Sunday, August 5, 2007

All Fired Up!

I suppose it's no surprise to those who know me that I get upset when people make generalizations that affect kids. My aim is not to criticize, but to turn the lens a bit to refocus and present a different perspective. I react intensely when people throw something out there as if it is indisputable "fact", when it's their interpretation of what someone else said. Today I was reading the ASCD blogs when I came across a recommendation to read a blog written by a journalist who actually hails from San Jose,CA just near where I teach. The blog entry, "No Evidence for Learning Styles", at is a brief critique of learning styles theory that quotes one "expert", a pharmacologist from the UK, who stated that there is no independent evidence that using a learning styles inventory has any direct educational benefit. Now, it appears a bit ironic to me that we are using a pencil/paper inventory to test children's strengths or preferences in learning. How can we really know a child's primary modality or modalities? Teacher observation, parent reports,and child's answers themselves would lend themselves to more information on how a child learns best than an inventory that requires a certain proficiency in verbal ability to answer the questions themselves! The point is this: When we teach, we want kids to be able to assimilate the information and connect it to their prior knowledge or schema. We want our students to become engaged, confident, and intrinsically driven. If we find that it takes engaging multiple modalities to reach all of the students, and our teaching is effective, then I say we are doing our jobs! I believe that the descriptions of "learning style" addressed in this blog are extremes: I don't expect a kinesthetic student to "dance her answer" and I don't expect children to have only "one" learning style that works in isolation. But children who "learn about the way they learn" gain valuable insights about themselves. If we teach them to understand that their brain has it's unique ways of inputting and linking new information and that they can employ strategies to help themselves be more efficient in studying, then we are on our way to creating independent more motivated, engaged learners. This motivation and self-efficacy propel a student when facing newer, more challenging material. Understanding learning styles means that a "one size fits all" approach to teaching is not the answer; we are told this in our teaching methodology courses again and again. Do we need to prove that each person has a genetic place where their preference is located? Not for me! Do I need to see test scores increase the years following the use of a Learning Styles Inventory to believe that using multiple modalities makes sense? I think not. The proof is in the excited, self-confident learners who have found their own way to make their efforts worthwhile. Understanding learning Styles does not mean that I present every lesson in 4 different and mutually exclusive formats; however, when a lesson presented in a traditional manner of visual or auditory doesn't seem to be working, I use my reflective understanding that some children learn kinesthetically to integrate a kinesthetic activity into my "re-teaching." Or I can use such an activity, like a nature walk, to "frontload" a concept and initiate excitement about my new topic. I can even integrate music with the visual modality and engage learners in a joyful learning experience, which, research says, leads to a calmer and more effective learning environment.