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?
image from: http://www.mnispi.org/cartoon/2001/pages/Learning%20Styles_gif.htm
video from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk