Could Student-Focused Learning Help Neurodivergent Learners Get a Better Education?12 min read

Hello. This is Jaime A. Heidel, The Articulate Autistic, and it is my plea­sure to intro­duce to you a writer and edu­cator who has given me some ten­ta­tive hope about the future of public edu­ca­tion for neu­ro­di­ver­gent people.

Her name is Susan Tombrello, and she’s taught me a lot about student-focused learning; a prac­tice that, while common in pri­vate col­leges and grad­uate courses, is hardly even heard of in lower grades and the public edu­ca­tion system at large.

After having inter­viewed Susan, I truly believe that we’d be a much more well-rounded, properly-educated, and healthy society if we imple­mented student-focused learning across the board.

However, as it is in most cases of bril­liant ideas that could save the world, money is a factor.

Let’s take a look at my inter­view with Susan, and let me know in the com­ments below if you also believe this would be a won­derful way to help neu­ro­di­ver­gent stu­dents have a better chance at suc­cess in K‑12 edu­ca­tion.

Q: Susan, can you describe student-focused learning?

Sure. Student-focused learning is a broad edu­ca­tional approach that places stu­dents at the focus of the learning envi­ron­ment. My training as an edu­cator was in Writing Across the Curriculum, which owes much to this broader move­ment.

Its core thesis is that stu­dents learn best by doing and that courses taught as active learning lab­o­ra­to­ries are most likely to inspire stu­dents who might oth­er­wise reject tra­di­tional “garbage-in garbage-out” approaches favoring rote learning and mem­o­riza­tion.

My own expe­ri­ence with the learning-laboratory approach is that more stu­dents excel, rather than the handful that typ­i­cally are skimmed off the top.

The way student-focused learning applied to my writing courses was that I taught writing as a process rather than lec­tured at my stu­dents. In each 1.5‑hour to 2.5‑hour class (depending on how often they met), I would give one to two 10–15 minute “chalk talks” to demon­strate what I wanted my stu­dents to do with their in-class time. The rest of the time was a writing lab­o­ra­tory, in which stu­dents worked indi­vid­u­ally, in pairs, and in groups, depending on the assign­ment.

I would cir­cu­late to make sure my stu­dents — typ­i­cally I had between 12 and 20 at a time, the ideal size for student-focused classes — under­stood the direc­tions and were imple­menting them.

Students also used work­sheets or check­lists that I dis­sem­i­nated at the begin­ning of class. Around 34 of the way through class, a des­ig­nated rep­re­sen­ta­tive from each group would present his/her results, in part or in total, depending on the assign­ment, and the rest of the class would have an oppor­tu­nity to com­ment.

This can be done in every sub­ject, but it’s par­tic­u­larly effec­tive in sci­ence and skills-based lessons.

Q: Where did student-focused learning come from?

It’s estab­lished and a key fea­ture of Writing Across the Curriculum ped­a­gogy. It began to be taught in the teaching col­leges in the 1960s and 1970s. I had teachers who’d studied the tech­niques, and later, I was for­tu­nate enough to teach for the [col­lege name redacted], where there were exten­sive trials in the 1990s.

Q: Can you give a couple of spe­cific exam­ples of student-focused learning?

A typ­ical assign­ment for my mas­ter’s level com­mu­ni­ca­tions class in fundraising pro­posals would be to con­vince a non­profit charity to assign them to write a vol­un­teer pro­posal that they planned to use to solicit funding. Students were to work with their respec­tive orga­ni­za­tions and report back to me about their progress and suc­cess.

In my mas­ter’s level mul­ti­media mar­keting class, my stu­dents worked in teams of four to design a product based on market research and then to develop a mar­keting plan that they would present toward the end of the course, fea­turing video, print, and radio adver­tising.

In my courses in freshman com­po­si­tion, I taught team­work as prepa­ra­tion for work­shop­ping. Students responded to prompts by working on assign­ments in class–first indi­vid­u­ally, then in pairs, then in groups.

