Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2009

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

The Teacher and Learner in All of Us

By Ellen Notbohm

ART-ful Teaching for Different Learners

By learning you will teach; by teaching you will learn.

This old Latin proverb embodies the notion that learning is circular, that we are all both teachers and learners for all of our lives. To be effective teachers, whether community professionals, instructors in the classroom, or parents in the home, we must continually learn from those we seek to guide. How can it be otherwise? Children are not prepackaged fare. No single method or tactic is a sure thing and achieving success is too often a matter of discovering what doesn't work, as much as discovering what does.

Teaching is more difficult than learning, observed German philosopher Martin Heidegger, because "what teaching calls for is this: to let learn." As adults, we bear the burden; we must relinquish all our conceits and presumptions in order to let ourselves learn what we need to know to be able to teach a child. Circular learning challenges us to lay aside our egos and become child-centered in our approach, to value the process as well as outcome, and to be willing to go off the beaten path. It challenges us to place less value on data and scores, and rather turn our efforts towards relationship-building, cooperation, and igniting the thrill of exploration and discovery. Circular learning acknowledges that true teaching isn't only about putting information into the minds of our children. Rather, it is striving to bring something out of every learner. That 'learner' is not just the child; it's you, and me, and everyone with whom the child will interact. The key to successful teaching in any venue is the recognition that the most meaningful learning is achieved in social context that prepares children for "real life."

In the school setting where most children spend most of their day, recognizing the entire class as a team and working as a whole is the foundation of building a community. "This is how society works successfully," says California teacher Roneete Lynas, a vocal proponent of the classroom-as-community concept. "There should be no reason why students, teachers, and all staff alike are not sharing the responsibility of including all learners." While we educate our children to be as independent as possible in adulthood, of equal importance is their ability to function as interdependent adults. "Knowing how to work as a member of a community is crucial in developing the sense of self every child needs to become a part of the world at large," she says.

Lynas' community classroom provides a model applicable to any social unit, as students help one another move toward successful transitions, fall into consequence, or reap rewards--together. "They discover for themselves that cohesive action yields consistent positive reinforcement and reward," she says. This is a lesson in how our social-driven society works in the larger context--in situations such as business promotions, interpersonal relationships, team sports, political or social activism, and in the greater global community. Teachers can reinforce this lesson by assigning peer buddies, maintaining a structured and consistent system of expectations for the entire class (so that everyone is modeling at all times), commending effort and not just outcome, and focusing on what the child can do rather than cannot do. These tactics are the building blocks of a solid circular, interdependent learning community.

Promoting a cycle of encouragement and reward is key; taking responsibility for one's self should be the first step, not the end goal. "Life rewards us for acting responsibly, but we benefit more fully and more wholly when acting cooperatively," says Lynas. Whether classmates, teammates, or families, the group who together reaps either reward or consequence learns that they have the power to create the most successful environment when working as a team.

The challenge for adults as teachers is a familiar one: to maintain consistency in conveying to children the importance of community and their responsibility to each other. There is also personal challenge: to remind ourselves as teachers not to become frustrated if some children do not ever fully "get it." The need to continually reinforce the idea of cooperative community does not suggest that the system is not working. Rather, it reinforces the very concept of reinforcement and how necessary it is to ensure success in other aspects of the children's lives, not only when in the classroom or home.

Recognizing the teacher that lies not only within each of us but within each of our children is the foundation of any success we will achieve. It speaks to trust, respect, and the value of every individual, without which real learning cannot flourish. The first yellow brick in the road is that wonderfully empowering acceptance that every moment is a teaching and learning moment in which we are all both teachers and students. It's an invitation to a dynamic partnership, to create multi-dimensional spheres of learning for all of us.

© 2006, 2008 Ellen Notbohm
This article was adapted from the book
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew (2006, Future Horizons, Inc.) by Ellen Notbohm. Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of four award-winning books on autism, including the acclaimed Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. For book excerpts, to learn more, or to contact Ellen, visit

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