Challenges do not Imply Intellectual Deficits

There is a longstanding quest in education to uncover teaching methods that will facilitate learning for the greatest number of students. While wonderful teaching innovations have been made over the years, there continues to be a substantial pool of students who are excluded from these methods because of their learning disabilities. These students have adequate intelligence, social skills, and motivation to learn. Most even have the ability to master the information at hand. However, the learning material is not being taught in a manner that makes sense to them. These students have learning strengths; however, they are required to learn in manners that emphasize their weaknesses.

When a person has different learning preferences than the general student population, there is a misunderstanding that they lack intelligence. It is important to distinguish learning from intelligence as these are two separate mental processes, and to steer our efforts toward creating learning environments and lesson plans for those who learn differently than the majority. It is helpful to think of learning as the way in which information enters our brain, or “input,” and intelligence as the “output” or the externalizing function of information that is learned during the “input” process. This is a very simplified explanation, as there are many internal and external factors that contribute to both learning and intelligence.

First let’s address learning, or the way in which we take in, experience, and make sense of information. There are many ways to examine how people learn. From the very beginning of life, we start to learn through our senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Over time, complexities arise, for example, learning through touch can be distinguished between tactile and kinesthetic learning.  Each individual develops certain sensory learning preferences, most commonly visual or auditory. These two senses may be most popular solely based on the norms and content of our environment (ie. it would be highly unusual, not to mention challenging, in Western American society for an individual to learn mainly through taste). When we think of a traditional classroom or lesson plan, for an individual who has strong learning preferences and struggles to learn through visual and/or auditory processing, he/she will tend to learn less, slower, or ineffectively. However, if the information is delivered in a manner that is in line with this individual’s learning preferences and strengths, they may learn more and at a quicker pace. These results are reflected in countless examples of students whose academic performance (and grades) improved after being given individualized education plan that fit their learning style. Given these results, it is important to note that, though learning and intelligence are two separate processes, in many ways, one’s ability to learn may determine one’s ability to display or communicate his/her intellectual abilities.

The output of intelligence can be measured in various ways. The most basic intelligence measure is the Cattell Horn theory of crystalized intelligence and fluid intelligence, where by crystalized intelligence involves prior learning, facts, and past experiences, and fluid intelligence involves abstract thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. The Weschler Intelligence scale organized intelligence into four areas: verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory, and processing speed. Each of these areas of intellectual functioning interact with one another to create an individual’s cohesive intellectual ability. An even more complex way to explain intelligence is through Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences which suggests that each individual has as a knowledge preference toward any of seven types of intelligence. Though these intelligence preferences may correlate with learning preference, Gardner was careful to emphasize that his theory was not in any connection with learning styles.

Measurement of our intellectual abilities is often based on what we can demonstrate. Because this demonstration relies upon our input and processing, or that which has been learned, it is important that we are able to learn through methods that engage our psychological strengths. If we can work to be aware of our learning styles, preferences, and difficulties, we will be able to perform to the best of our intellectual abilities in school, at work, in our relationships, and in reflection of our own wellbeing.

There are many ways in which we can identify our own or our child’s learning style in order to increase their chances for success in school, at work, and in social environments. A simple method is to be more observant and mindful of the learning challenges you or your child face on a daily basis (ie. Were you struggling to attend during a meeting that was just talking without any visual aids or notes/outlines? Is your child struggling with homework that involves just reading or writing?). It may also be helpful to have conversations in you or your child’s environment, at work, home, school, or among friends, to open up communication with those who may also be observing learning difficulties or preferences, and to gain support from individuals who are in the position to offer learning adjustments and changes. Yet another explorative option is to get a psychological evaluation which breaks down how one learns best, the socio-emotional effects of learning challenges, and current intellectual and executive functioning. A learning disability assessment can also help uncover issues & recommend solutions.