Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Ther R diff'rent Stiles of Lernin, and I am one of Them"

Randall Stephens

I've been mulling over the language about pedagogy that animates many discussions in secondary schools and colleges. There may be different styles of learning, as the mantra goes. ("I like TV best!" I hear someone shout.) Still, as I tell my students, there are not different styles of testing for acceptance into graduate and professional schools. The GRE, the LSAT, the MCAT, and teacher certification exams are pretty straight forward. A student who is taking one of those will not be asked to make a Play Doh sculpture that interprets the Wilmot Proviso. Neither will he or she be prompted to write a folk song about trade policy in the 1890s. That said, I do believe in giving students oral presentation assignments and I've had those in my classes create websites and do other work that goes a little bit beyond the usual.

Recently there's been some buzz, doubting even, about the whole idea of learning styles. In December 2009 David Glenn wrote in the Chronicle:

If you've ever sat through a teaching seminar, you've probably heard a lecture about "learning styles." Perhaps you were told that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and others are kinesthetic learners. Or maybe you were given one of the dozens of other learning-style taxonomies that scholars and consultants have developed. . . .

Now four psychologists argue that you were told wrong. There is no strong scientific evidence to support the "matching" idea, they contend in a paper published this week in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And there is absolutely no reason for professors to adopt it in the classroom.

A more recent piece in the Chronicle by Brian Hall, an English professor at a community college, explores the sad, idiocratic side of "lernen stiles"/"teechin styles."

In the middle of a semester, one of my students in my developmental English course came to my office to tell me that he had to withdraw and that it was my fault. He couldn't continue because my teaching style didn't meet his needs.

Foolishly, I asked for an explanation, and he spent the next five minutes outlining every instance in which I had interfered with his learning style, including by assigning homework, giving tests, taking attendance, and requiring that all essays be typed, printed out, and handed in at the very beginning of class.

When I began to tell him that I do all of those things because I'm trying to teach academic responsibility, he interrupted and said, "You're not letting me be me."

Obviously there are real limits to the idea of different learning styles. Professors offer grades and reward merit. It may be a student's preference or natural inclination to avoid reading, take no notes in class, text constantly, take multiple breaks, or make updates to a Facebook page. Yet, that will probably hurt him or her in the end, both in the course and in a post-college career.


PW said...

Great balance between insightful commentary and humor - "Play Doh sculpture that interprets the Wilmot Proviso" is hilarious.

I agree with your conclusion, and think that a student who focuses more on social media than completing coursework and refuses to engage because a professor can't tailor content to his/her learning style is going to struggle in the workplace.

Employers in any field do not care what type of learner you were or are, and whether you didn't grasp the latest sales pitch for a new product, for example, because you didn't have the chance to "learn by doing."

Just as in academia, the post-college world of work is and must be focused on results.

Unfortunately, many now entering the workforce refuse to accept that, and thus limit their own performance and that of the companies they burden with unrealistic expectations of everything revolving around them and their individual "needs."

Randall said...

PW: Thanks for your note about the work experience. I had a hunch that this was the case, but since I don't work in that world, I wasn't so sure.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

This is great, Randall. Thanks for bringing up this subject--and for sharing ways you've used a variety of teaching tools in the classroom.

For me it is a balance between my own desire to teach only in the way that suits me (rather than providing a diverse classroom experience) and helping students realize not all of life will be targeted at their style. I appreciate the observation that the tests that will get them in to grad/professional school are also not targeted at their learning style.

Unfortunately some of my students still think (in spite of the job market) that they'll just look for a job that suits them and not take one that doesn't. My task is not to continue their delusions that the world works this way.