Monday, February 09, 2015

Learning Styles, misconception alert

The concept of  learning styles  pushes a lot of buttons for me.  A lot of valuable work has been done to show that people learn in different ways, and we certainly need to offer learning experiences that reflect this, especially in high schools, where an increase in experiential or “hands on” learning is long overdue. When you a conduct a traditional “sage on the stage” lesson, there are students who get it from your words, some who get it from how you write it on the board, others from the activity you will follow it with, and still others not at all, as they are prisoners of a system in which the contents are not applied in a kinesthetic, or tactile (hands-on) way, and that’s the only way they could have gotten it.
I understand that knowledge of learning styles is essential and valuable, but I’ve seen it hyper-conceptualized by immature educators into an attempt to assign labels to students. I had a colleague who kept trying to create a way to record each student’s learning style in the student information system, as if it was fixed limitation, like hair color.  In other words, a preferred learning style defined that student. Learning style information is best used in the design and delivery stages of instruction, to ensure a broad mix of "modalities" (ways of being intelligent and of interacting with content) in the lesson.  I strongly resist the notion of “preferred modalities" for individuals, unless the design or response is a truly personalized approach, reflecting the complexities of that person, and not reducing him or her to a “type,” similar to those identifiable by the Myers Briggs or other personality tests.
I once had a 10th grade student assigned from Special Ed to my mixed age writing workshop.  He could fix an engine and work a logging skidder, but was struggling with writing. When he left as a senior, he had given a number of public speeches, had travelled on his own to the UK, done a stint as an Elvis impersonator in a nearby city, joined the Army, fought in Desert Storm,  and declared he might want to become governor.  His success is his own, but I feel a small part of it was due to our belief in him as a writer and speaker.  I often think, what if we had labeled him as a kinesthetic learner?  Would our expectations have been reduced for his verbal skill development?
Many have complained correctly that we reward linguistic intelligence too highly at the expense of other abilities.  It is also clearly useful to be aware of intelligences, learning styles and special characteristics of specific cultures we are teaching, as long as we are very, very careful not to conceive them as limitations, disabilities, or worse, social descriptors (IE, what’s your sign?)

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