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The following inscription can be found near the entrance of the Winston Churchill College at Cambridge University: “Felix qui potrit rerum cognoscere causas.”   “Happy is he who understands the hidden causes of things.”  It is a quote from Virgil, 70-19 BC, the Roman poet who wrote epic poem, Aeneid.


Perhaps since the beginning of thought, humankind has been looking for the hidden causes of things, discovering some of them, and developing strategies for harnessing their power.  For knowledge is indeed power.

And perhaps the greatest knowledge we can seek is knowledge about ourselves.  The Greeks, as usual, had some words for this: “gnothi s e auton” – “know thyself.”  These are the words that were inscribed over the portico of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. 


But which self do we need to get to know?  The one that we are at the moment of conception or the one we become after birth.  Which is most important?  Nature or Nurture?  Genes or Environment?

To investigate these questions, we need to look to our brains.  The Greek physician, Hippocrates (460 BC – 377 BC), known as the Father of Medicine, taught the following:


Men ought to know that from the brain and only the brain arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and tears.  Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good and the pleasant from the unpleasant.  To consciousness, the brain is the messenger. [1]


Thus according to Hippocrates, our brain is the organ responsible for discerning differences. 


Bruce McEwen has said in his 2002 book, The End of Stress as We Know It (p.18), “At least throughout our mortal life span, our identities are inextricably fused into the physical integrity of the brain.”

Before modern technology, we had to rely on the study of people who had head injuries, or on the examination of dead brains, for our knowledge of how this organ operated.  Some scientists also studied the outside of the skull, trying to find some answers in the bumps found there.


Once first the microscope and then the electron microscope were invented, we were able to delve deeper into the structures of the brain.  Different types of cells were discovered, the primary two being the glia cells and the neurons. 


The glia cells nurture and support the neurons.  Einstein’s brain was a bit smaller than the average-sized brain, and had about the same number of neurons per square centimeter.  However, they say it had a greater abundance of these glia cells. 


The neurons are the pathways along which messages are passed, analyzed, acted upon, and then stored or discarded. The remarkable and marvelous thing to remember about the neurons is that they don’t touch, they are not physically connected.  This is extremely important because it allows us to make new connections more easily, often, and in all directions.  It is one of the mechanisms that allow us to learn.  It is also one of the mechanisms that help us to recover from an injury, like a stroke. 


The tiny spaces between the neurons are called synapses.  This is where those neuro-transmitters, like dopamine and serotonin that you hear so much about come into play.  They are what carry the message from one neuron to another. 


If just one of these elements or structures isn’t functioning properly, you could have a neuronal “glitch” or difference occurring.  When you consider that we have more synoptic connections in our brains than there are stars in the galaxy, you can begin to see the many possibilities for differences.   So far scientists have discovered 17 different brain areas that are involved in reading alone.  How very amazing, complex, and different we are.


Now let’s take a look at a concept called neural pruning.  What happens to the neuron when it is not activated or reinforced over a period of time?  It withers and ceases to grow, much like a plant without water.  Much like some bodily functions when they are not exercised.


Neurons are activated in response to our exposure to new events, new stimulations.  If you place some rats in a cage that only provides for their physical well being, and if you place the same number of rats in a similar cage that has the addition of lots of toys for them to play with, the rats in the enriched environment will develop more neural connections.  In order to keep our brains in optimal working order, in order to keep them growing, we must actively seek new learning experiences.


In our lifetimes, scientists and engineers are coming up with new methods of viewing the brain.  For the first time in our history, we can get a look at what a living brain looks like when it is working in real time.  It has been said that 90% of what we know about how the brain functions we have learned in the past 10 years. 


Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is one of the most exciting of these tools:


Functional MRI or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) is a type of specialized MRI scan. It measures the hemodynamic response (change in blood flow) related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord of humans or other animals. It is one of the most recently developed forms of neuroimaging. Since the early 1990s, fMRI has come to dominate the brain mapping field due to its relatively low invasiveness, absence of radiation exposure, and relatively wide availability.[2]


During such a scan, the subject is placed in a scanner and then asked to perform some tasks, like rhyming words, for example.  Sometimes some parts of the brain don’t light up like most other brains when performing a similar task.  There can be many reasons for this, but only very rarely is intelligence one of them.  The subject’s hearing or sight might be impaired or perhaps they were reared in an environment without much auditory or visual stimulation. 


