Saturday, February 18, 2012

Learning Style Post

Growing up, and certainly once I started school, I have always been referred to as "smart", "a quick learner", and various other positive appellations regarding my intelligence.  I was already reading by the time I started school, and remember reading Orwell's "Animal Farm" when I was maybe in 1st or 2nd grade.  I read the whole thing, skipping some words I didn't know, asking about others, and followed the story fairly well.  Of course, it wasn't until many years later when I reread it that I understood it in more depth.  But the point is, while many of my peers were still sounding out words by phonics and had limited sight vocabulary, I was already pulling novels off the bookshelf and understanding the written representations of words I knew.  I don't think this was any great magic, or even that I was significantly more intelligent than my peers.  It was just that my mother had spent a lot of time with me in her lap reading together with me.  I think this gave me a leg-up in school, in which what Howard Gardner refers to as linguistic intelligence is (or at least was) emphasized.  I had a friend in growing up who was considered either stupid or lazy by many of his teachers.  In fact, I knew him to be really quick to grasp concepts if you talked about them, and also to have an incredible ability to sort out mechanical problems in a flash.  It turned out he had undiagnosed dyslexia and had always struggled to read and write, making much of the homework and tests we had extremely challenging.  Even into college, I sometimes felt I had something of an advantage over a lot of my peers.  I seemed to be able to read significantly faster than most of them, grasp things I read pretty quickly, and be able to write fairly well also.  I even remember distinctly in one history course feeling that it was really unfair because while I had friends who I knew had spent hours and hours over at least a week reading and reviewing for the final test who got Bs and Cs on the test, I got an A just from listening to all the lectures plus skimming the textbook the evening before the test.  When I was younger, I also had a pretty easy time grasping mathematics and basically never had math homework because I could finish it while the teacher was still helping others just to get the idea.  I was sometimes popular because I could help others understand math when they didn't get the teacher's explanation.  However, when I got to algebra and geometry, the concrete concepts were still pretty easy for me but more abstract things were harder to grasp.  I also really can't remember ever having gotten lost until well into adulthood, even though I often ventured into places I had never been.  Just like with the more concrete elements of geometry, spatial relationships between places and directions always seemed quite logical and easy to grasp.

At the same time, I always felt at least awkward if not totally incompetent in physical education activities and even lots of physical play activities.  It wasn't only that I was smaller than most of my peers, but that I just didn't seem to have the control over my body that others showed.  I also think that my lack of confidence in my physical abilities helped contribute to this in something of a self-fulfilling prophecy feedback-loop, and I came to actively dislike these activities.  It didn't help that I proceeded to break bones and what not.  Another area I often felt like a fish out of water in was music.  I couldn't keep a tune in singing, and while my teachers were kind, my classmates were more willing to advise me before a performance things like, "just move your mouth and pretend you are singing."  I had a music teacher in elementary school I still remember today, somewhat unfortunately.  He was a somewhat cranky old guy who was clearly an immigrant, and why I remember him most of all is that he got so frustrated with my inability on the trumpet that he smacked the open end of it while I had the other end up to my lips, causing me no small amount of pain and embarrassment, and also to never try to play it again.  I would like to think that today he would be fired for abuse, but anyway..  I also remember in junior high school talking with a friend about a popular song, and not being able to follow what he was talking about as he described the parts of the different instruments.  To me it was all one united sound and I didn't even have a concept of the different instruments making different kinds of sounds.  Finally, while I proceeded to do well enough overall in school to end up in an academic magnet high school, once there one notable failure was Latin.  I had to take it twice to pass it, once again I encountered a European immigrant teacher whose methods were not conducive to my learning (lots of scolding and even whacking with a yardstick when one made a mistake).  The second time around a much kinder woman helped me eek my way through.  Once I reached college and had to take language there as well, I continued to have problems with it.  By virtue of living several years in another country, I am now fairly bilingual, but my progress has been slow and mostly down to being immersed in the language.

So, while I was often referred to as intelligent, when I first encountered multiple intelligences theory, it intuitively struck me as right on the button for describing the reality of abilities and learning.  It seemed from my experiences that different people have different abilities, that there are varying strengths and weaknesses in all of us, and that some of these are innate at least to some degree.  Since learning about that it has helped me in my own learning, as I started to become less critical of myself in areas that I didn't excel, and to not give up on things that didn't come so easily.  While I still am very unwilling to sing in front of people, even in a besotted karaoke session, in the area of physical activity, I took up flying-disc sports and persisted with one, Ultimate, to such an extent that I ended up being a member of a world champion team.

To turn a little more directly to this session's focus, I would like to mention the results of taking a couple of the MI assessments linked to for this class.  I opted to try a couple of the free ones.  The first one I did was "Assessment: Find Your Strengths!" at  The second was "Howard Gardner's Miltiple Intelligences" from  While this latter one had some more detailed descriptions of Gardner's MI model than in the session notes, I found the assessment less satisfying than the former.  This is because the results were merely presented as a numerical score for each intelligence type and no descriptors or explanation of what those scores might mean.  Also, I found that my scores seemed to be fairly similar, ranging from 22 for Bodily-Kinesthetic to 29 for Intrapersonal.  I am also not so sure that the types of statements actually lead to a true reflection of my learning strengths or weaknesses.  For example, on Musical I scored 25 though I believe that I have little ability in this area.  I think this is because some of the items were things like music is important to me or I like listening to music, both of which are true for me but which don't seem to reflect whether or not I have ability in music.  The first assessment I took provided a more descriptive report, and included suggestions for taking advantage of what were rated as my top 3 intelligences.  Interestingly, there were some significant contrasts between the two sets of results.  While Intrapersonal was top rated on both instruments and Linguistic was also pretty high on both, Bodily-Kinesthetic was smack in the middle on the literacyworks one as opposed to bottom on the other.  Also, on this one both Logical-Mathmatical and Musical were rated quite lowly.  Therefore, I do have some doubt about relying on these assessments.  Also, since my students are learners of English as a foreign or second language, these tests might be rather difficult to administer to them.  That said, I do think that the tasks and activities described in Gardner's Model for Linguistic and Intrapersonal do seem to fit with what I have been comfortable with and successful at in much of my learning to date, which does point to some validity of these assessments.

As for using this concept to inform my teaching, I do it already, though not in any of the really formalized ways suggested in the session readings.  I do try to incorporate a variety of activities, including doing some teacher-led stuff, some group activities while also giving students some time to work on their own, some things that involve physical activity, using music, giving students similar input both verbally and in written form, etc.  I even explicitly taught my students this past year about this idea of there being multiple intelligences, specifically the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic types, and encouraged them to try to use their strengths.  I am interested in maybe trying to adopt a more formal approach to teaching to different learning styles such as the learning cycle based on Kolb's model.

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