Do you remember your favourite teacher? Most people do. What made them so exceptional? Although studies trying to find out why some teachers are great based on their personality, subject matter, or disciplinary style have mostly failed, there seems to be one thing that counts.
Your favourite teacher is someone who understood your kind of mind, that is, your needs as a learner, and attended to those needs as well as to you as a person. In other words, a great teacher is a teacher who facilitates student-centred learning.
Photo: Fanni Sarkadi
In his book A mind a time that should be read by all of those even thinking about educating young people, Mel Levine outlines eight different neurodevelopmental systems that affect our learning. It is easy enough to see what the (1) attention control and (2) memory systems entail. The (3) language system includes both the production and understanding of language as well as phonemic awareness – a really important skill for reading, entailing knowing what kind of sounds different letters and letter combinations make.
The (4) spatial ordering system, the one where my particular challenge sits, has to do with left and right, discriminating those 3D-patterns, and finding your way. The (5) sequential ordering system, deals with chains of information, helping us know what comes after what when solving an equation, writing as essay, or cooking. It also has to do with time management: I am sure you know someone who just never gets it right when it comes to estimating what time things will take.
The (6) motor system is not only important for writing, doing sports, and preventing accidents due to clumsiness. Recent psychological research on infants has demonstrated that motor function is directly related to 12-month-olds’ learning. When infants were taught to put balls in a certain bucket they were able to predict what the demonstrator was going to do with the balls to a much higher extent than infants who were only allowed to watch what the researchers did, without possibility for own motor experience.
The (7) higher thinking system has to do with abstract thinking (what mass, democracy, etc entail), logical problem-solving, as well as critical and creative thinking. Surprise time: this is my favourite!
Finally, the (8) social thinking system helps us get by in managing the unwritten social rules of a classroom, a workplace, and relationships in general. Kids who are weaker in this domain often suffer at school, where “the social spotlights are glaring”, as Mel Levine put it.
Now what school system truly has the capability to attend to students’ needs based on their particular types of minds? Not many, but in his book Disrupting class Clayton Christensen outlines how using IT at schools could actually promote true student-centred teaching. By using computer software that addresses the strengths of that particular student’s kind of mind, all children could actually reach their potential and develop their less apt neurodevelopmental systems.
Because of my spatial ordering system challenge I had a hard time with anatomy at med school. But by using my stern attention, (then!) excellent memory, and well-equipped sequential ordering and higher thinking systems, I created ways to learn. I even used my not so excellent fine motor skills to draw the slices of a human body (sorry – it’s an occupational hazard to think that’s not strange) to get through the exams. I also had the judgement not to become a radiologist – my grandmother put in her 50 odd-years there so we’re still good as a family.
So send a warm thought to your once favourite teacher. And remember to appreciate when your child comes home with something like the individually formulated assignment note I found under a pair of shoes today, when I – I have to admit – cleaned the house: “Brilliant work Fanni (…) I very much liked the beautiful amethyst gemstone whereby you discussed its chemical composition, uses, places to find, and value. Possibly you could have provided detail on the hardness of amethyst (Mohs scale) and what shapes its crystals grow in, too.”
I am reading into this that my daughter needs some encouragement on using her spatial sequencing system. Ouch! Luckily, her dad can see those crystals in his head, no problem.
Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, photographing her brother who obviously has no problems in his spatial sequencing abilities. Not my genes in work!