Teachers nowadays are being asked to differentiate learning by meeting students’ individual learning styles, differing cognitive abilities and multiple intelligences. Is this possible? And how effective is it? Willingham, a cognitive scientist, turns that notion on its head. He states that children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.
COGNITIVE STYLES VS. ABILITIES
First, let’s differentiate between cognitive styles and cognitive abilities. Cognitive ability is the capacity for success in certain types of thought; for example, mathematical concepts. Abilities are how we deal with content and how well we think. Cognitive styles are biases or tendencies to think in a certain way, such as thinking sequentially or holistically. Styles are how we prefer to think and learn. Of course, more ability is better than less, but one style is not better than another.
COGNITIVE STYLES (a sample list)
Three characteristics of cognitive styles: 1) stable within an individual during different situations and times; 2) consequential: has implications for future actions; 3) not an ability measure
There are people who have very good visual or auditory memories. However, Willingham explains why teaching different modalities to learners with a prefered style is ineffective. He gives the example of a visual learner and an auditory learner learning vocabulary words. In theory, showing the words with pictures to the visual learner while playing a tape with words for the auditory learner should be most helpful. Yet studies show this is not the case. Why not? Because it is not the auditory or visual information that is being tested--it is the meaning of the words. Generally in schools, students need to remember what things mean, not what they look or sound like. So, if this theory is wrong, why do 90% of teachers (and students) believe it to be true? Willingham chalks it up to several reasons, the first being accepted wisdom: it must be right because everyone believes it. Another reason is because a similar fact is true: kids are different in their visual and auditory memories. Learners may have good visual and auditory memories, but this not being a “visual or auditory learner.” Lastly, the psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias comes into play here. Once people believe something to be true, then all future ambiguous events are seen through that viewpoint. For example, people believe crazier things happen during a full moon, and, in fact, crime and births increase during a full moon. However, when there’s an uptick in crime and babies on non-full moon nights, no one bats an eyelash. In conclusion, Willingham says that all cognitive styles, not just visual-auditory-kinesthetic, suffer from the same issues; at best, the evidence is mixed.
ABILITIES AND MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES
Over the years, studies and experiments have shown that some kids are good at math, some are musical, others athletic, but not necessarily the same kids. This must indicate there are different mental processes at work here. In the mid-1980s, Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor, proposed his theory of multiple intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical, naturalist, and spatial. At the time, many psychologists felt contention to Gardner’s theory. However, educators were (and are) interested in the three claims of his theory: 1) they are intelligences, not abilities or talents; 2) all eight intelligences should be taught in school; 3) many or all of these intelligences should be used to teach, matching the different intelligences of students. Gardner made the first claim, while the other two were made by others, although Gardner disagrees with them. Gardner argues that some abilities, in particular logical-mathematical and linguistic, have greater status in education than say, musical ability. He questioned why one was called “intelligence” while the other was a “talent.” Claim 2 is made on the basis of equity and fairness, that all intelligences should be acknowledged and celebrated. However, Gardner feels that curricular decisions should be made by the values of community, and his theory should only be a guide. Cognitive scientists believe Gardner has simply relabelled talents as intelligences, rather than “discovering” musical or spatial intelligence. The third claim is to use multiple intelligence modalities to introduce new knowledge. For example, when learning how to use commas, students could write a song about commas (musical), search the woods for things that look like commas (naturalist), and create sentences with their bodies (bodily-kinesthetic). So, in theory, students would come to an understanding of commas easier if taught with a particular intelligence in mind. Gardner wholeheartedly disagrees with this notion. The different abilities are not interchangeable; mathematical concepts need to be learned mathematically, and skill in music will not help. Writing a poem about your bat swing will not make you a better batter. These abilities are separate enough that one strong skill can’t compensate for a weaker one.
CONTENT VS. STUDENTS
Since catering to cognitive styles have been shown to be essentially ineffective, think in terms of curricular content. For example, in socials, a country’s geography should be seen, an anthem should be heard, and a traditional meal should be made and eaten.
