Unlocking the Mysteries of How We Learn — So We Can Adapt When Things Go Wrong


Rising to the Challenge recently highlights Michael McCloskey, one of SLI's seed grant recipients.

When Rising last visited Michael McCloskey, a professor of cognitive science in the Krieger School, he was studying an unusual reading impairment with support from a Science of Learning Institute seed grant. McCloskey and his co-investigators worked with two people who had lost the ability to discern letters and numbers after experiencing brain damage. The team sought additional participants to better understand the impairment and, potentially, develop interventions to alleviate its symptoms. There was just one problem.

"We ended up concluding that this type of difficulty seemed quite rare and if we were just to focus on that, we wouldn’t get very far," McCloskey said in a recent conversation with Rising.

But the story doesn't end there, he adds. Read on to learn about how this seemingly dead end sparked a broader — and perhaps more impactful — inquiry into how people learn to read and write.

How has the direction of the research changed in the past couple of years?

We're looking more broadly at deficits in reading and writing. One area is focused on children who have difficulty learning to write, and how that relates to their reading abilities. Kids who struggle to learn to write will struggle with any kind of assignment that involves writing. That deficit makes it hard for them to complete assignments on time and, in time, will eventually affect their higher education and employment opportunities.

Can you give an example of what this kind of deficit looks like?

One of the kids we are studying is an 8-year-old boy who is cognitively exceptional — he probably reads at an adult reading level, or close. But he struggles with spelling. He obviously knows what the words look like, because he can read them, but for some reason he has difficulty writing them. Even when you try to teach him how to spell words, he doesn't make much progress.

McCloskey shared findings from this study and others as part of the Science of Learning Institute's Science in Action Day for local educators.

How does this depart from your original line of research?

When we study someone who's had brain damage, like a stroke, the main set of questions centers on "What's gone wrong with your abilities?" But when you're talking about someone who isn't able to learn in the first place, you're looking at a different set of questions, like "What learning processes are not working?" And that's a much more difficult question to answer because our knowledge of those learning processes is pretty limited right now. We have a pretty good idea about how a person goes about writing a word, but we don't know as much how that person learns to write a word.

How are you trying to better understand those learning processes?

My colleagues and I are using many methods, including cognitive testing and functional neuroimaging, which helps us to see what's going on in the brain when people are trying to read and to spell. We are studying children who have trouble learning to read and spell, as well as normal readers and spellers. Putting together what we learn from each method and each participant, we are trying to build a more complete picture of how reading and spelling work, how these abilities are learned, and what happens when the learning doesn't proceed smoothly. 

Are there practical applications of this research you have in mind?

These things don't always translate immediately into education or treatment, but the path I see is that we get a better understanding of the mental operations your brain is doing when you're reading or spelling. Having that understanding, we'll be in a much better position to diagnose problems, and then you can focus on what to do to alleviate the problem. Misdiagnosis is a big issue — one of the children in the original study, who lost the ability to see letters after a stroke, people said, "Oh, she's just dyslexic." Then you're inclined to treat her as if she were just like other dyslexic children when, in reality, she wasn't, and the interventions they were trying to help her weren't working.