Solving the Problem of Learning Styles

Meeting the Needs by John Adsit

Rob and Maria are two fictional students who appear in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson. In the early stages of the book we see Rob struggling to understand a concept in chemistry that Maria picks up easily. Fortunately, Rob’s father has not forgotten those lessons, and he is able to help Rob understand by using a different instructional approach from the one used by Rob’s teacher. The lesson the book would have us learn is that the teacher used an instructional process that fit Maria’s learning style, but Rob needed an approach that matched his learning style in order to find success. The book looks forward to a day in which emerging technology related to online education will allow instruction to match learning styles and bring educational success to everyone.

The concept is seductively simple. A student’s learning style is assessed at the beginning of the class, and the results are used to direct him or her through a succession of learning activities designed to meet his  learning needs. As you explore the concept, though, you begin to see that it isn’t all that easy. Ironically, a little more study may suggest the opposite—that it is even easier than it looks.

The first problem is determining what we mean by learning styles. Most readers probably think they know because they took a workshop or read a book that taught the concept. Most readers are probably thinking along the lines of VisualAuditory—Kinesthetic. That is not, however, the only theory of learning styles. In fact, my own research indicates that there are at least 100 different theories of learning styles, and many are significantly different from one another. While I have certainly not looked at all 100, the ones I have reviewed all seem to make sense to some degree, but they all seem incomplete as well. I have never found one that perfectly matches the student differences I saw in my teaching career.

What kinds of lessons can we create that work most effectively with the identified [learning] styles?

But let’s say we could come to agreement on an identifiable set of learning styles. What would we do about it? Would we send the student down a path in which every lesson has the same instructional qualities? Most theorists say that you then design instruction to match the learning style, but others say the opposite, that we need to strengthen the weaker areas. What kinds of lessons can we create that work most effectively with the identified styles?

And at what cost will this be? Will each course have to be essentially four to five courses running in roughly parallel paths? It costs enough to make one course, let alone four different courses that somehow interweave.

A number of years ago I had an enlightening experience that may point the way toward a solution, one that is within the means of present technology. Back when people were first realizing that IDEA contained Section 504, which required regular classroom teachers to accommodate the identified learning needs of students, I wrote an article on this on behalf of the school district’s special education director. She gave me a pile of newly compiled documents detailing accommodation suggestions for various handicapping conditions so I could include examples in my article. I was surprised to find that the same instructional strategies were being suggested over and over again for different handicapping conditions. A teacher who routinely used a relative handful of methodologies would have almost never had to change instruction to accommodate any student.

When I asked the special education director about this, she explained that all students, regardless of ability, learn better when these methodologies are used. It’s just that some students have the motivation and the ability to learn without those methods, while other student must have those methods to succeed. Unfortunately, those effective methods are not the most popular ones in education, especially at the secondary and post secondary levels.

So let’s look again at Maria and Rob, whose chemistry teacher presented a traditional fact and math-based lecture on gas laws that Maria understood but which Rob did not. Rob was able to get the lesson later when his father used some visual aids to enhance understanding. I contend that if the teacher had used a different approach, not only would Rob have gotten it, but Maria would have gotten it more easily as well. In other words, Maria was able to overcome the teacher’s weak instruction, but Rob was not.

All students, regardless of learning styles, learn better when they are in an educational environment that includes active learning, mastery learning, engaging tasks, and higher order thinking.

When I first started experimenting with innovative instructional approaches, I was teaching the extremes of secondary education—I had both Advanced Placement and ninth grade remedial classes. At first I tried these methods in the remedial classes, and I was immediately rewarded with significant improvement. I maintained a more traditional approach in the AP classes since they were doing well enough, I thought. Eventually the methods migrated to AP as well, where, to my surprise, they had an even greater effect than in the remedial classes. By the time enough years had passed that I had former ninth grade remedial students passing the AP exam, I was sold.

All students, regardless of learning styles, learn better when they are in an educational environment that includes active learning, mastery learning, engaging tasks, and higher order thinking. We simply need to provide a wide variety of such learning activities throughout our classes.

