Looking Back: I still don’t believe in learning styles…

This article was originally posted on July 20, 2010. I’ve recently been in conversation with a number of people about learning styles so thought it was timely to look back at this one.


A few years ago I had a series of … conversations … with my then PhD adviser about the notion of learning styles. The conversations included a few of us candidates who were also elementary or high school teachers. He maintained, and would not budge, the stance that there was no evidence to prove the existence of learning styles or the value of learning about individual student learning styles in order to improve their learning in a classroom setting. We maintained that we had seen the value in our classrooms! What was this nonsense about learning style theories being wrong? How could I give up all of the work I had been doing around learning styles in my professional and academic life (a portion of my MA included examining learning style for work in organizational development)?

So now it’s a few years later and my coursework for this week falls under the theme of, you guessed it, learning styles. And guess what? My thoughts have changed on the subject. I realize that I have stopped testing for learning styles in my classroom. What I used to see as proof that the individual learning styles existed I now see as proof that learning happens when we have a variety of stimuli or input methods. I focus more on making sure there is a diversity of input – that the material I am presenting (if it is me presenting it) is being presented in a variety of manners. Rather than thinking of each students as having a dominant learning style, I think of how multiple forms of input help to solidify learning in everyone.

And then I did some research and found a number of documents on how learning styles can not be measured, that there is no proof of their existence. Of course, we do always find what we are looking for, don’t we? Regardless, the more I think of this, the more it makes sense.

Yes, it is possible to supply input (material, lessons, ideas, whatever) in different modalities – visually, kinesthetically, aurally, reflexively, actively, tactiley (according to dictionary.com that is a word, I’m not convinced), [add your -ly here] – and I would argue that this is a good thing BUT that the decision to do so is about good teaching and not about accessing the preferred learning styles of students.

It’s good teaching when we

Another thought, not so well thought out so give me some room here but if we think that learning is a social activity, why the emphasis on individual learning styles? Like I said, it’s not so well thought out yet so all I really have is the question as a starting point.

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Here are some of those documents I wrote about earlier, in no particular order:

Do Learning Styles Exist? by Hugh Lafferty & Dr. Keith Burley

Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students by David Glenn

Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork (free pdf)

Learning Styles Re-evaluated By Rick Nauert

Doubt about learning styles by Jay Matthews

Learning Styles: A Teacher Misunderstands A Paper, and A Psychological Scientist Explains by Liz Ditz

Idea of Learning Styles in Education Further Derided by Psychology Researchers by Mike Smith

Different Strokes for Different Folks? A Critique of Learning Styles (1999) By Steven A. Stahl (free pdf)

Looking Back: Stop talking about classrooms that don’t work

As part of my Looking Back series, the sentiments I articulated in this post from August 21st, 2010 are still very alive for me. There are classrooms that work, that work very well. Click on the title below to go to the original post with its comments.

Here is an example of a ‘traditional’ classroom in Japan (scroll down to ‘Inspiration in a Japanese elementary school’). Can you imagine if these students did not have this place? What a shame that would be.

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Stop talking about classrooms that don’t work

This morning I read a thoughtful post about what ADD may or may not be. Despite the timeliness and depth of thought present in the article, I was stricken by one paragraph about the perils of classrooms on our children. How our young children today, so rife with creative potential, are doomed to a future of diagnosis and boredom because they will be subjected to school.

I was not only stricken but insulted.

Does all of the work that I and many of my colleagues have done over the past years have no bearing on the future of education? Do all of those teachers out there in schools all over the world who care about their children not count?

I feel we need to get beyond the system is broken kind of thinking and focus on what is working. We see what we look for and if we keep focusing on a broken system we will only succeed in creating more broken system.

Instead of creating a doomsday effect by telling ominous stories of the proliferation of ‘traditional’ classrooms that stifle creativity and connectivity, I prefer to point towards learning that does the opposite, learning that works and educators who ‘get it’.

George Couros
Michael Doyle
Lori Centerbar
Kevin Hodgson
Glenn Moses
Linda Clinton
Elona Hartjes
Darren Kuropatwa
Kelly Hines
Karen S.
Dea Conrad-Curry
Zac Chase
Angela Maiers
Chris Lehmann
Jose Vilson
MRW
Damian Bariexca
J. M. Holland

.
.
.

