Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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Teaching To Students’ “Learning Styles”: A Myth Busted?

Learning-stylesSOURCE CREDIT: Is Teaching to a Student’s “Learning Style” a Bogus Idea?  Many researchers have suggested that differences in students’ learning styles may be as important as ability, but empirical evidence is thin: By Sophie Guterl Scientific American Sept 20 2013

ARE THERE INDIVIDUAL LEARNING STYLES? Students are adamant they learn best visually or by hearing a lesson or by reading, and so forth. And while some educators advocate teaching methods that take advantage of differences in the way students learn, some psychologists take issue with the idea that learning style makes any significant difference in the classroom.Image: Alexander Iwan/Flickr

Ken Gibson was an advanced reader in elementary school and easily retained much of what he read. But when the teacher would stand him up in front of the class to read a report out loud, he floundered. His classmates, he noticed, also had their inconsistencies. Some relished oral presentations but took forever to read a passage on their own; others had a hard time following lectures. Gibson now explains these discrepancies as “learning styles” that differ from one student to the next. He founded a company, LearningRx, on the premise that these styles make a difference in how students learn.

The idea that learning styles vary among students has taken off in recent years. Many teachers, parents and students are adamant that they learn best visually or by hearing a lesson or by reading, and so forth. And some educators have advocated teaching methods that take advantage of differences in the way students learn. But some psychologists take issue with the idea that learning style makes any significant difference in the classroom.

There is no shortage of ideas in the professional literature. David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University posits that personality divides learners into categories based on how actively or observationally they learn and whether they thrive on abstract concepts or concrete ones. Another conjecture holds that sequential learners understand information best when it is presented one step at a time whereas holistic learners benefit more from seeing the big picture. Psychologists have published at least 71 different hypotheseson learning styles.

Frank Coffield, professor of education at the University of London, set out to find commonalities among the many disparate ideas about learning style using a sample comprising 13 models. The findings, published in 2004, found that only three tests for learning styles met their criteria for both validity and reliability, meaning that the tests both measured what they intended to measure and yielded consistent results. Among the many competing ideas, Coffield and his colleagues found no sign pointing to an overarching model of learning styles.

In 2002 Gibson, after a brief career as a pediatric optometrist, started LearningRx, a nontraditional tutoring organization, based on the idea that different people rely on particular cognitive skills that are strongest. For instance, visual learners understand lessons best when they are presented via images or a slide show; auditory learners benefit more from lectures; kinesthetic learners prefer something concrete, such as building a diorama. “We have a natural tendency to use the skills that are strongest,” Gibson says. “That becomes our learning style.”

LearningRx trainers use cognitive skill assessments similar to IQ tests to identify a student’s areas of cognitive strengths and weaknesses—some people might be strong at memorizing written words or weak at doing mathematical computations in their heads. Then they administer “brain training” exercises designed to improve students’ weakest skills. Such exercises might involve a trainer asking a student to quickly answer a series of math problems in his head.

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Daniel Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia and outspoken skeptic of learning styles, argues that Gibson and other cognitive psychologists are mistaken to equate cognitive strengths with learning styles. The two, Willingham says, are different: Whereas cognitive ability clearly affects the ability to learn, an individual’s style doesn’t. “You can have two basketball players, for example, with a different style. One is very conservative whereas the other is a real risk-taker and likes to take crazy shots and so forth, but they might be equivalent in ability.”

As Willingham points out, the idea that ability affects performance in the classroom is not particularly surprising. The more interesting question is whether learning styles, as opposed to abilities, make a difference in the classroom. Would educators be more effective if they identified their students’ individual styles and catered their lessons to them?

The premise should be testable, Willingham says. “The prediction is really straightforward: If you appeal to a person’s style versus going against his preferred style, that should make a difference for learning outcomes,” he says.

Harold Pashler of the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues searched the research literature for exactly this kind of empirical evidence. They couldn’t find any. One study they reviewed compared participants’ scores on the Verbalizer–Visualizer Questionnaire, a fifteen-item survey of true-or-false questions evaluating whether someone prefers auditory or optical information, with their scores on memory tests after presenting words via either pictures or verbal reading. On average, participants performed better on the free-recall test when they were shown images, regardless of their preferences.

Some studies claimed to have demonstrated the effectiveness of teaching to learning styles, although they had small sample sizes, selectively reported data or were methodologically flawed. Those that were methodologically sound found no relationship between learning styles and performance on assessments. Willingham and Pashler believe that learning styles is a myth perpetuated merely by sloppy research and confirmation bias.

Despite the lack of empirical evidence for learning styles, Gibson continues to think of ability and preference as being one and the same. Trainers at LearningRx ask their clients to describe their weaknesses, then measure their cognitive abilities using theWoodcock–Johnson Test. “Just by someone telling us what’s easy and hard for them, we can pretty well know where the deficiencies are,” he says. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of the time the symptoms and the test results are right on.”