So can this be done in online education?

The first time we ever had a special education student enroll in our online school, a very unhappy special education teacher pointed at the student’s IEP, with its page-long list of required modifications, and asked us how we were going to meet all those needs. So we looked at them .The first was that the student had to be allowed to take notes on a laptop. OK. The next was that he had to be allowed extended time on tests. OK—our tests were generally untimed.  By the time we had read through the list, she saw that fully 90% of the requirements were met simply by his being in an online environment.

A well designed, varied online curriculum, with a variety of multimedia pieces and engaging learning activities, can meet the needs of students with varied learning styles, even without major advances in technology. It can do many of those things even better than it can be done in a regular classroom.

So I am confident that we can meet the needs of students with varied learning styles. I believe the bigger problems we face involve prerequisite skills, sequencing, and transfer loads, but those topics will have to wait for future columns.

Poetic Faith—the Magic of Belief

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer

Bill Turque’s January 5 Washington Post article on Michele Rhee’s reform efforts contains this interesting comment in reference to staff development efforts:

  • Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.
  • Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.
  • An independent study in 2004 showed that before taking the course, Montgomery teachers rated students’ home life and motivation as the factors that most influenced learning. After the course, home life dropped to 11th on the list, and teacher enthusiasm and perseverance were described as most important.

A skeptical reader’s response would almost certainly be “So what? What difference would that change in attitude make?” In my experience, it is the most important difference-maker of all, for it is the basis of all other positive change.

In my own teaching, nothing transformed what I did more than adopting that attitude. Once I believed that all students could succeed if I made the right instructional decisions, I became diligent in seeking those approaches, but before that I just accepted student failure as a problem beyond my control.

When I was still a relatively young teacher, I was assigned sections of sophomores with a history of failure in writing. I saw that they universally wrote in fragments and run-ons, so I dedicated the next few weeks to intense, traditional, grammar-based instruction on sentence structure. When I saw scant improvement despite my most diligent efforts, I determined that they were incapable of doing better and moved on. There was no reason for me to change because their failure was their fault.

Not many years later I was a department chairperson trying to improve a school’s horrid writing achievement. I created an innovative (and controversial) approach, and, as a part of it, I assigned myself a class of sophomores with a history of writing failure. Once again, I had an entire class writing in fragments and run-ons, but this time I was armed with a new belief, a belief that they had the ability to succeed if I did the right thing. I therefore abandoned that intense, traditional, grammar-based approach that had failed in the past and did something totally different.

I taught almost all mechanics through editing. In my mastery learning system, students could not get credit for a piece of writing until the conventions met standard. A draft might be met with a response like, “Great ideas and support! This makes a lot of sense! Now, just fix those fragments and you’ll be done with it, and you’ll get a great grade!” Within a few weeks, 100% of the students were writing in complete sentences.

coleridgeNot long after that, I was part of a research team examining the results of a writing assessment given at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in a low SES area in a large school district. The overall results (a little over 50% proficient) had been reported for each grade level, and we surveyed the teachers to try to get more information. What none of the teachers knew was that none of them had anywhere near 50% proficiency in student performance. Teachers had either nearly all of their students proficient or nearly none of their students proficient. Even though our survey was anonymous, it was therefore easy to tell from their responses to certain questions which camp they were in.

We asked them for their overall beliefs about student achievement, using the kind of wording you see in the Turque article. All the teachers with high success rates believed that their actions were the primary forces determining student success. Every single teacher with high failure rates believed student success was entirely determined by student ability and other factors beyond the teacher’s control.

Just after Turque’s article was published, my hometown newspaper published an article about a similar survey done by the state department of a school with a history of failure to meet No Child Left Behind achievement goals. The school has a large Hispanic population, and the audit revealed that teachers believe that their population is not capable of achieving at a high level on state tests. The report noted that “Some parents and students feel that some of the teachers do not believe that all students can achieve at high levels. . . . It was observed and reported that there are some populations of students held to higher standards than others.”

