Thursday, September 15, 2011

Learning Styles - Really A Myth?

Are Learning Styles a Myth?

Do learning styles exist? Some people certainly seem to think so, and the notion of learning styles has been popular in education for many years. But the validity of the theory is now being challenged - read this blog entry to get a contrary view.

The Exploring Education blog links to a video you make have seen before, from Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia:

Once, I would have wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Willingham. When I first heard the theory of Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic modes many years ago, I was rather skeptical - it didn't seem to fit my own experience as a learner. But as I considered the plausibility of the theory in relation to my students, I recognised that it explained certain things about the difficulties some of my students seem to have, and could also explain certain aspects of my own learning patterns. One thing that occurred to me in reflecting on all of this, but which I cannot say I have seen mentioned often, is that one's preferred learning mode may also depend on context. I may well favour visual input in one situation but auditory input in others.

Still, does that mean that the theory is correct and Prof. Willingham is wrong? Of course not, but I'm not really convinced by Prof. Willingham's arguments. The experiment he refers to is about memorization, but in the classroom, memorization is not the main focus of what we do (at least, not in my classroom). Learning occurs where new material has meaning and is assimilated into what we already know. And it is on this point that I am inclined to think that students may well have a preferred mode of taking in new information, and their preference is for the way that is easiest for them to make the connections between the new material and what they already understand.

Why do I think this is the case? For a couple of reasons.

First, my own teaching experience - over the years I have worked with many students who have clearly shown a preferred mode for learning new material. I have had students who struggled to understand new material until you drew them a diagram showing how different ideas or components relate to each other. A few years ago I had a student who was very bright but who struggled with written material - unless you talked her through the ideas, she floundered. When I checked with her other teachers, I found they had observed the same pattern.

I've had students who needed things written down - verbal explanations got lost somewhere between ear and brain. I once had a student in Maths who struggled with understanding written material (but not because he had a reading problem) but who thrived on spacial and geometric work. If I could find a way to show him a concept geometrically or diagrammatically, he could cope. In the same class was a girl who struggled with diagrams, and wanted written explanations.

Theories about learning styles have come about precisely because teachers have noted time and time again that different students appear to cope differently with different ways of presenting lesson material. This is not some sort of collective illusion. Every experienced teacher I have ever discussed this with has been able to relate experiences like those I have given above.

My second reason for believing that students may well have a preferred mode of taking in new information is to do with my elder daughter. When she was very young and still learning to talk, we realised there was an issue - she wasn't following the typical pattern for language development. She had a large vocabulary, but wasn't putting words together in the normal way. There were more than a few tears in dealing with a child who clearly trying to tell us something, and who clearly knew the meaning of the words she was using, but who was not communicating effectively.

Fortunately, our family doctor and a very astute speech therapist also noticed that my daughter was highly tuned in to even very subtle visual cues. Eventually the therapist concluded that she was hyperlexic (which I had never heard of before) and through her visual responsiveness was able to work with her to catch up her language development. (Today, none of her peers and few of her teachers have any idea that she once had a difficulty with spoken language.)

Of course, anecdotal evidence proves nothing. But it can inform our ideas about what might or might not be true. Based on my own experience and what other teachers have to say, I am inclined to think that there may well be some validity to the idea of learning styles. And it's not about memory. It's about the assimilation of new concepts.

One of the consequences of the idea of learning styles, regardless of its validity, is that many teachers are now presenting their lessons in richer, more varied ways. It may well be that the true explanation for what teachers have been observing is connected to the format of presentation of new material, where variety and multiple media have a greater impact on understanding. Or maybe it's just less boring.

But until someone offers a better explanation, if subscribing to the idea of learning styles leads to more effective lessons, claiming that learning styles are a myth strikes me as less than helpful.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Power of Three

At the recent 5th Leading a Digital School Conference, John Pearce presented a session on Evernote and Diigo called "Never lose a document again".

It's a great summation of the usefulness of both services. I use both with my students, but in conjunction with a third - Moodle.

Now I know that some consider Moodle a little bit 'last year'. And I have read a number of edu-bloggers who have questioned the "walled garden" approach that they feel Moodle embodies. But using Moodle in conjunction with Evernote and Diigo works really well for me.

My students and I both use Evernote for note-taking - I love being able to progressively construct diagrams/mindmaps on the whiteboard as we discuss a topic and then at the end just take a snapshot on my phone and send it straight to Evernote - if I manage to keep my scrawling reasonably legible, Evernote even lets me do a text search on it. I can also share key diagrams and notes with my students.

I have Diigo groups for my students, who can then see the webpages I have flagged for them to read or refer to - so much simpler than copying URLs and pasting them into something else for the students, not to mention being able to highlight the particular sections I want them to pay close attention to and add comments they can read in-place. And they are now finding other related materials and bookmarking them for the class to see.

