What About Learning Styles?

The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, provides great insights into the research currently going on in education reform. A recent release reviewing two reports from the Gates Foundation MET project raises an interesting question, “Can we quantify what effective teaching is?”

The review looks at this question from a strictly academic perspective, as good academic research should. The researchers ran into problems — real world problems — of not being able to have children remain with the teachers they were assigned to. The questions the research raised, however, immediately had me thinking about an important component well understood by current educators: learning styles.

In the discussions about education reform a crucial element seems often to be overlooked: the human element. We’re dealing with people. Kids. Teachers. Administrators.

When our oldest was moving from first grade to second his first grade teacher asked us a serious question. That this was our first child, we were somewhat unaware of how important this decision was, and the teacher — a fantastic teacher who had been great for our child, and who knew how important this question was — tried to impress upon us how important this question was. The question was of choice for our son between one teacher and another.

Our son’s best friend was going to get placed with one teacher, a teacher who was a great fit for this boy’s learning style. The choice for us was whether or not to place our son with his best friend — something that was terribly, terribly important to him — or to place our son with a teacher who was much better suited to our son’s learning style.

Wanting our son to be emotionally comfortable — thinking that emotional comfort would allow him to overcome differences with learning / teaching styles — we chose to have our son follow his best friend.

We could say this decision was a big mistake. OK. It was a big mistake. He lost easily a half of a year’s worth of education because of how this teacher chose to deal with our son, despite our strong requests that she deal with him differently.

A fantastic teacher has the ability to deal with multiple learning styles and adjust accordingly. But how many fantastic teachers are there in the world? Realistically, no school will ever be filled top to bottom with fantastic teachers, which leaves educators and administrators trying to place children with the best fit between learning and teaching styles. Anecdotally I’d argue that the bell curve — the majority — of teachers are good to great teachers, not fantastic teachers. And this is good enough to continue with education reform, as long as educators and administrators understand and maybe more importantly educate parents about the importance of lining up learning styles and teaching styles.

So we return to the issue of quantifying this. The business leaders who have become thought leaders in education reform like to look at all issues requiring reform and being able to quantify the concerns with pie charts, overlaying the solution with another pie chart. Yes, this is hyperbole, but done for a reason. The business-centric solutions help support the new industry that has risen over the past decade: technology solutions for education. Technology, after all, is the holy grail, the magic bullet for all of society’s ills. Right? Well what about the kid who sits in front of computer to take a Kahn Academy class and can’t remain focused on that machine for the life of him? What if his learning styles does not match that teaching style?

And how do you quantify style? How do quantify the difference between an impressionist painting and a cubist? You might be able to define the mechanical differences between the two, but how do you define the aesthetic differences? How do you put style into a metric on a scale from 1 to 5, or 1 to 10, that accounts for why one teacher is very successful with one student and not with another.

Many feel education reform doesn’t have to be complicated, but we’re dealing with people, not manufacturing widgets, and the last time I looked, people can get pretty complicated.

Also posted at bent spoon Media.