Technology accelerates success in LD education

Racing with Change

08/23/2010  |  JAMES McDANIEL
special needs

Technology, communication and brain research have dramatically affected the field of education, particularly LD education, over my 35 years in education.  This rapidly changing landscape associated with the Information Age and advances in brain research have affected today’s educators like science and technology have affected no other generation that precedes them in the history of mankind.  The explosion of information alone has stimulated the evolution of pedagogy and directed our understanding of how we read and learn from scientific studies that focus on brains with learning disabilities. 


Advances in technology/communication and neuroscience/genetics:

1973 - Modern cell phones are invented

1979 - Apple invents the first home computer 

1985 - Nintendo Entertainment System is released in US

1989 – The World Wide Web prototype system is built.


1990 - 1999 - “Decade of the Brain”- National Institutes of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health engage in a unique interagency initiative to achieve goals set by George W. Bush administration.

1995 - Kenneth Pugh and colleagues at Haskins Laboratories and Yale University use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity associated with reading and reading disabilities.

1991 - Anders Olsson transmits solitary waves through an optical fiber with a data rate of 32 billion bits per second

1996 - Microsoft releases InternetMail and News 1.0, a feature of its third release of Internet Explorer. This is later renamed Outlook.

2000 - Genetic researchers finish mapping human genes.

2001 - Email celebrates its 30th anniversary with virtually every business in the developed world signed on.

2005 – Dr. Jeffrey Gruen and his research team at Yale University identified a gene that had patterns and variations that were strongly associated with dyslexia.

2005 –  Apple releases I-phone

2006 – The Dyslexia Foundation begins Academic Centers for Excellence project with affiliated LD schools to effectively bring science and practice together

Technology and Communication

During the past20 years, for the first time in the history of formal education, students’ access to information is no longer dependent upon, or limited by, their teacher due to the universal store of and access to, information available on the internet.  The teacher and one text no longer represent the reservoir of knowledge that produced those facts that every sixth grader needed to know as published by E.D. Hirsch in 1993.  The effective teacher was no longer the ‘sage on the stage’ but became the ‘guide on the side’ of his or her student. 

Exacerbating the experience of withstanding the new tsunami of information, instant communication and ‘connectedness’ heightened a strong wave of anxiety for our generation of teachers.  Resulting heightened expectations of parents and administrators kept teachers off balance and tumbling in the surf.  Parents became known as ‘helicopter parents’ referring to their soaring expectations for feedback and demands for success without failure for their children. (Was it their fear from the feeling of instability our rapidly changing world gave them?) Accountability and expectations further increased as teachers’ performance became tied to their students’ success on standardized measures of testing.  And then ... the truth became one had the answer.

Cognitive Neuroscience

Parallel with this wave of change in our world has been an exploration of new horizons we have not experienced since the Age of Discovery that goes as far back as the 15th century.  Just as Magellan, Columbus, and da Gama explored our globe and taught mankind about what lay beyond the horizons of their generation’s reality, so today, are neuroscientists revealing yet another set of maps that expand our perceptions of reality.  The mapping of the human brain is being done by such explorers as Gallaburda, Pugh, and Dehaene and is still in its infancy. 

Human brains, these neuroscientists have found, are profoundly adaptable, robust in potential, and so very unique from person to person in function, though much more consistent in structure or form.  The first autopsy of a dyslexic brain was performed in the early 80’s by Dr. Albert Galaburda on the brain of a Linden Hill student who died suddenly at age 14 of a seizure.  Clearly our progress along this journey to fully map and understand our brains is only just beginning and thus, those attempting to draw conclusions from current research, must be careful not to extrapolate or generalize in the name of finding the ultimate solution to this highly complex riddle.

If it is true that brains function differently across our species, then how is it that we have taught generations with relatively uniform pedagogical methodologies and curricula and have evaluated each individual with a standardized, one-dimensional, a standardized length of time with a standardized mode of response.  Who are the winners and who are the losers when we teach our children thusly?  This generation of teachers now knows better.  How will they proceed?


