“Learning in Style”
Yesterday’s “daily prompt” on Learning Styles brings to the fore a major conundrum facing educators today.
- From a cognitive science perspective (i.e., researchers working in university labs to attain deeper understanding of cognition, learning, development, and the like), there’s no such thing. Data showing that teaching to students’ unique styles improves learning don’t exist (thoughtful discussion of this can be found here, on Dr. Daniel Willingham’s blog).
- But from an education perspective (i.e., the field and business of education, including principals, publishing houses, and many folks in between), there’s often no better thing. The concept is widely (though not unanimously) valued and imposed upon teachers.
The disconnect between research and practice, when it comes to learning styles, is a dangerous one. I’ve written extensively about this issue (Part 1: Labels on the Brain and Part 2: Labeling in the Name of Progress), so in this post, in keeping with the guidelines to write something new in response to the prompt, I share instead a quick discussion of the il-logic in the learning styles concept, followed by a discussion of things that cognitive scientists agree do improve learning.
Styles vs. Preferences: Just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
When it comes to learning, we are all kinesthetic, visual, and auditory learners. We are all wired to receive inputs via the peripheral nervous systems that travel up into the central nervous system and register in the form of neural networks. The process of constructing and reconstructing knowledge in mind happens, mechanically, in the same microbiological manner for us all.
That’s not to say that we don’t have preferences though – we do indeed have those. As humans we are a diverse bunch when it comes to likes, dislikes, and habits. There is no denying personality. I recall my preferences from my school days (I did spend 10 years in college so have lots of material to reflect on) and as it turns out, I wasn’t all that different from many of the students I teach today.Here’s my old learning preferences, in a nutshell:
- I preferred lecture – I like to listen and do so actively and well. If I took a LSQ, I’d probably score high in auditory input. But I digress…
- I preferred to sit and read, intensively, and to take notes on my reading.
- I hated it when I was forced out of my comfort zone and was called upon to actively engage with the material, either in discussion or in lab. Doing so made me nervous.
But as it turns out, I am like most other humans, and I learned more in those active classrooms that forced me to engage. Labs were good for me. Those empirical research projects I had to design, conduct, and discuss were good for me. And that has nothing to do with learning styles nor preferences and everything to do with how our minds work. Just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Matching the method of learning to your interests doesn’t make sense, in light of all that’s known about how our minds work.
So what does promote learning?
“Liking it” is part of the story though, but not in terms of “learning styles.” If your goal is to optimize learning, then ignore the style-stuff. It’s not worth it. Instead, think about how you can incorporate information in the list below into your learning. I’ve worded the list from the perspective of a teacher who creates a learning environment, but if you are reading this as a learner, you can take steps to do this on your own too. If you follow these 4 guidelines, not only should your learning improve, but so too should your experience.
- Active engagement – activities that force the mind to compare, contrast, build, raze, and otherwise work around problems from all sides promote learning. Rote memorization where nothing connects can only get you so far.
- Autonomous motivation – motivation reflecting a sense of personal agency and control promotes learning. This kind of motivation reflects a relationship between the learner and his or her environment (i.e., it’s a two way street; more on this can be found here and here). Situations where students feel known, respected, appropriately challenged and supported promote this kind of motivation. And when students feel this, they tend to like what they are doing.
- A malleable mindset about learning. Students who believe that hard work yields improvement end up working harder and achieving more than do students who believe that scholastic achievement reflects fixed traits like IQ or “natural talent.”(See “Planting Seeds of Change” for more on this).
- Activities and engagement that reflect the topic. The way in which I engage my students (see point 1 above) varies with the material we cover. Different topics beg for different modalities of active engagement. Sometimes I lecture, sometimes we conduct labs, sometimes students create & discover, other times they read & discuss, and so on. Mixing things up in the classroom works well, when the mix works with the material. And everyone benefits from a change of pace.
Learning, in style
When it comes to learning styles, then, I would urge you to change your perspective. When it comes to fashion, the material dictates the dress, not the dressmaker (to a degree, anyway). Why should education be any different? Learning, in style, is learning that brings out the best in the topic, to the betterment of the learner. So mix things up, letting the topic be the guide, and you will be learning in a style that works.