual styles and are exactly what students with LD who are overly rigid in their approaches need to help them succeed.
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