Every day a learning day
From feeling nervous to getting excited
From being in the center to stepping on the sidelines
From making it about myself to making it about them
Every day a learning day
From feeling nervous to getting excited
From being in the center to stepping on the sidelines
From making it about myself to making it about them
Unlearning Learning Styles and Personality Types
(and what it means for teaching and learning)
I always believed every one of us had specific learning styles and we all fell under certain types. Like, I am a non-math type. Despite having scored well on both math papers of the SLC exams (thanks to tuition center and guess papers), I have always sucked at math.
But I was completely dumbstruck while watching Tesia Marshik’s Ted video “Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection” in which she claims that individual learning styles and types don’t actually exist. She claims the popular belief that learners can be categorized into certain types is a myth. Citing several research, she says, assessing a learner’s style and then matching teaching styles – called the Meshing technique – is simply futile.
The video intrigued me enough to reflect on my learning habits. I prefer to find a meaningful connection between what I learn and what I want to do in my life. If I can imagine the reasons I’m learning a certain skill or subject (or if my teacher helps me visualize the meaning), then I feel motivated and engaged enough to learn. I always need to see a bigger picture. Else, I would just do it for the sake of doing it. And, that was the reason why I never felt connected with math because I didn’t know what it meant for me. I could rattle the theorems of Geometry, but I never knew their purpose. Trigonometry always seemed silly for me. And, Algebra was like running aimlessly in a desert.
As a teacher, I have come across students with different learning approaches. Some want to learn the theories first and then apply them later. They love listening to the concepts, taking notes, analyzing them, and organizing them. And others love to apply first, reflect, and finally deduct theories. They would get restless when they had to listen through long lectures.
In his seminal book Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984), David Kolb wrote that learning is an iterative process within four basic modes: experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation. Highly influenced by the earlier works of educationist John Dewey and psychologist Carl Jung, Kolb stressed that individuals usually have one preferred learning mode but for deeper learning, they must integrate both preferred and less-preferred modes in their learning cycle.
So if your preferred mode is learning by doing, then as Kolb says, you can deepen your learning only when you add reflective practice and improvisations. If you had first learnt the guitar by simply playing it, you can significantly improve your guitar skills by learning the musical theories, experimenting with them, and reflecting upon the experience. Interestingly, Kolb is not the only one who talks about integrating preferences. Lev Vygotsky calls it Zone of Proximal Development, Robert Bjork calls it Desirable Difficulty, Stephen Krashen calls it i+1.
However, the concepts of learning styles, personality traits, and type theories have held a stronghold in education. The most popular one being the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). As a result, the meshing technique is quite prominent in teaching. First, assess a learner’s so called learning style and type, and then label the learner as, for instance, Visual or Auditory or Kinesthetic. Then, match the teaching style for each learner.
But, here’s the big revelation. In a journal of the Association for Psychological Science published in 2008, professor Harold Pashler and his colleagues empathically say that “at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.” Similarly, another researcher Robert Bjork resents over the fact that many educational companies are promoting “the pseudo-science of learning style” as a marketing gimmick purely for profit. Now, Tesia Marshik’s video started to make sense to me.
This made me further probe into the learning theories and models proposed by the likes of David Kolb, Carl Jung, Bernice McCarthy. Besides learning preferences, apparently, they also talk about striking a balance between preferred and less preferred learning modes. Regardless of individual preferences – left brain type or right brain type, extrovert or introvert, visual or auditory or kinesthetic – teachers should create learning environment where students learn through various modes.
Bernice McCarthy, in her book About Learning (1996), also talks about Hemisphericity, which means that both sides of the brain work in complementary for perceiving and processing information and experience. The left side of the brain handles logic, sequence, literalness, and analysis; and the right takes care of meaning, emotion, context, and synthesis. Several research in the field of Mind, Brain, and Education now confirm that when learners are actively engaged to use both sides of their brains, they learn better, and also retain better. For instance, teaching science through stories. Exploring implicit patterns and structures in poems. Learning math through activities.
Similarly, drawing from the works of Carol Dweck on mindset, belief in learning style equates to having a fixed mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence is already set in the DNA and cannot be altered). Like I mentioned, I was trapped in my misguided belief that I suck at math, and as a result, I could never get better at it. Somebody who is convinced that she is an active learner may never understand the power of reflection. Whereas belief in learning preferences equates to having a growth mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence is malleable and can be significantly changed through desirable challenges and persistence.)
So what does this mean for teaching and learning?
This superficial debate over learning styles should not be happening at all. What needs to happen is teachers increase their awareness about these three important concepts related with learning theories:
When teachers stop jumping into the “matching learning style” bandwagon, they would also stop labeling students into different types. They can then try to incorporate all learning modes into the teaching, and develop frameworks to engage both sides of the brains, and create continuous opportunities for the learners to do, think, feel, learn, reflect, sense, and experiment.
