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.


Darren said...

You should teach in a style that's most effective for the material you're teaching, not necessarily for the students. Try as you might, there are far more effective and efficient methods of teaching trigonometry than via kinesthetics. Yes, certain lessons may lend themselves to applications in other realms, but watching a problem worked out, while listening to the methodology, while taking notes on it, is pretty much the best way to learn much math.

We need to get past the pseudo-science and emotional "it makes me feel good to teach this way" and do what's educational.

BTW, I think you were a little off in your post. There's nothing wrong with front-loading material, or finding different ways to engage student interest in subject matter. That's entirely different than teaching to modalities.

And if these modalities really did exist, shouldn't we help students shore up the ones they're weak in? Wouldn't that contribute to a more well-rounded student?

Joan Young (aka Mancini) said...

I completely agree that we should teach in a way that is most effective for the material being taught. We must keep in mind, however, the learner!There are times when a lecture and note-taking can be supplemented by a real life example or hands-on activity to help students actually understand the concept and not just perform a series of steps to solve a problem. Of course there are more "effective methods for teaching trigonometry" that don't involve kinesthetics. I was not implying such an idea.

The fact is, we are teaching human beings who don't all respond and process the same way. We don't have to go around bashing "Learning Styles" as pseudoscience because we haven't designed a study that can prove that knowing more about learners can improve our teaching. Nor do we have to go as far as to label children with a "type."

I don't believe that teaching is about "making me feel good"; it's about challenging kids to learn, teaching not only content, but also building self-efficacy. Students need to experience that they "can learn" sometimes by utilizing strategies that fit the way their mind works. Empowering students to become independent engaged lifelong learners is my goal. Can I measure that goal? Pretty tough right?

I suppose you are right in that my post may not have clarified that I understand the difference between using a variety of teaching strategies and teaching "to modalities." I don't teach "to" a modality just like I don't teach to a "test". I teach a complex student, a student who can get "turned off" and believe he is "just stupid" when things are incomprehensible; a student who might need things reframed in just one more way. My job, as you said, is to "educate" which is a bit like communication, a 2 way street. The educator is only part of the equation.

Like it or not, we are faced with a diverse, demanding population of learners who need us to keep in mind that there is no "one size fits all" approach.

The notion of a "well rounded" student is a nice one, albeit unrealistic. Students have to be "well rounded enough" to pass the milestones, like college entrance exams for some, to get to the point where they can specialize in something and utilize their gifts. The people who succeed in life, are the ones who learn what their strengths are, build upon them, and learn how to use those strengths to manage and work "around" their weaknesses. I understand the point that a direct link has not been "found" between the use of an inventory for learning styles and effective learning. I think such proof would be difficult to ascertain given the multitude of factors influencing a student's success. How do we really gauge the effectiveness of education? I believe we need to consider much more than the publishing of research studies. As in many of these debates, there are elements of truth on both sides.

Do we need to focus on proving something wrong or do we need to get on with the business of accepting that the answer could exist in the "gray" area and may not be so "black and white".

Many talented individuals with great contributions to our society were deemed "failures" or "learning disabled" by our educational system. I am sure that their performance on traditional tests did not reveal their learning successes. Do we believe everything we are told or do we strive to find the answers by keeping an open yet carefully questioning mind?