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 Innovations in Learning and Teaching:

Individualizing Instructional Strategies

By Mindy J. Oppenheim, M.Ed.

(Article Published by TRN InfoLine, May 1999)

Facilitating valued, meaningful employment for people with severe learning challenges was the original intention of supported employment.  Although we've made great strides, in many areas people with severe challenges are still excluded from valued employment and community living opportunities.  To realize our original intention, supported employment professionals are challenged to look to other fields of study for ideas, strategies and techniques that will help us in the areas of assessment, job matching and instructional programming, and teaching.

I began my sojourn into supported employment 16 years ago armed and dangerous with a degree in psychology and a thorough understanding of behaviorism.  Manipulation and control of behavior was (and still is in many places) the main technique used to teach people behaviors, skills, and attitudes.

Over the years my instructional "bag of tricks" has expanded ten-fold.  Innovations from the fields of psychology, instructional design, computer assisted learning, whole-brain research and neurolinguistics has forever changed the way I view intelligence, instructional design and teaching. 

As we become better trainers, people with learning challenges will have greater access to valued jobs and community life.  Innovations in learning and teaching techniques can provide us with options when we've reached road blocks.  Statements such as "this person has gone as far as they can go," or "this person can't learn anything new," begs the questions - "Is there anyone that can teach this person the skill or behavior?  I wonder what they would do differently?"

At the foundation for a new way of thinking about teaching and learning is our basic belief about intelligence.  In our culture we measure intelligence with an IQ test.  The prototype for this test was originally developed by psychologist Alfred Binet in 1904 to predict how French kids would do in French schools.  Dr. Binet's wish was that this test would never be used to measure intelligence.

Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, states that the traditional concept of intelligence is defined operationally as the ability to answer linguistic and logical/mathematical items on tests of intelligence.  Dr. Gardner contends that students receiving Cs, Ds, and Fs have fallen through the cracks because teachers are using teaching strategies geared for linguistic and mathematical learners.

In our culture we use the term retardation for people having problems primarily with linguistic and logical problem solving (a result of doing poorly on the IQ test).  A person's IQ is likely to have significant effect upon their future.  IQ has an influence on teacher expectations and in determining eligibility and certain privileges.

Can you envision a culture where people are evaluated for their musical or painting skills?  Tone-deaf or color-blind people would be considered retarded in those settings.

As societies change, so do evaluations of skills.  Before books were widely available, would we value massive feats of rote linguistic memory?  Perhaps, if computers assume (or consume) most of our linguistic and mathematical operations, our own society may evolve into one where artistic skills are the most highly valued!

In 1983, Dr. Gardner introduced the Theory of Multiple Intelligence (MI).  MI theory changes the way we look at intelligence.  In his landmark book Frames of Mind, Gardner defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems or to create products that are valued and of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community.  He views intelligence as raw biological potential and believes that individuals may differ in the intelligence profiles with which they are born, and consequently, that they end up with. 

Gardener identifies seven types of intelligence, five more than our current system accommodates.  The seven intelligence's include: 

Linguistic Intelligence (Word Smart):  The capacity to use words effectively, whether orally or in writing.  Includes the ability to manipulate the syntax or structure of language, the phonology or sounds of language, the semantics or meanings, and the pragmatic dimensions or practical uses of language.  Poetry is a very high form of linguistic intelligence.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Logic/Number smart): The capacity to use numbers effectively and reason well.  Includes sensitivity to logical patterns and relationships, statements and propositions (if-then, cause-effect) functions, and other related abstractions.

Spatial Intelligence (Picture Smart):  The ability to perceive the visual-spatial world accurately and to perform transformations upon those perceptions.  Involves sensitivity to color, line, shape, form, space and the relationships that exist between these elements. 

Musical Intelligence (Music Smart):  Capacity to perceive, discriminate, transform and express musical forms.  Includes sensitivity to the rhythm, pitch or melody.  One can have a global, intuitive understanding of music or a formal or analytic/technical understanding.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (Body Smart):  Expertise in using one's whole body to express ideas and feelings and facility in using one's hands to produce or transform things.  Includes specific physical skills such as coordination, balance, dexterity, strength, flexibility, and speed.

Interpersonal Intelligence (People Smart):  The ability to perceive and make distinctions in the moods, intentions, motivations, and feelings of other people.  May include sensitivity to facial expressions, voice, and gestures; the capacity for discriminating among many different kinds of interpersonal cues; and the ability to respond effectively to those cues in some pragmatic way.

Intrapersonal Intelligence (Self Smart):  Self-knowledge and the ability to act adaptively on the basis of that knowledge.  This intelligence includes having an accurate picture of oneself (one's strengths and limitations); awareness of inner moods, intentions, motivations, temperaments, and desires; and the capacity for self-discipline, self-understanding, and self-esteem.