Once you have accepted a reason for failure that is beyond your control, you are freed from any obligation to try to succeed.

In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the famous phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he called “poetic faith.” In modern terms, this is the human trait that allows us to weep as a movie actor pretends to die. It causes us to jump in fright at the flickering image of a monster on a TV screen.

Poetic faith is a trait that serves a teacher well. The effective teacher looks at every student and thinks, “I believe that if I make the right instructional decisions and follow the right approach for you as an individual, you will succeed, despite all that stands in the way of that success. If I look long enough, I will find the path to your success.” The effective teacher searches education literature for strategies that will lead to that success.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen predicts that technology and online education will transform education because it will enable the teacher to identify student learning needs and take the appropriate steps to meet those needs. That cannot happen, though, until teachers fully believe there is a reason to make that effort.

Technology Must Be Based on Quality Instructional Practice

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer
5 November 2008

Four decades ago the Coleman Report examined student achievement and concluded that the primary factors for student success belonged to the student—ability and socioeconomic status. The school could not control those conditions of success. Recent research has revealed the fatal methodological flaw in the Coleman study and reversed those findings. The primary factor in student success is now believed to be that student’s teacher.

Coleman compared the average results of schools, without comparing the results of individual teachers within those schools. I once participated in an internal study for a school district. Students had taken a pilot writing assessment in grades 4, 8, and 10. The average results for each of the schools was about the same, and they were consistent with what would be expected for the socioeconomic status of the area—something over 50% of the students were proficient or better. Our research team had access to the raw data, though, and the results were startling. Many of the teachers had more than 80% of their students rated as proficient, and some had 100% proficient. Many of the teachers had fewer than 20% proficient, and some had none at all. (These were all heterogeneous classes.) Not a single teacher had results between 20% and 80%.

Because of this huge disparity in results, it was easy to tell which teachers were in each group when we analyzed the anonymous surveys. Most interestingly, 100% of the low-performing teachers believed that academic success depended upon the abilities of the student, and 100% of the high performing teachers believed that the teacher could make any student successful by applying appropriate instructional techniques to meet that student’s needs.

adsit05For much of educational theory, research has shown us what methods are most effective. Convene a meeting of the top theorists in instruction and they will spend their time agreeing with each other. Unfortunately, much of what they will be agreeing on is counterintuitive and non-traditional. School districts must officially adopt them quietly, or the local newspapers will scream that they are destroying education. Even when they are officially adopted, most teachers ignore them and go on as they always have, so nothing actually changes.

At the college level, those theories are rarely even introduced. I was once invited by a prestigious technical college to help them improve their writing program. It did not go well. When I told them my plans, they were aghast and would have none of it. If I were to use those techniques, too many students would be successful, they would earn high grades, and the school would be accused of grade inflation. In higher education, educational excellence is still too often believed to occur in a 400 student lecture hall.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen identifies the primary path to student success, and he predicts that technological changes, particularly in the world of online education, will make it possible. The successful teacher diagnoses the learning needs of individual students and makes appropriate adjustments to that student’s learning plan. The truly skilled individual teacher is able to do that in a face to face classroom, but it is not easy. Technological advances to make that possible would indeed disrupt all of education.

That means, though, that these changes must serve those counterintuitive instructional strategies that actually work.

I was approached by a vendor with the technology that would supposedly solve all my online education instructional needs. They had gone into the lecture halls of various colleges and recorded lectures. On your computer you could watch the fascinating talking heads and view the accompanying PowerPoints. Instead of being mind-numbingly bored to tears in a 400 seat lecture hall, you could be mind-numbingly bored to tears in the comfort of your home.

Much of the educational technology I see is imitating the bad instruction that produces poor student achievement. Technology developers must seek out what really works and focus their attention accordingly. I visited such a program recently, and what I saw gave me great hope for the future. As a developer of online education curriculum, I know what kind of technology we need to be successful, and when it comes, it will certainly transform education.