Or the subject’s brain might be wired somewhat differently.  What can cause this difference or differences?  Cardiff University has come up with one.  They have discovered the gene which is likely to be the cause of dyslexia in children.  They have called this gene "KIAA0319".  The study has been hailed as a major breakthrough, and the first study to identify one gene which contributes to susceptibility to the common form of dyslexia.  O' Donovan, one of the researchers, said "The finding vindicates our optimism that a disorder as apparently complicated as impaired reading ability can be amenable to molecular genetic dissection.”  Does this mean that sometime in the future they will be able to modify this gene to prevent this difference?  Would this even be a good idea?  Many dyslexic brains have made some amazing contributions to society.

Let’s take a look at Peter Oathout’s brain.  Peter was a young student in the U.K. who was having trouble learning how to read.  He was one of the lucky ones.  His parent sought help early.  Before Peter received remedial instruction, the researchers took an fMRI scan of his brain. It showed poor activity in the part of the brain normally associated with reading.  After receiving instruction, they did another scan.  It was clearly shown that the intervention increased activity in the left temporal lobe of his brain.


The lesson to be learned from Peter’s experience?  The brain is not hardwired from birth.  New connections can be made and tentative ones can be reinforced, at any age.  Strategies can be learned that will by-pass neural knots. The brain is plastic and malleable to experience throughout your lifetime.  This is why interventions work.  And the earlier the intervention, the easier and quicker is the remediation as younger brains are more amenable to “rewiring”. 


There are two times in our lives when there is an explosion of neuronal growth: very early childhood and the years just before the onset of puberty.  Very important times.  Times ripe for learning.  Windows of opportunity.  It appears that some of these windows, once they shut, cannot be opened again.  Others can be reopened, but only with difficultly.  Timing is everything in brain development.


And so is presentation.  In the Preface you will find the following information:


All the pages on this site have been done in ARIAL font, size 10.  The size was chosen for quicker download time.  If you have trouble reading this, you should cut and paste the pages into a document where you can change to a larger format. 

ARIAL was chosen because of the uniformity of all the letters – the thickness in any part of the individual letters does not vary, making it easier for persons who have visual-perceptual problems. 

The site has also been speech-enabled through the kindness of BrowseAloud.


Furthermore, it seems that we have an innate number sense, and that the culture we are born into impacts our ease with mathematics.   As Jim Holt writes:


The first three Roman numerals, I, II, and III, were formed by using the symbols for one as many times as necessary; the symbol for four, IV, is not so transparent.  The same principle applies to Chinese numerals; the first three consist of one, two, and three horizontal bars, but the fourth takes a different form.  Even Arabic numerals follow this logic: 1 is a single vertical bar; 2 and 3 began as two and three horizontal bars tied together for ease of writing.


Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language.  And, as Dehanene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial.  English is cumbersome.  There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90.  This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as “twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.”  French is just as bad, with vestigial base-twenty monstrosities, like quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (“four twenty ten nine”) for 99.  Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numerals, with a minimum of terms.  Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen.  And the advantages extend to adults.  Because Chinese number words are so brief – they take less than a quarter of a second to say, on average, compared with a third of a second for English – the average Chinese speaker has a memory span of nine digits, versus seven digits for English speakers.  (Speakers of the marvelously efficient Cantonese dialect, common in Hong Kong, can juggle ten digits in active memory.) [3]




Cognition is thinking.  Metacognition is thinking about thinking.  It examines how our thought processes work.  If you are solving an arithmetic problem like 2 + 2 = 4, you are thinking.  If you are thinking about how you solved that problem, you are engaging in metacognitive thinking.  The segment from The New Yorker article above engages in metacognitive thinking.  And metacognitive thinking is an excellent help on the journey to self-discovery.


It is becoming increasingly accepted that teaching metacognitive thinking skills should be an important part of everyone’s education.  This is especially true for our LD learners.


Students with learning disabilities often find learning a difficult and painful process. Learning becomes difficult when there are memory problems, difficulties in following directions, sustaining attention, trouble with the visual or auditory perception of information, or visual-coordination problems resulting in an inability to perform paper and pencil tasks. The presence of a learning difficulty can make learning to read, write and do math especially challenging. Students who have learning disabilities are often overwhelmed, disorganized and frustrated in learning situations.

