For 25 years as a professor, researcher and author, Mel Levine has been studying how people learn. As director of the Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina and a professor of pediatrics at the university's medical school, Levine co-founded All Kinds of Minds, a nonprofit organization that works with thousands of schools to help educators understand different learning patterns. Levine was in Washington recently and spoke with staff writer Valerie Strauss:
What is going on in schools today that you find troubling?
Treating everyone the same is to treat them unequally, and that is what we are doing. To give every kid the same test, to assume that children all have the same strengths and weaknesses and need to be educated in the same mode is going to hurt many, many individuals. I think our society pays a really high price for that.
What is the most common mistake schools make in this regard?
I think it is neglecting the child's strength. One of the major missions of education ought to be dealing with their strengths, because what really counts is how strong are your strengths. There is nothing more tragic than capacity that never got developed.
Second, I think schools, without meaning to, will humiliate certain kinds of individuals. I think public humiliation is incredibly lethal.
What form does this humiliation take?
There is a kid who has a lot of trouble doing math, and you ask him to come up to the board to do a math problem while everybody watches. There is a child who has trouble expressing himself, and you call on him in class knowing full well he is going to be very confused and scared when you do that.
You could have told him you were going to call on him tomorrow, and you could have given him the question ahead of time. That way, he has 23 hours to come up with an answer instead of three seconds. That way you are not letting him off the hook. You are meeting him halfway.
What else do you see that you don't like?If a kid can't spell, we probably shouldn't let other kids correct his papers because they will laugh at him. And the worst humiliation of all is grade retention. It's pretty much been shown [through research] that retention doesn't work. And it is an experience from which an individual may never recover.
What should you do with someone who hasn't successfully completed the work? Come up with better alternatives. Don't retain them. Help them. Go to school an extra hour a day to catch up. Maybe summer school. Maybe really understanding why it is that he was unable to pass the test and try to address those needs. I think a much more humane approach is in order. We don't have to have a kid go to school on the bus with his little sister who is now in the same grade as he is. It is hard to get your motivation and aspirations back on track after society has put you down.
Is anybody listening to you?Yes. We have a program called the Schools Attuned Program, and we've been training teachers all around the country about the learning process and the differences in learning. . . . It's incredible how little teachers have been taught about learning. When they talk about future teachers, they say math teachers need to know more math. But they never talk about the learning process and how to teach kids to learn. . . . I think teachers are hungry for this.