Harvard Educational Review
  1. A Mind at a Time

    By Mel Levine

    New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. 352 pp. $26.00, $14.00 (paper)

    In A Mind at a Time, Mel Levine makes his significant body of work about how children learn accessible to a larger audience. Throughout his lengthy career as a professor of pediatrics, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston, director of North Carolina University's Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning, and founder of an organization called All Kinds of Minds, Levine has been instrumental in guiding teachers, parents, and children to assess and work with learning differences in school-aged children. A Mind at a Time is based on "objective observation . . . in which children and their families tell most of the story"; however, the book also is situated within the research in the field of child development and learning. Through vignettes, descriptions of how the brain functions, and suggestions for parents and teachers on how to observe strengths and weaknesses in children's learning, Levine accomplishes his stated goal: "To provide a road map for parents and teachers, enabling them to observe as children develop and mature through their school years the unfolding of important mind functions that play a leading role in school performance (and in career success)" (p. 15).

    Levine's work is based on his belief that not all minds are equal, nor should they be, and that adults unrealistically pressure children to be proficient in all areas of school. He writes, "It's taken for granted in adult society that we cannot all be generalists skilled in every area of learning and mastery. Nevertheless, we apply tremendous pressure on our children to be good at everything" (p. 23). Levine focuses on the challenges that students who have difficulty in school face, yet does not call these challenges disabilities. This makes Levine what he calls a "splitter" rather than a "lumper": a splitter is unwilling to reduce, or lump, students' individual differences into any one category, and believes that students have more differences than similarities. To this end, Levine suggests using comprehensive observation and detailed description of a child, rather than using a categorical label, such as "learning disabled." Whether or not educators and parents agree or disagree with the labeling of disabilities, all adults working with children can benefit from Levine's understanding of the differences in children's learning styles.

    The bulk of A Mind at a Time focuses on what Levine calls the "neurodevelopmental systems." These systems are composed of eight smaller systems: attention control, memory, language, spatial ordering, sequential ordering, motor, higher thinking, and social thinking systems, which are "dependent on one another. . . . At any point, the strength of functions within each system directly influences performance in and out of school" (p. 30).

    Chapters three through nine address these eight systems. All chapters have a similar structure that makes the vast amount of information in this book accessible to both teachers and parents. In each chapter, Levine begins by breaking the system into specific, workable chunks. For example, the memory system is divided into short-term memory, active working memory, and long-term memory; the motor system is broken into gross motor, fine motor, graphomotor, and musical motor subsystems. Levine then describes each system in detail using his formidable knowledge of learning, student vignettes, and teaching tools he has developed over the years. One such tool is the "Concentration Cockpit," which is used to help children understand the nature of their attention and how to control it. The illustration resembles a jet plane's cockpit, with each meter labeled low, on/off, good, and super. A child draws the needle where she or he thinks it should be. This task gives children a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as they relate to attention, and helps them develop strategies to both support their weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths.

    Two sections follow at the end of each chapter on systems: Minds Over Time: Keeping a Watchful Eye On [the specific system] and Practical Considerations. Both provide a wealth of information to help teachers and parents understand and find positive ways to address all learning needs. Keeping a Watchful Eye offers parents and teachers benchmark information to use when observing children. For example, for the attention control system, Levine writes, "During the earliest grades in school, you should expect to see fairly intact control over mental energy; your kids should have achieved a nice balance between sleep and wakefulness" (p. 83). In the Practical Considerations section for the chapter about attention, Levine explains that by following his suggestions, a child can learn to recognize when he or she is losing control and identify which particular aspect of control needs to be worked on. "In many respects," Levine writes, "the opposite of impulsivity is good problem-solving skills. Therefore a systematic approach to dealing with challenges and setbacks should be taught and actively practiced" (p. 87).

    The remaining sections of the book focus on how to use the information Levine has presented. Chapters ten and eleven develop the Management by Profile system, what Levine calls a "logical and systemic approach to the educational care of kids" (p. 277). This profile system contains the problems students have, strengthens their weak areas, and helps them "get the most from the way [they are]" (p. 277). Levine identifies six points where learning problems occur and evaluation should focus: trouble mastering skills, acquiring facts of knowledge, accomplishing output, understanding, approaching tasks systematically, and handling the rate and number of demands. He then urges readers to "manage profiles rather than isolated weak spots" (p. 278), stating that "the educational needs of a child with mental energy control problems and superb language skills are going to be different from those of one who has similar attention problems but additionally carries the burden of receptive language dysfunctions" (p. 278).

    In chapter twelve, "Raisin' Brain," Levine focuses on how parents can help their children at home. He encourages parents to know their children well, respond to their weaknesses, and capitalize on their strengths. He also asks parents to collaborate with schools to help develop the best possible education for their children. In chapter thirteen, Levine discusses how to develop schools that "tolerate, educate, and celebrate all kinds of minds" (p. 307). He believes that a school that educates all students would consider teachers as lead observers and informed advisers. Such a school would involve parents in meaningful ways. Levine says he would support schools that help students to understand their own learning and that offer more options for student success, such as finding areas in which a student can be an expert and assuring them that they have a broad knowledge base.

    In A Mind at a Time, Levine accomplishes his goal of providing parents and teachers with a road map to help them understand and help all students to be successful. It is an important book for professionals and those interested in how learning takes place for all kinds of minds.

    L.K.
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    Book Notes