Friday, September 20, 2013

Learning Styles - Fact or Fiction?

This fall, I started as an adjunct professor in the MFA program at WCSU, a new field of teaching for me (grownups!!) which I'm really enjoying, because as always, I find I'm learning from my students. Two weeks ago, I attended a training session for new adjuncts, and one of the speakers was the Director for the Center of Excellence in Learning and Teaching on the topic of "Enhancing Student Learning." I learned some very interesting things about studying and learning - apparently I got through college (graduating magna cum laude) and grad school by using ALL THE WRONG STUDYING TECHNIQUES!! According to my adjunct training , the research shows that everything I did to study has little or no efficacy and , one thing - highlighting and underlining - "may reduce performance on "higher-level tasts that require inference-making." Mes amis, au secors! Do you think I go back for a do-over?

To those of you who are students of the Brave New World of EdReform, guess what IS supposed to be highly effective:

I bet there's a purely altruistic tech company out there just waiting to sell us a tablet and a "personalized education program" with ready-made practice tests. Because it's all for the kids!!

As a new adjunct, I kept my mouth shut for most of this. It's my first time teaching adults, rather than young people, so I am open to learning as much as I possibly can about how I can be effective. But this is where I couldn't keep quiet any more.

I raised my hand and said, "I beg to differ. Just in my own home I have two very different kinds of learners. In the small writing workshops I teach, I have to alter my approach to reach kids effectively."

The speaker directed me to this video by a Professor at UVA, Dan Willingham:

I watched this, and his last sentence encapsulates what is wrong with edreform in general because it's what happens when we take the art out of teaching and try to reduce it to science.

"Good teaching is good teaching and teachers don't need to adjust their teaching for individual students."

I've been brooding on this ever since that training, but felt compelled to write this blog post after teaching a new group of students for Writopia Lab yesterday. The wonderful Lena Roy our fearless leader in Westchester/Fairfield, coordinated with a group of homeschooling parents - we will be working with the students weekly at the Greenwich YMCA. Christine Pakkala and I were working with the younger group (7-8 year olds). In our group, we have a wonderful mix of kids. We played some writing games and then sat them down to write. Some of the kids wrote diligently. Some needed more assistance - issues with word formation, spelling. But what was really interesting was that two of the kids - boys - drew instead. One of the boys first drew a grid, then proceeded to draw a series of images in the grid, like a graphic novel. I told both boys they would have to tell us story about their images when it was time to share.

Now you could say - these kids should should be writing! They are there to WRITE!! And I will tell you - they will write. But first I want to get them to tell a story, and understand what telling a story is all about.

And here's the most fascinating part, and the reason why I say the Dan Willingham's of this world don't get it when they say "teachers don't need to adjust their teaching for individual students."

Because when I asked the kid who'd drawn the images in a grid to share, his story was by FAR the most well thought out, richly-imagined, and complex of any of the ones we'd heard. It blew me away - and this was the kid who was fidgety and taking his name tag apart and hiding it under the carpet at the beginning of the session. I asked him if he'd like it if I brought my scanner in next week and scanned his pictures into my computer, and then he could dictate what he'd told me into the computer, and then we could have his story with the pictures. His eyes lit up - he was thrilled by the idea, and said "And I can draw the rest of the pictures for my homework!"

Now Christine and I could have just said to that kid - "Stop drawing and use words! You're here to write!" But a) we would have totally lost him if we'd done that and b) that isn't the Writopia way. Writopia is the anti-edreform way of teaching kids writing. It's about making kids better writers by making writing fun - not through drill and kill. It's the antithesis of David Coleman's "as you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think." At Writopia, we're telling kids - "You have a unique story inside you and we're here to help you find your voice and tell it well."

So the "effective teaching strategies" of the Center for "Excellence" are duly noted - but I'm going to continue to use what works for me with REAL KIDS. Because frankly, I do give a shit about what they think and feel. That's part of my job as their teacher.