Where does Moodle fit into this picture? Being a content management system, Moodle allows me to do the following (and more):
  • create a page where students can upload assignments/projects and I can mark and comment
  • provide links to materials that are not on the web - python files, screenshots and movies I have created, assessment tasks, course outlines, etc.
  • provide a place where they can post questions
  • build quizzes for them to test themselves on
There are other ways to accomplish these tasks, of course, but Moodle provides a convenient way of doing these things and also monitoring what the students have and have not accessed. So I end up with the following:
  • a way for the students (and I) to take notes from classes (Evernote)
  • a way to flag items on the Web for students to refer to (Diigo)
  • a way to provide items not on the Web to students (Moodle)
  • a way for students to send items to me (Moodle)
Others may be using other services, maybe Ning or Edmodo, to achieve similar ends to what I am doing with Moodle. I may change to something else in the future. But right now, Moodle fits in nicely.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Point of Inaction

I recently attended a day at UTS for high school science students with my older daughter. Run by scientists from ANSTO, it was a fun morning where segments of various sci-fi films were shown, followed by a series of questions for the audience, then one of the scientists discussing the actual science.

Part of what made this a good experience for the audience was the use of a KeePad system for getting the audience responses to the questions. Response systems, when they work well, are great - everyone can participate, no one has to feel conspicuous, you can put up on screen nice graphics to show response patterns, etc.

But as we all know, things do not always work well.

One of my colleagues earlier this week pulled out the response system (not KeePad) that was bought for the school a couple of years ago, and started asking questions about its use.

I don't use it. I don't use it for a few simple reasons.

It caused me no end of grief trying to get the software installed, mainly because the driver install program simply refused to do what it was supposed to do. Once I had found a way around that problem, I then discovered that the software wanted to work with a version of Keynote that was older than the one installed on my laptop. So I had to save my presentation file in the older format, only to find that it still would not work properly. (My suspicion was that the software had been written for an older version of the OS.) So I didn't use it.

One of my colleagues was a bit more persistent than me, and kept trying to find solutions to these problems, checking the developer's website and forums, downloading the latest version of the software, the latest driver, etc. He brought his PC laptop from home and installed the Windows version, which apparently worked somewhat better, but not long after, he stopped using it. The time and effort involved in getting it to work in the classroom was too much.

So now another colleague wanted to try it, and it occurred to me that some time had passed, and maybe the developers had updated their software and drivers, and these problems had been resolved. Err, no. Apparently not.

It's a shame, because response systems can be excellent. But the experience with the software has to be smooth, easy to work with, and time-efficient. And in this case it's not. It's actually easier to wheel in the laptop banks and get the students to work with an online polling system.

The end result is that bag of remote clickers is just another item on the pile of technological deadwood that accumulates in every school. The sad part is how much of that deadwood needn't be so.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

To Word Process Or Not To Word Process?

I came across the blog of Fraser Speirs the other day some time ago, and in one particular post found this interesting statement:
We are also focusing heavily on presentation skills using Keynote on the iPad. It is my personal belief that Word Processing - setting text on a computer in preparation for printing on paper - is a skill that will wane in value over time. [Emphasis added.] Communicating your ideas to an audience is a skill that is already a clear competitive advantage for those able to do it effectively. Few skills demand the development of confidence like public presenting. [link]
Word processing is one of those areas that has become regarded as a quintessential IT skill in many areas, including education. It has always been the first application covered by the ECDL/ICDL, for example. It is specifically mentioned in the new National Curriculum 18 times. It's part of the Computing Skills test my Year 10 students do as part of their (soon to be defunct) School Certificate exams.

However, Speirs' statement got me thinking – has word processing been over-emphasised?  Are presentation skills more important to focus on, as Speirs seems to suggest?

What is the point behind teaching word processing anyway? A search of the new National Curriculum reveals something interesting - while word processing is referred to multiple times, nowhere does a rationale for teaching it appear.

A search of the Web leads to a great many items that discuss how to teach word processing, but very few that discuss why. Those that do address word processing as a means for teaching writing and composition.

But does that require a word processor? Can the same objectives be achieved through blogging and other online activities?

Thinking a bit more about Speirs' statement, it's the bit about printing on paper that I keep coming back to. Do we only do word processing in order to print stuff? In my own work, preparation of documents remains an important skill, but a large proportion of those documents do not get printed - they get turned into PDFs and emailed or put on a server.

On reflection, I think Speirs' definition is the problem - if we think of word processing as only 'setting text on a computer in preparation for printing on paper', he probably has a point, but if word processing is about composition and its visual presentation (and obviously I think it is),  word processing will be around for a long time yet.

On the other hand, what should schools be teaching? Writing and composition? Definitely. Presentation? Certainly - but in what format? Does blogging meet our educational requirements? Or does word processing remain part of the picture?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Teachers, students and ICT - the more things change...

I happened on an interesting juxtaposition of blog posts the other day: What students need from teachers and 10 things all teachers should know how to do.

Putting them together, you get a pretty interesting picture of the 21st century teacher.

Of course, lists like this are always and endlessly debatable, but I liked the following in particular:
  1. My job is to teach thinking.
  2. My job is to help them learn to think critically about the information they are encountering.
  3. My job is to help them articulate ideas fluently so they can be effective participants in this global conversation.
  4. My job is to encourage flexibility, creativity, resourcefulness and self-direction so that can they can continually adapt to a rapidly changing world.
  5. My job is still to call home when the work is not being done, to identify students who are struggling and provide them with support and to collect money for field trips and pizza days.
It seems to me that all the rest flow from these key points. And the interesting part is that I think these points were largely true when I was a student, when my father was a student, when my grandfather was a student. Yes the world has changed greatly, and continues to change rapidly, but some things don't change. Good teachers today are like the good teachers of yesterday - they're the ones who help you to realise your potential, let you find your voice, show you the possibilities, and are there when you need support.