Remedial Learning Lessons

“Let me get this straight — the student is not doing well in class. They’re not able to learn the material from the way it’s taught. So your solution is to give them remedial learning lessons, to try teaching them how to learn the ‘right’ way. All this remedial learning process is getting the student and the parents and the teachers frustrated, and the student is getting further and further behind their peers academically.”

I keep hearing about how some teachers or therapists or ABA workers feel that they have to teach their autistic (or other) clients “how to learn” before they can teach them content. This is absurd! Every child knows how to learn, and automatically learns. Even incredibly simple organisms like wasps can learn without being taught “how to learn”.

What these people are really meaning is that their clients and students do not learn the “right” way, meaning the way that is expected of the student in narrowly-defined settings. They don’t learn or demonstrate their learning the same way as “all the other children”.

“But the child doesn’t even know how to sit at the work table!”

I rather doubt that the child does not know how to sit at a table. Rather, the issue is that the child does not understand the instruction (or the need for following it), or cannot remain at the table for very long. Being forced to sit at the work table may even have acquired a negative connotation that the child is trying to avoid.

So for example, how does such a problem get resolved in a secondary school setting? I have several students who are dyspraxic and have ADHD (among other things). When I do lessons with each one, I scribe for him. The student is frequently learning over the edge of my desk, or standing and rocking from foot to foot, or pacing back and forth. It’s not that these teens don’t know “how” to sit at a desk, or that they don’t know “how” to write. Rather, making them hand-write their responses to essay questions while sitting still at a desk interferes with the actual learning of information and the subsequent demonstration of that learning. They get too fidgety to focus, and get bogged down in the frustration of forming letters to the detriment of recalling information and formulating responses.

Do students need to know basic classroom expectations, such as paying attention to instruction, not interrupting others when they are working, being respectful, and being responsible for completing and turning in assignments? Yes indeedy! But you will notice that I did not include “staying seated in chair” in that list. The reason that teachers have traditionally required students to stay seated quietly in their seats is to help ensure that they are working responsibly. But we need to remember that the ultimate goal is “working responsibly” rather than “staying in chair”.

This concept of “remedial learning” is based upon the same kind of rationale as:

  • making lefties learn right-handed penmanship
  • making the deaf learn to lip-read and speak instead of using sign language
  • making dyspraxic students learn to work with increasingly smaller and fiddlier lab equipment or manipulatives
  • making students with auditory processing problems learn to be better listeners by using recorded instruction (often scratchy old tapes)

There’s a saying, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.” And Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Do people realise that if a student doesn’t learn well using a particular process that what they need is not “remedial learning lessons” but rather — a different teaching process? Universal Design for Learning is not a new concept; educators have long since realised that if you offer instruction using several different methods from the start, that you do not have to go back and retrofit the instruction for a particular student’s learning needs. Quite simply, “all” the other children don’t learn the same way. Our particular students of focus are just more extreme examples of different abilities and learning styles.

So why do we keep insisting that when students have problems learning by a particular method, what they need is to learn how to learn the “right way”? And no, I’m not talking about learning effective study methods; I’m talking about the fallacy of endlessly trying to improve the student’s “weak” areas. Weak areas are supposed to be about knowledge and skill levels that need more practice or clarification to fully acquire and integrate the knowledge. “Weak areas” should not be when the student’s has particular sensory, processing, or motor problems that create differences in the way the student works best.

Although we want our children to be able to improve upon these kinds of difficulties, tying those to their social acceptance or their learning progress is wrong. If the goal of education is to acquire knowledge and skills, then we want to use the media and processes that work most easily for the student. Not only does the student learn more easily and quickly, but the reduced stress also enables them to retain information better, enjoy the content, and be more likely to pursue further education in the subjects. Reducing learning stresses also makes the non-academic aspects of the school experience better.

In addition to disengaging the process of remediating difficulties from primary instruction, we also need to remember that not all differences are automatically difficulties. Being deaf or left-handed is only disabling when instruction is primarily oral or the equipment is exclusively designed for right-handed people.

No one needs to be taught “how to learn”. Teaching however, is another matter.


  1. 7 August 2008 at 17:42

    […] Please do not assume that because a child does not learn in a traditional manner that they are learning “the wrong way”, or that they cannot learn at all, or that they must be taught “remedial learning lessons”. […]

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    29 January 2008 at 19:07

    Pat H. said, “Many times I have the students help me problem solve on the best way to teach them the objectives and many times their way actually works.”

    Wonderful! That’s really an effective way of solving the issue. Not only do the students have more “ownership” of the solution (so they are more likely to use it and get things done), but it also helps put the responsibility for their end of the learning back with them, plus, it is also good practice for solving school- and work-related issues in the future. Keep up the good work!


  3. Pat H. said,

    29 January 2008 at 15:00

    Excellent post! I am very interested in teaching to a student’s learning style rather than have students learn according to my teaching style. Teachers need to really think about what their objectives are and investigate ways to meet the objective (if one way doesn’t work, it’s time to try a different way.) Many times I have the students help me problem solve on the best way to teach them the objectives and many times their way actually works.

  4. 23 January 2008 at 17:18

    I say bravo to Universal Design for Learning….I hope to write about it at my site soon.

    Your example regarding scribing for students is something I’ve done in the past, but sometimes with some students it makes me feel like am being duped, enabling the student in avoidance type behaviors, etc. I have in the past opted for taped responses where the student provides a cassette tape for me in order to allow me to gauge their learning. Some students who have had issues with writing do very well when I allow them to use a keyboard.

  5. Sharon said,

    18 January 2008 at 9:37

    I love your posts on learning. They help me think and sometimes change my bad habits.

  6. 16 January 2008 at 13:22

    My sons educational psychologist report states.

    ‘He was quite often out of his seat or sprawled in unusual positions during the assessment tasks…. at one stage he took off his shoes and answered the questions with his feet resting high up the wall…… this behaviour did not seem to distract from his levels of concentration, attention or overall performance’

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