We used a tech­nique called “The Hats” to assign roles within the groups that were based on responses to a ques­tion­naire. Each stu­dent began with com­fort­able and self-chosen roles and then rotated the roles or “hats” with each suc­ces­sive work­shop.

The idea was to teach each stu­dent all writing and editing skills and how to work with others in the future as they pro­gressed through their edu­ca­tion.

The stu­dents would do all the same things they would do in a reg­ular theory class. In other words, they were reading the same text­books that ordi­narily would be required, but the main dif­fer­ence is that the focus of the course was on actu­ally doing the work that was being studied so that they’d learn through doing.

Graduate courses are tra­di­tion­ally more this way anyway. Undergraduate courses really should be more so, and I’d love to see these tech­niques applied to high school learning.

Q: How has this type of learning helped your neu­ro­di­ver­gent stu­dents?

Because every­thing is scripted, role-playing is pre­scribed at first. It’s a very sup­ported and sup­portive envi­ron­ment.

Personally, although I was not on salary and had no office, I kept office hours at local restau­rants and coffee shops and tutored my ND stu­dents out­side of class. I also encour­aged them to avail them­selves of tutoring ser­vices at the uni­ver­sity. Now that uni­ver­si­ties have more ser­vices avail­able to ND stu­dents, the sup­port exists to make student-focused courses pos­sible.

But this needs to be said and stressed:

Bullying cannot be tol­er­ated.

Student-focused learning will not work if instruc­tors don’t have the power to eject hurtful and big­oted stu­dents from their courses. What usu­ally worked for me was issuing stern warn­ings. Just the threat of expul­sion was gen­er­ally enough to ensure com­pli­ance. In a few cases that still haunt me, how­ever, I had to rec­om­mend expul­sion, and I was for­tu­nate that my depart­ment chairs sup­ported me.

Q: In your opinion, what are the draw­backs of con­ven­tional teaching methods for neu­ro­di­ver­gent stu­dents?

First, I am no fan of tra­di­tional methods for anyone. The real world, the pro­fes­sional world, does not in any way, shape, or form require cram­ming or mem­o­riza­tion (as most public school set­tings require).

Source mate­rial is avail­able to everyone, and its use should be encour­aged rather than pun­ished. So, stan­dard­ized testing, while con­sid­ered indis­pens­able for courses in which upwards of 500 people might be enrolled, is unkind to many who might easily supply the answers with quick ref­er­ence checks and by talking to others. Often, if stu­dents behaved the way pro­fes­sionals and aca­d­e­mics do, they would be failed and expelled.

Of course, pla­gia­rism is not to be tol­er­ated, but it is actu­ally encour­aged and pro­lif­er­ates in tra­di­tional envi­ron­ments that are not set up to detect it effec­tively and effi­ciently.

In learning lab­o­ra­to­ries, how­ever, the process itself and the direct and close involve­ment of fac­ulty guard against pla­gia­rism. As I’d learned, each of my student’s styles of expres­sion, which are as indi­vid­u­al­ized as fin­ger­prints, and it would have been extremely dif­fi­cult to fool me.

With respect to ND stu­dents, any process that favors kines­thetic learning is going to give them a boost. Supportive envi­ron­ments in which social­iza­tion begins as scripted (and grows less so over time), ensure that everyone is included. Everyone has a role to play. Everyone is heard.

Support ser­vices are vital, such as tutoring ser­vices and, if nec­es­sary, note-takers. My son, for example, has dif­fi­culty main­taining focus and has required an aide to cue him reg­u­larly.

These have been funded through our local Regional Center, rather than by the col­lege. It’s impor­tant to under­stand that these courses are inten­sive and require focus and energy.

Students with com­plex chal­lenges may need to have the same sorts of sup­ports they would require in other aca­d­emic set­tings.

Q: Are there any draw­backs to student-focused learning?