In the process of instructing learners to improve the learning process, distinctions can be made between cognitive and metacognitive strategies. Cognitive strategies help a person process and manipulate information; examples include taking notes, asking questions, or filling out a chart. Cognitive strategies tend to be very task specific, implying that certain cognitive strategies are useful only when learning or performing certain tasks. Metacognitive strategies are executive in nature. They are the strategies a student uses when planning, monitoring, and evaluating learning or strategy performance. Hence, they are often referred to as self-regulatory strategies. A person who uses metacognitive strategies must therefore be aware of the need for executing strategies such as planning, monitoring and evaluating; thus being able to imagine and envision the future with reference to performing in a situation. The most effective outcomes are received by learners who combine the metacognitive with the cognitive. Metacognitive processes are presumed to provide the individual with some volitional control over various cognitive routines related to problem solving. [4]




The following charts provide some excellent visual examples of different learning strategies which have been taken from the National Capital Language Resource Center (NCLRC) site at .  As you can see, metacognitive strategies are at the top of the list. 


This list is available in the Appendices of their site in the following languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.  Readers are invited to “copy the list in English and/or in the target language to distribute to your students.”  The site is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.





Organize / Plan


  • Plan the task or content sequence. 
  • Set goals.
  • Plan how to accomplish the task.

Manage Your Own Learning

pace yourself
Pace Yourself

  • Determine how you learn best.
  • Arrange conditions that help you learn.
  • Seek opportunities for practice.
  • Focus your attention on the task.



While working on a task:

  • Check your progress on the task.
  • Check your comprehension as you use the language. Are you understanding?
  • Check your production as you use the language. Are you making sense?


I did it!
I did it!

After completing a task:

  • Assess how well you have accomplished the learning task.
  • Assess how well you have applied the strategies.
  • Decide how effective the strategies were in helping you accomplish the task.






Use Background Knowledge

I know
I know.

  • Think about and use what you already know to help you do the task.
  •  Make associations.

Make Inferences

Use Clues
Use Clues

  • Use context and what you know to figure out meaning.
  • Read and listen between the lines.

Make Predictions

Crystal Ball
Crystal Ball

  • Anticipate information to come.
  • Make logical guesses about what will happen.



  • Relate new concepts to your own life, that is, to your experiences, knowledge, beliefs and feelings.

Transfer / Use Cognates 


  • Apply your linguistic knowledge of other languages (including your native language) to the target language.
  • Recognize cognates.

Substitute / Paraphrase

Spare Tire
Spare Tire

  • Think of a similar word or descriptive phrase for words you do not know in the target language.




Use Imagery

Mirror, Mirror
Mirror, Mirror

  • Use or create an image to understand and/or represent information.

Use Real Objects / Role Play

Lights, Camera, Action!
Lights, Camera, Action!

  • Act out and/or imagine yourself in different roles in the target language.
  • Manipulate real objects as you use the target language.




Find/Apply Patterns


  • Apply a rule.
  • Make a rule.
  • Sound out and apply letter/sound rules.


Sort Suits
Sort Suits 

  • Relate or categorize words or ideas according to attributes.

Use Graphic Organizers/Take Notes


  • Use or create visual representations (such as Venn diagrams, time lines, and charts) of important relationships between concepts.
  • Write down important words and ideas.


Main Idea

  • Create a mental, oral, or written summary of information

Use Selective Attention

Look for It 

  • Focus on specific information, structures, key words, phrases, or ideas.




Access Information Sources

Read all about it!
Read all about it!

  • Use the dictionary, the internet, and other reference materials.
  • Seek out and use sources of information.
  • Follow a model
  • Ask questions



  • Work with others to complete tasks, build confidence, and give and receive feedback.

Talk Yourself Through It (SelfTalk)

I can do it
I can do it!

  • Use your inner resources. Reduce your anxiety by reminding yourself of your progress, the resources you have available, and your goals.






You can help your student and yourself in your pursuit of metacognitive thinking strategies that work for you by learning what learning styles you both use.  This is very important and very simple to do for everyone involved in education.  Parents and educators need to respect the learning style of their charges, especially if it differs from their own.  If you are a teacher or parent with an auditory learning style and you present your material in that manner, your visually-learning student is going to have a great deal of difficulty.  If there is a difference in styles, this presents a wonderful opportunity for teaching, and learning, respect.


Simply go online and type in “learning styles” and you will come across numerous tests that can be taken to determine if the subject is an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner.





