Celebrate Strengths, Nurture Affinities:
A Conversation with Mel Levine
The world needs all kinds of minds, Dr. Mel
Levine tells us. What we are learning about how our brains
work gives educators guidance on how to...
When Mel Levine was a youngster, he
had what he describes as a “specialized mind.” That is, he
excelled at a few things, like language and social
awareness, and was not very good—more like awful—at a few
others, like sports and gross motor abilities. Today a
pediatrician, an internationally known author, and the
cofounder of the nonprofit institute All Kinds of Minds,
Levine is dedicated to expanding our understanding of
differences in learning. He elaborates on the ideas that
he presented at ASCD's 2006 Annual Conference in this
interview with Educational Leadership.
Why do you say that the most
important thing to know about a child is his or her
If we want to prepare kids for
adulthood, one of the most important things we can do is
to celebrate their strengths, those assets with which
they're going to find meaning in life and be able to make
contributions. For the most part, adults who are leading
worthy lives are doing so by mobilizing their strengths
and affinities. What we should seek is a consonance
between a student's education and his future career.
You often use the word
demystify when you talk about making students
aware of their own strengths. Why is demystifying kids
It's very hard for kids to work on
something if they don't even know what it's called.
Awareness is the flashlight that helps kids find their way
to the switch that turns on an ability. I can't emphasize
enough how much kids need to understand what their issues
are. It's time to set aside labels—LD, for example—and be
more specific. The labels are pessimistic. They don't take
into consideration the most important thing about you:
Are we born with our strengths
or do we develop most of them?
The status of a child's functioning in
a particular skill can change a lot over time. We don't
want kids to think that their brains are etched in stone,
that their present functioning represents fixed hardware.
Things can change significantly. For example, many people
who had language difficulties in reading and spelling as
children have wonderful language abilities as adults. They
built up that language function over time.
There's so much resiliency in the
brain, so much plasticity. On the other hand, if a
weakness isn't known about, if it becomes like a muscle
that never gets used, the weakness is going to worsen and
resiliency will give way. I argue strongly for having a
handle on the strengths and weaknesses of children and
then stepping back to ask, What do they need to work on?
And by the way, there's nothing wrong with neglecting some
weaknesses if we think they're not important.
Do schools emphasize correcting
the weaknesses too much?
Far too much. Within any school you
can almost divide the student body into students who are
well-rounded and those who have highly specialized minds.
We often punish the ones who have highly specialized
minds. I'm not saying that kids ought to get out of
anything. Everyone ought to be exposed to history, even if
they're not good at it. And everybody needs to become
mathematically literate, even if math is anathema to them.
But we shouldn't be punishing students because of their
If I were the Czar of Education, I
would have a track in high school called the
well-roundedness track. But I would also have specialty
tracks in which you take all the required classes but only
get graded in two. In your areas of strength, we're going
to push you hard because what we really care about is
making sure that your strengths are getting stronger as
you go through school. And we're not going to evaluate you
on how well you practice other people's strengths.
You're a strong opponent of
retention in grade. Why is that?
Holding a kid back in a grade to
punish him for the way he's wired is about the most
humiliating experience most children can have.
I saw a boy in my office recently who
had been held back in 7th grade. When we evaluated Joseph,
we found that he had some significant problems with
memory. He couldn't get anything on automatic pilot: When
he did a math problem, it would take him six or seven
seconds to remember how much 6 × 7 is. In reading, he had
to figure out each time how to decode words that he had
seen repeatedly. So much effort was going into decoding
the individual words that there wasn't much left for
understanding the whole paragraph. He had a wonderful
scientific mind, but the memory demands kept exceeding his
How did you counsel him?
First of all, we told him that to get
something in automatic memory, you have to study it right
before you go to sleep. Everything you study then gets
three or four instant replays after you fall asleep. And,
although we certainly wanted him to learn his math facts,
we also wanted him to become adept with a calculator so
his lack of automatic recall of math facts didn't stand in
the way of learning algebra. We tried to bypass a weakness
at the same time we strengthened a skill.
By the way, what we did for Joseph
didn't take one penny from the school's budget. If we
understood the specific breakdowns in learning better,
we'd save a fortune on special education.
What about the costs of
identifying students' problems?
