Why there is no one learning environment and no one environment that meets all learning needs.
Over the years teachers have been asked to plan and deliver lessons to specific models. These models have included meeting various learning styles, multiple intelligences, and differences in ability. Teachers are now being asked to adopt a “growth mind-set” approach when dealing with learners (if they do not already have one what are they doing in teaching?) Views on how best to teach a particular aspect also change and teachers have been instructed in the way to teach reading and mathematical concepts with each supporter or instigator claiming theirs to be better than the other. Strangely enough we could have expected this dichotomy to have been resolved by now if there was one way to teach and to learn! Perhaps this is evidence of sorts for there not being a “one way”.
This situation of new ideas replacing old and then being replaced by old ones re-discovered and of to-ing and fro-ing is unhelpful for teachers and for learners in a number of ways. Firstly it ignores teaching and learning experience. Experience of what works and what does not work and in what circumstances. I suggest that a variety of approaches and teaching strategies is the hallmark of a seasoned teacher. They are able to respond and adapt to meet the dynamics of a lesson in a way that maintains engagement and supports learning. To ignore, or in some way supress this experience, is not helpful. I have seen excellent teachers be sacrificed on the altar of the “one way” because instead of going with their instinct they stuck to the plan. Instead of using experience to take another way in achieving the same aim they tried to apply an inappropriate strategy determined by the one way. At the least the one way produces conflict and at the worst high levels of job related stress.
When the “one way” does not have a level playing field and there are high stakes implications for not reaching the same standards then a second undermining condition occurs. This can be summed up by the term “playing the system”. Ways are found to produce the required output at all costs because these are far less than the impact of not doing so. Once discovered then this leads to attempts to strengthen the original one way systems. This is a spiral of pressure, playing the system, tightening the system controls and more pressure.
Wanting to do things one way also calls for conformity rather than supporting or stimulating innovation. This is something I claim leads to much narrower inspection frameworks. Frameworks that by their very nature, become inflexible and constraining. There is a natural outcome of an inflexible framework and that is any responsibility for lack of success is directed not at the framework itself but at those operating it or being inspected by it. The logic flows along the lines of if it’s not the framework at fault, and it cannot be, then it must be the people. The spiral of decline and blame is there for all to see whenever we have this situation. The result is a very toxic environment for the people as the means to support the framework is strengthened in an effort to make it work. It never will but that does not stop those that believe in it trying to make it. Efforts are made to drive up standards and grades re-assessed or re-defined even if the framework standards are being achieved. This is because the framework is fundamentally flawed and cannot produce the desired outcomes. The stupidity of this approach defies only those who instigate and support it.
When the one way is not working then changes occur, not in broadening the approach but instead as I have suggested earlier, in standards or grade definitions. This adds an element of insecurity and confusion for those involved. What is the old “C” in terms of the new level? Why is this subject included and this one excluded? Changes of this nature also make demands on time and energy as the people work to accommodate the changes.
What is worse is when eventually the current one way is dismantled to be replaced not by an amalgam, a variety or a blend, but once again by the new one way. Yesterday’s best way becomes today’s “must avoid” as each “new way “undermines earlier “new ways”. What is worse is the latest ideas fail to be the one way it is claimed to be and the old way becomes the new way once again.
I have seen first-hand the draining nature of this approach, of imposing a one way approach to teaching and learning. Teachers keep their heads down, they have little enthusiasm, or energy for new ideas or innovation, be it good or bad. Some vote with their feet and leave the profession.
Yes we learn from experience and so things evolve but surely this should make us aware of the dangers of the “one way” mentality in teaching and learning. The power of Learning Intelligence is that it opens our eyes to the effects of the one way and empowers us to do something about it. It also provides the reassurance and boost to confidence we need when being challenged by the one way syndrome.
It’s the Holy Grail in teaching, to ensure all learners reach their potential, and we have tried all manner of ways to find it.
What if the answer was staring us in the face all along? Would we recognise it and would we grasp the opportunity with both hands? My experience as a teacher and consultant suggests not. Along with my solution, that of developing Learning Intelligence, here is why we have not taken the opportunity so far.
Politicians consider it too risky to leave education to what they perceive as chance and imagine they can dictate and control it through inspection and the setting of targets. The trouble with this is we only see the things we are looking for and only hit the things we aim for. This limits creativity, innovation, and risk taking. It also sets a limit on what can be achieved, if you are required to hit a target at 100m why try to hit it at 1000m? There is no point in making the extra effort. The target has got to be constantly revised otherwise there is no challenge and “moving the goal posts” hardly appears fair when you were so close to achieving it. Targets may do more to de-motivate than to motivate.
Leadership misunderstand their responsibilities. It is often interpreted as the imposing of policies sent down by politicians, even if it does not foster a learning relationship between the teacher and learner. This behaviour can inhibit them from reacting to local needs and conditions. The true role of leadership is to ensure only those initiatives and ideas that actually promote the learning relationship are supported.