Teachers will be then able to design meaningful learning experiences with high motivation, engagement, and retention. When that happens, they can perhaps help students break the shackle of “I’m an introvert / extrovert” or “I’m not a math-type” or any other subject for that matter.
“I love coming to your class because you let me be me.”
That single sentence from a student made me realize what I was doing wrong and right in the classroom.
But before I go into this, let me share with you this first.
I just finished watching Chris Emdin’s powerful and thought provoking video titled “Reality Pedagogy” in which he insists teachers to first understand students, their culture and their context, and only then teach them the content.
His argument is pretty simple. Even when teachers do have sufficient content knowledge, many still lack the tools necessary to address the cultural divides that render them ineffective in teaching.
Starting right off the bat by teaching the content, teachers miss the opportunity to foster engagement and relationship with the students who come from divergent background. Teachers miss the opportunity to show the students that classroom is in fact an extension of their lives and their communities. Why should the classroom be anything un-real than their realities?
How many times have I done this in the classroom?
How many times have I ignored about engaging the students, and focused simply on teaching the content?
How many times have I forgotten that students have lives outside the classroom too?
Now coming back to this student and what he told me that day.
He’s usually late for the class. Walks in after 30 mins or even 45 mins sometimes. Doesn’t stay quiet. Doesn’t stay still. Quick to answer. Quick to question.
He was talkative but unless he was being interruptive in the class, I was okay with his behavior. He also seemed like a good team player whenever students had group tasks and presentations. And like other students, he enjoyed tea-break.
So after the last class of the session, when he approached me and told me that he loved coming to my class, initially I assumed that he was referring to the tea-break. But he added, “You let me be me. And even though I come late, I feel welcomed and I’m learning stuffs in this class.”
And in saying so, he reminded me – one more time – that teaching is more than simply teaching the content. Thank you.
If writing is a reflection of our thoughts and attitude, then changing the writing style would probably change our mindset as well.
Take a look at the two sentences below:
a. A teacher should be polite with students.
b. When a teacher is polite with students, students respect the teacher and they love being in the class.
The first one clearly is a preaching. “You should do this… You should do that.” Annoying to read. Also, the writer looks like a whiner.
The second one is a suggestion with a potential positive outcome. It’s an attempt to help, genuinely.
Preaching is easy. Helping is not.
May be, when we start writing in the second style, we’ll be able to contribute rather than just preach.
So this participant, who has been teaching for over 25 years, walked out of the workshop when we were talking about assumptions, beliefs, and practices of teachers which they might need to unlearn.
A few weeks ago, we were in the beautiful city of Butwal to conduct a workshop titled “Unlearning Teaching”. Forty teachers from various colleges had showed up and they were sitting in several small groups of four or five.
After the opening session, we were discussing on the challenges of the 21st century teacher, especially because of large classroom sizes and students with different learning preferences, mindsets, backgrounds, motivations, etc.
“Is there any difference between teaching and facilitation?” I posed this open-ended question to the participants and asked them to come up with their analysis. Each group of teachers dove into discussion and wrote down their opinions. I then asked a participant from each table to share their beliefs to everyone.
The participants then took a small quiz on the differences between traditional teaching (lecture) and facilitation. After another round of healthy discussion, the participants eventually came to a consensus that for our teaching to be effective and meaningful, we need to grow our traditional role of a teacher into a more challenging role of a facilitator. A teacher teaches content, while a facilitator lets students co-create knowledge through interaction. Similarly, teaching means having a teacher-centric approach, while facilitation means having students-focused approach. Understanding these, the participants expressed, also helps teachers better manage the classroom dynamics.
“I want to share my experience on this one,” so this participant stood up. Excited to hear his perspective, I gave him the mic. “For these 25 years, I have used one technique to control the classroom. I use my eye-contact. It doesn’t matter if there are 40 students or 100 students, when I look into their eyes, they keep quiet and never dare to make noise.”
As a workshop facilitator, I usually expect different perspectives, sometimes dissenting ones too. People have strongly held beliefs and our job as facilitators is to simply stir their assumptions. So, while he stated his assertion, I kept actively listening to him.
“If a teacher cannot establish his authority, the students will dance on his head,” he added. “Even my colleagues invite me into their class if they can’t handle the students. When I take their classes, no one dares to give me any trouble.”
The room got silent and I could feel dozens of awkward eyes staring at me. I was caught in a dilemma: should I let the discussion get more intense or, should I acknowledge his views and move on to another agenda? My mind was scrambling for a way out.
