Monday, March 1, 2010

The Myth of Learning Styles

Note: Make sure you click on the title of this post to see the video.

Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia is unpopular with many school systems. His research in cognitive psychology shows that the learning styles theory is not quite what it seems. What does that mean for education? In particular, what does it mean for the English classroom.

As students of language, Dr. Willingham's findings about meaning-based learning should not be a surprise to English and Language Arts teachers. The indeterminacy of language is firmly entrenched in the discourse of literature, composition, and criticism; deconstructionism is literary theory based on the shakiness of the meanings behind words. In our classrooms, we teach vocabulary and reading based on discussions of meaning, but how do we bring this meaning out in conversations with our students.

Over on the English Companion Ning, Jim Burke has been leading a study of his new book, What's the Big Idea?: Question-driven units to motivate reading, writing, and thinking. I have been reading the book along with the group and had a bit of an epiphany in conjunction with this video. The best way to get at meaning is to ask the questions that delve into those bigger ideas, those essential understandings. This book has already been a great help in organizing the essential questions I already used to guide my unit and lesson design. Particularly, a quotation Burke (2010) cites from Neil Postman spurred my epiphany: "Students enter school as question marks and graduate as periods." I think this connection between learning styles theory and meaning-based instruction may be the reason students graduate without any questions or imagination.

Think about Willingham's assertion in the video. Asking students to learn something aurally or visually asks the student only to learn a characteristic of something (like the shape of a country or the tonal quality of a voice); meanwhile, asking students to learn words asks them to learn the meaning behind something, its big idea. The trick is while visual and aural learning focuses on characteristics of something, meaning is more abstract. So, just like knowing the shape of Sudan won't help students understand the suffering of people in Darfur, asking students to learn the meaning of something visually or aurally won't either.

A recent NCTE inbox issue contained a study with similar findings. The January 12th edition of the newsletter featured an article on a recently released study of learning styles. In the summary section of the article, the authors state that they "conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporate learning-styles assessments into general educational practice" (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork, 2009, p. 105). Taking these findings into consideration, why do we place so much emphasis on learning styles.

The students we serve thrive not on superficial characteristics, but deep probing questions. They are not unlike ourselves or the young children they used to be. My son is turning two this March 12th, and as I write this he is sitting next to me asking me all kinds of questions (as long as you speak 2-year-old-ese). His "whastht?"s ("what's that) and "whahappnd?"s ("what happened") are the mind's first forays into learning the most essential lessons we learn. He questions me constantly which, as a teacher, I love. He loves learning new words and repeating them...endlessly...until "truck" or "car" or "broken" fall away to newer and newer concepts. His curiosity is insatiable and joyful. Then I think about the lack of curiosity some of my students exhibit, usually on the standard level, and I get angry. Maybe that is the answer for parents who don't like, understand, or trust our schools: they've grown angry with watching learning-styles-driven teaching make students focus on the concrete and forget the importance of abstraction, of searching for meaning.

I for one have taken Jim Burke's new book to heart because it speaks to something I always knew was true. Standard, AP, IB, Honors, etc. are just labels. Question-driven teaching belongs in all classrooms. If a student doesn't understand a concept, make analogies, make connections, but most of all help your students ask the right questions that will guide them to the meanings they seek.

As always, please share your thoughts on the video, learning styles, question-driven instruction, or any ways this topic has come up in your professional lives.

Oh, and have a pleasant March. I'll see you all in April.

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