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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Learning Styles

Reading an article in the latest American Scientist recently I came across an article that sparked a whole new thought train. Written by a specialist in learning psychology, it hits some points which I have long felt need to be addressed. The article is based in a number of extensive studies at schools and universities, and it identifies a number of key issues. The one which leapt out at me as I read this was the statement that scholars are being taught to 'think critically' and 'problem solve' without being given the foundations on which to build a sufficient knowledge base from which to work.

In part this is the 'high lighter' learning system at work. One study found that students who use extensive 'high lighting' in their text books and then read and reread these high lighted texts as a part of their exam preparation recall 50% or less of what they have read. In fact, several other studies have now shown this is the least effective way to study - yet it persists and is encouraged in classrooms and universities ...

As the article states, it is a common misconception that content is less important than critical skills and problem solving, but scientific studies suggest otherwise. Scientists have long known that to teach reading there has to be a connection between the letters and the sounds and this applies in other fields as well - but it isn't always practiced in classrooms. One advantage of 'learning by rote' meant that all the basic underpinning information for things like spelling, addition, multiplication and so on became embedded in the student's mind. Once there it surfaces almost 'on demand' whenever someone is faced with anything like simple arithmetic or the spelling of a tricky word. Reliance on these things being 'absorbed' as the child learns more complex skills without this 'memory databank' has led in some instances to people who cannot tell the difference between words like 'their,' 'they're' and 'there.' Or who cannot perform simple multiplication without using a calculator.

Throw in the currently held belief among teachers that all boys have one learning style and all girls another and you begin to get the sort of results we currently see in schools in the US and the UK. All to often it seems that 'the latest idea' (Anyone remember the 'real books' experiment of the 1990s? Some 'educationist' came up with the idea that simply putting children and books in the same space would lead to the kids learning to read) is an untried, untested 'pet theory' from someone who is not a teacher, but a persuasive 'salesman' for some gimmick. The idea, for instance, that boys are 'hardwired' to be better at 'spatial tasking' than girls has been thoroughly disproved by scientific studies - but it persists in the minds of teachers everywhere. In fact there are ample studies which would help teachers immensely - if they were more widely read and applied.

So the question arises; why aren't they? Part of the problem is access to them. Teaching is time intensive, so teachers don't have a lot of time to undertake 'research' of journals often really only widely available at a university. A 'digest' of the best of these would help, but no one has the inclination or perhaps the funding to undertake it and distribute it. Even if there were one, how many teachers would have the time to wade through some of the more detailed studies in between lesson preparation, marking and classroom management?

As the author of the article says, it is not an easy problem to address, but it is not insuperable either. One starting point he identifies is the universities themselves. After all, this is where most teachers get their training - so why are the various faculties not feeding the 'science' one department has researched, to another where it could be put to proper use? Perhaps this is something which should be looked at more closely, and perhaps then, we could see a 'trickle through' of better 'scientific' teaching skills to the schools - the foundation of an educated society ...

On the other hand, perhaps the 'educators' in places like the Department of Education don't want that. It might produce scholars who know too much!



  1. In 1988 the government set out to review the GCSE English Language curriculum. The panel had linguists on it. The report was then altered by politicians to fit their own political theories/ambitions and there followed an outcry from the linguists. Nothing really went anywhere.

    In 1992 a second attempt at shaking up the curriculum was initiated. This time linguists were blocked out of it.

    I subscribe to the theory that a curriculum is created by the government with a future workforce in mind. With that in mind, just what workforce do our government have in mind as they churn out semi-literate youngsters and/including those at 'sports academies'?

    The problem here is that any opposition to the government plans is doing just that, opposing. They aren't trying to fix it properly, just getting their shots in. Also, as we've seen, the opposition to the current government are in their own way meddlers of education, so we cannot back their side of the fence either. In this situation I cannot recommend Michael Young's: Rise of the meritocracy enough. It's coming true.

  2. Two very short points here having been unforunate enough to waste 32p on Margaret Thatcher's (excellent) white paper "A framework for expansion" which suggested a university system for the future in 1972 that is very like the one we have, but with a clearer differentiation between pure academic research and vocational studies and to have continued educational research for nearly 40 years.

    Teaching is usually a group activity, learning is always an individual one. (even in the rote-learning times tables class.)

    50% of the population are below average intelligence, live with it! All are not even created equal much less brought up in an environment that values learning. The good people in poor circumstances have always managed to get into good universities, Jeanette Winterson is perhaps a stand-out example. Let us aim for excellence, not mediocraty.

    That is all.

    (PS, I also wasted money on Dunlop-Young's "Rise of the Meritocracy", I still have it.)