You get the point. There are good educators who foster good learning in good classrooms in good schools. I keep this in mind as I work towards hope for the future within (and without) the walls of my own school.

Looking back: Attitudes toward teaching

Another in my Looking Back series. With the ongoing and recent debates around teaching in the US, I thought it relevant. Please click the title below for a link to the comments on the original post. This one is from August 10, 2009

Attitudes toward teaching

Is there a big difference between public attitude towards teachers in the US and Canada?

When people find out that I am a teacher I NEVER (and I am not a wanton all caps user) am made to feel like I have settled on teaching for lack of ability to do otherwise. Did I mention NEVER?

On the contrary, people usually respond with cools and wows and I have great respect for you, it must be hard, how do you do it? They then follow with talk of their memories of school, the teacher who they’ll never forget, the cafeteria food – whatever. The point is that my job conjures up memory, stories – of hard times and good. The stuff that life is made of.

Ken Dryden talks about our personal Board of Governors and who we would like on it. He reminds us that while few of us could name specific accountants or salespeople for it we could all think of teachers we’d like to sit on it.

So I have a hard time understanding the article linked to by @AngelaMaiers today, called Schools Need Teachers Like Me. I Just Can’t Stay by Sarah Fine in The Washington Post, Sunday, August 9, 2009.

Or at least parts of it.

I can definitely understand teacher burn out. When you love teaching sometimes it’s hard to find the off switch. There’s always one more thing to do, to plan, to correct, to prepare, to present, to remind ourselves of, to talk to a student/colleague/parent/volunteer about. And that’s during the regular school year, figure in report card season and the things to do possibilities multiply exponentially.

I can definitely understand that feeling of loss when you just can’t get to that one (or more) kid. No matter what you try, s/he will still give you the cold shoulder, still skip class, still (seemingly) not care about learning. Then I remember that this is learned behaviour. That the child must have experienced so much loss of her own that she can’t let anyone else in. And my feeling of loss grows.

I can definitely understand the frustration of massive failure, when a large chunk of your group fails. Within a long history of failure, a few months with a new teacher will rarely be able to make the monumental difference needed to turn 30s to 70s – no matter how much we want it. Though it is sometimes possible with the proper structure and trust.

Working towards that structure is what keeps me sane.

But I don’t understand the lack of social recognition Sarah Fine writes about in fully one half of her article. Or, rather, the dismal recognition she describes it as having. She writes that teaching is considered as being for the unambitious and untalented, that people think it is a second class profession.

Do I live in a bubble? Are people coddling me with cools and wows and then sneering once I leave the room – can you believe she’s a teacher? How gauche!

I don’t think so. The reactions I get are honest and from the heart. People don’t share stories through whimsical smiles about things they think are second rate and undervalued.

She does have it right though. Teaching is hard work, it is life work. I wouldn’t describe it as grueling and the fact that she does makes me think that Sarah Fine was just not meant to teach. My gut reaction? This article was an attempt at justifying that.

Then I read the comments and there were quite a number that supported her views. As well as a number who felt like me, if you aren’t meant to teach don’t teach.

But I recognize that I write this from a Canadian perspective. Which begs me to ask – are Canadian teachers more valued than our American colleagues? What is different here?

3am sleepless update: Apparently Michael Doyle tried to reply to this post but he wasn’t able to post the comment. Lucky for us it made it to his own blog. Go read his take on the matter – as always, it points to truth for me. —> On Why Sarah Fine Left Teaching

Looking back: Parents protest ‘time-out’ cage in classroom

As part of my ‘looking back’ series, this is an article that keeps showing up in my stats even though it was written over 4 years ago. The question of discipline in schools is timeless and my mind returns to this story often. I wonder about Félix. What was his story? How was it that his behaviour was so unruly he warranted time in a fenced-in area? Were there background issues, like developmental delays, perhaps he was younger than his peers, perhaps the classroom was a frustrating place (perhaps? I should say likely…)? Whatever it was, I wonder if his needs were ever met. And I wonder if his teacher ever received support for her needs.

