Blog:  The Inside Track

What the Perfect Learning Tool Looks Like, According to Kids

The Inside Track blog post by Lyn Pollard
Sep 09, 2015

Close-up of a child drawing on graph paper

Wouldn’t it be great if there were one perfect tool to help kids with learning and attention issues? But what would it look like?

Organizations and thought leaders are starting to take this important question to the real experts: kids themselves.

One group that’s been engaging directly with students to find out their ideas is Understood founding partner Eye to Eye (E2E). It’s a national organization focused on mentoring students with learning issues and ADHD.

According to Micah Goldfus, the E2E National Program Director, the “Invention Project” has been a core part of the group’s curriculum for at least five years. My 10-year-old daughter, Merrill, got to be part of this project this past July at Camp Eye to Eye. It was by far the experience she chatted about the most—so I wanted to learn more.

The Invention Project is a simple brainstorming activity “with no rules, no right or wrong answers,” Goldfus explains. Kids are told, Create an invention that would really help you in school. (They can also talk about what already helps.)

Here are some of their answers:

“I’d invent the ‘Helper.’ It’s like a calculator or iPhone that helps you read, write, do math and spelling. It has a special pencil that when you write with it, it makes your handwriting perfect.” —Merrill, 10, Texas

“My invention is a device that you could lay on top of your paper and you could speak into it and it would scan everything into your paper and spell everything correctly for you.” —Nathaniel, 11, Oklahoma

“I like having an iPad or iPhone. It helps me to be able to speak words when I write so my spelling is better and my story comes out right.” —Isaac, 8, Arkansas

The kids’ ideas are fresh. Better still, they’re rooted in real-life knowledge of how assistive technology (AT) helps people learn. That’s because these kids already depend on AT to help them succeed.

After coming up with their ideas, the kids make actual prototypes of their tools using colorful art supplies. Merrill’s project featured a three-dimensional model of her “Helper.” She created the imaginary tool with neon clay, markers and bright construction paper.

I was tempted to push those squishy clay buttons and see if it would actually turn on! It was a great idea, and made so much sense based on Merrill’s struggles at school. I wish she actually had this tool.

The Invention Project highlights E2E’s mission—teaching kids to understand how they think and learn, explains Goldfus. “Ultimately, we’re trying to get students involved in their educational path by having them think about [learning] in a way they may not have before, in more creative ways and with peers who have walked in their shoes—and come out successful on the other side. Once the students see what options are available to them … they can talk about the word ‘accommodations’ as a source of success for them rather than as a weakness or a crutch.”

And they often end up better equipped to self-advocate.

That was true for my daughter. Merrill recently had dinner with two special friends: Academy Award–winning writer/director Peggy Stern and artist Madalyne Hymas (both successful adults with dyslexia). Merrill used her Helper and other art projects as a conversation starter. She shared her thoughts, feelings and hopes about the way she thinks and learns. She spoke confidently, clearly and adamantly.

I have never been more proud of her. And when she starts school next week, I know this confidence will follow her into the classroom and her IEP meetings.

The idea of asking kids about what they need seems to be spreading. Erik Martin, with the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, recently met with a group of almost 50 students with dyslexia and other learning issues at the Dyslexia Hill Day event in Washington, DC. He and leaders from Eye to Eye asked the kids to think about what their ideal learning tool would look like.

“Technology is an essential part of a high-quality education today, but it is especially critical for students with learning differences and disabilities who can use apps, games, videos and much more to equal the playing field and unleash their abilities,” says Martin. “The … students brought a tremendous amount of passion to Washington, and it was humbling to discuss their needs and ideas around technology in the classroom.”

The next day, some of these students had the opportunity to meet with Erik and some of his colleagues from the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education. Their “stories will help shape the education agenda,” according to Martin.

“This is why student voice is so critical—when students speak up and say what they want and what they need together, they can move mountains,” Martin adds.

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About the Blogger

Portrait of Lyn Pollard

Lyn Pollard is a writer and mom to two kids who learn differently.

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