Right now we overrely on testing to
identify problems. There are so many issues that affect
learning that are not on any test. We're trying to teach
teachers how to recognize the phenomena involved in
breakdowns rather than shunting a kid off for testing.
Teachers can learn so much through
good observation. It's knowing what you're looking for,
knowing what the possibilities are, knowing what to
prescribe. You go to a dermatologist because he or she
knows what all the rashes look like. Teachers should know
what the 5th grade math rashes look like or what the
rashes that cause a student to get a D in physics
The more teachers become familiar with
the breakdowns, the more obvious the treatments become.
Give me an example of how to
identify the 5th grade rashes in math.
To be successful at solving word
problems in 5th grade, you need factual memory so you can
remember how much 3 × 9 is. You need procedural memory so
you can remember how to do multiplication. You need
pattern recognition so you can look at a math problem and
say, “I've seen that kind of problem before.” You need
spatial ability because you do math best if you can
picture what's going on in the problem. You need sentence
comprehension. You need to focus on small details because
math problems are full of details, and if you're a
big-picture kid, you could have trouble.
If you have a kid in your class who's
doing miserably on word problems, you can ask, Is it
factual memory? Is it procedural memory? Is it pattern
recognition? Is it sentence comprehension? You can
pinpoint where the breakdowns occur. And no one's in a
better position to do this than a well-trained classroom
How do you train educators to do
We have a program called Schools
Attuned, which is part of our nonprofit institute, All
Kinds of Minds. Teachers and principals spend a year
studying this approach with some of our faculty. They use
case studies and online resources to learn how to think
about brain functions in relation to learning and how to
demystify kids about their weaknesses and strengthen their
A lot of our readers are
familiar with Howard Gardner's theory of multiple
intelligences. There are differences between the
neurodevelopmental functions that you identify and his
intelligences. For example, he identifies music as an
intelligence of its own, with its own perception and
memory functions. Do your theories conflict?
If anything, our models complement
each other and certainly are not diametrically opposed.
One difference is that he is a psychologist and I'm a
clinician. A clinician's model naturally identifies where
breakdowns are occurring. When Gardner talks about musical
intelligence, I can talk about some of the brain
functions—sequencing ability and motor-rhythmic
abilities—that would contribute to musical intelligence.
Various neurodevelopmental functions in a sense are the
ingredients of each of his intelligences.
Mine is more of a splitter's model and
he's a bit more of a lumper. We need both models.
We have some articles in this
issue suggesting that boys have strengths that are
neglected in the classroom. In your research, is there
anything to indicate that boys have different
First of all, in any given case, all
bets are off. All the generalizations break down when you
look at individuals.
On the other hand, a lot of the data
show that boys underperform in college compared with what
their SATs suggest they could achieve. And girls are
overachievers. They do better than their tests predict. A
lot of girls have trouble taking multiple-choice tests.
The girls seem way ahead of the boys
in elementary school in language processing. As school
becomes increasingly verbal and linguistically dense, the
girls develop more of an advantage. The boys have better
spatial abilities, which are useful in kindergarten and
1st grade but become increasingly irrelevant to the
curriculum as you proceed through school. To a great
extent, you can thrive without spatial abilities in
school. You can't thrive without language abilities in
Also, boys seem to learn through
direct, hands-on activities and don't do as well sitting
and listening because of their patterns of attention. Boys
seem to relish experiential learning. Then again, that's a
generalization; there are exceptions on both sides.
Teachers often are mandated to
teach a particular curriculum and simultaneously are urged
to differentiate their instruction. How important is
maintaining that balance between standardizing and
differentiating instruction, and on what side should
I think they can balance these very
well, but it's best to err on the side of being
compassionate and humane. The key is to focus on the big
ideas and concepts of the curriculum for all kids and
differentiate how each child will gain access to them and
Schools need to reexamine this whole
issue of coverage, which is bizarre in view of the fact
that our hard drive is now on our desk. So many of the
kids who are struggling in school have good ideas and are
good at critical thinking, but they may not be quite as
good with taking in and retaining information. Assignments
and tests ought to be more flexible so that different
kinds of minds can be effective. We allow this to happen
all the time in the adult world.
Is the high-stakes testing
movement in opposition to what you are advocating?
