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Lead from the Start: Learning Styles - True or False

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Learning Styles - True or False

I am reading another "business model" educational reform book. Its title, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, suggests that education needs to be shaken up. It is a very dense book that we will use this semester in one of my doctoral classes. It is a more interesting read than some of the texts we have had but it is a pop science book so I have a hard time putting a great deal of faith in it's propositions. What it suggests seems to make "common sense" but this is my first clue that it may not make a real difference in how schools work or be scientifically sound. Some of its endnotes are particularly educational though. In it are references like, a paper about children in Africa who are extremely adept at knowing how to operate in their environment but are not able to do basic "school" type tasks.

Christensen's basic theory is that because all students learn differently we should create a new type of schooling, using 21st century tools, to customize learning for every student. This new way of teaching should use a "modular" logic that provides different learning style options for the same content. It all sounds good from the point of view of a teacher who sees learning styles operating in my classroom every day. I have at least three learning style groups in my preschool class. The groups are the verbal learners, the kinesthetic learners and the visual learners or to put it comically, the can't be quiet group, the can't sit still group, and the don't say anything but can draw well group. The theory of learning styles is a useful tool for teachers who are trying to help every student become proficient in the various disciplines.

However, it is easy poke holes in theories.

Here is someone who would completely disagree with the foundation of Christensen's theory about modular teaching to learning styles. Dan Willingham is a cognitive psychologist from University of Virginia. I learned about him from my good friend Nancy Flanagan who wrote a rebuttal post on her blog in response to the video below only to have him comment and refute her assertions.

Where do I stand? I think that there may not be learning styles as we traditionally relate them to content areas but there are most definitely learning preferences. I would not necessarily organize learning styles the same way that Gardner does although I was an early recruit to Gardner's tribe back in the 90's. His Unschooled Mind was the first education book I ever read for fun. Since then my perceptions about learning and learning styles has changed. A couple years ago I completed a survey and participated in training around a personality theory called Emergenetics that basically grouped learners into social, analytical, conceptual, and structural tendencies for thinking combined with behavioral attributes of expressiveness, assertiveness, and flexibility. The theory emphasized that everyone had some capacity in all the areas but preferred one over another. I was a strongly conceptual processor which helped me to understand why I have always preferred to understand the big picture first and then break it down when I encounter new information. It was a way of thinking about learning styles that did not use Gardner's suggestions that have strong links to content areas.

Chistensen proposes that the reason kids don't take "hard" classes like math and science in prosperous societies is because there is not enough external motivation to make them want to.
I propose that prosperous societies allow students to move towards disciplines that more closely match their learning preferences in how they are taught.

If science were taught the way my art classes were taught, in that you were shown some basic materials, given some basic skills, and told to create/make something, I might have been a scientist. Instead they were taught with the goal of mastering certain scientific truths as the goal and discovery and creativity was not a part of it at all.

What Dan says about learning styles makes sense but I am not sure it gets at the reason why they are useful. I try to teach my pre-k kids in all of the major "learning styles" so that I am sure to meet their needs. Besides, at 4 years old who doesn't like to sing the alphabet, dance the alphabet, and watch the alphabet on the computer?
What do you think? Are learning styles real? Does it matter if they are or are they just a way to talk about something it is difficult to understand, how our students learn what we teach?

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At 1:52 PM, Blogger Nancy Flanagan said...

So you think Willingham refuted my assertions, huh? (laughing)

Actually, Dr. Willingham was very gracious and spent a great deal of time deconstructing what I wrote and was willing to engage in cordial debate. I have found his work interesting and accessible and agree with much of what he writes--most "Learning Styles" inventories are vastly oversimplified quizzes masquerading as science. Dr. W. has also taken his sharp intellectual hatchet to brain-based learning, critical thinking and developmentally appropriate practice, all tools that garden-variety K-12 teachers find helpful in their practice.

