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Gladwell vs. Willingham - Cage Match!

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Lead from the Start: Gladwell vs. Willingham - Cage Match!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gladwell vs. Willingham - Cage Match!

Its time for a Cage Match!
Good teaching is good teaching, but what does that mean?
Dear Dan,
You had me. I was on the road with you. Learning styles don't really exist, there are only learning preferences. But, in an amazing feat of under cutting of all your scientific jazzmatazz you said this:
"Good teaching is good teaching and teachers don't need to adjust their teaching to individual students learning styles."
I heard it. It planted itself like a seed. It began to grow. By Friday it was repeating itself, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching.

What was it that bothered me about that statement. I couldn't remember. Then I saw this video of Malcolm Gladwell discussing the man who invented chunky spaghetti sauce, Howard Mouskewitz, one of his idols. It is a long video, so set aside almost twenty minutes in case you get engrossed.

What clicked for me was that when Mouskewitz conducted taste tests of 10 different tomato sauces approximately 1/3 of the participants preferred traditional, 1/3 zesty, and 1/3 chunky.

At the time that the testing was done, there were no chunky tomato sauces on the shelves. The people preferred something that was not even being offered at the time. The sauce companies all thought that good sauce was good sauce and that they didn't need to adjust their sauce to meet the preferences of their customers. When they did adjust and offer more variety, it took off, lots of people discovered chunky sauce and loved it.

So Dr. Willingham, here is my final answer, good teaching IS adjusting to individual students learning styles. When kids don't get something, you change your approach, you try a visual strategy, a kinesthetic strategy, a verbal strategy. It may not be that conscious, it may be a look in a kids eye, a shared experience, a connection between teacher and student that causes that teacher to try that strategy with that kid. It is a pragmatically scientific approach, not a positivist one and that is the reason it works. Because, in the classroom it is the learning that matters most, and figuring out why second.

Photo of Daniel Willingham by Dan Addison, University of Virginia Public Affairs.

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At 6:25 PM, Blogger Melissa B. said...

I differentiate as much as I can, but if we spend all our time differentiating, then we won't have much time for teaching, will we? Sometimes I yearn for the "Good Old Days," when teachers taught and students just figured it out from there...

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Gail V. Ritchie said...

John, Thank you for the spaghetti sauce story! This should help clarify for those people who just don't get that there is a difference between teaching and learning. Yes, the two are inextricably intertwined. But . . . just because something is taught doesn't mean it gets learned. Good teachers *do* make adjustments to assist learners with their learning, and that has to include attending to the individual differences among learners. Call it whatever you want--intelligences, styles, preferences--the differences are there, and anyone who denies that is just kidding themselves.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Melissa B. said...

Thanks for the tip! My e-mail is for future reference! Don't forget S x 3 tomorrow!

At 4:55 AM, Blogger cawn said...

Nice post about the match up, it is really fun , your blog is really informative and having your blog as reference makes my Intern in australia much easier, keep it up.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger loonyhiker said...

I feel differentiation should be made for all students on all levels. Let's face it, our students don't all come from the same mold. That is what makes each of us unique. We need to teach our students how to think, analyze, create etc. in order to succeed in the real world. When we make them all try to fit in the same mold, we are doing them a huge injustice.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Travis said...

So here is a thought for everyone....

Are learning styles the same, different, or a shade of as differentiate instruction?

In this way, if you are meeting the needs of a student, does that mean that you are using learning styles?

Additionally, if a student requires one learning style for the first part of a lesson, a second for the next part, and a third for the third, and you are teaching to each, are you teaching to learning styles or differentiating your instruction.

Additionally, does a teacher change to meet learning styles or does a student use learning styles to meet the instruction style (i.e., I learn best by watching so I need to figure a way to watch this)?

At 10:00 AM, Blogger j m holland said...

Additionally, does a teacher change to meet learning styles or does a student use learning styles to meet the instruction style (i.e., I learn best by watching so I need to figure a way to watch this)?

I think you make an excellent point. I think that i try to make my students aware of their strengths but at the pre-k- 5th level a student is most likely not self aware enough to do this independently. If teachers vary instruction then students can learn this but if they only teach to one style kids don't get that opportunity.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger kerkatrob said...

I think part of the bonus of differentiated instruction is that students not only are exposed to material in a lot of different ways thus strengthening their strong modality as well as their weaker ones, but it also is a benefit for a teacher as well. I understand, that teachers feel that differentiating can be a lot more work than "just good 'ol teaching," but by presenting materials in different ways I can assure you the teacher will not get bored of teaching a subject the way they would if they taught it the same exact way year in and year out.

At 7:53 AM, Anonymous Alice said...

I stumbled on this blog serendipitously yesterday. This particular post caught my eye for a number of reasons. I am a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, I am a fan and friend of Dan Willingham, and I had just finished reading a New Yorker article ( by Gladwell on the subject of “good teachers.”
In the article, Gladwell’s source for thoughts on the quality of teachers is Bob Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. If you consider Pianta’s definition of teaching quality, which is only partially described in the New Yorker article but is more fully defined in the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (, you’ll see that one factor of teacher quality is the instructional learning formats employed by the teacher. Instructional learning formats include not just the variety of modalities and materials used for instruction, but also the teacher’s ability to facilitate effectively by engaging and expanding the involvement of students. Willingham ended his learning styles talk ( by saying, “Good teaching is good teaching and teachers don’t need to adjust their teaching to individual students’ learning styles.” What he didn’t say was, “Good teaching is good teaching and teachers don’t need to adjust their teaching.”
It’s a flawed argument to equate differentiation solely to teaching to a particular learning style. Noted differentiation expert, Carol Tomlinson, identifies three elements of the curriculum that can be differentiated: Content, Process, and Products. Through differentiation, perhaps some of the content will be more visual than other content, or some of the products may require more kinesthetic activities than others, but as Willingham points out, “most of what teachers want students to learn is not visual or auditory or kinesthetic information, it’s meaning based.” Theories and research going back to Vygotsky give credence to the notion that knowledge builds on knowledge. We more easily learn, or accommodate, new information if we can tie it to something we already know. Differentiation is a natural part of good teaching. What matters is how teachers go about connecting new knowledge to something each individual child already knows-- not whether they arbitrarily incorporate various modalities as an end in itself. Willingham provided an example of this in his “learning styles” talk. In the example, a student wasn’t quite getting “atoms” until it was presented as a visual analogy to the solar system. The analogy likely worked because the child knew something about the solar system, not because it was presented visually.
Pianta tapped Willingham last year, as his successor in the role of director at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. My guess is that their philosophies on teaching and learning are quite similar.


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