“Thank you, sir for being honest and sharing your approach and…” I couldn’t even complete what I was going to say when another participant stood up. “I also want to add something.”
After conducting more than fifty workshop sessions in 2016 alone, I have come to realize that resistance in the participants is normal. And they display their resistance in different forms. Some don’t participate at all. Some look angry. Some get busy with their cell phones. Some seem to be asking question every 60 seconds. Some keep visiting the restroom every 10 minutes. All of these look normal when compared to an aggressive participant who likes to hijack the session. Even worse, when that participant influences others.
So when the other participant asked me for the mic, I could hear my heart screaming in panic. I thought the session was going to derail, and I was going to get grilled real bad. I straddled towards his table and handed over the mic to him.
“I completely disagree with your sir,” directing his gaze towards the previous participant. He spoke with defiance, “You are not controlling the students with your eye-contact, you are terrorizing them.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized I had assumed wrong. “Fear might be a good solution, but it is a temporary one,” he added. “Your students remained silent not because they were learning, but because they were afraid.”
A gentle round of applause followed. Then another participant rose up and said, “What if we start blending the two approaches? From the way I see, sometimes we need to control the class, and sometimes simply facilitate it.” A couple more shared their views along the similar line.
“Great,” I thought. “Now the participants are ready to open up and discuss, debate, share their views.” But before I knew it, the experienced teacher got up from his chair and quietly walked out of the hall.
I had never felt thrilled and dreadful at the same. Thrilled because the participants were willing to reflect and analyze their teaching assumptions. Dreadful because that the one who walked out must have felt challenged, or even embarrassed – and worse, I couldn’t even have a word with him.
Hours after the workshop, the incident kept piercing my mind. It made me question my own beliefs about adult learners. Once my mentor had told me that adults are like babies, only in bigger bodies and bigger egos. Ideally, once we gain their trust, they open up and actively participate. Then they drive the sessions with their enthusiasm and cooperation. But the reality is usually complex and challenging. And that means, we – both facilitators and participants – must keep unlearning our assumptions, and keep relearning how we can learn effectively from each other.
Learning how to teach better – II:
Igniting Curiosity in Learners
As I scrolled through my Facebook wall, a status posted by an MBA student caught my eyes. He wrote, “The main role of a teacher should be to ignite the curiosity. This will drive students to be in a receptive mode. The learning process becomes joyful and intense.”
Since I firmly believe that teachers and students both should feel equally accountable for learning, I replied to his status, “And, the main role of a student should be to come prepared with an open mind and ready to be ignited with curiosity. The teaching process becomes joyful and intense.”
Curious about how learning happens, we are forever tangled in a big puzzle: who should motivate whom. The teacher? Or, the student himself or herself? Or the parents? About this confusion, a colleague of mine usually quips, “I can’t be Tony Robbins. My job is to teach, not to motivate.”
“You cannot motivate other people,” writes Bob Pike, in his book Creative Training Techniques Handbook. Perplexing it may sound, upon reflection, the statement does make sense. We can’t wake up someone pretending to be sleeping. Similarly, we can’t motivate someone who doesn’t want to be. Pike also adds, “People do things for their own reasons, not yours.” Teachers may have reasons to teach, but learners may not have reasons to learn. Sounds rather depressing. But as teachers or trainers or mentors, we keep doing what we have chosen to do. We keep putting in our efforts. Hoping somehow we’ll be able to inspire the learners to be curious and motivated.
Can we untangle this puzzle? Let’s believe we can. But first, let me share you a bitter experience I had as a student.
I had always been a loudmouth back in my school days. And when I didn’t see the point of learning the geometric shapes, I had the nerve of asking my math teacher, “What’s the point of studying Geometry?” Back then, math teachers had a certain reputation. They were to be revered. And feared. Thus, as soon as I blurted out my question, I got a reply in the form of his murderous slap on my cheek. I didn’t dare ask anymore.
He could have said, “Geometry helps us understand the importance of balance.” He could have, he should have. But he didn’t. I never figured out the purpose of memorizing those theorems because my teacher failed to paint the big picture for us. He never cared enough to stir our curiosity.
And that’s what we – a lot of teachers, even the ones with good intentions, do again and again. By focusing too much on the details, we unconsciously neglect the part where we should be enabling students to visualize a bigger picture and connect it to the reality.
“If teachers can make us feel like we are learning a fascinating topic that will have a direct impact on our thinking and/or on our lives,” another student posted a comment on my FB status, “We have the natural instinct to become curious about that topic.” And, that could be the missing piece of the puzzle: enabling learners to realize the significance of the topic and to help them make real life connection.
In his book ‘Brain Rules’, molecular biologist John Medina writes that human brain processes meaning before details; the gist before the core concept; the bigger picture before the components. To put this in a very Marketing language, to grab the consumer’s curiosity, sell the benefit before selling the features.