Once again, an internet search will yield many strategies for our various types of learners.  The following information, however, was taken from the Maine Parent Federation, PO Box 2067, August, ME  04338:


            for the Visual Learner:


  1. Use visual cues or visual associations to remember details.
  2. Put notes in places to help you remember.
  3. Take notes in class.  Review them, and then summarize them.
  4. Use color-coded mind maps, charts, graphs, diagrams, and pictures to help you remember information and capture important ideas.
  5. Use highlighter pens in different colors when reading to point out important information.
  6. For information, read newspapers, books and magazines.  Go to the library.
  7. Do written reports.  You’re good at them.
  8. Memorize by seeing pictures of the information in your mind.
  9. Practice spelling by seeing the words in your mind.
  10. In college, take advantage of the smaller tutorial groups, especially if you find it difficult to learn in large lecture halls. 


            for the Auditory Learner:


  1. Don’t play music or have the television on when you’re studying.  You can be easily distracted by any kind of noise.
  2. If possible, tape lectures and replay them.  Remember to make word or sound associations with the details you want to remember.
  3. Talk to yourself, go over ideas and information out loud.  Explain it to someone.  Teach it to yourself or get a study buddy to discuss the material with you.  Form a study group.
  4. When you’ve been assigned work, repeat the instructions back to your teacher to make sure they are clear.
  5. When studying, sing the information or make up rhymes to help you remember.
  6. To get information, use television, the internet, or news programs. 
  7. If you have the opportunity, give oral reports.
  8. Learn to spell by using phonics.  Practice spelling words out loud.  When you’re not sure how to spell a word, repeat the letters out loud to find the error.
  9. If you are having problems comprehending a written passage, read it out loud.
  10. You have a good memory for discussions and learn by listening, so pay attention in class.  It will improve your grades.
  11. To memorize, do it in steps.  Talk to yourself.


            for the Kinesthetic Learner:


  1. Touch and handle things.  Build, manipulate and repair things.
  2.  Keep moving. A good way to learn something is to walk and talk about it.
  3. Use diagrams, mind maps and models.  Make your own study charts to organize information and details.  Use different colors when charting information to help you remember the facts.
  4. Use a notebook to keep track of assignments.
  5. Study buddies are a good idea.  Act out information and role play.  Use lots of gestures to explain information.
  6. Practice your spelling by looking at words while tracing them in the air with your finger or nose.
  7. Point to the words when reading; it will help your comprehension.
  8. Get involved in projects, experiments, making models, making videos, role-playing, and acting.  Use your physical senses.  
  9. Use typewriters, calculators and computers.
  10. Take lots of breaks.  Snack while studying.





As well as differences in learning and study styles, there are also differences in types of intelligences.  Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard, published his ground-breaking book, Multiple Intelligences, in 1983.  He posited that there are 7 different areas in the human ability spectrum, and that we favor some over others:


·       Linguistic: ease with written and/or spoken language

·       Musical: innate sense of music

·       Logical-Mathematical: seemly instinctive grasp of numbers, relationships and connections

·       Spatial: ability to readily picture objects in space and their relation to other objects

·       Bodily-Kinesthetic: ease in acquiring athletic skills; a sense of timing

·       Intrapersonal: self knowledge

·       Interpersonal: knowledge of others


He later added 2 more:


·       Environmental/Naturalistic: ability to discern and sensitivity to differences within the natural world

·       Existential: seeks knowledge about the meaning of human existence


Knowledge of a student’s preferred intelligences is another aid for parents and teachers as they present material.  Again as mentioned above, you can search the internet for tests that can help you learn your own and your students’ perhaps hidden talents.


In 1995, another kind of intelligence was described by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence.  He felt that schools should teach emotional literacy as a subject along with their academic courses.  By learning the skills of conflict resolution and peer mediation, he hoped that bullying and violence in schools would diminish.  By learning social skills and signals, students would come to better understand themselves and each other.


One of the great tragedies of our time is the existence of educational systems that are excellent for some kinds of minds, but which give scant consideration to minds endowed with other gifts. Countries spend billions to build more prisons bursting at the seams with school failures, instead of investing their resources in teaching teachers and schools how to reach all kinds of minds. Most educational philosophies have not yet caught up with our new knowledge of how the human mind learns.  Young minds frequently crack against a wall that has no real purpose other than to promote failure rather than produce graduates.



Students Who Learn Differently Overseas


by Susan van Alsenoy, AWC Antwerp




Page created 10/29/99 EvE. Last updated 03/01/11 SvA.




Copyright ©  All rights reserved.





[3] “Numbers Guy,” Jim Holt. The New Yorker.  March 3, 2008. pp 42-47.