Help! My inner Dumbo conflicts with holistic me

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
"Stephen," the voice is saying to me, "you seem to like to think in words

"Stephen," the voice is saying to me, "you seem to like to think in words. Things make most sense to you when you can say what they mean. It is therefore important that you understand the keys words used."

Duh! I hadn't thought of that. No wonder I never got that PhD.

After 30 years of teaching, I'm used to being treated like an idiot. But being treated like one by the disembodied voice of a computer program that is supposed to be determining my individual learning style is a first. At least it's calling me Stephen, not Dumbo. But you don't have to read far between the lines to realise that it's Dumbo who's being addressed here.

Take this later excerpt from my online learning styles interactive diagnostic screening feedback: "Stephen, pay attention, please. You find it easiest to learn step by step. If you are finding it hard to learn in the classroom, you could try reading a book that explains it. You can also ask your teachers to: explain the words they use; slow down; give you the information (Guess how?) step by step."

All right, I made up the "pay attention" bit, but the rest is word for condescending word. And, if I'm still not getting it, the feedback helpfully adds: "You could try talking to yourself to make sense of it all."

Having asked my students to try the diagnostic test, I thought I'd have a go myself. Actually they enjoyed the experience rather more than I did. They were also more ready to accept the program's simplistic verdicts about the ways they supposedly learn.

The idea that we each have our own individual learning styles - and that knowing what they are can help in our education - is still very much around in FE. This is despite research suggesting that individual styles may not be such a good idea after all. Put simply, the key concerns are (a) are learning styles really any good?; and (b) are they of any use to us once we've discovered them?

An report into the topic back in 2004 suggested that there are real problems with the validity of the way individual styles are measured. A Learning and Skills Research Centre summary said: "Most of the 13 models we studied closely exhibited serious psychometric weaknesses."

One problem is that individuals are often asked to self-assess. So, rather than the actual behaviour of learners, what is measured is "their impressions of how they learn, impressions that may be inaccurate, self- deluding or influenced by what the respondent thinks the psychologist wants to hear".

Then we have to decide what to do with the knowledge once an individual's preferred "style" has been identified. If it is intended for the teacher, then he or she is in danger of serious information overload.

As teacher trainer James Atherton so aptly puts it on his Doceo website, in any one class there could be "a serialist pragmatist kinaesthetic learner, primarily a convergent thinker, high on logico-mathematical intelligence but low on linguistic intelligence, sitting next to a holist, reflector, primarily visual and field-independent, who is also chronically shy .

"What are you going to do about it?" asks Atherton. "There are, after all, 30 other students in the class, each of whom could be described in similar terms. Can you cope with all this information? Can you even imagine how you might adapt your teaching to suit each of this bunch?"

But what about the students themselves? Perhaps coming to terms with their strengths and weaknesses could help them to enhance their performance. Despite their reservations about methodology, the authors of the 2004 research certainly seemed to think so.

In the case of my own online diagnosis though, there are likely to be some serious sticking points. Having reluctantly accepted that I was a little on the slow side, a plodding learner hidebound by problematic words and in danger of missing the bigger picture, I took the same test again three weeks later. Amazingly, I had changed. Forget words. Apparently they're not my thing after all. "You like to think in images (or pictures)," my new feedback blithely began. "This is usually because you make sense of the world holistically - how it all fits together . ".

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