When teachers wonder how to present a lesson to kids with a range of abilities, they may not find the answer in established learning style approaches. Instead, Willingham suggests keeping it simple. “It’s the material, not the differences among the students, that ought to be the determinant of how the teacher is going to present a lesson,” he says. For example, if the goal is to teach students the geography of South America, the most effective way to do so across the board would be by looking at a map instead of verbally describing the shape and relative location of each country. “If there’s one terrific way that captures a concept for almost everybody, then you’re done.”


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September 20, 2013 Posted by | brain, Children, Cognition, Education, research | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Learning To Love: The Importance Of Empathy & How To Teach It To Your Kids

Credit: Maia Szalavitz: neuroscience journalist  The Huffington Post 29 March 2010

One of the least-praised pleasures in life — and yet one that is probably most likely to bring lasting happiness — is the ability to be happy for others. When we think about empathy, we tend to think of feeling other people’s pain — but feeling other people’s joy gets short shrift That must change if we want to have a more empathetic society.

While working on our forthcoming book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered (my co-author is leading child trauma expert Bruce Perry, MD, PhD), one of the most common questions I’ve gotten is, “What can parents do to raise more empathetic children?”

And, as I talked about sharing joy with a friend last week, I thought again about just how important the pleasurable part of empathy is in parenting. Sharing pleasure is actually one of our earliest experiences: consider the way a baby’s smile lights up a room and all the silly things adults will do to elicit these little expressions of happiness and connection. Videos of laughing babies delight us for the same reason. [I dare you to resist the laughing quads!]

Cuteness is nature’s way of getting us through the most difficult and demanding parts of parenting: if babies weren’t so darn cute, few people would be able to take the dirty diapers and other drudgery of caring for them. But their smiles and laughs are overwhelmingly infectious.

It’s this same early dance between parent and child that instills empathy in the first place. We all have the natural capacity (in the absence of some brain disorders) for empathy. However, like language, empathy requires particular experiences to promote learning. The ‘words” and “grammar” of empathy are taught first via early nurturing experiences.

Without responsive parenting, though, babies don’t learn to connect people with pleasure. If your smiles aren’t returned with joy, it’s as though you are being asked to learn to speak without anyone ever talking to you. The brain expects certain experiences to guide its development — if these don’t occur at the right time, the capacity to learn them can be reduced or even lost.

So, most of us come into the world and receive parenting that implicitly teaches us that joy is shared. Babies don’t just smile spontaneously — they also smile radiantly back when people smile at them. The back and forth of these smiles, the connection, disconnection, reconnection and its rhythm teaches us that your happiness is mine, too.

Over time, unfortunately, we learn that we are separate beings and sometimes come to see other people’s happiness as a threat or a sign that we’ve lost a competition, rather than something we can share.

This, of course, is natural, too: we are also normally born with an acute sense of fairness and justice that makes us sensitive to say, whether our older brother’s toys are nicer than ours. While cries of “that’s not fair” are the bane of many parents’ existence, they’re not just selfish. They’re part of a social sense that we should

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receive equal treatment.

How, then, can we help kids to develop both their sense of justice and the ability to share joy?

One key is making the implicit explicit. When we see kids smiling in response to others, point out how seeing someone else smile made them feel good; when we see that they enjoy our reaction to their artwork and gifts, praise them for being happy for us. Saying that “it’s better to give than receive,” may ring hollow — pointing out when children are actually experiencing the feeling of taking joy in giving is much more powerful.

Allowing children to own this ability and recognize it in themselves will also encourage it — helping them to define themselves as the kind of people who are happy for other people will make them feel like good people, too. Encouraging such an identity will reinforce other positive behaviors as well. Changing behavior to suit an identity you prefer is actually one of the easiest ways to make changes.

Further, rather than calling kids selfish or self-interested when they protest about someone else getting what seems like something better, reframe this as a concern for justice and ask them to look out for when what seems unfair is unfair in their own favor, too. Children who see themselves as being “bad” or “selfish” will unfortunately take on that identity, too — if they don’t recognize their own prosocial behavior, they can’t enhance it and may embrace a very negative view of their own desires and drives.

Sadly, as a society, for centuries we have embraced a view of human nature that is selfish and competitive — with evolution being described as a contest in which the most ruthless are always likely to be the winners. In fact, research is now showing that, at least in humans, kindness is also a critical part of fitness.

For one, both men and women typically describe kindness as one of the top three characteristics they seek in a mate (sense of humor and intelligence are the other top two picks; gender differences in valuing attractiveness and resources come lower on the list).

Second, the ability to nurture and connect is critical for the survival of human children: in hunter/gatherer societies, the presence of older siblings and grandmothers can be even more important to child survival than the presence of fathers according to Sarah Hrdy’s research, suggesting that cooperation in childrearing made genetic survival more likely — not competition.

This means that human nature isn’t the selfish, sociopathic murk we’ve been told it is. While we are certainly no angels, our altruistic side is equally real. To create a more empathetic world, we need to own this as adults as we teach it to our kids.


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April 11, 2010 Posted by | Books, Child Behavior, Education, Health Psychology, Parenting, Positive Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments