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Understanding learning difficulties

…And why they are not a barrier to lifelong learning

Staying in the loop of lifelong learning is a trending topic and beneficial to our self-development and overall wellbeing. But some of us might just find it too hard to engage in learning. We may have hated those school days full of pages to study and assignments to complete. Just thinking about learning something new might give us a headache now. Difficulty in learning might be due to several reasons, first of all motivation, interest and ways of engagement, but some of us might have specific reasons preventing us from enjoying learning more than others.

If we have kids or deal with school-aged children, we are likely to be familiar, or at least have an idea of what a learning difficulty is. Nowadays, a lot of attention and support is given to kids and teenagers who show specific difficulties in reading, writing or making calculations at school and get a diagnosis for this. But this is largely disregarded in the current adult population, where it is estimated that 1 person in 10 has a learning difficulty, which might somehow affect their work activity and their engagement in lifelong learning.

A learning difficulty might be the reason that got some of us hating our school days as children, but it doesn’t have to be an obstacle preventing anyone engaging in lifelong learning.

What is a learning difficulty?

First of all, this should not be confused with learning disabilities, which may affect more broadly our thinking abilities and life management. Specific learning difficulties, instead, are only about a particular domain of learning, such as reading or writing, and do not affect our intelligence, ability to think and reason or our broader ability to learn itself. They are about skills that are traditionally involved in learning, and tend to make it more difficult to learn in a specific way. Say you're shopping, and let’s assume you need to reach the 8th floor but you have a trolley. Taking the stairs would look like a mission impossible. But taking the lift, we probably barely realise that we took a trolley with us, and ground, 8th or 25th floor would not make any difference. Similar to the learning experience of someone with a learning difficulty. Way too complex if we take the hardest route, but smooth and successful if we get the way that works for us and the tools to support.

Specific learning difficulties which can be diagnosed by neuropsychological expert assessment are listed as follows:

Dyslexia: difficulties in the processes of reading, spelling and writing, including alphabetic, numeric and musical notation. Dyslexia is often, but not always associated with dysgraphia - difficulties to perform the motor movements required for handwriting, and dysorthography - difficulties in writing, in recognising, understanding and reproducing written symbols.

Dyscalculia: difficulties in basic arithmetic operations and in mental calculations, not extended to more general mathematical reasoning

Dyspraxia: difficulties in the processes of brain-body coordination, dexterity and organisation of movement and language

Despite being specific and separated disorders, they often show in different ways, at different levels of severity, as a stand-alone difficulty or in combination with other disorders.

There are also broader learning difficulties which may affect one or more neuropsychological domains, without compromising the broader thinking abilities. The most common ones are attention difficulties, such as ADHD, which may affect our ability to pay attention and to self-control.

What’s important to realise is that learning difficulties actually make up special learning styles: together with weakness that they may bring, they often offer a different way of structuring thinking and solving problems. Ultimately, learning difficulties often bring diversity with them, offering alternative ways to approach learning effectively.

From obstacles to resources

Learning in our own way is the motto here. Having one or more learning difficulties cannot really prevent anyone from learning whatever we’re interested in. Does having dyscalculia prevent anyone from learning quantum mechanics, when we have a calculator at hand? Disregarding details of calculation (or getting someone to check those for us), could actually help us visualise the bigger picture and join dots of the broader theory. Does having dyslexia prevent us from learning Russian literature? Audiobooks can just overcome the effort of reading and understanding complex alphabetic signs to focus our resources on broader comprehension, author’s message and artistic styles.

Actually, finding our own way to make learning achievable, easy and possibly fun doesn't just apply to those of us who have learning difficulties, but to any learners.

This is the principle that guides the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework of guidelines developed by CAST to help make learning accessible to anyone in the most effective and engaging way. The core principle of UDL is to create learning environments and situations that offer multiple and redundant ways for learners to engage, to access information and to put it into action. This may translate in providing playful situations for learning, motivation and purpose; in using multi-modal learning materials such as written, visual, audio and video; and in finding multiple and diverse situations to apply what you’ve learnt. Instead of adjusting the context of learning to the needs of any specific learners, UDL encourages the design of learning opportunities to be accessible to anyone, regardless of individual difficulties. In other words, it promotes diversity of approaches in learning as a universal resource for all learners.

So, at the end of day, it doesn’t matter whether we are carrying a trolley with us or not: we would probably benefit from taking the lift to reach the 8th floor anyway.

Before you go: Having colleagues with learning difficulties in your team, for example, and setting a working environment encouraging and facilitating learning for them, will become a powerful resource for the entire team, being able to access and use information in helpful ways and approach divergent ways of thinking. The discussion and inclusion of those with learning difficulties can help us become more empathetic in communications, helping to develop strong working relations between colleagues too.



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