I find that teachers are inclined to teach the way they learn and were taught. Perhaps it is difficult to even imagine another way when the way you learnt was so successful for you. The drive to be a teacher is often to help give the opportunities that became available to you as a result of your education to others, so why do it any differently. Teachers are the instruments by which policy is applied and targets achieved so they have little freedom to explore alternatives or little inclination to take risks.
Parents have bought into the passive learning model. Their children go to school to be taught and that model is one they themselves experienced. In this model the responsibility for a lack of achievement is easily directed at the teacher and certainly away from them as parents or their children as learners. They insist the school tries harder, sets more homework, and makes their children learn so long as it does not take up too much of their time.
Employers are not sure what they want an education system to do to prepare young people for the world of work. We hear that many of the jobs our students will be doing when they leave school don’t exist yet so I suppose this makes it difficult. In the absence of a clear picture of what is required we hear the common call for “the basics”, but often that is left vaguely defined and what is the basics for one employer may not be for another. Many call for “soft skills”*, skills that complement the job related or “hard skills”. Schools are not measured or given targets for these skills so they do not form part of the directed curriculum and therefore are not given a high priority.
The solution, the one that is staring us in the face. There is a simple way of enabling learners and we can find fragments of it scattered through current and past research, writings, and practices. Some call for better feedback in the learning cycle, building learning power, some for a more mindful approach to learning and others of requiring grit from the learner.
Each has a piece of the jigsaw but no one person or concept has it all. No one, until now that is, has brought what we know about teaching and learning together under one unifying approach or concept. So we move from one initiative or idea to another. Each time hoping that each will help find the Holy Grail. What we should be doing is unifying our efforts into working with learners to develop their ability to manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs. Just take a moment to reflect on this statement before I go on to explain what this means.
I claim that successful learners are those who are able to interact with their learning environment and that their environment meets their learning needs. This explains why some learners do well at school but not as well as adults and why some learners who struggled in school do well in the real world. Where there is a match between the school environment and the needs of a particular learner they will do well, where there is not any learner will struggle to reach their true potential in that environment. Other factors must come into play for an individual who is mismatched with their learning environment to achieve their potential.
An analysis of this reality suggests that there are a set of skills, attributes, attitudes, and behaviours that learners who are successful in any environment have or display. They are able to adapt their environment to meet their needs and overcome environmental limiting factors. I call this “Learning Intelligence” or LQ for short and it represents the way we can help all learners to reach their true potential.
The evidence that supports the concept of LQ is there for us to see if we adopt an open mind to the issues of learning. Perhaps the first glimpses we have seen of LQ in action has been as a result of the changing of the learning environment through technology. For example the Khan Academy and YouTube have shown that learners can respond successfully to a different learning environment to that of the school. What these new learning environments provide is a better match to the learner’s needs. We hear also of the “gamification” of learning as we see the effort people are willing to put into these type of environments. It seems obvious then that if we develop the learner’s ability to manage different learning environments to meet their learning needs by developing their LQ that they will be in better position to reach their potential.
There are numerous benefits to the LQ approach to learning too.
- We do not have to worry about what new initiatives or ideas that may come along for the learner will be equipped to deal with them.
- The concept of life-long learning becomes a reality because the learner will be able to cope with any change in learning environment.
- Teachers are not asked to plan and deliver lessons to accommodate numerous learning styles and can focus on what matters – building relationships and turning knowledge into understanding.
- Parents can be helped to understand how the environment they create at home also impacts learning.
- Politicians can relax a little knowing that they have a society of learners that can adapt to changes in the skills, knowledge or understanding required of them during their working life.
- Employers will get the employees they are looking for.
So we have a simpler and better way to approach learning if we want it.
For an introduction to LQ go to: https://magic.piktochart.com/output/2297869-learning-intelligence
For workshops, keynote speeches or for more about how developing LQ can release the potential of learners you can contact me at email@example.com
Graphic from: http://erdmute.deviantart.com/art/holy-grail-png-100234405
In this article I want to explore one of theories about how people learn, that of learning styles, and why it has become discredited. I am not going to explore the VAK approach or any other specific aspect on which learning styles is based. Instead I want to look at why it became so popular and why now, even though some try to discredit it, many still support it. I tend to come at issues from a different direction and this time it is no different. Although it may not appear initially as having much relevance to the issue at hand I want to start by asking a couple of questions.
What has astrology and the idea of learning styles in common?
Why astrology may promote the idea of learning styles.
Surely we cannot use a “pseudo-science” to understand how we learn. Bear with me whilst I explore a theory.
One of the first questions I faced as a teacher was why some students “got it, kept it and used it” and others did not. I am of course referring to knowledge and understanding. My first instinct was that I took something for granted, that there was a step in the learning process that I missed because “I got it” and that I needed to look at what I was teaching again to find “it”. I even asked experienced teachers if there was something missing in my understanding that I was not conveying to learners who did not get it. I was reassured there was not, but this did little to help those students who were struggling learning, retaining or using what I was teaching. From this point I have always been on the lookout for anything that helps explain how people learn and for ways of improving my teaching.
