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

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 3/4 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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