Half way into her first year in high school Clair came to her mother and said, “I think I need a tutor in math.”
Her mother was delighted and a little surprised at the request: delighted because Clair asked for help, and surprised because she didn’t know her daughter cared that much about her academic success. She immediately set to the task and in short order found a math tutor with an excellent reputation.
Several months later the tutor told Clair’s mother (Jill) that he thought Clair should get tested to see if “there were some organic reason” she was having such a hard time memorizing math facts (like 8 x 7 = 56). Jill asked me for advice.
Here is the gist of my advice:
Save the $2,000. Diagnosis is not where you should put your money and attention, because even after a more-or-less valid diagnosis, one is still confronted with the question of what to do. Instead, assume that Jill’s “problem” is organic (all brain issues are) and start researching the question, “What can be done?”
Education is not medicine—or even analogous to the medical profession. The disciplines of educators are a different from those of doctors. For instance, whereas in medicine engaging the patient in self-healing is occasionally considered, in education it is essential—self-education is the only way to get educated. We can’t teach someone else to ride a bike or learn the times-tables. They have to do it themselves.
So here’s the plan:
- Design a research project with the student as the leader of the research team. (The research question for Clair is: “What is the best way for my brain to remember things?”)
- Get the right people on the team. (The first person for her to ask is her tutor, who is a dispassionate professional—one would hope). There might or might not be a role for a parent on her research team depending on the age of the child.
- A good description with observable data is essential.
- At the first meeting the team looks over the list of recommendations indicated by the presumed disability and agree on one to try. (Jill, at the age of 15, can research mnemonic devices herself, and bring a list to the table.)
- Agree on the design of the experiment. (e.g. Clair summarizes the first design meeting with: “So, first I will take a pre-test. That will determine the math facts I don’t know. Then, I will write a short poem [Jill likes poetry] for each of 10 math facts I want to focus on first. I will recite these poems once after breakfast before I get on the bus, once on the way home, and once before I go to bed. After a week of doing this you will give me another test, and we will see what effect this technique has—if any. We will meet to discuss the results and see if we think this approach is working. If not we will pick another one. Does that sound like a good plan, team?”)
Clair is a particularly self aware and articulate 15-year-old, but this approach is generalizable to children of all ages and their families. Skip diagnosis. Go directly from description to prescription with the mindset of doing research on how the child learns best.