November 29, 2012

Lessons of the Square Watermelon

“Like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.”

That is how many students with different learning styles may feel as they struggle with trying to approach school the same way their classmates who are more traditional learners do. In fact, what they often need is a much more specialized approach. What works for most children quite often won’t work, or won’t work as well or in the same way, for them.

But finding a unique solution to the demands of an individual situation isn’t limited just to academics. In Japan, when grocery stores had a problem finding space for the much sought-after product of watermelon, farmers there came up with a truly innovative response: they grew square watermelons! The story is detailed on Hard Knox Life, entrepreneur Dave Knox’s website that is full of similar stories of innovative thinking. As unlikely as this might seem, when presented with a seemingly insolvable quandary, the Japanese farmers thought outside the box by literally thinking inside the box. By growing the watermelons in square containers, they found a way to serve the demands of their customers while meeting the needs of grocers who placed a necessary premium on shelf space.

This is exactly how we approach working with our students at Engaging Minds. One of our underlying tenets is that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to working with our students, and it is the way we approach each and every tutoring session. Hard Knox Life lists the following lessons, in relation to the square watermelons story, that can also easily be applied to how Engaging Minds tutors work with students who come through our doors.

Square Watermelons

  1. Don’t assume – When a student comes to Engaging Minds, we collect as much background information as possible from parents, teachers, other tutors and the students themselves. We don’t just look at grades or test scores and make assumptions based on those; we aren’t content to just go with a formulaic, tried-and-true approach. With as complete a picture of our students as possible and our own observations over time, we are able to create a plan and an approach that is a direct outgrowth of the students’ needs and goals
  2. Question Habits – As we have said in previous blogs, for students dealing with executive function issues, the creation of good study habits and organizational skills is key. But this varies from student to student, so what may work for Student A (for example, having a different binder for every subject) may not work for Student B (who is more likely to lose binders the more of them s/he has). It is important to look at what the individual needs of each student are and tailor any plan to that student as an individual.
  3. Be Creative – Again, what works for “most” students may not work for any given student with whom we are working at Engaging Minds. Coming up with creative solutions that are individually tailored is crucial to the success and growth of each child. For example, if Student C isn’t able to write down everything in his/her assignment notebook as teachers deliver an assignment, it might work better to use his/her phone to capture the assignment in the moment via a voice recording or a snapshot. Then s/he can transcribe this into a physical assignment notebook later in the day or when s/he gets home. For those students who have strong kinesthetic or musical intelligence, it might work well to create a cheer or a song to remember a list of facts or dates rather than just drilling the material repeatedly.
  4. Look for a Better Way – In order to best serve our students, we are constantly reevaluating our approach to their learning. Engaging Minds tutors regularly go back to the aforementioned initial notes from teachers, parents, etc. and juxtapose that information with how we are currently working with any given student. We look over the notes we have created on EM Chat and refer back to our own suggestions about how to address our students’ needs. By constantly reassessing our own work, we are able to see when there is a novel approach, a new solution or a better way to address our individual students’ needs in terms of support, organization, assistance and skills.
  5. Impossibilities Often Aren’t – Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Students who have learning difficulties can often feel like conquering any given task and overall success at school are impossibilities. But, as Engaging Minds tutors often remind our charges, the only way they can truly fail is by not trying and by assuming that success is an impossibility. By using the model of “gradual release of responsibility” to help students gain confidence in their own abilities and by offering very specific, targeted praise and focusing on the intangible rewards of this success (rather than on material rewards), we help students find in themselves the means to overcome this sense of hopelessness. Success breeds success.

When your child is struggling with his/her homework or a long-term assignment, remember the lessons of the square watermelon. You don’t have to try to make your square peg fit into a round hole; a little creativity, patience and encouragement go a long way!