My philosophy is kind of swimming
upstream but not entirely so because you can still embrace
what I'm talking about and foster accountability. We need
to have more than one way of evaluating a child. If we are
going to preserve accountability, we're morally obligated
to make sure we really understand the kids who are
struggling and the reasons for their struggles, and we
have to have some plans for helping them rather than
We also have to be careful that we're
not punishing their teachers. If you have a class of kids
who really have difficulties with learning, you shouldn't
be subjected to punitive action if those kids are not
doing well on tests.
I do think that testing is a necessary
evil. There have to be hard criteria for looking at how
someone is performing. But there should be more than one
test, and a test should not be given every year in every
school. Standardized tests should be scheduled randomly so
that teachers aren't teaching to the test.
That's one of ASCD's
beliefs—that we should have multiple kinds of assessments.
I totally concur. As a clinician, I
can say that what we know about different patterns of
learning almost mandates that there be different patterns
of testing. It would be sad if we judged all grownups
according to the same criteria. I live way out in the
country here in North Carolina and when a kid is sick, I
can help him because I'm a pediatrician. When my tractor's
broken, my neighbors come and fix the tractor. I would not
want to be judged on my mechanical aptitude, and they
shouldn't be judged on their medical expertise.
Recently Educational Leadership
published two issues on educating adolescents (The
Adolescent Learner, April 2005; and Teaching the Tweens,
April 2006). What is important for educators to know about
how the adolescent brain works?
We're learning a lot about brain
function in adolescents and, in particular, the
development of the frontal lobes of the brain behind your
forehead. One of the characteristics of the frontal lobes
is that as you mature, they work slower and slower so that
you become a more thoughtful, reflective person rather
than an impulsive or impetuous one. And that's what starts
taking place in the student's brain in high school.
So one thing I would ask high school
teachers is, How can you justify pop quizzes and timed
SATs? A teenager should be given extra credit for taking
more time on a test.
I would give kids space limits, not
time limits. So you say to a student, “You can take as
long as you want to write this essay but you're only
allowed to write two pages.” That's how the adult world
works. When you have an article to write for
Educational Leadership, your editor doesn't care how
long you spent writing the article. That's your problem—if
you want to stay up all night or whatever. But you're
going to be given 18 inches of space.
You said something that, as an
editor, I really liked: “Writing is the largest orchestra
a kid's mind has to conduct.”
Right, because writing combines so
many different brain functions: language, memory, motor
function, the ability to generate ideas, the ability to
understand and apply rules, the ability to organize. You
can make a long list of the different functions that have
to flow together on paper.
That's why kids shouldn't perceive
writing as an emergency procedure. Ernest Hemingway once
said, “Writing is rewriting.” I just spent the whole
morning improving two chapters of my new book. I couldn't
do that impulsively. I had to slow down and, paragraph by
paragraph, work it over. A lot of time, kids perceive
writing as a crisis. It shouldn't be speed writing. It
should be thoughtful writing.
And speaking of the adolescent mind,
writing is especially challenging between the ages of 11
Why is that?
Because those are ages where the
writing demands increase. If kids have a weakness in one
of those areas I just mentioned, they can develop output
failure and give up on themselves. For example, you might
see a child whose fingers have a motor dysfunction. His
fingers can't move as quickly as his thoughts. His
language is flowing but his handwriting's hard to read and
it's taking too much work. And he just completely breaks
down. His teachers accuse him of being a slacker when, in
reality, the written output is too much of a struggle for
him. He's wonderful in a class discussion. But what he
gets down on paper sounds like the output of a child three
or four years younger. And so he stands accused of not
Schools are much more compassionate
when it comes to children with reading problems than they
are when it comes to helping kids with output problems.
Can you give me an example of
how a teacher can uncover a hidden asset and enable
students to work on a particular weakness?
Let me give you two examples.
A math teacher sees a girl in her
class who is struggling with math—she just doesn't have
the concepts and takes a long time to solve problems. But
the teacher has found out that this girl is a whiz at
summarizing stories she's read and enriching a class
discussion. That math teacher realizes that this is a
student who's going to have to use her expressive language
abilities to learn math. In a sense, she's not going to
understand math until she teaches it to someone else.
And so the girl gets a tape recorder.
Every time she learns a math concept, she goes home and
dictates an explanation of it. She recasts math in her own
language in order to conceptualize it. She learns to use
her strong expressive language abilities to leverage her
weak mathematical abilities.
