Executive Perspective

Diverse Learners

by Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

One of the remarkable paradoxes of American education is how we like to talk about the value of each child, and yet we strongly hold to a system that yields a one-size-fits-all model of educating all those individuals. For me, this contradiction always has been personal.

In my talks I often mention three children that each of us is familiar with because we have them in our schools.

The first is that child who never seems to be on the same page as everyone else. He is always a few pages short of a complete book. No matter how hard we work he is always, as my father used to say, “a day late and a dollar short.” The child just doesn't get it. We have titles for these children. Perhaps one of the kindest is “slow learner.”

Then there is another child who frustrates us more than the first. We give the slow learners some slack because they just don't seem capable of mastering the material. The second child is totally capable — but she just won't do it. We know from her test scores that she is a capable learner, but her effort is not up to her capacity. We label these children “underachievers” and they drive us crazy because they don't work up to their potential.

The third child is a favorite. This child knows the answers before we give the lesson. She is bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm for almost everything. She can even stretch us. We call these children “gifted” and they make us feel successful as educators.

Personal Differences

Now here's the rub. I was all three of these children. I started off as a slow learner, not learning to read until 3 rd grade. (By the way, in the ongoing controversy over social promotion and retention, I get up every morning and thank God for social promotion because without it, I would be the oldest 1 st grader in America !) Thank goodness, I was promoted until I reached Mrs. Spurlock's class so she could take me under her wing and teach me to read.


By the time I reached junior high I was such a good reader that I achieved “underachiever” status. I was seen as having potential but wasn't using it. I did well on tests and poorly in the classroom. High school found me hitting on every note and I became gifted. The school thought I was new to the community because I wasn't expected to do well.

What changed? The problem in retrospect is that I am a holistic learner rather than a sequential learner. I have to have all the pieces before I get it. I don't move neatly from block to block. I kind of wander the neighborhood until I learn the terrain.

Sadly for me and those who learn like me, schools weren't created for us. It has been estimated that only about 20 percent of our children actually learn according to the way we structure schools. Whether it is holistic versus sequential or kinesthetic versus auditory, many kids don't fit the molds we create for them. Given all that, it is just short of amazing we get the results we do.

I have driven more than one education reformer mad by suggesting that standards, accountability and choice will not yield us great schools. In fact, they may take us backward. Rather, what we should be doing is creating schools kids want to attend. These would be places where learning is meaningful and engaging to the students. Learning must be connected to their world, their culture and their learning styles. And it must be personalized. With the advances technology offers us, this is not an unrealistic expectation. Our goal must be to create schools that are exciting places and that really do value every child.

The formula for success is insight + incite = excite. We must work to understand and celebrate the differences our children bring to school. Not all children are gifted. But they all have gifts. And not every child we label a slow learner is slow. And if children are underachieving we must ask whose sin that is. We must develop insight into how kids learn and what motivates them. Then we must find ways of inciting them to action.

Unstoppable Beliefs
I had the occasion a few years ago to attend a Tony Robbins seminar and, to this day, I am amazed at the fact that in a few hours he was able to persuade me and about 2,000 other people into walking across a bed of hot coals. I don't like to walk on hot sand at the beach and here I was walking across 12 feet of burning coals. He created such a strong sense of belief that we could do that feat that we couldn't wait to get to the coals. If we could instill a fraction of that belief in our children about what they are capable of doing, we would have created a system of education that would be unstoppable.


During the “fire walk” experience we found that as we approached the coals, we were urged to focus on what was across the coals, not on the coals themselves. In essence we became so focused on where we wanted to go, we had no time to think about the problems and dangers under our feet.

At a recent talk, Peter Senge observed that nothing in nature is exactly the same. No two things have been created that were just alike. American education will be “reformed” when we come to understand and truly prize the differences our children bring with them and be able to capitalize on those differences by constructing a learning environment that is open to different ways of learning and that focuses us on where we need to be as a system and as a nation. Then we will see that the whole truly is a multiplier of the sum of the parts.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.