Individual Learning Time - unlocking potential

Leslie Duffen discusses the effects of 'Individual Learning Time' as the key to unlocking children's potential

Duffen, L. (2003) Individual Learning Time - unlocking potential. Down Syndrome News and Update, 3(3), 89-89. doi:10.3104/dsupdate.240

Dear Sue,

I am writing to comment on points raised by Ruth Palatnik and Jill O' Connor in the September 2003 issue of Down Syndrome News and Update.

'Nature' versus 'nurture' is a controversial issue that will not be resolved until a

large number of children has been brought up from birth in the optimum conditions for maximum intellectual growth. This is a long way in the future if only because we still have only limited ideas on what these 'optimum conditions' are. Certainly no child, with or without Down syndrome, has yet been brought up under these conditions.

When I say that my daughter Sarah was 'congenitally above average' I am making a statement unsupported by any evidence except that her achievements are above average - so that she may well have had a head start. However it is impossible to separate the effects of Sarah's learning environment, since birth, from the effect of her congenital ability. Elsewhere, I coined a phrase 'Individual Learning Time' (ILT) and gave some quantitative estimates of the levels of the ILT that Sarah has had from an early age - though not as early as I now wish - and to a limited extent is still having. Most children, with or without Down syndrome, achieve nothing like these levels of ILT. I believe that without this input Sarah would now be illiterate, inarticulate, innumerate and physically inactive - whatever her congenital ability.

Leslie and Sarah Duffen

Leslie and Sarah Duffen

The word 'quantitative' in the last paragraph raises an important point. In most human activity it is taken for granted that the degree of success in that activity is directly proportional to the time spent in achieving success. Only in education is this factor completely ignored - to the extent that we simply do not know the extent of individual learning time in, for example, learning to read or in any other learning. It certainly bears no relationship to class teaching time.

Ruth asks for suggestions about the levels that children can be expected to achieve at certain ages in - for example - reading. I do not think that these can be divorced from the amount of ILT that the child has had and is having, and the age at which he starts learning. Of course there will be a range of achievement in our children, as in all children, but we simply do not yet know what the upper level of that range of achievement is, in reading or anything else, under optimum learning conditions.

Jill suspects that most people with Down syndrome are working 'proportionally nearer to their limits' than the rest of us. Well, maybe, but I agree far more with her earlier suggestion that we don't really know the limits of the potential of anyone, with or without Down syndrome, because our usual home and school environments are far removed from the optimum for maximum growth. Every year we can read of a six year old taking GCSEs, or some such. This probably happens because his or her educational environment has been much nearer to the optimum than usual. Asserting that such a child must have been born as a 'genius' is a rationalisation of our failure radically to improve the educational environment for all our children. The conventional part time, class teaching, school education is nowhere near the optimum, even if it is started early enough.

Ruth suggests that parents can be discouraged if too much is made of the 'high achievers'. Thirty five years ago I would have been immensely heartened and encouraged to hear that there was even one person with Down syndrome who was at any level of achievement. I can assure Ruth that it was very much more discouraging to be given no hope at all than to be given too high a target to aim at. High expectations must be better for any child, given the necessary action, than aiming too low or not aiming at all. Parents can surely put up with some disappointment in their children's achievements if they know that they have given all the time that they can to help their children develop, using the best advice available to them. No parent can do more.

Leslie Duffen

Parent, Devon, UK