Sunday, April 5, 2015

Why learning isn't stylish

In Why Don’t Students Like School and elsewhere, psychologist Dan Willingham discusses experiments suggesting that what some people view as qualitative differences in learning styles really amount to quantitative differences in skill levels. And, I would add,variations in needs and preferences, particularly as a function of K12 classroom circumstances.

But learning styles theory is alive and well among current and would-be teachers—some of whom are my students. If I had time to do justice to their misconceptions, I would begin with the following re-definitions:

You’re an “auditory learner” if you depend on oral language (or text-to-speech programs) because you don’t read fluently at grade level. Some might call you dyslexic; others might call you a victim of deficient instruction in phonics.

You’re a “visual-spatial learner” if you’re good at visualizing things, or, alternatively, if you can’t sustain attention and need non-fleeting text-based language and/or pictures that you can repeatedly go back to and review.

You’re a specific subtype of “visual-spatial learner” if you have general language comprehension problems (impairing your comprehension of both spoken and written words) and rely on pictures and diagrams for communication. You’re even more “visual-spatial” if you also have trouble sustaining attention. Given that language and attention problems are highly common in autism, we see why so many people claim that autistic kids are “visual learners” who “think in pictures.”

You’re a “bodily kinesthetic learner” if you’re good at gym, or, alternatively, if you, in clinical parlance, have ADHD, or, in non-clinical, non-edu jargon, aren’t getting enough opportunities to run around—and/or are bored out of your mind at school.

You’re a “musical-rhythmic” learner if you’re good at music and rhythm, or, alternatively, if you restlessly strum your fingers, tap your feet, or hum during class time.

You’re an “interpersonal learner” if you’re good at socializing or like to socialize, or, alternatively, if you can’t/don’t like to do classroom tasks by yourself and rely on help from peers.

And you’re an “intrapersonal learner” if you get along with yourself better than with your classmates, or, alternatively, if you don’t want to share personal reflections in class and just want to be left alone.

And you’re a “verbal-linguistic” or a “logical mathematical” learner if you are, in what is still the most commonly used sense of the term, “smart.”


lgm said...

Try this experiment. Teach a group how to make an origami box. First try, instruct with just words. Second try, just demonstrate. Third, do both.

Now you understand why teaching Algebra with just verbal and no symbolic or graphical explanations does not work for all students.

Katharine Beals said...

...or, for that matter, for any students.

And luckily no one (that I know of) is proposing this.

lgm said...

No one is proposing it because it was done years ago. Skipping graphical explanations is one of the reasons boys are not doing well. Get a Dolciani math book out and compare those explanations to what is being done in class. Maybe your state is different than mine, but my informal parent survey of public school parents finds its all verbal, with occasional symbolic in class. People hire tutors to make up for it.

Katharine Beals said...

I've seen textbooks and presentations with no graphical explanations, but none with "no symbolic or graphical explanations." Hard to imagine how you could explain math without using mathematical symbols.

Contrary to what is proposed by Learning Styles theorists, Willingham and others have found that *everyone* (regardless of purported learning style or gender) benefits from multimodal explanations. So, when it comes to math in particular, *everyone* benefits when a combination of symbolic, verbal, and graphical representations/ explanations/ demonstrations are used.

lgm said...

There isnt an explanation. Its a verbal memorization of algorithms...the words never stop so a visual learner can process the symbols only if he tunes out.

My district does not place nonLD children in a multisensory setting unless the parent has influence. Back in the Jurassic when I was in high school, every math classroom was multisensory.

lgm said...

An example of math without symbols...have you seen the nines finger trick? This is used to avoid teaching multiplication concepts. It is all verbal, except holding up the fingers. The test may even be read to the child. Yay full inclusion.

Anonymous said...


What you described is awful if true. And I have no reason to doubt you. But that is not a learning style issue. It is more about they are not using the appropriate method to present math. No one learns math well using just verbal information. They are serving no one well by doing that. And that is the point.

lgm said...

The point is that teaching needs to happen, not presenting. And teaching does take account of learning styles when young children are involved.