Here's another example. A content
affinity is an area of content toward which a child is
drawn for some obscure reason. A particular kid loves
cars. Someone else is into sports statistics. Another
child loves fashion. It is so important to identify these
content affinities. When I was a little boy, I loved
animals. No one else in my family had anything like my
affinity for animal life. Now I live on a huge farm in
North Carolina, surrounded by animal life. As I look out
the window while we speak, I see my donkeys, my geese, my
pheasants, my peacocks, six dogs, eight cats—it's way out
of control. But animals were always my affinity.
I'm the one in my family who
likes animals, too.
It's called biophilia—a strong
attachment to animals. It's irrational, but for those of
us who have it, it's powerful. Friends of mine who come to
our farm just look at me, and say, “Why aren't you playing
golf?” I can't play golf. I can't hit the ball. That's
part of it. But the other part is I'd much rather be doing
chores on my farm.
What if a student says to you,
“I don't have any affinities”?
We hear that all the time. And our
response is, “You'd better go find them.” It's an
emergency. Often students do have affinities but people
close to them don't see clearly what the child is drawn
to. You know, this kid has always been intrigued with
fast-moving objects or this child just loves the outdoors.
You try to find, first of all, the broadest possible theme
and then focus on the motifs. What keeps coming back in
this child's life? What are her inclinations?
By the way, parents don't get to pick
the affinities. Affinities just arrive on the scene and
you wonder where they came from or where this kid came
How does a teacher use students'
affinities to teach skills?
It's been shown that the best way to
learn how to read well is to read about something you know
a lot about and feel passionate about. One of the ways we
can leverage skills is by continually pegging them to a
If I were the principal of a school, I
would establish a policy that every 4th grader picks a
topic he's going to stick with. And at the end of three
years, the student makes a series of formal presentations.
In the meantime, he reads every book in the library on
spiders, and he does three art projects and four science
projects on spiders. When the family goes on vacation,
they photograph spider webs. And at school when there's a
spider in the boys' restroom, he's called in for a
An awful lot of important skills can
ride the coattails of your affinities. If you combine
affinities with strengths, you begin to carve out a
So you find your affinities in
your recreation, and you use your strengths in your
Exactly. There are all kinds of
interesting questions that arise about the ways you use
your affinities and strengths—whether, in fact, you want
them to be part of making a living or some kind of a side
dish. But at least you can address those questions.
Are affinities brain-based?
To some extent they're cultural,
environmental, and family-influenced. But to some extent,
they seem to be inborn in kids rather than acquired. And,
as parents know, you can have three children in your
family whose interests are totally diverse. Same parents,
same everything else.
We have often published articles
and theme issues on brain-based learning. Would you
address the extent to which educators should relate what
we're learning about the brain to their instructional
We have to be somewhat cautious not to
overapply what we're learning from medical and scientific
research—not to overuse it or think of it as particularly
miraculous. However, I think it would be a big mistake for
educators to turn their backs on what we're learning about
learning. I favor a middle ground in which we're not going
to become zealots for just any kind of strategy that
stakes a claim in brain-based research. Instead we should
ask, What can we extract for practice from what we are
learning about the brain? What has direct implications,
first of all, for teaching all kids, and second, for
understanding differences among them and responding to
those differences? The science of learning shouldn't be
thought of as the salvation of education, but it can be
helpful. One of the main goals of education is helping
kids over time figure out who they are.
Levine profiles an individual's
strengths and weaknesses on the basis of eight
neurodevelopmental constructs. Below are a few of the
subskills included in each construct.
mental effort, saliency determination, focus
maintenance, facilitation, inhibition, pacing,
Temporal Sequential Ordering.
Sequential perception and memory, time management.
Spatial Ordering. Spatial
awareness and perception, materials management.
Memory. Short-term, active,
and long-term memory; memory access and consolidation.
processing, sentence comprehension, articulation and
fluency, semantic use, word retrieval, verbal
Neuromotor Functions. Gross
motor, fine motor, and graphomotor functions.
Communication, conversational technique, humor
regulation, self-marketing, collaboration, conflict
resolution, political acumen.
Concept formation, critical thinking, creativity,
problem solving, reasoning, logical thinking, mental
Copyright © 2006 by Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development