Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Mel Levine at Mercer Island

Pediatrician and educator Mel Levine spoke tonight at the Mercer Island High School to a sell-out crowd of something like 1000 people.

He’s full of anecdotes, like the one about Zander, the boy who was otherwise very expressive but was failing his writing class until they discovered he had grapho-motor issues. Solution: give him a keyboard and now he’s just fine. Or the girl who had trouble reading until they discovered she had a shortage of “active working memory”. Solution: train her to underline key points and review them later as she reads.

Levine, who is the founder and director of a non-profit All Kinds of Minds, thinks schools could be more effective if they focus kids on their assets (learning strengths), diagnose areas of weakness, and then discuss with the kid. Ask if these are important in life, and then either find workarounds for areas that don’t matter as much, or exercise the areas that matter.

He notes the differences between success in “real life” and school. Kids in school are expected to be well-rounded but life rewards specialization. Schools are designed for linguists, not spatial thinkers. Of course there are many general skills that everyone should learn regardless of how much they use them later, but what can we do to make it easier for kids who have neuro-developmental issues that make classrooms difficult?

Levine’s institute publishes a table of neuron-developmental profiles, that builds on the latest neuroscience to break learning down into its components. These are skills like saliency determination (lets you figure out what’s relevant) and significance determination (what’s important). Some kids just can’t get their minds off the significance of the thumbtacks on the bulletin board, making it hard for them to pay attention to the letters that the teacher has posted there. The ability to see things others can’t is an important sign of creativity that should be nourished, but too often those kids would be labeled disruptive.

Other examples: previewing (the ability to see the end result before embarking on a task), sequential and spatial ordering (knowing how things are connected in time and space). Kids who are particularly good or bad at these skills can turn up in the principal’s office for bad behavior, when what they really need is some tasks that can help them apply their strengths productively or compensate for their weaknesses.
Some other ideas: keep in mind the difference between an affinity or special interest that all kids should have, and recreation or entertainment that is good but shouldn’t be the focus of their lives. He wasn’t as clear on the difference as I would like, but it brought nods from Mercer Island parents like me who think the emphasis on sports often comes at the expense of more productive learning. When sports teaches teamwork, it’s good; when it’s just a way to feel good about trouncing others, it’s entertainment.

Here are some quotes I wrote down:
  • Lable the phenomenon, not the kid. Instead of saying he’s got ADD, say he has difficulties with sequential ordering. Once the kid knows what’s wrong, he can do something about it.

  • Sleep hygiene is important. Kids need 9 hours a night, period, and you should focus the entire day around how to enable that.

  • No kid should leave school without knowing how to write a business plan.

  • Kids need to learn about learning while they’re learning.

  • Don’t make childhood so wonderful that it’s a hard act to follow. It’s bad if kids are so good-looking or athletic that they have to wait until adulthood to learn about their inadequacies.

  • Kids need to spend lots of time with adults.

  • Imaginative play is more important than a week stuffed with parent-arranged activities.

  • One problem with TV is that it presents the world as more fast-paced and well-organized than it really is.

And my favorite quote, which Levine attributes to Harvard professor Jerome Kagan: To see what a kid will be like when he's 19, watch him at 18.

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