The Inchworm vs. The Grasshopper: Honoring Both Cognitive Profiles
Updated: Apr 20
In simple terms, a cognitive profile is how a person approaches or thinks through a problem. The authors of Dyslexics and Dyscalculics (2017), Steven Chinn and Richard Ashcroft coined two learning styles: the inchworm and the grasshopper. But others have termed them in different ways, such as system one and system two. Regardless of what you call it, a student's cognitive profile, or how they approach problem-solving, is essential to understand in order to provide the correct type of scaffolding. This understanding also helps the student develop self-awareness and learn more effectively.
By bringing awareness to the learner's metacognition, or how they think about their thinking, the learner develops the skills needed to strengthen their understanding of what they think and how they think. Understanding the thought processes of one's learning can help a student improve beyond just immediate outcomes.
When a learner understands how they think, they're able to
Define their own goals
Monitor their progress
Reflect on their learning
Redirect their actions and behavior
Take agency over their learning, which leads to motivation
Depending on the difficulty of what we are doing, all of us can be the inchworm at times, and the grasshopper at other times, although one approach is usually more dominant and preferred.
So what is the difference?
Characteristics of the Inchworm:
Analyzes problems literally
Follows algorithms to solve ("recipe" learner)
Focused on details (sees the trees and not the forest as a whole)
Enjoys showing work
Typically uses exact numbers given to solve the problem
Solves math problems mechanically
Answers the "how" to the problem
Can have an underdeveloped conceptual understanding
Characteristics of the Grasshopper:
Reasons through problems to find answers
Forms connections and recognizes patterns with learning
Rarely enjoys showing work
Does not like practice exercises
Has difficulty explaining how they arrived to answer
Focuses on the whole (sees the whole forest instead of the individual trees)
Thinks of numbers flexibly (decomposes and composes them to get answers)
Uses variety of strategies to solve, explores reasons
Answers the "why" to the problem
Excellent conceptual understanding
How do the two cognitive profiles present themselves in the real world?
Solving 12 x 13 as an inchworm, the learner may line the numbers up and solve using a given algorithm. The grasshopper may look for shortcuts and perhaps solve the problem with mental calculations. For example, the grasshopper may compute 12 x 10 and add 12 x 3 mentally to arrive at the answer.
If you are working with an inchworm, teach them why procedures work to help build their conceptual understanding. Try to stray away from rote memorization.
When working with a grasshopper, they should see your interest in understanding how they came to an answer as an interest in problem-solving itself and not as a judgment on how they worked through a problem. Try not to focus on neatness but instead on the goal of documenting learning and reasoning on paper.
Why is it essential for educators and caregivers to understand both types of learning profiles?
For many educators, it can be more comfortable to teach inchworm strategies, as it offers a step-by-step approach, makes corrective feedback easier, and requires neatness. It can also be tempting to lean toward inchworm strategies to avoid seeing students make errors. However, if one style takes precedence over the other, enthusiasm for learning can dwindle, so educators must be in tune with their learner's styles. The role of an educator or parent is to honor both types and provide support, encouraging a wide variety and a multi-approach method for solving problems while honoring the learner's tendency to lean toward a specific cognitive profile.
Is your student an inchworm or a grasshopper? Wherever your learner's cognitive profile lands, understanding how they think can have lasting benefits for success in their lifelong learning journey!
If you're interested in additional information about how cognitive styles impact a student's approach to problem-solving, please check out author Stephen Chinn's book to learn more.
Written by Jenny Aguilar (ET/P) and Geneva Walsh (M. Ed.)
Chinn, S. J., & Ashcroft, R. E. (2017). Mathematics for dyslexics and dyscalculics: A teaching
handbook. Wiley Blackwell.