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Mel Levine: Teaching All Kinds of Minds

When meeting a goose on his farm, Mel Levine recommends bowing.
/ Margot Adler, NPR
When meeting a goose on his farm, Mel Levine recommends bowing.

There are 3 million children receiving special services for learning disabilities in U.S. public schools. And some organizations estimate that 10 to 15 percent of children have serious learning issues. Pediatrician Mel Levine has been challenging many assumptions about learning. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

The doctor who has been described by an educational journal as a cross between Dr. Spock and Dr. Dolittle lives near Chapel Hill, N.C., on a farm that he shares with 240 geese, 40 pheasants, 12 peacocks, 10 swans and 16 donkeys.

Levine brings the same belief in variety and difference to his animals that he brings to his study of child learning. He is the director of the University of North Carolina's Clinical Center for the Study of Development and learning, and a co-founder of All Kinds of Minds, an organization that analyzes learning differences.

From anxious, often upscale, parents of young students to teachers in troubled schools, Levine delivers the same message, that all people -- and especially students -- are wired differently. He preaches the virtues of helping kids understand their strengths and weaknesses as part of understanding the way learning works.

Levine argues that telling a student he is learning disabled or has attention deficit disorder is not very helpful -- so when kids come to be assessed, at his institute in North Carolina or a new branch in New York City, Levine and his colleagues highlight specific strengths and weaknesses -- a process Levine refers to as demystification.

But Mel Levine's ideas have also attracted some criticism. Although many parents and teachers swear by his methods, the stories are anecdotal -- unconfirmed by peer review. Critics also fault Levine's books for not having footnotes or appendices where serious research could be discussed.

The University of Massachusetts and others are studying Levine's program to see what impact it has on academic achievement and special education. The results of those studies aren't expected for two years.

NPR Exclusive: "Misunderstood Minds," by Dr. Mel Levine

Ricky is a sixth grader with a brilliant imagination and advanced language skills, but he can't write. That's because he has trouble handling spelling, punctuation, grammar, letter formations and facts all at once with a sheet of paper in front of him. Adults call him lazy, and he is fast becoming a 'bad' boy.

Then there's Beth, a bright kid who gets stymied by sequences of anything – multi-step instructions or math problems, or even presenting her ideas when she talks or writes. Her classmate Wendy is an effervescent red-haired girl of many talents who nevertheless endures constant frustration because she has serious problems remembering what she has read, even though she can understand the content quite well. As she puts it: "Whenever I read, each sentence erases the one that went before it."

These are examples of children with normal or superior overall cognitive ability who are contending with differences in the wiring of their brains, subtle but important neurodevelopmental variations that impede their learning productivity and enjoyment of education. In addition to deficiencies in basic skills – such as reading, writing or mathematics – some of the manifestations are less obvious. The kids may have difficulties managing time, expressing ideas in language, remembering facts or problem-solving methods on a test, understanding key concepts or gaining social acceptance from peers.

What's common, however, is that these struggling kids are often misunderstood by the adult world. Learning differences like these plague millions of children throughout America. But parents, teachers and the students themselves often have little or no insight into the reasons why the children are failing or how to manage their difficulties. So the children face daily public humiliations for the way they are wired, even though relatively easy and cost-effective means are available to help them.

The non-profit Institute, All Kinds of Minds was founded in 1995 to apply the latest neurodevelopmental research to the understanding and management of differences in learning. The Institute provides families and teachers with a framework, a common language and tools to enable this large, needy and highly vulnerable segment of America's schoolchildren to become more successful learners.

Throughout the country this Institute is working to provide parents with the best assessment techniques and to train classroom teachers to help kids with learning differences. We strive to ensure that children receive the individualized education that will help them enhance their innate strengths and overcome difficulties they may have encountered in school.

Recent scientific advances have provided us with a radically new understanding of variations in brain function. We must now apply that knowledge to help all kinds of minds contribute to our society in all kinds of constructive ways. We must acknowledge and celebrate this diversity of minds and usher in a new era of neurodevelopmental pluralism.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career