Children in general have ‘special needs.’  Those that we have labeled today as ‘special needs’ students are only a direct bi-product of the choices that were made along our evolutionary path that has led us to the educational programs that exist today in our public school systems.  (What if schools evolved to be highly active, transitory educational labs that focused on doing rather than sitting and listening? Who would be the special needs students then? ) Today’s educators must look to learn from the practice of special needs teachers.  Understanding, respecting, and teaching according to individual differences....curricularly, pedagogically, and using multiple modalities, is just great teaching.  Do our teachers work in environments that are conducive to their employment of these features?

In his most recent publication, Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene writes,

My firm conviction is that every teacher should have some notion of how reading operates in the child’s brain ... Children’s brains can also be considered formidable machines whose function is to learn.  Each day spent at school modifies a mind-boggling number of synapses.  Neuronal preferences switch, strategies emerge, novel routines are laid down, and new networks begin to communicate with each other.  If teachers ... can gain an understanding of all these internal transformations, I am convinced that they will be better equipped to discover new and more efficient education strategies. 

Dehaene continues as he reinforces the need for teachers to continually reassess chosen paths of teaching based on experimentation with educational options reflecting diverse learning styles of students and outcomes of assessments in relation to such adjustments...

Although pedagogy will never be an exact science, some ways of feeding the brain with written words are more effective than others.  Every teacher bears the burden of experimenting carefully and rigorously to identify the appropriate stimulation strategies that will provide students’ brains with an optimal daily enrichment.  Reading in the Brain, Dehaene, 2009, pp. 232-233.

Will our teachers be given the time or license to ‘experiment’ to improve their craft?  Will superintendants and unions agree to return focus to our children?

LD:  the R&D of Education

As Headmaster of a small boarding/day school for boys with learning differences and attention issues, it is my job to ensure that Linden Hill leads in this capacity.  Though it is paramount that our teachers’ curricula be rooted in evidence-based practices (Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, Linda Mood-Bell, etc.), they simultaneously strive to understand each child’s learning preferences with regard to modality of experience.  “Praxis” is that dance between theory and practice and should be exercised by every educator, special needs or mainstream.   This is what Dehaene referred to in his directive to teachers to carefully experiment to address individual needs.  Training and understanding in the multi-disciplinary cognitive neuroscience is essential training for teachers to excel in this arena.  It is also expensive.

Cognitive neuroscience is an academic field concerned with the scientific study of biological substrates underlying cognition], with a specific focus on the neural substrates of mental processes. It addresses the questions of how psychological/cognitive functions are produced by the brain. Cognitive neuroscience is a branch of both psychology and neuroscience, overlapping with disciplines such as physiological psychology, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology. Cognitive neuroscience relies upon theories in cognitive science coupled with evidence from neuropsychology, and computational modeling. - Wikipedia

The Dyslexia Foundation is currently launching a project called Academic Centers for Excellence in conjunction with Haskins Laboratories, The Brehm School (Illinois), the Linden Hill Institute, The Good Samaritan Foundation and approximately twenty LD schools.  The purpose of this longitudinal project is to track performance outcomes of students with learning disabilities after intervention with evidence-based curricula:  the simple, essential question to be addressed, “What works and for whom?”

The science community has been generous in its support of this effort helping shape the process of data gathering and analysis, and Director, William Baker has been tireless in his effort to bring this concept into its current form of reality.  A good percentage of new research and development for cognition and learning is focused on learning disabilities, thus providing a wonderful opportunity for our LD schools to emerge as leaders in the ongoing development of effective teaching and learning.  Viva la difference!

Today’s Teachers’ Score Card

 Teachers have higher communication and student performance expectations from parents and administrators. 

Teachers’ responsibilities are complicated by emotional and physical wellness issues of their students more so than ever before in history due to evolving societal and technological pressures.

Training in Cognitive Neuroscience is essential for the current and future generation of educators.

“Every teacher bears the burden of experimenting carefully and rigorously to identify the appropriate stimulation strategies that will provide students’ brains with an optimal daily enrichment.” Dehaene

LD is the R&D of ED...ucation.

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