Student-focused learning can’t thrive in a vacuum. Strong, obser­vant, and highly trained instruc­tors are nec­es­sary, as are sup­portive admin­is­tra­tions that back instruc­tors and stu­dents up to resolve any con­flicts.

Without sup­ports, such as tutoring ser­vices and warn­ings issued to bul­lies who target ND stu­dents, I fear that ND stu­dents might con­tinue to struggle.

Another chal­lenge is that hyper-traditional learners might prefer to avoid such classes, opting instead for the greatest amount of anonymity they can manage, to “skate under the radar.”

Variety, hope­fully, will allow those learners to con­tinue to opt for the solu­tions that work for them — lec­ture hall courses that use Scantron testing, for example.

Student-focused courses can be dif­fi­cult to imple­ment, espe­cially when they aren’t part of an ide­o­log­ical com­mit­ment from admin­is­tra­tion. They can be dif­fi­cult even with sup­port because instructor training is nec­es­sary.

For example, stu­dents in writing process courses ide­ally would com­plete a pref­er­ences ques­tion­naire at the begin­ning of class to com­ment on the roles they felt most com­fort­able per­forming within each group.

A shy person could be the group sec­re­tary and record the notes. A nat­u­rally good editor would per­form that role, etc. The trick is, after everyone is com­fort­able with one another, to shift the roles throughout the course so that everyone has a turn to play each role.

My stu­dents who were hes­i­tant at first to take on lead­er­ship roles often warmed to the new roles as trust was built within each group.

Another chal­lenge, as I’ve said, is that bul­lying cannot be tol­er­ated. Bullies must be warned and then, if nec­es­sary, ejected from the class.

Bullying is a large problem in acad­emia and in the work­force. Faculty should be trained in de-escalation methods to arrest it. I’d place bul­lying near the top of my list of chal­lenges as an edu­cator, regard­less of the teaching method.

Q: What are the bar­riers to imple­menting student-focused learning in the broader com­mu­nity?

The main chal­lenge to this approach is that class sizes have to be small — and in the case of mas­sive sci­ence courses, broken up into mod­ules taught by teaching assis­tants.

It’s expen­sive.

It’s an open secret that the small pri­vate col­leges were designed for ND stu­dents due to their small class sizes and inten­sively indi­vid­u­al­ized atten­tion.

The cur­rent problem with public uni­ver­si­ties, where a large per­centage of courses are taught by adjunct fac­ulty, is the lack of sup­port and training. It can be dif­fi­cult if not impos­sible, for adjunct fac­ulty to hold office hours and to take the time to antic­i­pate and resolve con­flicts. Furthermore, it is fun­da­men­tally unfair to ask pro­fes­sors to work for pocket change. Basically, one gets what one pays for.

Furthermore, the resulting neglect is unfair for stu­dents. With increased public and gov­ern­ment funding for uni­ver­si­ties, and the respon­sible hiring prac­tices that would hope­fully result from this, per­haps class sizes could be reduced and stu­dents would get the indi­vid­u­al­ized atten­tion nec­es­sary to learn and thrive.

That said, stu­dents from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds who have per­formed well in K‑12 and on stan­dard­ized testing, are often granted full or par­tial schol­ar­ships to pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties that might make it fea­sible for deserving ND stu­dents to attend.

Prospective stu­dents are well-advised to apply and see what they are offered.

Q: Is this type of learning some­thing that home­schooling par­ents can imple­ment for their ND chil­dren on their own?

In the broader sense, it would help if stu­dents are tapped into community-based learning com­mu­ni­ties.

My daughter, for example, did most of her high school course­work online and attended labs, demon­stra­tions, tutoring ses­sions, and testing at a local learning center. Student-focused learning tends to empha­size student-monitored mile­stones; stu­dents work in groups to give and receive feed­back, to share resources, and to hold one another account­able.