Click here to see the original comments associated with Parents protest ‘time-out’ cage in classroom.

Parents protest ‘time-out’ cage in classroom
(Last Updated: Friday, February 9, 2007 | 3:09 PM ET CBC News)

A Shawinigan, Que., teacher who put a nine-year-old student in a lattice cage for misbehaving will not face any disciplinary measures, school board officials said Friday.

The boy’s parents discovered their son, Félix, had been kept in a makeshift cage at Shawinigan’s École St-Paul, after he complained to them he couldn’t see the blackboard.

When they visited the school, they discovered he’d been spending several hours a week in the lattice cage….The local school board director, Claude Leclerc, told Radio-Canada the teacher did nothing wrong by using what he called a time-out area for a difficult student.

I have a few thoughts about this…as I am sure many people do.

My mind goes to a cartoon I saw on the Internet a few months ago. It is a picture of a boy, standing next to his desk, students sitting around him at their desks, and his teacher at her desk. At the back of the class is a huge cage with a pacing tiger and the caption is, “Well, Timmy. It looks like you’ve just earned yourself 10 minutes in the cage with Mr. Whiskers.”

Extreme discipline cases like this reaffirm my belief that teachers are overwhelmed with all that they need to do in a day. An act like this seems desperate to me and I think that if we took the time to think about our values as people and educators, a decision such as to put a child in a caged in area – in front of his peers no less! – would not have been made.

They also reaffirm my belief that we need to build more time into our lives as educators for professional development to help us in dealing with classroom difficulties like this and others. Personally, I think that MELS needs to provide us with time solutions (and the $$ to accompany them) to do so – especially given the present school context of inclusion, integration, and differentiation.

And so, I don’t think that the teacher needs to receive disciplinary measures. Rather, I think that she needs to receive support that will assist her in making appropriate decisions regarding discipline in her classroom. Perhaps the rest of that particular school community could use some as well.

But really, despite all that, I have to ask how could a measure like this have been instated by the teacher and school without parent permission?

I don’t know the whole story, but that is a nagging question for me.

Any thoughts?

Looking back: Why do the very best teachers ignore/subvert curriculum?

As some of you know, I’ve recently had to put my blog content back together from scratch. What a huge, painful job that was! At the same time, it allowed me to become reacquainted with some of my old content that I still find relevant. In looking back on it, I thought it could be interesting to repost some of it and see if it can start some new conversations.

Here is one from not so long ago. Click on the title link to see the original post with its comments from Feb. 210, 2010 –>

Title: Why do the very best teachers ignore/subvert curriculum?

The very best teachers spend every day of their lives ignoring or subverting the curriculum

Now, why is this? Why would people, including myself, think that the best teachers are the ones who ignore what many consider to be the main ‘stuff’ of teaching? My memories of my BEd program are filled with courses on curriculum. Maybe one on Quebec education law. One on learning disabilities. But the rest were courses on curriculum. How to create lesson plans based on curriculum, how to manage your time to make sure the curriculum gets covered – that sort of thing.

Curriculum can not be the main stuff of teaching. It can’t. Do you hear me? It. Can’t.

The main stuff of my job. Wait. I’m getting sick of using the word stuff. Let me be more specific. The main point, the essence, the reason for my teaching is the students I teach. I wouldn’t say I ignore curriculum. I know it’s there. And I use it as a starting point, at the beginning of the year when I don’t really know my students yet. And throughout the year as a background for our work together. But really, I do my best to fit what my students get excited about, what they ask to learn, into the curricular competencies. When it doesn’t work, well, students trump curriculum each time. Luckily I work in Quebec, which has a very student-centered education program with a multitude of competencies in many different areas. It makes it easier to subvert. Really. It also makes it easier to ignore at times. There is just too much to cover that we can focus on what is essential to student learning. As decided by us (our last PED day was around determining the essential features of the courses we teach).

You know what? I think that by staying 100% true to curriculum we are actually ignoring our students.So subvert, ignore that which is on paper. But never those who are in front of you.