Monday, May 20, 2013

Mom and Dad as Learning Coach

Jen Lilienstein, A Parent's Playbook for Learning

If I learned anything in my teaching years, it’s that most “remedial” students don’t really have a problem with the subject. They have a problem with the system. Teachers and students talk past each other, and even eager students become discouraged because school seems like an adversarial environment. Education innovator Jen Lilienstein wants to give parents and teachers the tools to make kids better learners.

Many learning experts don’t actively analyze students’ learning until roughly high school, or older. Lilienstein focuses on grade school ages, adapting the concept of “multiple intelligences,” as popularized by researchers like Howard Gardner and Thomas Armstrong. This holds that human cognitive abilities, like your child’s learning ability, are separate, distinct components, not one big “mind.” Students have more ready individual access to certain intelligences than others.

The classroom model we take for granted, which all of us who went to public (state) school shared, is not necessarily the best way to learn. Lumping kids together based on age and geography, and stuffing them into a classroom with one teacher who may or may not understand them, is cost-effective, but pedagogically inadequate. Even more so today, when budget cuts pack fifty kids into many urban classrooms.

But unless you can afford to homeschool your kids, which most working parents can’t, you rely on schools to prepare your children for their adult roles. That means parents must translate often prolix concepts into approaches children can understand. Your child hasn’t learned to close that gap. As a former teacher, I can attest that if you and your child don’t close that gap early, you never will.

Lilienstein uses an abbreviated version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), an inventory test designed to highlight personality strengths. She divides kids into eight learning categories, each of which could hypothetically subdivide further—use this book as an introduction, not a blueprint. Each learning type has its own distinct processing patterns, and parents and teachers can maximize learning by playing to these strengths.

Imagine your child loves activity learning, like art or sports, but has difficulty with reading. Lilienstein suggests teaching your child to finger-spell words in sign language, as a way to make English an activity. Or what if your kid prefers short bursts of activity over the tedium of book learning? Consider adapting Trivial Pursuit to make learning competitive, ensuring a measurable goal at the end of the process.

And not just your kids; Lilienstein suggests ways her principles can smooth communications with their teachers, too. Though she writes primarily for parents, Lilienstein encourages teachers to participate in the learning customization process. She has a lengthy section on group learning, allowing teachers to partner students with peers whose complementary abilities let them go farther. I don’t fully trust this idea—research on collaborative pedagogy is at best contradictory—but for teachers who share this value, Lilienstein’s analysis will help design better group environments.

Lilienstein divides her book according to learning category, signaled by helpful visual icons. This will especially come in handy for parents whose kids have different learning styles. My parents sincerely tried to help, but because my brain doesn’t work like theirs, their tutoring sessions frequently ended in tears. If they’d had this book thirty years ago, my life might look very different, and our relationship would feel much less strained.

I see two inherent risks with this book. First, kids could easily conclude adults will cater to them. Parents and teachers must emphasize that, while we want to utilize their learning strengths, they must learn to take the initiative. Lilienstein calls this a “playbook,” and illustrates the cover with a coach’s whistle, on purpose: while adults may call the play, students must run it in a field they cannot predict.

Second, parents could approach this book too passively. Many adults, like me, graduated from the “come in, sit down, shut up” pedagogical approach, and we learned to run the system by going along to get along. Teaching our children to be active learners requires breaking our own molds and thinking in innovative ways. We must constantly adapt Lilienstein’s guideposts to children’s growing minds, meaning we must grow, too.

Lilienstein wrote this book as a companion to her website, Consider using both together to ease your child through the difficulty of school. Because we all need to learn, and cannot all afford private tutors, Lilienstein’s thoroughly researched assistance can make the difference between kids frustrated and discouraged by the system, and self-guided learners, ready for adult life.

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