Jul 2, 2012


Innocent victims of learning styles?

Diversity is so much more appealing than uniformity, and uniqueness is so more intuitively attractive than sameness. The monolithic methods that taught on the assumption that ‘languages were languages’ and that ‘brains were brains’, so that success in learning was primarily a question of how much effort you put into it, have largely been long left behind us. The mood of the times changed a generation ago and the individual became the centre of attention. In teaching, the recognition that brains were far more complex and idiosyncratic than the blank slates that we used to have in the old days has brought lots of benefits, many of which we have been able to take advantage of ourselves as students in enlightened school classrooms or universities.
Multiple intelligences, learning styles -- with all this variety, we're bound to find a category we can be slotted into, rather than simply being lumped together with everyone else. But how beneficial is it to be categorised and divided up? To what extent has the focus on these diversities been a distraction from a more essential and panoramic way of viewing learning and learners?

Intelligence lost in meaning
In terms of multiple intelligences, we can keep on adding to the list to suit whatever purpose suits us. A recent article in IATEFL’s Voice’s publication describes how to develop ‘eco-intelligence’, an individual’s awareness of the environment and the threats it faces. Does this mean that a person who is unconvinced by scientific arguments supporting the role of emissions and global warming is ‘eco-unintelligent’ rather than just ‘sceptical’ or ‘stubborn’? The idea of multiple intelligences is valid enough in the way that it can break down artificially narrow barriers and prejudices but I'm not sure if it tells us something that most people didn't already instinctively know. The thing is, of course, that when the word ‘intelligent’ becomes applicable to so many different areas of human activity, it stops meaning anything at all -- the comment that “she is a very intelligent girl” in theory becomes meaningless, except for the fact that most of us will actually know what was meant – ‘intelligent’ in the sense of the pre-multiple intelligence days.

Learning style - the goods or the labels?
Learning styles is an idea that has been so enthusiastically embraced by many teachers that it's become hard to disembrace, to stand back and look at it from a fair distance. When some of the people reading this went to school, we didn't actually have learning styles but we still had ‘good teachers’ and ‘bad teachers’, and I think those good teachers would still be ‘good’ today and, on the whole, the bad teachers would still be ‘bad’. One of the reasons the good teachers were good is probably because they were aware of learning styles: they simply had different ways of describing the attributes, personalities and receptiveness of the students that they taught. What they didn't do was to separate their classes into distinct groups -- they were able to respond deftly enough to different individuals and to accommodate them while being guided by the needs of the group as a whole - and the needs of the curriculum they had to follow.

The fact is that the classroom is one aspect of the real world which involves constant contacts, negotiations, concessions and compromises. As individuals we have to be responsive to our circumstances, aware of our priorities, aware of our strengths and weaknesses in any given situation and to be adaptable. This is true in ‘real life’ as it is in the real classroom - people who are unresponsive, unaware of their circumstances and unadaptable tend to have what we could call unsuccessful lives, and in the classroom they tend to be unsuccessful learners or teachers.
The good teachers throughout history didn't know about learning styles but they did know about people, and could base all their decisions on a more dynamic moment-to-moment and person-to-person flow of information and impressions, rather than on a set of descriptors which would label their students as being in one or another category.

One-sided or well-rounded?
Adaptability is the key, I think. Most human beings, by the time they are young teenagers, have learnt to be adaptable enough and resourceful enough to cope in a range of learning situations, including those which are not presented in their most preferred style. To design a course in order to match the specific preferences of a learner or a category of learners underestimates the mental potential of those learners and can, in reality, be unhelpful. Learning works best when different forms of perception combine and work together rather than in isolation. There is evidence to suggest that people learn better when they are required to make a little more effort and not allowed to operate in their sphere of comfort.
Most language examinations test learners’ abilities, naturally enough, in the different so-called skills. What is the normal or most appropriate thing to do when the student is weaker in one of these skills, say, listening? Do we simply say that because the student is not an aural learner it is unfair that he or she should have to face such an unfair test, or do we work hardest on improving that skill in order to bring it up to level?

Don’t talk to me like that to me– I’m a visual learner
For the vast majority of people learning a language, language will be encountered both in its spoken and written forms and it makes sense that the modality of teaching should ultimately be decided by what needs to be taught, rather than by who it has to be taught to. In other words, if understanding spoken language is important, it is important full stop.
The reason that so many people on foreign language courses regard themselves as being visual learners is that most of their personal experience with that language has been in the written form: it’s simply the most familiar form of language and, naturally enough, the form they feel most comfortable with. There are many people like this on English courses, people who have become ‘visual learners’ for convenience's (and tradition’s) sake. In reality there is more to being a visual learner than needing to see a word written on a blackboard or on a page, but this fits into a conventional understanding of it.

To get back to the point of the primary modality of teaching, SpeakYourMind is a method that favours spoken presentation and practice of language simply because that, for most people, is likely to be their declared priority: “I need to speak but I'm not very good at it”. It makes sense for everyone to address this in a responsible manner and one of the prime objectives of our course is to enable people to learn to trust their own abilities to operate in a modality which they find, or had always found, to be their weakest. If people can’t learn to trust their own abilities to understand and to speak when they are in the classroom, the chances of them succeeding to do so outside the classroom will inevitably be reduced, and the course in which they invested time, effort and money will end up a disappointment.

I am not opposed to learning styles -- I am opposed to creating unnecessarily divided classrooms, to the constant narrowing down of how we teach, and I prefer to look at how we can broaden course design and teaching procedures and teacher awareness in order to accommodate as many individuals as possible, in the attempt to meet their priorities as closely, and as pleasantly, as possible.

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