Make room for improvement

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Having once been sceptical about teaching to different learning styles, Jim McGillen now sees the benefits and is spreading the word, Elizabeth Buie writes.

Jim McGillen used to be your archetypal cynic when it came to "new fangled" ideas like learning styles and right or left brain learners. He has, however, become a convert and now delivers continuing professional development sessions on the latest theories about learning styles to his colleagues at St Columba's High in Gourock, Inverclyde.

His conversion, 20 years into teaching, was not so much damascene as a combination of becoming a father and recognising the different talents of his own children, and some impressive CPD he received from former teacher Ian Smith, of Learning Unlimited, and Mike Hughes, a former headteacher in England.

"I have always tried to be good at my job," he says, "but when, five or six years ago, I went on courses delivered by Ian Smith and then Mike Hughes, these guys convinced me that there was merit in what they were doing.

Listening to what they were saying and looking back at the pupils I had taught, I thought I could probably have done a better job with some.

"When we went through college, we were not aware of things like learning styles. Now people are much more aware."

Dr McGillen is a principal teacher of physics and a quiet, modest man. He admits that it takes guts to stand up in front of his own colleagues and deliver additional training but says there is a strong case to be made for delivery in school, not least because it is good to recognise and convince teachers that they are good at what they do.

He enjoys being a teacher and does not see himself becoming a depute head, so his colleagues recognise that he is not aiming for promotion when he shares his ideas on how teachers can deliver their lessons to suit different kinds of learners.

Dr McGillen's sessions cover four broad topics: different learning styles; how to create a state within a class that will make it easier for pupils to learn; how to structure lessons; and memory techniques, such as mnemonics.

He believes that, for the most part, it is up to the teacher to create the right state for learning in the classroom. This is not always easy, as many external factors can influence children's moods and attitudes. In this context, pupils' self-esteem and motivation are crucial to their ability to learn, and while a teacher cannot control these, he or she does have an influence.

Learning styles are divided into three groups: kinaesthetic, visual and auditory. While many pupils employ a mixture of all three, it has become increasingly evident to researchers that the kinaesthetic learners are the pupils who tend to irritate teachers most andor are the under-achievers of the class. This begs the question of whether this is a coincidence or because the teaching style does not cater to their learning style.

Dr McGillen quotes the case of one of his Standard Grade classes which included a small group of boys who, at best, were struggling to pass General level physics. Most of them also had behavioural problems. "When they came into class you would be saying: 'Don't touch that glass'," he says.

After delving into books about learning styles, he realised that kinaesthetic learners need to move about and touch things as they are learning. Asking them to sit still in class, is counter-productive.

So he started leaving things on desks or workbenches so that when his struggling Standard Grade pupils came into class, they would be able to touch them. He found that would lead them on to talk about the objects.

He now tries to create opportunities in lessons for the kinaesthetic learners to move about and may say to these boys: "Do me a favour; stick this box in the corner."

Kinaesthetic learners find abstract concepts particularly difficult: they cannot relate to them because they are not physically there. So Dr McGillen now uses techniques such as asking the pupils to arrange differently coloured cards in the right order to illustrate how radio waves work.

Similar approaches can be used with maths formulae.

To suit the needs of kinaesthetic and visual learners, he tries to ensure that two times out of three pupils are doing something hands-on. Overhead projectors - particularly those with big screens - are a good way of getting ideas across to visual learners. For auditory learners, he asks the class to create mnemonics - although he insists that the mnemonic must not be rude or offensive. And interactive computer programs can appeal to just about every style of learner.

While he uses questionnaires to help him identify pupils' learning styles, he believes it is equally important for teachers to recognise their own learning styles, because almost inevitably their teaching style will mimic that.

He hopes that teachers will become more aware of how different pupils learn and use that awareness to create lessons which work for everyone in the class.

At the end of the day, the question is: does it make any difference to the pupils' attainment?

Dr McGillen says: "I would hate for someone to say, 'Show me the evidence'.

Having said that, most of these kids got General level physics."

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