A Case Study: Learning Against the Grain

by Stephanie Elms, Annandale
Originally published in the September-October 2010 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

When my oldest son was younger and just getting into Legos, he used to get large sets for his birthday. Being the type of kid who “watches before doing,” this meant that he often wanted me to put the more complicated sets together for him. Now I am what they would call a “left-brained learner,” which means that I am not a visually oriented person. I have a very hard time on those tests where you have to look at a flattened shape and identify what that shape would look like if it were 3D. Needless to say, building things is not one of my strong suits. However, being the good mother that I am, I would try my best to decipher those horrid picture-only directions that come with LEGO® sets. Looking back, I realized that this experience was a perfect case study for what it is like to do something that goes against your natural learning style.

While I was working on the Lego model, I found that I needed to concentrate very hard. It takes a lot of energy to work outside your natural learning style. I had to keep track of exactly where I was in the directions, and I had to constantly compare what the picture looked like versus what my model looked like. Not an easy task for someone who is not visually oriented. It was very easy to lose my place, and I found myself snapping at the boys to keep quiet and leave me alone (and then feeling guilty since this was supposed to be “fun”).

And woe-to-me if I ever made a mistake and had to go back several steps. Trying to find out exactly where I had gone astray and having to take apart the pieces that I had just worked so hard to put together was the most infuriating thing. I often found myself incredibly frustrated and wishing that I could just finish the danged thing (especially since I was not the one who wanted to put it together in the first place). Once it was finished, I found myself dreading the idea of having to do it again.

I was not proud of these reactions—after all, it was just putting together a toy and should not really have been a big deal. However, upon reflection I realized that this must be the same way my son feels when he is being asked to learn something that goes against the way that he naturally learns.

After all, weren’t these the same reactions he had? Didn’t he often seem to have to use a lot of energy just to concentrate? Wasn’t he easily distractible? Didn’t he get overly frustrated when something did not work and didn’t he melt down if he made the smallest mistake? Maybe, just maybe, he was not “being difficult.” Maybe his resistance was trying to tell me something.

Over the years I have found that real resistance is a sign of a mismatch: either my child is not developmentally ready (and needs more time) or the way we are going about it is not a good fit (and we need a different approach). Of course there are going to be times when learning something is not “easy” because it is new and a bit more practice is needed. But I have found there is a difference between the initial “not sure I can do it” resistance and the “not working for me at all” resistance. The trick is identifying which is which.

Reflecting on my own Lego struggles has helped me better understand and empathize with my son’s reactions and has motivated me to find approaches and resources that work with his learning style rather than against it. And it has also made me grateful that he is now more than old enough to put his own Lego sets together.

About the Author

Stephanie Elms is constantly trying to find that elusive state of balance in her life while enjoying her two energetic yet vastly different boys. You can read about their ongoing exploits on her blog, Throwing Marshmallows. Stephanie also volunteers as a member of the VaHomeschoolers Board of Directors and is the VaHomeschoolers Web site administrator.

Originally published in the Sepember-October 2010 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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