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 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)
People with ADHD suffer from impulsivity, which means acting without thinking beforehand.
Generally, until people are in their early twenties, their decision making and responses take place in the limbic area--the "emotional brain." There is less inhibition and evaluation of consequences, but as they mature, they begin to respond with the frontal cortex--the "rational brain."
However, individuals with ADHD respond primarily with their limbic area instead of their frontal cortex. So they act or react immediately, without thinking of the potential consequences.
People with ADHD can work on skills and strategies of delaying gratification and evaluating consequences, as well as medication if necessary.
Source: The Disorganized Mind, Nancy A. Ratey, 2008
Erratic working memory and a faulty attention system (impaired executive functions) leads to procrastination. Think of working memory like RAM in a computer; without enough RAM, the brain forgets what it was working on, and moves onto the next task at hand.
People with ADHD also have the uncanny propensity to forget or suppress their goals or important activities they need to complete and instead spend time on trivial tasks, even when they know the consequences of failure in these more critical tasks.
Yet, people with ADHD also "benefit" from procrastination, though probably in somewhat unhealthy ways. When they reach a point of "do-or-die," then a couple of things happen: cortisol (stress response and stress hormone) and dopamine (neurotransmitter of attention system) activate in the body. Suddenly, the frontal cortex is "turned on" and RAM and executive functions begin to work normally. Then these individuals are able to focus their effort and attention on the task at hand.
Therefore, as painful as procrastination can be, people with ADHD still feel they are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute, which continues this cycle of procrastination.
Source: The Disorganized Mind, Nancy A. Ratey, 2008
Learning takes effort. The harder it is (usually), the better you remember and learn. A classic example is how many major tests are often structured: first, true and false; next, multiple-choice; then comes short answer; finally, there's the long-answer or essay question. The key is generation. If your choices are already there in front of you, as in the case of T/F or multiple-choice, there is very little effort and no generation of the solution. However, short- or long-answer questions require retrieval and memory pathways are strengthened as the problem is being worked out.
Another method in improving learning involves reflection. It only requires a few minutes of review after an experience or lesson. The cognitive activities involved are retrieval (recalling knowledge), elaboration (connecting new knowledge to previous), and generation (using own words to understand key concepts).
Source: Make it stick: the science of successful learning, Brown, Roediger III, McDaniel, 2014
It seems, after all, testing is good for student learning. Testing helps reduce forgetting, which is the nemesis of the retrieval and remembering of information and knowledge.
A real-life study at Columbia Middle School in Illinois in 2005 put promising lab results "to the test." Certain social studies classes were given quizzes on about a third of the material: one in the beginning of the class, one at the end of class, and one 24 hours before the unit exam. Clickers were used to answer multiple choice questions. Results: the students scored a full grade higher on material they were quizzed on compared to material not quizzed.
Of course, tests that are more cognitively challenging, such as essays or short-answers, are more beneficial in learning, although recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false are still surprisingly useful.
Rereading texts and cramming for exams are probably the two worst methods to learn and acquire information.
Interestingly, delaying feedback, especially in motor skills, such as sports, is more effective than immediate feedback. Immediate feedback is akin to "training wheels" that artificially support a rider far beyond their necessity. Let students use trial-and-error to make corrections, wait, and then give feedback. Delayed subsequent retrieval requires more effort, and more effort strengthens learning.
Source: Make it stick: the science of successful learning, Brown, Roediger III, McDaniel, 2014
According to an article in Psychology Today (May 11, 2010) by Art Markman, Ph.D, a paper talks about the production effect. People who read a list of words out loud remembered them much better than the words they read silently because they were creating the sounds.
Here's the interesting thing though: People who read all the words aloud remembered the same as those who read all of the words silently. Only the ones who read half aloud and half silently tested the highest. So what's going on?
The answer may lie in distinctiveness. We tend to remember things that stick out in our minds, the strange, unusual, different. So, the words that are spoken aloud are distinct from the silent ones, and thus remembered better. The words are both produced and heard.
Application: Say the key information aloud while you are studying. Those should stay in your memory longer.
Source: Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, May 2010, MacLeod, Gopie, Hourihan, Neary, and Ozubko.
Executive functioning is defined as the "administrator and manager of a complex an busy system"--the brain. It helps students manage all types of tasks, such as organizing a trip, doing a project, or writing a report. It covers neurologically-based skills dealing with mental control and self-regulation.
It is a symptom of many larger issues: attention-deficit/hyperactivity (AD/HD), learning disability (LD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), neurodevelopmental, psychiatric and medical disorders.
Here are different types of executive function:
Source: Late, Lost, and Unprepared, Joyce Cooper-Kahn (Ph.D) & Laurie Dietzel (Ph.D), 2008
PERSONAL VS. SITUATIONAL
Pessimist: "I'm dumb."
Optimist: "That was a challenging test."
Pessimist: "I always get stuck with a weak partner."
Optimist: "I need to help my partner improve."
PERMANENT VS. SHORT-LIVED
Pessimist: "That team always beats us."
Optimist: "We are learning what it will take to beat them."
Pessimist: "I'll never figure out how to do math."
Optimist: "I'll need to spend extra time practicing these problems at home."
PERVASIVE VS. SPECIFIC
Pessimist: "There's no way I can find the time to do all of this. I have soccer practice tonight. My teacher gives me too much homework."
Optimist: "I'll have to use my time more wisely in class. If I spend 45 minutes a night studying, I can get my assignments completed."
Source: adapted from The Champion's Comeback, Jim Afremow, (2016)
Fixed: I can't execute this skill.
Growth: I'm going to devote more practice time to honing this skill.
Fixed: I am so embarrassed by this mistake.
Growth: I will learn from this mistake.
Fixed: I should be able to make changes quickly.
Growth: It takes time and effort to build winning habits.
Fixed: The other player (or team) is too good.
Growth: Playing against good players (or teams) is one of the best ways to improve my own performance.
Source: The Champion's Comeback, Jim Afremow (2016)
Graham Wallas, cofounder of the London School of Economics and author of The Art of Thought in 1926, came up with a formula, if you will, on how to come up with insights. He called these mental steps "stages of control."
The first step is preparation: you spend hours, if not days, struggling, battling, banging your head against a way, trying to solve or figure out a problem. (Remember: if you give up too early, the second step may not be effective.)
The second step is incubation: you put the problem out of your mind; you literally walk away from it. Wallas figured that during this time, some "internal mental process" was taking place, reorganizing old and new information on a subconscious level.
The third step is called illumination. This is when that lightbulb turns on above your head, and the answer is imminently apparent.
The final step is verification, checking to make sure the answer or results actually work.
Ultimately, it is the second step, incubation, that is the key to solving problems or discovering insights. So anytime you're really stuck on a problem, then it's time for incubation. What do you do for this time?
(Source: How We Learn, Carey)
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.