Turning the tables to suit primary pupils

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Ears, eyes, body and hands is the way to remember the four types of learners. Teachers need to recognise which best suits each pupil and adapt their teaching style to boost their attainment, Elizabeth Buie learns.

Suzanne George, a young teacher at Sanquhar Primary in Dumfries and Galloway, was converted to Barbara Prashnig's learning styles theories when she heard her speak last year at an in-service day organised by the authority's education department.

"Before then, all I was aware of was that there were kinaesthetic, visual and auditory learners. But in her model there was a lot more involved, like classroom organisation, heating and lighting. It was in far more depth than I had ever heard before," she says.

Last year, Miss George had three days per week when she was not class committed and half of that time was used to cover the P4 class being taught by a probationer, Jill Garven.

They decided - with the blessing of the headteacher, Anna McCann - to embark on their own pilot study and for the 12 weeks of the summer term tried to put into practice those elements of Professor Prashnig's learning styles analysis programme that they could realistically do with limited resources.

As their proposed changes to the classroom were in stark contrast to their traditionally organised classroom, the two teachers felt they should consult the children about their plans.

"We also wanted the children to understand the concept that we all learn differently and emphasise how important it is for them to find their own preferred working environment rather than sit with their friends," says Miss George.

"Initially, we asked them where they liked to complete homework tasks.

Interestingly, we received a variety of responses, from lying on their bed, to sitting at a desk in a quiet bedroom. These suggestions highlighted to us that outwith school, children, given the opportunity, chose a setting which allowed them to concentrate and learn better."

So the teachers organised the classroom to allow the children the flexibility to choose where to sit to complete work tasks. These includedl workstations: using cardboard partitions, the teachers created single workstations for those children wishing to work on their own.l a listening table: a group table was set up using a listening post. Children each had their own headsets which allowed them to listen to classicalBaroque music while they worked.l group tables: this allows children to work alongside peers in a group situation. Prior to the class reorganisation, all desks were grouped in this manner.l brightdimly lit areas: for children who prefer brightly lit areas, tables were set up along the windows; and blinds in some areas created more dimly lit areas;l floor space: a large area of floor space was left to create an alternative work area. Children had the option of sitting or lying on the floor, using clipboards to complete work tasks.

The children were encouraged to bring in cushions for chairs or use on the floor. This was linked to Professor Prashnig's idea that uncomfortable settings cause fatigue and lack of concentration.

The teachers used brain gym first thing in the morning and after lunch every day to rebalance the right and left side functions of the children's brains, to encourage mobility and help children to relax in preparation for learning.

They also encouraged the consumption of water to improve concentration.

Early results from the pilot study were very positive, says Miss George.

"It was fascinating to discover that the children seemed more focused and that the class had a very busy, focused working environment. The atmosphere was one of calm. The children seemed more independent and were surprisingly less distracted than in the previous classroom layout.

"The children were able to concentrate for longer periods of time and disruptions were minimal. The overall behaviour of the children improved, which allowed the teacher more time to work with individuals and groups."

She gives specific examples of pupils' responses to the experiment.

"One boy who had found it difficult to concentrate in a group situation during writing lessons moved to a workstation," she explains. "While in the past, his stories would consist of perhaps three lines of barely legible writing, his stories improved dramatically to a page of writing which was much neater and contained finger spacing.

"One girl, who was thought to be very able, had consistently had problems finishing her work on time and every week would have to complete her tasks during golden time on the Friday afternoon. She moved to working on the floor all the time, right at the front of the class, where she would sit on a cushion with a clipboard balanced on her knees. As soon as she was able to follow her own learning style, she was able to complete all her tasks on time and enjoyed her full golden time."

It was what Miss George calls a "rumbly" class, with more boys than girls and lots of conflict, especially in the playground. When they had to sit in the same seats all the time, there was conflict in the classroom too; but once the children could move away from someone who was annoying them, or sit somewhere quieter on their own, the social environment improved too.

Miss George admits that some of her own preconceptions have been turned on their head.

"Initially when I heard Barbara Prashnig talk and I saw pictures of children lying on the floor, I was quite shocked. But within the first couple of days of doing it, it just felt right.

"It is quite revolutionary, not the way we were taught at Craigie College or Jordanhill. If someone had come out to do a teaching crit on a class set up this way, I think we might not have passed. We were always told it should be 'eyes on the teacher, hands by your side, look at me'."

At last year's in-service conference addressed by Professor Prashnig, Miss George says some of the other teachers were saying: "None of my kids will be sitting on the floor."

"But I'm glad we have given it a try. It's worked very well," she says.

Miss Garven, who is now a newly qualified teacher, says: "I am a very visual learner and I need to look at someone when they are speaking. I thought everyone had to do that.

"Now I am aware of the different styles and I appreciate they don't learn the same way.

"If they are on the carpet listening to me, I just get them to pull their fingers so that they are moving, but not so that they put the rest of the kids off."

Both teachers accept the findings from last term's pilot study are largely anecdotal and they are anxious to put their research on to a more scientific footing. So for the first half of this term, Miss Garven's P4P5 composite class has been organised in the traditional table-group format; after the October break, the teachers will reorganise the classroom to accommodate all the learning styles. At the same time, a control class of P4 will remain in the traditional table-group style.

The research study will also be observed with a supervisory eye by Kay Livingston, who was recently appointed director of research for the Scottish Teachers for a New Era programme at Aberdeen University, looking at new models for initial teacher education.

Dr Livingston says: "Part of the Scottish Teachers for a New Era programme is getting teachers involved in action research, reflecting on learning and teaching. This is an example of that."

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