A number of theories and ideas have come forward concerning how people learn. Science has begun to offer insights of its own through Neuroscience. There is even this thing called “IQ” which has been around for some time. Learning styles and multiple intelligences are other theories about how we learn best and how to manage learning. 21st century skills have made an appearance on the stage of learning due in part to the advances in technology and Cognitive Psychologists may be disproving everything we presently hold true about learning. Nevertheless this only goes to show that there is an interest in how we learn and how to improve learning. We want to explain things and possibly offer a few labels. This is okay so long as we do not return to a description of a patient found in the register of an asylum in the late 19th century that labelled them “Born an idiot.”!
We want answers to the learning equation.
We like the idea of unpicking this particular problem in the same way as we would like to find a cure to cancer. Once we have an understanding of how learning works we can prescribe the course of treatment that will allow everyone, who wants to, to reach their full potential. We will be able to categorise or label people. We will be able to give all the “slow learners” a speedup treatment, all those who are always mentally jumping all over the place a slowdown treatment, and those who forget things a memory improving treatment.
The fundamental problem is…
To me this is the fundamental problem in exploring how people learn. We use ideas or theories to label people rather than to start a dialogue about the challenges they face in learning. My way of exploring this problem is by looking at how people respond to labels and why we appear to like them. Although on first glance it may be a strange association between astrology and learning but what can your horoscope have to do with your ability to learn? Let us start by looking at what they both have in common.
1) both astrology and learning styles are believed by some and discounted by others, they each have their supporters.
2) they both try to predict something, either the future or how learners will learn best.
3) they both result in the application of a label, either a star sign of the Zodiac or a learning style.
4) both appeal to our need for an identity or to belong to a group.
5) they both offer characteristics which we may find inwardly attractive. For example the perfectionism of Virgo or the ease at which a visual learner decodes charts.
6) they are both a good way to start a conversation. Many strangers have started out by asking, “What star sign are you?” in order to start a conversation and many teachers have wanted to know how learners learn best and asked what they find difficult about the lesson.
I would claim that the first five are distractions of the true value that any of the theories or ideas offer, especially learning styles, is that of starting a conversation. Does it matter if theories such as learning styles, brain based learning or multiple intelligences are more fiction than fact if it starts a conversation and is only used in that way? What we must do as teachers is to avoid labels, no matter how seductive they are.
A final example of why I believe the theory of learning styles found support in teaching.
The theory of learning styles appears to be right because learning is often presented as just being a function of memory. About taking in formation and retaining it for use later. Learning is more than just creating a memory or storing information. Perhaps we would understand why many teachers have, and continue to do so, supported the idea of learning styles if we see them as “learning cues“. I believe that we initially pay more attention to some forms of information than to others, they get our attention faster. As teachers know getting the attention of students is key to engagement and then the trick is to help them learn.
Why do we “pay attention”?
Getting your attention has been a key survival trait and one that persists today. Advertisers know this and use it to sell, well to first get our attention. The smell of freshly baked bread, the colours, and warmth of a summer day, the freshness of a spring morning, the tune that reminds you of your youth. You get the point.
I would claim that whatever our learning environment is we are pre-disposed to notice things according to our senses. Some favour one over the other, although all are at play. Perhaps the one that is favoured is part of a distant memory because it was more of a threat in whatever environment we found ourselves in. If the danger came first as a sound then we may favour taking notice of auditory clues. If the danger presented itself not through auditory clues but was stealthy and we needed to recognise a shape or shadow then we may favour visual clues. The same may be true for identifying or recognizing danger through tactile means, identifying a particular shape from another in order to avoid danger. Failing to acknowledge or pay attention could have resulted in an untimely end. Has evolution got something to do with what we pay attention to and how we respond in the first instance? Possibly, it has certainly been used to explain a great deal of other forms of human behaviour. The key from a teachers point of view is that once we have the attention of the learner we need to find ways of maintaining it. One such way is to recognise and celebrate achievement. Another is to show the learner how they can manage their own learning environment to meet their learning needs. This last strategy is the basis for my own theory that of a learning intelligence or LQ for short.
Learning Intelligence (LQ)
I define LQ as the ability of the learner to manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs.
Link to LQ concept graphic:
It may be that at an early age we pay attention to certain cues within our learning environment and these are then developed through preferred use, or because they are successful or they bring reward. This may ultimately lead to a dominance or preference interpreted as a “learning style”. In effect we are just paying attention to our environment in our preferred way. Our preference can change over time and can be influenced by technology, friendships, experiences, in fact many things. I believe it is important to a learner to be able to recognise and interact with their learning environment in a way that brings success. I also believe that when they do not then they build a negative picture of themselves as learners.
In many ways LQ is a construct made up of skills, attitudes, attributes, and behaviours. You can find over 20 articles exploring LQ both from the teacher’s perspective and that of the impact on the learner on my blog here at 4c3d.wordpress.com