Teaching and Learning

[ Teaching | Learning | References ]

Learning is skill acquisition and increased fluency. A teacher is anyone who affects the environment so that others learn. (By this definition you don't even have to be alive to be a teacher!) These notes describe some building blocks for effective teaching. They do not deliberately target teaching children with autism but you will certainly see that focus.

Foundations of effective teaching

The foundations of effective teaching are not all explicitly behavioral, or only for disabled people. They apply equally well to teaching any person with any degree of ability or disability. These principles should be mastered thoroughly by anyone who is going to teach your child.

  1. Establish attention
  2. Give instructions - define the task and provide resources to complete that task
  3. Complete the task
  4. Provide reinforcement

Curriculum planning (what is taught when) requires an understanding of learning. Actually, all aspects of teaching depend on understanding how learning works.

Establish attention

I cannot pay attention to two conversations at once. I have tried too many times - it seems like something I should be able to learn, but I never will. You cannot talk to me and watch TV at the same time. Attention is a prerequisite for learning.


The teacher assesses the level of his student's attention before presenting any task or information. Observe:


If attention is inadequate:

Give instructions

Instructions can get better but they are never ever clear enough (Bush v. Gore, anyone?). Considerations:

Complete the task

Program for success. The task must be selected so the learner has at least an 80% chance of completing it successfully. 



Strategies to maintain or increase the success rate (percentage or frequency):

Provide reinforcement

Whether simple "discrete trial" style immediate reinforcement, pleasure at having created something novel, or long-term payback like a college degree, the learner must get something from completing the task.

There has been a lot of research on reinforcement, measuring the effects of reinforcement type, schedules, saturation, and other variables. One constant challenge is to find novel rewards.


Learning is a poorly understand biological process. We can measure it, we can "image" the brain to see what areas are active, but we know next to nothing about the biochemical changes that take place while (and after) someone listens to a lecture, reads a book, or practices the piano.

Some important considerations:

  1. Ability - the potential for skill acquisition
  2. Learning style - different roads to learning
  3. Repetition - repetition - repetition
  4. Timing - task interspersal and skill maintenance


Don't put your toddler in calculus class. Actually, don't put any typically developing toddler in any class. The potential for learning must be there or the student will fail. On the other hand, if the potential is extremely high, teaching may be unnecessary.

Learning style

There is a lot of research on "how people learn," and a proliferation of "teaching methodologies," each claiming to be more successful than the others. The claims and measures are usually based on average results from a large group. Within any group, though, there is not a single average learner.

The educational program that best develops any individual's potential is the one that best accesses his particular learning style. That's why IEPs have student profiles.


The analogy to muscle development is apt. Practice is essential to learning many - most - skills (I need to find more time to play the piano!). Once a skill is developed, it needs to be maintained or it may be lost. After a certain point, more practice does not help, and may even be counterproductive (overtraining).


Teaching, practice, and testing all change the brain. Whether it's the growth of new cells, connections between cells, or the chemical contents of those cells, the right chemicals need time to be made and transported. Those processes take time. Some are practically instantaneous, others require minutes or hours, still others days or weeks.

After a certain amount of practice the measurable skill level may continue to increase with time. Eventually it will probably decrease. Given an hour available to learn a task, it may be more efficient to spend half an hour over two days than the same hour every other day. (This is a made-up example, I may have it backwards! The point is that timing matters.)

Task interspersal (mixing up a set of exercises) is one way to efficiently teach and maintain a set of skills in a given amount of time.

Teaching and learning - interesting reading

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This document is rsaffran.tripod.com/teaching.html, updated Sunday, 26-Oct-2014 20:33:58 EDT

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