The insight is: Start with the bigger picture and then logically explain the details. Present a real world example, connect it to the concept, tie the loose ends with details, and finally help the learners imagine endless possibilities. Or, share stories, make a point, lead that into the theory, ask students to reflect, and then help them implement the learnings in real situations.
Let me wrap this up. You may be a teacher trying to inspire students. Or a mentor trying to help a young entrepreneur. A trainer trying to transform an organization. Take the inductive approach. If we want to ignite curiosity in learners, paint the bigger picture in their minds, and then explain the meaning of the concepts, instead of bulldozing them with seemingly disparate data, details, and definitions. When we help them internalize and personalize the purpose, then perhaps, just like the MBA student said, the learning process becomes joyful and intense.
(Also published on The Kathmandu Post, Escalate. May 1, 2017)
Back in my school days, we had a classmate who would rather give up his life than share class-notes with us. He would act as if we were plotting to snatch his beloved “First Boy” title. Like the hideous Gollum of Lord of the Rings, he would fight hard to hide the notes – his precious – away from us and other students.
Years later, when I joined university, I was astonished to meet once again a few of such Gollums. Like my sneaky school friend, they would conceal their precious notebooks from us – their competitors.
But luckily, we had a friend who would, without any hesitation and suspicion, share everything he had: books, notes, research articles. And we would share ours too. He would also ask us to come over his house for group study sessions. I still remember those sessions where four or five of us would teach each other, question each other, and listen to different explanations.
For me, those sharing sessions resulted in deeper grip of the concepts that we were trying to master, and helped us become better thinkers, analyzers, and creators of our own interpretations. We would discuss, argue, and often indulge in intense verbal battle – and each time, we would develop newer perspective and better insights. Bottom line: we taught each other and made each other better.
And this brings to my first point. As Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed, learning happens best through social interaction. The more we share, the more we learn. Yes, we all learn in our own peculiar ways, but we learn best by interacting with each other in different social contexts.
Now, imagine your teacher was to teach the concept of research. One way is your teacher starts the class with the definition of research. Explains the concept part by part. Gives some examples. Ends the class by going over the process of conducting research. This is what usually happens.
Another way is your teacher tells the students to visit 10 different companies, find out the number of employees in each, find out the salary range for males and females, and prepare a report – all these without giving you specific instruction. Asks you to write a reflection on what you did, share your findings, and finally the teacher connects everything to the concept of conducting a research.
I bet the second way will be far more effective because as a student, you would be engaged in constructing knowledge with your own hands. You would certainly learn and remember better from the experience than from memorizing the definitions written by the teacher on the board.
And, that’s my second point: learning happens when we actively participate in the learning process, when we take part in co-creating the knowledge by diving into real (or realistic) situations.
Once I was invited for a guest-lecture session in a reputed business college in Kathmandu. When I arrived at the college’s reception, the lady behind the desk looked indifferent, then confused. She asked me ten different questions about me and what I was doing there. I tried to explain her: “Look miss, this person from your college had called me yesterday for the session. So here I am.”
She snapped, for some reason. “What is wrong with this coordinator?” She exhaled anger. I stepped back. Literally. In a millisecond, her face turned evil red, and eyes looked possessed. “This coordinator never informs me and he shouts at me for not doing work properly. I am so fed up working in this office.”
And, all that time, I was thinking, “Dear lady, I don’t need to hear these internal stuff. I am an outsider. You don’t have to vent out on me.”
I was expecting a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Instead, I witnessed a disgruntled employee losing her cool and risking the organization’s hard-earned goodwill.
Later when I thought about the incident, the theories of Organizational Behavior and Psychology started bouncing back in my head. I knew the theories, explanation, and examples from the books. But they made real sense only after I reflected on the incident unfolding in front of my eyes.
John Dewey, a pioneer in progressive education, had once said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” And that’s my third point: learning happens when we experience an event and consciously think back to analyze and make a meaning out of it.
Connecting all three scenarios, let me tell you what I believe about teaching and learning, and what we, as teachers, can do make it better.
When we help students explore, find, and draw multiple perspectives through classroom discussions, activities, enquiry, they learn better. When we understand this concept, we can design learning situations that allow students to ‘learn by doing’ and we help them experience and reflect to construct new knowledge.
Let’s reflect. Are we simply teaching the content? Or are we creating helpful environment which allows students to interact? Are we merely giving them assignments? Or are we allowing them to work together, learn together? Are we constantly dumping knowledge on them? Or are we giving them opportunities to reflect on their learning?
Dear teachers, let’s reflect.
A slightly modified version of this article was published on national daily The Kathmandu Post on April 17, 2017.