The Learning Process

The learning process happens instantaneously with non-disabled people as they interact with their environment.  Information enters the brain through sensory input—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. The learner perceives the meaning of the sensory input and processes the information by interpreting, organizing, and filing it their short-term working memory, and if this information is used and rehearsed often enough, it goes into the long-term memory where it is filed away for quick retrieval and future output and use anytime it is needed. The information has become a permanent part of the learner’s repertoire. People with Down syndrome are often unable to instantaneously go through this learning process due to their learning differences. We need to understand the process and adapt our teaching to assure that our students are successful learners. 
 
The six main elements of the learning process are: 
  • Exposure to the environment
  • Sensory Input
  • Perception
  • Processing
  • Demonstration of learning
  • Feedback 

Exposure to the Environment

Everything is new to infants and young children as they experience the world for the first time.  They see, hear, taste, touch, and feel, but they are not able to discriminate and make meaning of their world.  The people in their lives (usually parents) help children interact with the environment and give meaning to it so they know the names of things and understand what they are for and how they work, the correlation of cause and effect, the sequence of events, classifications, strategies for organizing this information as well as labels for what they see, hear, taste, touch, and feel.  They also need stimulation (experiences in and interaction with the environment) to learn language and understand how to use it to communicate.

Children with Down syndrome may have difficulty learning to communicate through the natural exchanges between parent and child.  Specific kinds of interaction (such as using gestures and hand signs paired with words, taking turns, playing, singing, talking, and reading to children) prepare them for learning.  

Sensory Input

The ability for the learner with Down syndrome to absorb sensory input is often compromised.
  • Their sensory input may not be acute due to poor eyesight and/or hearing. Their senses of taste and smell may be dulled by bad colds. Therefore, these types of problems should be aggressively treated.
  • Their auditory short-term memory is a weakness, whereas their visual short-term memory is very much intact. Therefore, visual input should be paired with auditory input. 
  • They may filter out much of the sensory input provided in a lesson because it is too much, too fast, and/or too confusing. Therefore, the amount of sensory input and the rate at which it is presented need to be regulated to match the student’s ability to absorb, perceive, and process.
  • They may fail to filter out sensory input that is irrelevant to the learning activity. Therefore, the learning environment should be free of sensory distractions.  

Perception

Perception refers to the learner’s understanding of perceived information. The learner’s perception of the sensory input should be accurate. It should be very clear to the learner what is being taught. For example, a teacher once used orange squares cut from construction paper to teach her student the color “orange.” Shortly after the lesson, the student was working on a natural wood form puzzle.  The teacher pointed to the square, and asked her student, “What is this?”  The student replied, “orange.”  The student’s perception was that “orange” was the name of the shape rather than its color!

Processing

Whereas non-disabled learners have a mental “filing system” in which they store information as it is processed for easy retrieval later on, learners with Down syndrome may not have files.  Instead, they may have a bucket into which information flows as it comes and is mixed together in no particular order, making it very difficult to retrieve. For these learners, files need to be created to replace that bucket.  The input must be presented in the context of how it is used and to which category it belongs so it can be stored, retrieved, and used.

The choice of information to put in the files should be determined by the learner’s objectives on his/her individual education plan. The learner should have an immediate and ongoing use for the information, and it should be presented through the stages of learning: acquisition, practice to proficiency/fluency, transfer, and generalization.  The information is then stored in the appropriate file in the student’s long-term memory. 

Output: Demonstration of Learning

After the information has been processed, pondered, and filed, the learner needs to have an effective means of demonstrating or communicating that he or she has comprehended, perceived and processed the information.  The means of demonstration will depend on the abilities and skills of the learner and will vary with the situation (individual or group instruction), but output is a very important part of the learning process.  Without output, it is impossible to know whether learning has taken place, when and if objectives have been met, and if the information is useful to the student.    

The most typical form of demonstration is either verbal or signed language. Students tell what they have learned by saying or signing words and answering questions.  Often, visual learners are unable to use verbal language to confirm what they have learned.  They need to have the opportunity to adequately process and rehearse the information by matching it first, then selecting it on verbal cue. When matching and selecting output is correct, they are then asked to provide output by saying or signing. 

Feedback

Students must know whether their responses are correct or incorrect.  Without accurate feedback, the learning process is incomplete.  For visual learners, feedback is most effective when it is verbal yet paired with visual, tangible objects.  Providing students with tokens or stickers that they can use to chart their own data, measure their own progress, and set their own goals, allows them to fully participate in the learning process and evaluate their own performance. 

Student regression

If student output data show that he/she “knows” something one day, but does not “know” it the next day, week, month, or after summer vacation, this does not necessarily mean that he/she is regressing or losing their memory. It most often means that the information had been stored in their short-term working memory, but it had not been used and rehearsed enough to be stored in their long-term memory. Review previously taught information, and if review does not bring it back, re-teach it.  Student progress during re-teaching should go faster than teaching new information.  And remember that the learning process is not complete until all the stages of learning have been completed: acquisition, practice to proficiency/fluency, transfer, and generalization.  Useful and meaningful information is maintained in the natural environment by using it.

References

  1. Oelwein, P.L. (1988). Behavioral management: Guidelines for parents and teachers. In V. Dmitriev & P. Oelwein, Advances in Down syndrome. Seattle: Special Child Publications.
  2. Patterson, B. (2002). Behavioral concerns in persons with Down syndrome. In W.I. Cohen, L. Nadel, & M. E. Madnick, (Eds.), Down syndrome: Visions for the 21st century. New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc.
  3. Reese, E.P. (1966). The analysis of human operant behavior. Wm. C. Brown Company.
  4. Sandall, S.R. & Schwartz, I.S. (2008). Building blocks for teaching preschoolers with special needs, 2nd edition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.