In Rejection of Classifying Learners by Learning Styles

In rejection of verbal, visual, auditory or kinesthetic classification of learning styles, and in response to Jennifer’s post regarding same:

I applaud Jennifer’s courage to take the less popular position and to provide evidence for the position. Well stated, Jennifer!

Context – the argument Jennifer stated that learning is contextual and that certain things are more easily learned with specific strategies is quite sound. For example, learning to blend colours of paint would be most easily learned with visual strategies whereas auditory or verbal strategies alone would be insufficient.

Multiple Strategies – Jennifer furthered that multiple teaching strategies also improves learning. More students engage and understand and each student learns more quickly with multiple strategies. Jennifer’s horse riding example clearly illustrates this.

Experiential – I would also include that a learner’s prior experiences with the topic, whether a foundation of basic information or similar concepts applied to a different application, lend themselves to greater learning. Constructivists believe that we ‘construct’ our understanding based on the pre-existing knowledge and understanding we have from prior learning or experiences. More experienced students often can provide examples or applications for new concepts that aid in learning for the other students as well.

Neuroscience and Memory – from Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, memory storage and access is facilitated by the amygdala (an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe) which plays a role in the chemical encryption of memories when there are strong memories present in the context. For example, strong fear of an attacker wielding a knife can create that fear response to knives if certain other factors are present, e.g. a man wearing similar attire. The implications for learning are that information with strong emotional context is encrypted using difference biologic markers than information with little or no emotional context. Emotionally encrypted memories are strong, endure a very long time and are easily accessed, whereas non-emotional information is stored in such a way that without repeated access early on to ‘reinforce’ or strengthen the memory, later access is more difficult. This has implications for learning: information exchanged in the form of stories with emotional context greatly facilitates memory storage in a way that is more easily accessed later. The memories will be strongest for contexts with strong emotions. Skilled orators, such as skilled comedians, take advantage of this by taking their audience on an emotional roller coaster ride with their story telling. Listeners connect more with examples and contexts in which they see themselves, such as a similar past experience.

I am hoping this post provides Jennifer and others with food for thought and provokes a thoughtful response. Thank you Jennifer!

The Adult Learner – Providing a safe learning environment increases student engagement

I was in my 40’s when I took a medical ethics course during my undergrad. I was pleasantly surprised that the professor, Brian Lightbody, took a structured analytical approach to teaching, facilitating discussions and critical thinking. This amazing man is easily one of the best adult educators I have ever met.

Professor Lightbody provided a safe, collaborative, student-centred environment in the classroom and somehow managed to encourage a very large majority of students to participate and engage in open discussions. When he presented a simple case as a point of discussion to illustrate an ethical concept, such as utilitarian justice – the greatest good for the greatest number, to simplify, he asked open questions such as, “What is your position on …” Then a student would speak about a position on controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, ethical research or other biomedical ethics topics. Typically, some students responded with an emotional position that may have an example but lacked any rigorous evidence or reasoning. The instructor typically listened attentively, nodding and maintaining eye contact with the speaker and then responded with, “Thank you for openly sharing something that stirs strong emotions. Could you please explain why you felt this way?” He was inviting the student to provide rationale or evidence or at least conditions for the position. Then he paraphrased the argument, in more general terms with emphasis on the concept or guiding principles or conditions or constraints for the position, asking the student if had properly understood the argument. This was an iterative process until he had confirmation from the student and had constructed a general argument worded in the strongest possible form. Lightbody explained that we should be generous with the other’s argument, stating it in the strongest position we could develop so that if we defeated it, it was soundly defeated rather than defeated because it was stated in a weaker condition.

Then Lightbody would ask the class, “Are there any other positions on this argument?” He always encouraged us to identify all the stakeholders and to consider the argument, conditions, evidence, advantages and disadvantages, from each position. He encouraged us to consider all stakeholder positions and the implications for the argument for each position, then weigh the evidence. Strongest evidence wins. In short, he taught us critical thinking in a safe environment that respected each other’s position. In fact, he taught us that we need objective disagreement to find the evidence for each position. We were learning how to think, rather than what to think. He never did share his opinion on any topic. I will always be grateful to Professor Lightbody. He taught me how to write an analytical essay. How to write an essay

Web Conference

From my learning partner, Marliss Magas, I learned that problem-based learning strategies such as case studies are a very relevant learning strategy for a Practical Nursing program. Learners who benefit from this type of learning are not only better equipped for problem solving at work, but they also acquire skills that elevate their ability to effectively solve problems in life. This better prepares learners for a successful, happier life. Problem-based learning has appeal to such students because of the student-centred focus, the relevancy of the problems, the opportunity for social negotiation, coaching and feedback to improve and test learning, convergence with the goals of the learner, the opportunity for collaboration and reflection and the transferability of the acquired skills to other problems faced in life and at work.

 

Trends

There is a current trend towards student-centred learning in healthcare and business education which is supported by increased use of problem-based learning strategies such as case studies. I am committed to an increasing use of problem-based learning strategies such as case studies in my classroom. I am continuing to seek sources and build a library of topic-relevant cases for use in teaching.

New Insights

Lebow (1993, p.5) directs the role of the instructor with instructional strategies that contrast with the traditional instructional values of “replicability, reliability, communication, and control.” According to Lebow, the primary constructivist values of “collaboration, personal autonomy, generativity, reflectivity, active engagement, personal relevance, and pluralism,” not only support ‘student-centred learning,’ but also requires of the instructor a shift in values. Savery and Duffy (1995, pp.3-6) further guide the role of the instructor with the following principles.

The instructor should anchor learning activities to a larger task or problem. It is important that the learner clearly understand the purpose of any learning activity.

The instructor should support the learner in developing ownership for the overall problem. Savery and Duffy believe that “no matter what we specify as the learning objective, the goals of the learner will largely determine what is learned.”

The instructor should facilitate an authentic learning environment in which the cognitive demands, or thinking required, are consistent with the cognitive demands in the environment for which the learner is to be prepared.

The instructor should design the problem to reflect the complexity of the context in which the learner should be able to perform upon completion of the learning. According to Savery and Duffy (1995), this is consistent with both cognitive apprenticeship and contextual learning.

The instructor should both value and challenge the learner’s thinking. As in Vygotsky’s cognitive apprenticeship scaffolding approach, the instructor should give instructions or feedback at Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development or the level just beyond what the learner can accomplish on their own. The instructor should challenge the learner with questions that lead the learner to examine the desired concepts and apply them to the problem at hand.

The instructor should encourage social negotiation amongst learners for learners to test their ideas against alternate views and alternative contexts. This is consistent with Wenger’s (1998) concept of learning communities and communities of practice. Collaborative learning groups support an atmosphere of social negotiation and learning.

Consistent with Schön’s (1987) principles of reflective practice, the instructor should provide opportunity for and support reflection on both the content learned and the learning process.

References

Lebow, D. (1993). Constructivist Values for Systems Design: Five Principles Toward a New Mindset. Educational Technology Research and Development, 41, 4-16.

Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational technology, 35(5), 31-38.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.