The other day, Jessica asked:
“Do you agree that there are different ways of learning?”
No. I believe the mechanism of learning is pretty well established by biology and psychology.
I want to follow up on that because I think we’ve got a fundamental disconnect on the meaning of the term “learning.” Learning is the process of assimilating knowledge domains for later use. The actual process is not well defined as yet. Brain research, cognitive research, and all the other research can’t really say what happens so that learning occurs. I subscribe to a philosophy that learning is a lot like seeing. There’s a process where light enters the eye, activates some receptors, transmits some messages into the brain, and the brain interprets the messages. The process of “seeing” is the same for everybody, but some of the more interesting questions revolve around how two people can use the identical process on identical scenes and interpret the outcomes differently.
Learning isn’t quite so straightforward, but I believe that the underlying mechanisms for learning must be as consistent as the mechanisms for seeing are. The questions we address as educators are not – strictly speaking – how we learn, but rather what can we do as teachers to stimulate the process in our students that results in learning. I might give you a book to read, or a movie to watch. I might give you a recorded interview to listen to, or show you a chart. There are lots of different kinds of sensory channels I can use to try to stimulate the learning process, but I’m ultimately working toward having my communications reach some level of process wherein the learner actually learns something. The next set of questions have to do with trying to figure out what the student may have learned and with trying to reconcile what the teacher intended to teach against what the student learned. It’s why assessment is so problematic.
Using the seeing analogy, I can give you something to look at, but what you see is dependent on a lot of things over which I have little or no control.
Going back to the initial question, however, I think that what Jessica is pointing out is that different people use different communications channels to activate their learning. This is not a trivial semantic issue. What the “learning styles” supporters contend is that an individual uses the same channel for every lesson and that any message not on that channel has a greater chance of being lost or discarded. I maintain that learners rely on a variety of channels and the use of restatement, repetition, and multiple channels is critical to triggering the learning process. Further, the efficacy of any given channel depends on the learner, the content, and the context depending on the quality of the message being transmitted.
This is not to say that any individual can subscribe to any theoretical foundation they like. Please, believe in “Learning Styles” if that helps you organize your thinking, but also be aware that what you’re doing is not supported by any credible evidence and – as such – could be (and probably should be) challenged under the Federal Guidelines for Research Based Practice under NCLB.