CHANGE PROMOTES ATTENTION
Variety is the spice of life and the surge in energy during lessons. Switch between talking and listening to something visual; go from deductive thinking to free associative thinking; quick brainstorming could lead into thoughtful, reflective responses. Give all students practice in these different mental processes.
VALUE IN EVERY CHILD
Every child is unique and valuable, regardless of their intelligence. Trying to be equitable and egalitarian and have everyone possess “multiple intelligences” may be misleading. Also, determining who is “smart” depends on which intelligences you consider and at what level; is it top 10 percent or top 50 percent? In reality, there will be many students who are not especially gifted in any of the intelligences. Telling a child they are smart or have a skill in an area they don’t rarely works. In fact, telling a child they are smart actually backfires in reality.
Source: Willingham, Daniel T., Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009)
Brief Summary of chapter 1
“Mindfulness is a conscious, purposeful way of tuning in to what’s happening in and around us.“ Paying attention and being aware has many benefits: mental focus, academic performance, emotional balance, capacity for kindness, empathy, and compassion. You can’t often change events and people’s actions around you, but you can change how you experience them: respond, rather than react; being mindful presents to you more choices when you are in a calm, focussed mental state. There’s also mindful teaching--being present and fully connecting with the students and their learning; the contrast is mindlessness--completely going through the motions, not really listening or creating flow. Finally, the best way to teach something is to learn it first with practice, then application--”experiential foundation.” Take 5 is a simple but effective start with Mindful Breathing.
Source: Deborah Schoeberlein David, Suki Sheth, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, 2009
Encouraging Creativity in Kids
Vancouver Writers Festival
Studio 1398, Granville Island
This workshop, led by Marie-Louise Gay, was informative, inspiring and entertaining. The following will be a collection of ideas shared by Ms. Gay, distilled somewhat through my perspective into four broad categories.
Norma Rose Point is a beautifully designed school on the UBC campus, but it’s much more than a pretty face. It exudes innovation, collaboration, engagement and powerful learning. There are three distinctive elements that allows this unique public school to function in such a special way. All three are essential and work seamlessly together. They are the physical learning space, the overarching school philosophy, and teacher and student relationships.
PHYSICAL LEARNING SPACE
The physical space of different “communities” with rooms like the Da Vinci room and outdoor garden space, kitchen space, open spaces, hallways and much more. All spaces are communal in nature. What was interesting was the notion of instructional space at the school; everything, even little crooks and crannies, can be instructional or learning space. Rooms are as flexible as the learning, with folding tables that allow rooms to turn from a science room into a physical exercise space in a matter of minutes.
Most of the philosophy comes from the Innovative Learning Environments Project by the OECD (Centre of Educational Research and Innovation). Learning nowadays is considered socio-constructivist, meaning that in any given context, learning is actively constructed and socially negotiated. The ultimate goal is adaptive expertise--being able to use knowledge and skills in new situations. Adaptive expertise is developed through guided (teacher-led), action (student-led) and experimental (play) learning. This leads into lifelong learning. Learning is also determined by emotion and motivation, so students need to feel positive and confident yet realistic in their learning goals.
The 7 principles of learning are the following:
The building blocks for innovative learning environments are cooperative learning, service learning, technology, home-school partnerships, formative assessment and inquiry-based approaches (project, problem, design).
The school’s motto is “Learners at the Centre” and I think that pretty much sums up what happens in the school. So, anything that doesn’t contribute to learning (books or materials that sit in cardboard boxes) must be taken home. Even the shelves are considered “sacred,” so they must be essential for the teacher. The mission statement goes on to add: To meet learner needs we differentiate instruction, focus on Learner strengths, infuse technology in meaningful ways and collaborate with each other to be the best we can be.
With such a clear and powerful mission statement, and with strong buy-in by teachers, there seems to be a sense of pride, ownership, and joy in striving for success of all students.
