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Tearing the labels

Tailoring to different learning styles

When Karen first started teaching during the early '70s, parental involvement was generally limited to fundraising or volunteering in the school library. Parents might come in to talk about friendship issues or trouble on the playground, and inevitably, some would ask where their child ranked in the classroom, but rarely did they want to talk about classroom instruction. That would have been unheard of.

These days, it's common to have a few parents arrive in Karen's Grade 2 classroom on curriculum night each September, armed with very specific questions about her instruction and assessment practice. "It's a big change," Karen admits, "but it's nice to see parents taking such a keen interest in their child's learning."

Karen's experience is not unique. Fuelled by an abundance of popular culture books and websites that read like "how-to" teaching manuals, a new generation of critical consumer parents has emerged. Not always content to sit back and let their child's educational experience be guided by the classroom teacher, many are proactively asking tough questions, seeking outside expert advice, and sometimes even challenging the professional judgment of experienced teachers.

On occasion, a parent might focus exclusively on how a teacher will meet their particular child's needs. Teachers should help them understand that they are trying to balance the needs and learning styles of every student in the classroom—not just their child. That's what differentiates the teacher from the parent. Each has different jobs and different areas of expertise. It is important, however, that parents are reassured that no child will get overlooked in the classroom.

Derek, a Grade 6 teacher, recalls meeting with a concerned mother who felt her son's preferred way of learning wasn't being addressed in the classroom. "She brought in photocopies of magazine articles that talked about learning styles, and told me her son was a very kinesthetic learner," he recalls. "I didn't disagree with her at all, but she seemed to think that everything we did in the classroom had to involve movement for everyone."

Although Derek believes that the conversation was a beneficial one to have, he wanted to help her better understand the true meaning behind what she had read. "Being a kinesthetic learner doesn't mean you jump around the classroom during the lesson," he says. "I explained that teachers have to create an environment that meets many needs and includes many different learning styles, and most importantly, they have to create lessons that help all students learn."

Such a keen and popular interest in learning styles can, in part, be traced back to the early 80s when Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner's theory asserted that traditional definitions of intelligence were too limiting, suggesting instead that each individual possessed a unique cognitive profile made up of seven key abilities. Traditional classrooms were seen to favour students with strong linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities, while less rewarded were those students whose talents were more heavily weighted towards the other intelligences—spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal.

As knowledge of Gardner's work grew within the educational community, teachers were increasingly encouraged to build an awareness of multiple intelligences into classroom instruction. Many parents also became interested in this new way of understanding their children and themselves, and a multitude of books, self-assessment tests and websites emerged, all dedicated to discovering the unique profile inherent within each of us. So great is the interest in multiple intelligences today that an Internet search on the topic will generate more than 3.8 million results.

Gardner's work is not without its detractors and critics often point to a lack of scientific data to support his theory. Others question the way in which the idea of multiple intelligences and learning styles have been popularized and, in the process, misunderstood. Dr. Steven Katz, a cognitive psychologist and senior lecturer in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, believes that attempts to use multiple intelligence and learning style theories in classrooms are often misguided, albeit well-intended. He strongly cautions teachers against the seduction of psychology.

"Teachers will often say, 'He's a kinesthetic learner so I tend to teach him in this way.' It's important to know that a kinesthetic learner is really just a child who enjoys movement," he says.

Teachers need to see their students as more complex and more nuanced than can ever be defined by a single term. They must resist the temptation to apply simplistic stereotypes to students.

"The minute teachers start trying to put that student into a neat little box," Katz cautions "the minute they start attaching a label to the child, that's when they tend to start to treat learning preferences like traits. They will talk about the kinds of things that a type of student can and can't do. It becomes a short jump to, 'She will struggle with paragraph writing because she's a kinesthetic learner.'"

Placing these types of limiting definitions on students can lead to the ominous self-fulfilling prophecy where students end up exactly where teachers predict they will be. Katz argues that teachers need to have the most flexible and responsive notion of student individuality. They must adopt, he believes, a fluid, changeable, organic response to individuality, not a reliance on standard "teach to the middle" instruction. Teachers can rest assured; this does not mean individual lessons for each and every student in the class. "The colloquial notion that says every child is unique isn't quite right," he explains. "We recognize that children follow predictable pathways of understanding." 

According to Katz, there is predictability in developmental progressions and in learning progressions. He says that teachers tend to know what these progressions look like and they also need to know the dominant misconceptions that students hold in each subject. These predictable pathways and common misconceptions need to be recognized and used by teachers as a way to plan. They must learn to anticipate challenges and develop strategies in advance of lessons.