The instructor is thus lib­er­ated to func­tion as a mentor and coach. I can con­cep­tu­alize this working given active super­vi­sion by learning center staff and/or par­ents.

The way this might work for indi­vid­u­al­ized instruc­tion is for assign­ments to con­nect stu­dents with active per­for­mance.

An online arts course might, for example, require home­schooled stu­dents to go to museums, par­tic­i­pate in guided touring, and write a detailed crit­ical analysis of the expe­ri­ence — about how a par­tic­ular piece offers a lens on the artist’s overall work and influ­ences, or about how effec­tively the museum’s instal­la­tion of the art­work show­cased the work, etc.

A stu­dent in a sta­tis­tics course might con­duct his or her own sur­veys and ana­lyze the results.

A stu­dent in a cre­ative writing course might create a work or series of works that he or she would then work­shop with other writers and improve.

A stu­dent of his­tory might read a variety of pri­mary and sec­ondary sources on a spe­cific topic and write a foot­noted schol­arly paper on a par­tic­ular event, per­son­ality, or battle.

As an aside, my high school did not offer an advanced cre­ative writing course, so I joined an adult work­shop and wrote a novella and a screen­play, which I then used as part of my admis­sions appli­ca­tions for col­leges.

It was scary for me, an autistic teenager who was very shy. But I went to a play, asked to meet the director/playwright, and asked per­mis­sion to join his work­shop. He agreed, and it was such a great expe­ri­ence.

I’m cur­rently involved in a long-distance MFA in a Creative Writing pro­gram in which nearly all the work is self-designed and self-directed. Such indi­vid­u­al­ized study is common in grad­uate school, but it can be rare for chil­dren, who often need tasks to be sub­di­vided into “chunks” that add up to a final product.

Still, with skilled instruc­tion from online learning coop­er­a­tives and/or from trained, atten­tive, and moti­vated par­ents, project-based home­school work is def­i­nitely achiev­able.

Most K‑12 stu­dents do not cur­rently have access to true hands-on learning oppor­tu­ni­ties. They used to. They were called lab­o­ra­tory classes. Sadly, true labs are rare these days, due to a shortage of resources and equip­ment. The method requires training and a dra­matic par­a­digm shift away from tra­di­tional learning.

Success in the home­schooling envi­ron­ment would depend on the extent to which par­ents can sim­u­late a real-world and highly struc­tured and inter­ac­tive envi­ron­ment.

Q: Are there any books or other resources to help that you could rec­om­mend to guide this process?

Because I was a writing instructor, my own reading has almost exclu­sively been on Writing Across the Curriculum, a hands-on method for improving lit­eracy. This looks like an excel­lent cur­rent WAC resource:

Here’s another resource on dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion— thoughts on how to group stu­dents within the class­room so that they can work together most effec­tively and help­fully:

This one also looks great and is focused on col­lege learning:

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with books for par­ents who are home­schooling or even for par­ents who want to shop around for schools and class­rooms. These appear to have been written for edu­ca­tors who work with teenagers and/or adults.

I’d like to see these approaches made avail­able to the broader public. In my opinion, we (meaning the USA) are hurting so much as a nation, and things are not going to get better until we find a way to reach people and help them to learn to think for them­selves and demon­strate that we care about what they think.

Furthermore, we can’t ask stu­dents to care if we as par­ents and edu­ca­tors don’t empower them to con­duct active research and come to their own con­clu­sions. If they have a voice and we listen to them, we will fuel their con­tinual desire to learn.

And, hope­fully we will begin to heal our world.

About Susan Tombrello

Susan Tombrello has a back­ground in mar­keting for health and human ser­vices, specif­i­cally copy­writing for public rela­tions, fundraising, and adver­tising. She taught high school English and took courses at a respected teacher’s col­lege, where student-focused learning tech­niques were encour­aged. She is cur­rently fin­ishing up her MFA degree in cre­ative writing and hopes to pub­lish and teach in that field.

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