Blog:  The Inside Track

A New View of “Smart” for Kids With Learning and Attention Issues

The Inside Track blog post by Brock and Fernette Eide, Dyslexic Advantage
Apr 03, 2015

Grade school boy sitting on the ground outside school using a computer tablet and smiling

Over the last 30 years, researchers have realized something important about success. They’ve discovered that many school tests and exams don’t do a great job of predicting how “smart” or successful people can be when they’re out in the real world.

One reason these tests do a poor job of predicting real-world success is they’re built on several bad assumptions. They assume that if people really know something, they should be able to put that knowledge into words.

But this isn’t true. We all know lots of things that we can’t easily put into words. In fact, there’s an entire learning system in the brain, the implicit learning system, which deals with this kind of “subverbal” knowledge.

Think about the act of tying shoes. Many people who can tie their own shoes couldn’t tell you how to tie yours. To find out if someone knows how to tie shoes, don’t ask, “Do you know how to tie shoes?” Hand over a shoe and watch what happens.

Most school tests and exams also assume that real intelligence means you can carry all the information you need inside your head. If you truly know something, the thinking goes, you won’t need tools or help from other people to show it.

Following that logic, the best way to find out what you know is to put you in a room all on your own, and then see what kinds of questions you can answer. That means no computer, or books, or calculators, or hand tools or other people to work with.

But this kind of testing has turned out to be really bad at predicting what you can do in the real world, where lots of resources are available.

Because of these problems, experts have looked for other ways to think about the kinds of “smarts” we observe in the real world. One helpful idea is called distributed cognition. That term is a mouthful, but the concept is simple.

Cognition means how your brain knows and understands thingsDistributed means shared. So distributed cognition is what you can know and understand if your brain cooperates with outside helpers—whether they’re tools, printed information or other people.

It also means that your intelligence isn’t fixed by the information you carry around in your head. Intelligence can be increased by the way you interact with your environment.

In other words, how “smart” you are is really the sum of two things: The first is what you know on your own. The second is what you can easily learn by interacting with the things you have easy access to.

This way of thinking about intelligence has some important things to say about how we teach students with learning and attention issues. Why these students in particular? Because more than most students, they show big gaps between how easily they can learn different kinds of information.

Here’s what we mean.

Students with learning and attention issues are usually much better at understanding concepts than they are at memorizing information. Two types of information are particularly hard for them:

  • Procedures, or instructions for how to do things—and especially instructions that have multiple steps
  • Rote facts, like times tables, state capitals or the lists of chemical elements in the periodic table

As technology has advanced, the value of carrying rote facts and procedures around in your head has shrunk. This information is now just a few clicks away online. However, conceptual knowledge—knowing what you can do with that information—is more valuable than ever.

In our digital world we have more opportunities to apply this knowledge. And more ways to do it than ever before.

Since our world has changed, our ideas about how to educate students with learning and attention issues should change, too. We shouldn’t act as if calculators, search engines and other tools had never been invented.

It makes no sense to force students who struggle with memorization to spend endless hours cramming information into their heads. Not in a world where they can get it almost instantly.

Instead, we can use their time in better ways. How? By deepening their understanding of concepts, problem solving and using the resources in their environment to expand what they can do.

This isn’t an argument for abandoning facts. But it is an argument to put facts in their proper place. Most schools still place too much emphasis on memorizing rote information and procedures.

In the past this made more sense. Tools to help store and retrieve this information just weren’t available. However, it makes little sense now, and none at all for our students with learning and attention issues.

Our first goal in teaching should be to keep alive our students’ love of learning, curiosity about the world and hope for the future. This will be easier if we free them from countless hours spent struggling to store and retrieve bits of information they could easily look up in seconds with widely available tools.

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About the Blogger

Portrait of Brock and Fernette Eide
Brock and Fernette Eide, Dyslexic Advantage More Posts by the Blogger

Brock Eide, M.D., M.A., and Fernette Eide, M.D., are cofounders of the nonprofit organization Dyslexic Advantage, and coauthors of the books The Dyslexic Advantage and The Mislabeled Child.


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