Drawing on a typical primary-grade math lesson, Katz explains:

"A math teacher knows that when first teaching students to add fractions, many will initially add both the numerator and the denominator. Knowing this and anticipating this in advance of the lesson helps the teacher to plan the instruction and assessment."

Helping parents understand the role of differentiation in the classroom can sometimes be challenging for teachers and administrators. For parents who themselves were educated in traditional classrooms where desks were placed in rows and students listened more or less attentively to a teacher lecturing at the blackboard, the sometimes noisy chatter and fluid motion evident in today's classrooms can seem disorganized, if not downright chaotic. The parents of "gifted" learners often want to know what enrichment opportunities for advanced learning will be provided to their child, and the parents of students with a learning disability may focus more on the types of individual accommodations that will be allowed.

Parents of exceptional learners, in particular, are often armed with expert knowledge and assessment reports that set high expectations about what the school and classroom teacher must provide for their individual child. It's important to consider that psychoeducational assessments examine the needs of an individual child, whereas teachers examine the needs of the entire class of children. Fostering understanding between home and school in such cases is essential, particularly when academic success is not coming easily and frustrations may be rising.

Carol is the mother of three boys, all of whom are identified with a learning disability. Her eldest headed off successfully to university last September, and she hopes (with fingers crossed) that her younger two will follow in turn. 

"It's been a roller coaster getting them through school," she explains. "Although we've experienced many ups and downs, I'd say that the vast majority of the teachers who have taught my boys have been wonderful and committed."

She notes, however, that having a teacher who is nice and committed has not always translated into academic success for her sons. "It's not enough to be understanding," says Carol. "Teachers need to be knowledgeable, too. They need to understand the strategies that work for different types of learners. Simply being open-minded to the possibility of trying things a different way is really important."

The value of expert knowledge is something that she feels teachers need to acknowledge. Rather than being intimidated, teachers need to open themselves up to what they can learn from as many people as possible.

"Listening to my knowledge of my child is really helpful," she says. "After all, I've seen them through years and years of school, and have a lot to share about what strategies have and haven't worked in the past. Sometimes I feel as if I'm politely listened to, but not really heard. I'm not a teacher, and I don't understand many things, but I do know how my child learns best."

The most successful teachers for her sons, Carol notes, have been those who have tackled each challenge with openness, frank but respectful discussion between home and school, and a sense of creativity in problem-solving.

"I remember one teacher in particular," Carol recalls. "When she had to call home, she always started every discussion with something that had gone well for Aidan that day.And let me tell you, I know there were days when she had to dig deep to find anything positive. But she set a positive tone and made every problem into a shared problem—never one that got put back on me. She really helped me understand what was possible and wasn't optimal in terms of differentiating."

The experiences of parents like Carol remind teachers how important it is to help families understand what differentiation is and what it is not. Differentiation is not providing 20 students with 20 separate lessons or activities. Nor is it allowing the young gifted orator or the prolific writer to focus solely on his or her strengths at the expense of strengthening other areas. Instead, differentiation is good assessment that identifies students' areas of need, followed by instruction that is responsive to those needs. It is teaching that plans with the end in mind, and considers the profile of the class before (not after) developing the lessons to be taught.

In understanding how differentiated learning can work, Katz recommends that teachers think of what it means to be teaching the class versus teaching groups of students.

"Even though you teach a class, the class doesn't learn," Katz explains. "The concept of a class is nothing other than an aggregate of 'the rough middle.' Teachers need to think of their class as sensible groupings of individuals."

For example, a math teacher may find four groupings of students with similar needs when teaching long division, but six groupings when focusing on geometry. The idea is for the teacher to continually think about regrouping the class in his or her mind so that they approach instruction of each lesson with the differentiated learning needs of groups of students in mind. When differentiation is approached in this way, it feels manageable and authentic for teachers and parents.

Concerned and informed parents are truly the best partners any school can have. They ask probing questions and tackle important topics that require teachers to become adept at describing and explaining their work in accessible ways that deepen understanding for all. Parents who are striving for a better understanding of what goes on in todays classrooms need to be welcomed into the discussion. Teachers can help them by espousing a positive and redefined notion of professionalism—a professionalism that rejects the idea of "I'm a professional, so don't question my judgment" and instead projects the message "Here's what I do. Here's why I do it. And here's the evidence to show how I know that it's working." 

This type of message, delivered by teachers and administrators with easy confidence and clarity, furthers the ongoing dialogue between home and school, and helps parents feel secure in the knowledge that their child is valued, understood and supported in today's classrooms.

—Leanne Foster
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