Monday, September 13, 2010

Learning Styles

Oh Hallelujah!  I thought I had died and gone to Teachery Heaven when I read this quote from a recent article published in the New York Times:
Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

It was in the article on Good Study Habits, and it called to mind my favorite example of this erroneous thinking (which, by the way, is all through my brand new textbook, reinforcing this (dare I say it?) delusion).

The first year I taught English Comp I had a hot-shot athlete in the back who was trying to transfer to Cal Berkeley on the strength of his water polo moves, or so he said.  His work was barely above a C-level, although I think he was probably capable of more.  That would have required some exertion, which he didn't seem to want to do in an English Class.  But I liked this student, generally.

Near the end of the class, I conferenced with all the students over their research paper.  His was a mess, and that's being polite.  It was full of plagiarized sections, grammatical errors, misspellings and typos and it was basically a giant Cut-and-Paste effort in order to pass (they had to turn in a research paper, or risk failing the class).  I also reviewed his lackluster grades over the term while I had him sitting there.

"Oh," he said.  "Those failing grades on quizzes are easy to explain."  He went on.  "I'm a visual learner, and I just can't seem to learn by listening or reading, or any other way, for that matter."  He leaned back in his chair, the challenge thrown down to a proffie who basically taught by group discussion, and yes, reading and listening.  I looked at him, hoping the perfect repartee would come to mind.

"Might I suggest," I offered, "that you learn a few other strategies?"  He landed the feet of the tipped chair gently on the floor, and we went on with our conference.  It was then that I really truly hated that whole thinking of Learning Styles.

I remember getting the first of these memos from one of children's teachers.  [On a side note, I feel like some of my children got caught in a lot of the Hocus Pocus of failed teaching strategies of the last decade such as Whole Language, Group Algebra, etc.] In order to help this child--a so-called kinesthetic learner--we made pudding and wrote out the spelling words out in pudding.  We also broke spaghetti into small pieces and created words.  I had them write the words on my back with their finger, tracing the shapes as I tried to cook dinner.  We were all drinking the Koolaid, I think.

Nice to know there's no basis for any of this.  Go and read the article--it's really about studying styles and can be helpful for all those parents of my grandchildren out there, as well as any other classroom teacher.


barbara said...

Would that all teachers were as concerned as you. And would that all parents were as interested in helping their children succeed as you were.
Love, Mom

Lisa said...

Say it ain't so! I think being a kinesthetic learner is a huge part of my identity. Oh the problems of Lore.

Artax said...

Interesting article. I may want to post it for my students' perusal. Makes lots of sense.

And your response to the student sounds perfect. I have students occasionally tell me that they are visual learners, and they need to see a graph. Or they are ? algebraic learners? And need to manipulate equations. And both types of students will fail if they cannot learn relate both these concepts, as well as words and numbers, to each other. My guess: The student who says they prefer one thing over the other has found that their learning increases when both are available.

But it's nice to know there is evidence for this.