My take on this is that most teachers find elements of truth in all of these ways of categorizing and examining pedagogical frameworks and practices, but few of them change their practice to perfectly align with any of these ideas or models. Do teachers read Gardner and think he has found the One True Way? Or abandon the state benchmarks because they're not D.A.P.? Or skip the phonics because they don't promote critical thinking? I think not.

Perhaps Dr. Willingham and Sherman Dorn (who joined in the discussion) have never sat in a real teachers' lounge and heard what veteran K-12 folks think about new concepts in teaching and learning as they come down the pike. I'm not worried about teachers having too much faith in learning styles or brain-based learning. Teachers pick and choose useful bits, and leave the rest. And I truly wish more of them spent time on critical thinking (even though it doesn't, technically, exist).

At 3:36 PM, Blogger The Tablet PC In Education Blog said...

Another thoughtful post, John. I agree, as you infer, that the term learning styles serves as an interesting, but not definitive, reference for managing learning. For some people, it appears as a misleading prompt.

Nancy, what do you mean by "truth?" Do teachers use the word to refer to a pre- or post-rationalism?

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Melissa B. said...

I teach AP English Lang, and I can say that why many students do learn a tad "differently," it's pretty impossible in an upper-level high school class to differentiate one's teaching according to learning styles. What I do is try to cover all the basics--the agenda's on the board; materials are both on the LCD projector, in the form of printed handouts and posted on; I repeat, repeat, repeat as often as possible, and I assign a ton of reading homework. I'm still going to get one or two who say "Huh?", but I think that's just a sign of the times. The more technology invades the lives of these kids, the less attention they're going to be paying to anything school-related. Sad commentary, but true. BTW, on a completely different subject, we're Sharing the Caption Love over at my place today. Yup, it's time for the Silly Sunday Sweepstakes--come play along!

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Kerry said...

I am glad that you chose to address learning styles. I am always fascinated by this topic. I have read a number of Howard Gardner’s books and there are a number of aspects that I agree with. Lately, however, I like to think of it more in terms of brain based learning styles. Eric Jensen and Marcia Tate are two people who I have really enjoyed learning from (in fact, Marcia Tate is going to be at VASCD in Williamsburg in December).

The one thing that I always try to think about with learning styles is that while people definitely have a preferred way to learn, it is important that students have a variety of modalities introduced to them. The problem with having a student only sing her answers (because that is the way she learns best) is that singing is not an allowable SOL accommodation nor will the likelihood be that she will have teachers throughout that will let her sing everything. By using a blend of the different learning styles, students have the opportunity to use their strength as well as learn how to use some of the other styles that may not be their strengths.

By the way I loved the description of your kid groups (the can't be quiet group, the can't sit still group, and the don't say anything but can draw well group). I will have to find a way to use those!

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Shennen Dean said...

John, I'm impressed with your thoroughness. The embedded video was a treat. I'll try to match your efforts.

Thinking about what Christansen is suggesting, there are two mantras that he seems to use; teaching students the way their brains are wired to work; the alternative is nothing. In fact, I've read these words and his vignettes to the point of total boredom, but he is valid in thinking that the computer could be used in many way that it is not, but I think the technology has not really been there to do a lot of what is relatively new. Also the faculty at most schools are probably still transitioning from old school to new school.

I really took note of Dr. Reardon's point about incorporating all the technology "distractions" into classroom lessons. So as to the person who was saying that the technology that students use to distract themselves is a problem and that there are so many that are apathetic, I would say, realizing how difficult it is to do this well in mind, that we should change are way of thinking and adapt to the trend so that we may reach our students where they are. Why not have kids listen to podcasts on their mp3 players? Sure some will do something like listen to music instead, but they were going to do that, put their heads down and sleep, or disrupt your class anyway. We should be text messaging our kids vocabulary words with definitions! Imagine that! With mini videos with mini lessons!

"The revolution will not be televised" - G S Heron




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