Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

8/7/2005

Different learning styles versus different content

File under: Those Who Can't, XX Marks the Spot, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:32 pm.

A cognitive scientist is asked whether visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners need to be taught according to their individual learning styles, and he responds with an unqualified no:

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.

Link from Kimberly Swygert, who comments:

if a school believes in teaching students mathematics through songs and artwork, it would be nice if they backed this up with research indicating whether these are effective methods of conveying mathematical knowledge.

This is the real issue, I think. The issue isn’t that teaching a subject, say, kinesthetically doesn’t help a kinesthetic learner understand the material better; the issue is that teaching material kinesthetically may compromise the content. If you’re teaching students how to add fractions, for instance, then whichever way you do it, the student should know how to add fractions by the time you’re through. I don’t know of any tested methods of doing that through songs and artwork (though I like to present mathematics geometrically whenever suitable). The inability to convey certain content is why the songs and artwork method will probably fail. The notion that the “learning styles” philosophy is bunk, isn’t.

I’ve seen learning styles and content confounded regularly in my work. I routinely have students tell me that they’re having difficulty with the way I’m teaching, what with their learning styles not meshing with the way I conduct my course. Never has a student gone on to tell me that they process information in a more kinesthetic way than my teaching permits, or that they find my wordy notes confusing. Sometimes, “I have a different learning style” is just code for “I don’t want to do my homework“. Other times, it means “I don’t understand the material at all”, as when a unique-learning-styled individual tells me that they’d have no difficulty with the word problems I assigned, if only I provided the formulas with the text. (Hypothesis, based on personal experience: on balance, psychology majors who don’t get what you’re teaching are more likely than average to merely have different learning styles that you’re failing to recognize.)

I read of a particularly disturbing example of this confusion between differing learning styles and differing content around two years ago, in an article about a Vancouver Island junior high school. The school had recently decided to experiment with sex-segregated English and math classes. From what I gathered from the article, there were two reasons for this. The first was that boys and girls learned when they weren’t distracted by members of the opposite sex. The second was the “learning styles” argument, which submitted that girls’ brains were made of sugar and spice and everything nice, whereas boys’ were composed of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails, and so, it made sense to teach in accordance to those needs.

I’d read an article in Scientific American not long before, and it described at length and in details the difference between male and female brains. I found one observation very interesting: men and women of equal mathematical ability used different parts of their brains in solving mathematical questions.

This research played no role, however, in designing the Vancouver Island school’s sex-segregated math classes. The principal explained that boys were more adventurous, and so, the boys’ math class would be very “hands-on”: the teacher would present a new topic in limited detail, show and example or two, and then send the boys on their way to experiment with a variety of different homework problems that used the new concept in different ways. The girls, explained the principal, weren’t much for trying new things on their own, so they’d get to read about the new topic first, read dozens and examples, and then work on some homework problems that looked just like the dozens of examples they’d seen. This would build confidence, asserted the principal.

I wrote a letter to the editor, explaining math is hands-on, and that from the perspective of someone who’d taught math at the university level, the boys’ math class sounded like math, whereas the girls’ class sounded like math-lite. Reading examples before working on identical questions with the numbers changed is not “teaching to a different learning style”; it is teaching different material. In particular, this is not math; it is the mindless application of algorithms, designed to prop up mathphobic girls rather than educate them. The lucky boys, meanwhile, actually have an opportunity to apply the concepts they’ve learned and not just parrot back formulas - something that would prepare them for more difficult mathematics. If you’re using a different metric to measure whether a student has learned a subject, you’re probably not merely using a different teaching style to convey it. More likely, you’re teaching different material altogether.

More at BrightMystery, where a commenter remarks:

Perhaps it’s more important for a student to know their learning style than for a teacher to teach to it. Then the student can make whatever adjustments are needed in their classroom and study habits (as well as out of classroom time with the instructor).

Absolutely. I know that I, for instance, am a highly visual and verbal thinker. I learned how to read at the same time as I learned how to speak. From my earliest memory, during conversations, I would visualize what people were saying to me, typed out on a screen in my head. To this day, I do this whenever I need to make sense of difficult material that I encounter in spoken form: I freeze the material in my head, so that I can go back and mentally read it. It helps me, then, to take copious notes in the classroom, but I don’t expect every single teacher of mine to accommodate this preference of mine by writing everything down on the blackboard. Instead, I make sure that the notes I take in class are a proper superset of what’s on the blackboard. If anything, this is more helpful than having a teacher who writes down absolutely everything, because this way I have to be completely engaged while I’m in the classroom. Overcatering to differing learning styles, I’d wager, results in passive learning.