TEACHER AND STUDENT RELATIONSHIPS
The professional office space allows for constant collaboration, beyond actual set times, and a weekly timetable helps organize that collaboration into overall teaching goals and plans. Teachers spend only about a third of their time in one learning space, and will often work with a variety of students, depending on the learning that’s happening. Students are often ability grouped, so individualized student learning is targeted.
Inquiry learning is also a key concept at this school. Inquiry learning is student-dependent, and each inquiry is different for each student. This is closely connected with Genius Hour and passion-based learning, as well. I liked how they thought of engaging ideas, such as “Ted Talks,” “Kickstarter,” “Star Wars University,” and “CSI.”
Learning is visible in more ways than one. In the most basic sense, the openness of the learning spaces--classrooms with lots of clear glass and moving doors--allows clear lines of sight of all students. Beyond that, of course, is the notion of taking what students are thinking in their brains and then showing it in a tangible way; for example, electronic and physical portfolios. Also, learning celebrations held every few months are the culmination of that learning. They sound like student-led interviews, but on a much grander and festive scale.
Another interesting relationship was even between students and classroom supervisors. These supervisors are considered staff and treated with respect. Even more so, they help give additional collaborative time to teachers, by leading learning activities like the Daily 5 in classrooms.
Finally, there was emphasis on students being able to self-regulate, using ideas of restorative justice and zones of regulation. If students are struggling with their emotions or conflict with others, then learning will suffer, so they need the tools and skills to be able to bring themselves back to the proper state of well-being.
It occurs to me that the layout and design and sharing of materials and tools are reminiscent of kindergarten and early primary. Individuality and personal space, which is keenly represented by a student's desk, does not exist. Instead, tables, floors and the outdoors now represents where learning happens--which is everywhere. What's equally interesting in my mind is that if you look at the most creative, innovative, in particular high-tech companies, you will find a similar layout and design: open space concept, communal living and working, bright lighting, and all-inclusive campus look and feel. In other words, it feels like home, not a place of work (even though you are working hard, in most cases!) Of course, individuality and a sense of uniqueness clearly exists, with their portfolio systems, differentiated learning, ability groups, and more.
Technology is a big part of the school, with a ratio of about 3:1 iPads currently, and probably lower if you include devices from home. They have short-throw projectors, a media room with some desktops and a green screen room. The Learning Resource Centre has a 3-D printer and some computers. What's most interesting is that technology was never really discussed in the two-hour tour session with principal Rosa Fazio. Maybe because it had become second nature or because it was naturally integrated into the entire learning system. It was simply another tool used for research, presentations, expression and creativity, but it never superseded other types of tools. I think the belief that "learners are at the centre" is the key, and while they "infuse technology in meaningful ways" according to their mission statement, their mindset is that learning comes from all areas of life, not simply technology.
This was an interesting session, although maybe a bit tough early in the morning to solve a potential end-of-the-Earth scenario. It's basically an escape room for the classroom. We did it as a group of about 30 teachers, and it was fun to see how people acted. There were definitely a few serious people/leaders who were working hard. Then there were some of us, just catching up with old colleagues. All in all, it was a good time and we saved the world...with 20 minutes to spare.
The educational benefits are quite clear:
The website has everything set up nicely as well with free resources for the escape rooms.
Creative Drama in the Classroom
This session started with a bang...but ended with a fizzle. I think with her drama/acting/educational background, we expected a lot. Still there were some good ideas to be had:
Artifacts Inspire Inquiry
This session was truly inspiring, engaging from start to finish, and the presenter was extremely professional, prepared and personable.
The start is key. She asked us to talk about our childhood "artifact," something from our past that was memorable, important or endearing. The initial brief moment of anxiety shifted to something quite calming: sharing something personally relevant helped create an invisible bond within that group of strangers.
The key point that was stressed was that an artifact doesn't need to be something ancient; after all, your students probably haven't seen some of the things you grew up with, given the acceleration of technology advancements combined with the nature of our disposable and consumable society.