  1. How will you ever churn out your quota of cogs if you keep deviating from the program with all this hippy dippy commie crap? Workers who question the ranks? Who needs 'em?

  2. Sarah--the last line of that video abs made it sound like I was saying "treat all kids the same." what I *meant* to say was "you don't need to worry about learning styles." I made a follow up video trying to explain
    Also, important difference between learning styles which = a theory of mind, and pedagogy. I tried to explain my point of view on this here

    1. I've been a public school teacher in a middle school since 1995. I use the learning styles theories to help me design lesson activities and presentations to meet the needs of ALL of my students. I most definitely have students who learn best when I present them with a model, others that need to hear me explain the steps carefully, and still others that just need to see a handout with directions. I DO worry about learning styles because I have limited time with my students, and I need to present each of them with the most efficient way to learn the concept or skill. If I don't I am wasting their time and mine. You can tell me I'm "just differentiating," but what is the basis for that differentiation? Efficient learning -- and if the learning styles theories give me the tools to make their learning more efficient and successful, then I need to take advantage of that. This is a theory -- it is not carved-in-stone-gospel, but it is widely used because it gives teachers a set of tools to help students. I don't want to be just another mildly useless adult in charge of a room in which they are incarcerated for 42 minutes a day. I want to see them stretch their minds and grow and see things differently. And if I ignore the possibilities of a particular idea or theory, and therefore can't use the best ways to help them do that, then I AM that mildly useless adult.

    2. Dan - if that's not what you meant to say, I would suggest taking down that video and reshooting making it perfectly clear what you *are* saying, rather than shooting another clarification video. Because the problem is, people like the Director of the Center for Excellence at WCSU see video one and (had the bandwidth at WSCU allowed, which it didn't) planned to shown it to us as "scientific evidence" that THIS works and THAT doesn't in teaching. When I argued with him - as did another, more artistically bent person in the room, who speaks several languages, and who flipped when he said that "science" tells us keyword mnemonics have low utility - he argued back that "this is the science."

      I am an artistic person with an MBA in Finance - if "handedness" is still deemed relevant science in terms of brain functioning, I write lefty but doing everything else righty, so apparently I am using both sides of my brain. I try to appreciate and utilize what is best from both the science and the art of teaching when I am working with students. But what informs my teaching most is parenting a child who thinks, processes and learns very differently than I do.

      I spoke to him last night about this blog post, and thanked him for everything he has taught me. Of course now the "science" no longer considers Aspergers a legitimate diagnosis. But that's another rant.

      BTW, I notice we were both at Duke at the same time. Unfortunately, our alma mater celebrates the work of another of our contemporaries, Melinda Gates, who in my opinion is doing more to damage children and education in this country than anything in recent memory.

  3. So there's no such thing as more auditory learners and more visual learners? How much easier my life would've been for the past ten years if I could just teach/explain math concepts one way and have it work for everyone.

    On the FAQs page Mr. Willingham linked to, there's this: "Sometimes people say it’s obvious that there are learning styles because blind and deaf people learn differently. This is a difference in ability, not style." Interesting oversimplification. Tell that to the hard-of-hearing girl I taught for several years. She was from a deaf family, so ASL was her first language, but had plenty enough hearing to speak comfortably.

    After I'd taught her a while, I realized that against all expectations, she was definitely an auditory learner. Huge differences in her understanding when she heard things vs. when she saw or read them silently.

    Yes, that's anecdotal. But at the end of the day, no, I don't care.

    It comes down to the last handout slide you showed. No evidence that adjusting teaching style to match learning style increases teaching efficacy? Maybe not. Personally, I feel teaching/learning is such a complex affair with so many variables that controlled scientific studies are of extremely limited usefulness.

    A good teacher does what it takes to help each student be successful. For me, this results in mental backbends and veritable contortionism. Flexibility is the only thing I've found works. Rigidity is death in the classroom. I don't much care what the scientists and theorists call any of it.

    (And I say that as a self-avowed science geek...)

  4. P.S. Sorry for the ramble, Sarah. :)