Instilling Character

In Students Who Learn Differently


If we're truly aiming for character change rather than simply "doing a character ed program," we must realize that not all students are best motivated and instructed by the techniques that motivate and instruct us as teachers. Although your initial response may be "duh!", I urge you to keep reading. We all acknowledge differences in learning styles, yet it's not easy to apply this fact to our lessons.

In a Master's Level class filled with future teachers, the professor handed out an evaluation to help them identify their learning styles. The result? Almost all of these future teachers had the same learning style! That's frightening! Have we developed an education system that rewards and thus appeals to only one learning style? If so, we're completely missing our students who learn differently, subtly telling them that they're dumb and will not likely succeed in life.

We're so comfortable teaching in ways that motivate us as teachers that we completely miss students who are motivated in different ways. Here are some practical hints to reach those students who think differently:

1. Use a variety of delivery techniques to appeal to a variety of learning styles, whether they be auditory learners (e.g., lecture), visual learners (e.g., video clips), or activity learners (e.g., learning activities and interaction).

2. Appeal to the variety of subcultures in your class. Just try to inspire a kid who's into hard core or alternative music with an illustration of Brittany Spears' work ethic. They want to be the opposite of what Brittany Spears represents. Likewise, a list of all white successes may alienate your afro-Americans and hispanics. Find their heroes and motivate through their stories. (Let us know what stories we should develop.)

3. Understand how ingrained attitudes impact receptivity. When I asked a student if he'd checked up on his emotionally hurting friend, the former replied, "No. I'm not a girl!" In his mind, showing compassion is a feminine trait. Until that thinking is effectively challenged, there's no way he'll want to become compassionate. He may need illustrations of Marines or Navy Seals showing compassion and shedding tears. Once he realizes that the toughest of the tough can empathize, a crack may appear in his chauvinistic paradigm.

4. Understand how learning disabilities impact certain character qualities.I'm naturally disciplined. I came home every day from school and did my homework. Nobody had to tell me to do it. My parents didn't train me to do it. I just did it.

All through life I've been rewarded for a quality that I apparently had little to do with acquiring. Does that strike you as odd? What then of the student who isn't naturally motivated to do his homework? Our society labels him as lazy, a potential loser who needs to take responsibility for his life. Yet, all of the traditional methods of motivating him (from rewards to punishments, from verbal encouragement to "setting him straight," challenging stories of people who became great through extraordinary discipline) may be of no avail.

This is more than an abstract issue for me. One of my sons has attention deficit disorder. He's bright. He was reading C.S. Lewis in the first grade. Yet, he flunked "Photography" in high school. His achievement tests show that he's learned a lot in school. In every area he's in the top half of his class, in verbal areas probably the top 10% or even 5%. Yet, he's toward the bottom of his class in grades.

If current A.D.D. research is correct, many such students have processing problems in the executive part of their brains. The part of my brain that told me, "Go home and do your homework, then reward yourself with some free time," doesn't work for many A.D.D. kids. When their brains have to decide between homework and a video game, the video game wins out every time. They sincerely expect that they'll get to their homework later. Yet, it often doesn't happen because of their inability to comprehend the limitations of time, their inability to organize their lives and the inability of their brains to overrule the short term thrill (video game) in favor of a longer term thrill (good grades at school, better college, better job, etc.)

How do we motivate A.D.D. kids to develop qualities such as endurance? One time, when my A.D.D. child couldn't seem to buckle down to do his 30 minutes of 5th grade homework, I tried to motivate by challenging him, "When I was in college, I had an exceptionally tough time learning Greek, so I spent three hours per day studying Greek. I know you don't want to do your homework, but it's just 30 minutes. If I could spend 3 hours on one subject, surely you can do thirty minutes." While I was basking in the power of my little speech, my child responded, "Nothing personal dad, but that doesn't help."

I hope I didn't show it, but inside I got mad. I thought, "how can he not be motivated by illustrations that show success coming from diligence?" Yet, I appreciated his candor and have often reflected on that comment. I was always motivated by the story of the football player who put himself through such a rigorous off-season training program that when the team's practice resumed, it was almost a vacation. Stories of great endurance inspired me.

One of my college buddies told me that the illustrations that motivated me discouraged him. Other's aren't motivated by the same things that motivate us. So how do we motivate people who don't respond to the same motivational factors?

5. Challenge to action in a variety of ways that may work for different people. Don't drop the motivating illustrations. They successfully motivate people like me to new levels of productivity. Yet, remember that some of your students respond by thinking, "These illustrations just reinforce to me that I'm a failure, since I can't seem to motivate myself to do anything."

Remind your students that not everyone has the self-discipline to stay at a task until its completed. Leonardo da Vinci accomplished some great things, but seemed to have an incredible problem with completing anything, unless he had someone over him pushing him to complete it. Some people are very self-motivated and will make wonderful individual entrepreneurs. Others need to work with a team, or under a positive authority structure to see their gifts bloom. Some can make out personal schedules with goals and dates. Others will have no clue as to what day it is, but will rock the world with their creative genius. In other words, endurance can look different when applied by students with various personalities and learning types.

6. Don't alienate poor students from the classroom culture.

A recently published longitudinal study of adolescents with ADHD(1) found that these students are at a much higher risk for drug abuse than other students. Researchers surmised that since ADHD students feel alienated from the academic culture, they gravitate toward fringe groups that are more likely to include drug abusers. This theory jives with my personal observations. Those who feel they can't please their teachers are more comfortable with those who accept them regardless of their GPA.

How can we reward the "good" students while not demeaning "poor" students? "Reward effort more than grades," you say. That's a start, but what of those who's lack of effort is due more to neurological factors than a personal choice to be lazy? Perhaps a little effort by an ADHD student can equal a grand effort by a natural high achiever. Other ideas?

Only by taking into account the wide variety of learning styles, personalities and disabilities can we hope to motivate all our students to pursue character.

(This article is a study in progress. I plan to read several authoritative books in this area and expand this article accordingly. I'm starting with three books by Mel Levine: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness and Keeping Ahead at School. If you have other recommended books, please let me know. I'm at webmaster@character-education.info - Steve Miller)

1 - Journal of Abnormal Psychology [Molina & Pelham (2003). Childhood predictors of adolescent substance use in a longitudinal study of children with ADHD, 112, 497-507]