How can an understanding of how children think improve a teacher's teaching skills? Particularly in terms of differentiating students needs and abilities?
Children are not homogenous entities, each one an exact replica of the other. They differ markedly, including between genders, and those with learning disabilities cannot be expected to learn at the same pace and in the same manner as those who are not mentally or emotionally impaired. It is only relatively recently, in fact, that fundamental distinctions between boys and girls were acknowledged as being grounded in physiological differences. The centuries’ long struggle for gender equality has actually illuminated these distinctions, and enabled social scientists and others to begin to fully understand the different ways boys and girls adapt to the classroom environment and learn subject matter. Boys have much greater difficulty sitting still in class and remaining focused on their lessons, while girls are often better able to concentrate on the instructions being orally issued by the teacher. There are, needless to say, exceptions, but, as a general practice, these distinctions exist and extend beyond cultural influences. Similarly, students with learning disorders, irrespective of gender, obviously have greater difficulty than their classmates absorbing and processing information. Children on the autism spectrum, for instance, require special methods tailored to their situation if they are to have a reasonable opportunity at progressing through the academic process. Fortunately, as knowledge of the functioning of the human brain increases, strategies for helping special needs children can be better formulated.
As the individual needs of students are identified through preliminary testing and, in some cases, more intrusive examinations conducted in medical facilities (including brain scans), those children who are categorized as learning disabled are more likely to receive the special assistance they need, whether through occupational therapy to address sensory issues, special tutoring, individualized curriculum, etc. Parents of children on the autism spectrum and those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have available to them options that didn’t exist in earlier eras, and greater sensitivity on the part of teachers and academic administrators – still a work in progress – offer promising approaches to helping such children adapt to the classroom environment and develop academically and emotionally. First, however, the teachers must be trained to identify indicators of physiological problems affecting students’ ability to learn, and to socialize, and school administrators must be attuned to the options available to them to help such students.
Tailoring curriculum and teaching methodologies to specific students with unique needs, however, is easier said than done in an age when overcrowded classrooms are the norm. School districts are often straining to accommodate the needs of their students within limited financial parameters. With over thirty children per classroom a common occurrence in many public schools, the attention needed to identify and help individual students is too often unavailable. Social workers, tutors, and others are certainly instrumental in addressing the needs of individual students, but the numbers threaten to overwhelm limited resources. That said, the more teachers know about the needs of each of their pupils, the better equipped they will be to tailor instruction to specific needs. Understanding how children process information is vital to correcting deficiencies that exist in the educational system, but sheer numbers makes it an enormous challenge. There are not enough classrooms and not enough teachers to accommodate the needs of every single student, although retaining that as a goal is an essential start to addressing problems. There is no getting around the fact that a certain amount of standardization is inevitable, but identifying students with special needs, and accommodating the distinctions between how the genders learn are essential to providing the maximum number of children the academic foundation they need to progress toward adulthood.
Understanding how students think will allow teachers to plan activities that are appropriate to the developmental level of each child. Children in the same grade do not always have the same abilities, it is important for the teacher to be able to differentiate instruction to match the needs of all students in the class. Knowing what types of thinking processes a student is capable of will allow the teacher to plan assignments that are within the scope of the student's abilities. If teachers plan activities that are too easy, students will be bored. If activities are too difficult, students will become frustrated. So it is important for teachers to understand how students' brains work.
It is also important to understand how each individual child learns. Some students learn best by listening, others by seeing, others by doing, or any combination of those. Knowing this information about each child allows the teacher to incorporate all types of learning into a lesson and plan re-teach assignments in areas of student strength. For example, if Sarah didn't learn how to add double-digit numbers by watching the teacher do it, and the teacher knows that Sarah is a kinesthetic learner, then the teacher can plan a short one-on-one session with Sarah using blocks and ten-frames to re-teach the concept to Sarah. This type of teaching makes sure to catch all types of learners so that all students can be successful.
This type of teaching also provides teachers with many more resources for teaching. Years ago, teachers taught using only one, or sometimes two, learning styles. Information was verbally presented to students and sometimes presented visually on a blackboard. Rarely were students allowed to experiment or learn kinesthetically. This meant many students fell between the cracks and were labeled "ignorant" just because the teachers didn't understand how students think and didn't use different teaching styles to reach all learners.
If a teacher is aware of how each student learns, they can incorporate each style of teaching into their lessons. At the beginning of the year, in my AP Calculus class, we had to take a survey which determined what type of learner we were: auditory (listening), visual (observing), and kinesthetic (hands on). She used the results to determine what type of lessons she needed to plan in order for everyone to learn the content. Sometimes we will do hands on, group work and other times she will show us graphs and other times she will just lecture. This way, everyone’s learning styles will be met and everyone will have a chance of understanding the material.