The main activity involved having poster paper, a group of people, and a photo of an artifact. We had to brainstorm as many ideas about what the item was. It was a fruitful discussion, with plenty of varying ideas. Then we received the actual physical object, and our preconceptions or ideas from that photo changed quite dramatically. So we came up with even more refined ideas about what our item was. We actually guessed correctly: a sewing kit!
This PRO-D at William F. Davidson Elementary was all tech-related, thanks to the new curriculum known as Applied Design, Skills, and Technologies. It was led by Zale Darnel, and staff from Apple.
The steps involved in applied design are the following: understand context (empathize); define; ideate; prototype; test; make; share. A distinction between coding and programming (for our purposes) is that coding is a higher-level and simpler language to program, such as Hopscotch, suitable for elementary students, while programming requires the use of more lower-level understanding of languages, like Java and C++.
We started with coding using iPads and BB-8 Sphero. Our goal was to work in teams and code the app to maneuver BB-8 along a predetermined route. It was a lot of fun and we took turns for each step. We found that it was difficult to be accurate and that the Sphero tended to spin and lose stability and direction at times. Still, after many attempts, we were able to reach our destination.
Next, we used Hopscotch to make a Frogger/Crossy Roads type app. The main difference now was that we didn't have a physical object to program, simply a virtual game. There is a slightly differently appeal I feel for students who are able to be totally immersed in the virtual game world, where some kids may enjoy the hands-on feel of a robot more. Still, both held similar challenges, and I think the key component was definitely testing. Trial and error seems to be norm, probably until you become more proficient at coding/programming. As with any language, spoken or otherwise, mastery of the grammar and vocabulary is critical, and with more practice and feedback, fluency is increased. Being able to persevere is another skill that would be beneficial to accomplish both of these tasks.
Finally, an even more hands-on activity was building a rocket propelled by air pressure. We all had a variety of materials and a basic starting point. After that, it was up to us how we wanted to design and build our rockets. The challenge was to build one that could travel the farthest distance. Using file folders, stiff cardboard, lots of tape and hot glue, I managed to design and build one that went 300 feet with about 90 lbs./square inch of air pressure. I didn't have the farthest (330 ft.), but I was still pleased with my rocket. I think the best part was working alongside others while still building individual rockets. Being able to prototype it and test it frequently was a bonus; although, it was difficult in the time period to really create a radically new prototype, but rather make incremental improvements and adjustments. I think at a certain point, you do need to bring more theory of flight and aerodynamics to make greater gains in improvement. Building and making is fun, but knowing why and how something works can be just as fun and a lot more useful in the long run.
All in all, a great day of hands-on experiential learning, and I look forward to implementing as much as possible in all the subject areas. That balance between theory and practice (knowledge and practical) is so important for our students.
Our PRO-D at Surrey Centre Elementary was on social-emotional learning, presented by Sheldon Franken, a school counselor in Delta and director of Inquiry Adventures.
According to CASEL, these are the five interrelated core competencies:
The workshop had a nice blend of theory and hands-on activities. We started with the Spot It! cards and ULead Cards, which allowed us to quickly find partners and then share based on a picture, question and quote. There were further uses with the cards, but even those three tasks were a great ice-breaker. Another really fun activity was forming a ring with mountain climbing rope/strap and then leaning backwards. That was probably the most interesting as you had to really trust others and work together to achieve a common goal. The Chaos game was also a little frustrating and fun as we had to pick two people and then stand equal distance between them. The juggling game was also interesting, especially when the rubber chicken was tossed into the mix. It shows that more focus is necessary when there are variables are in play. Finally, we also tossed around a variety of thumballs, which gives students both a physical and thinking task to do. Each ball has a variety of questions and topics to engage students to share with others.
I can see with students where these tools would assist and enhance their social and emotional capacities. Sometimes have something shared in their hands is less intimidating than simply staring at each other, face to face, to discuss a topic or question.
Another important aspect of these activities is the debriefing afterwards, to make sure students have an idea of what the purpose/function of the task was. The 3 important questions are the following: 1) What? 2) So what? 3) Now what? Our ultimate goal, of course, is transfer to real life, not simply being stuck in the classroom.
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.