Applying the Theory of MI to Assessment and Job Matching

The theory of MI has implications in the assessment, placement and training phases of supported employment.  MI gives us a framework to operate within, and clues us to when we're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  Example:  A job coach asked me to help him develop a behavioral plan.  He was very frustrated trying to teach Mary (not her real name) how to clean rooms at a local hotel.  Mary's problems included tardiness, slow pace, and overall lack of motivation.  I asked the job coach to tell me a little bit about Mary.  "She loves people," he said.  I responded: "…and she's stuck inside a hotel room with you all day."  Working in a hotel room did not take into account Mary's basic intelligence and love for people.  Bad job match…Next.

Developing Instructional Interventions

As a teacher, you've probably noticed that you are very effective with certain types of learners and not as effective with others.  Is your teaching style flexible and based on each learners individual style, or do you use the same techniques with everyone?  What if a learner is spatially smart and visually oriented and the instructor is logical-mathematical.  What if a learner requires structure (logical-mathematical) and the instructor is primarily visual and unstructured.  These types of mixes and matches happen all of the time. 

The theory of MI provides only one piece of a larger puzzle in developing instructional interventions.  Two other important pieces to take into consideration are instructional setting and an individual's communication preference.

Instructional setting may be critical to an overall instructional program.  One scale to consider evaluates a person's individual preferences in relation to learning in independent, dependent and/or collaborative settings.

Independent learners prefer to work alone.  They require flexibility and freedom and prefer an active role in developing their own educational goals and strategies.  The teacher is considered an expert and resource person.  One supported employee was on the brink of being fired for attitude and behavior problems when her job coach gave her the task analysis tool where she kept track of her own performance.  She is still employed and feels ownership and pride at her job!

Collaborative learners require participation and interaction and probably don't like working or learning alone.  Techniques such as listening to tapes or working in workbooks may not be the best approach.  The collaborative learner prefers to work in groups, be around people, and possibly process orally. 

Dependent learners require structured settings.  To the dependent learner the teacher is responsible for the learning.  If the person doesn't learn, it is the teacher's fault.  Dependent learners may fair well with logical-mathematically oriented teachers where the objectives are clear and learning experiences structured.

One last important piece of information needed to develop an individualized instructional program is to consider a person's communication preferences, i.e., auditory, visual and kinesthetic.  The field of Neurolinguistics (NLP) professes that every person has a preferred orientation in the way we: 1) take in information, 2) process information, and 3) express information.  For example, when receiving information, one person may first make a picture in their mind, then say something to themselves, and finally check it with their feelings.  Another person's process may include a gut reaction first, a comment, and then a picture.

One way to determine an individual's communication style is to listen for the predicates that they use to describe their world.  The phrases "I see what you mean," "I hear what you're saying," and "It feels right to me," may all be expressing the same idea, but each of these people are "wired" completely differently. 

Another way to determine an individual's communication style is to watch their eyes move when they are talking and thinking.  Generally, visual information is accessed straight ahead or up and to the left (for memory) or right (for thinking).  Auditory people tend to shift their eyes from ear to ear, (left for memory and/or right for thinking).  When someone is accessing kinesthetic information (feelings), they tend to look down and to the right.  Sometimes we think these people aren't listening because they're not looking us visual people in the eyes.

The observation skills required to establish rapport and determine individual styles and preferences are useful in all aspects of our personal and professional lives.  These skills are being taught to business and sales professionals, stock brokers, counselors, therapists and other's whose job depends on the ability to communicate, teach, and build rapport.

Once we've determined a person's learning preferences and the most effective methods of teaching them, it is important to: 1) help the learner talk about their own learning and communication needs; 2) communicate the information to others who will be working with the individual; 3) reflect the information in our instructional program and task analysis. 

Each task analysis is different with the steps incorporating cues and prompts specific to an individual, even if you are teaching the same skill to five people.  For example, in teaching how to use a copy machine, an auditory learner's cue may be, "When you hear the thing-a-ma-jiggi stop, lift the cover."  For a visual learner, "When the light goes off, lift the cover," and for a kinesthetic learner, "When the machine stops shaking, lift the cover."

In summary, it's critical that supported employment professionals move beyond manipulation and control of behavior and develop innovative and creative teaching strategies to help people realize their true potential.  In the process, who knows, we may just discover our own potential!  Imagine the possibilities.

Mindy Oppenheim, M.Ed., provides training and instructional design services to job coaches, job developers, special education/transition and human resources personnel nationally.  She is a certified NLP Practitioner.  For more information please call (415) 345-1780, fax (415) 345-1781 or E-Mail