A reply to a fellow teacher: Why I believe in Learning Styles

students

The advantage of writing blog posts is that you can actually measure the impact it has on readers in real time. Technology has done wonders for us —first-timers and experienced writers now experience a more dynamic relationship with readers. As a teacher, I find it wonderful to discuss ideas — old and new alike, with fellow teachers from all around the world. It’s even better when we disagree because there’s more room for deeper thinking . Some people might say that disagreements get in the way of their writing, but I beg to differ. I believe that thanks to different opinions, we manage to strike a balance in this world full of contradictions and square pegs in round holes, or maybe round pegs in square holes. I believe we’re constantly swapping roles: My ideas may fit today but they may become outdated in a matter of days or they might merge with other ideas and become one. Who knows?

When it comes to teaching, accepting others’ opinions comes with the job if we believe in humanistic approaches, so this is my reply to Russ Mayne’s comment on my latest Richmond blog post entitled: Learning to Learn. In this post I discuss why I believe in Learning Styles. Unfortunately, due to the word limit, I cannot post my reply there, so,  here is the link to my original blog post and to Russ Mayne’s comment:

http://www.richmondshare.com.br/learning-to-learn/

And here’s my reply to Russ:

Hi Russ, Thank you for your comment.  It’s a privilege to receive feedback from someone as knowledgeable as you are. It is true that due to the word limit, I may have left out some important points, which I will humbly try to make up for in my reply to your comment.

You are absolutely right.  There are some holes and gaps in my post, and perhaps I have failed to present convincing arguments for learning styles. So, please do let me make myself clear:

Firstly, I never said that authors advocate against learning styles. What I said was that ‘authors would agree that there is very little evidence that learning styles exist.’ Note that I have  used ‘would agree’ so as to make it sound less assertive. By no means do I assume that they advocate against learning styles. However, they tend to assume that allowing learners to use their preferred learning styles is beneficial. As a matter of fact, many authors use the term ‘preferred styles.’

Lightbown & Spada (2009) say “there is a need for considerably more research. Nevertheless, when learners express a preference for seeing something written or spending more time in a language laboratory, we should not assume that their ways of working are wrong, even if they seem to be in conflict with the pedagogical approach we have adopted.”

After pointing out that there is little consensus among researchers, Jeremy Harmer (2007) says “it may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all — or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group. We should find descriptions that chime with our own perceptions, and we should endeavor to teach individuals as well as groups.’

Yes, I agree with Harmer. There are far too many different learner descriptions available out there, but we can and should try to find patterns to better adjust our teaching to the students and groups we have.

To support my claims even further, I would like to  add Dr. Temple Grandin’s three types of thinkers in Autism, in which she divides learners up into three major learning styles: visual, music/math, and verbal learners. ” Since brains on the autistic spectrum are specialized, there needs to be more educational emphasis on building up their strengths instead of just working on their deficits. Tutoring me in algebra was useless because there was nothing for me to visualize. If I have no picture, I have no thought. Unfortunately I never had an opportunity to try trigonometry or geometry. Teachers and parents need to develop the child’s talents into skills that can eventually turn into satisfying jobs or hobbies.” (Grandin, Temple, Thinking in Pictures, 1996)

In her blog post for Wandering Educators, Roseli Serra (2014) claims that ‘working with learning styles makes us rethink our teaching practice, and gives us fundamental elements to build up a more appropriate methodology to lead our students to more effective learning of EFL.  She continues and moves on to  Brown (1994), who says that styles characterise the consistent and rather enduring traits, tendencies, or preferences that may differentiate one person from another. I would define learning style as individual preferences learners take so that learn better, that is, “an individual’s natural, habitual and preferred ways of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills.” Learning styles will affect a person’s general approach to learning.

Towards the end of my post, I suggest that teachers let students decide whether they want to take notes or work in groups precisely because we must respect students’ individual needs. Anyone who has been teaching for as long as I have, will  have probably noticed that some learners need to write things down while others do not; some students need to get up and move around while doing an activity while others would rather sit still. As I was writing my post, I originally considered including my own daughter’s example of a specific learning style and how her learning style still strikes me since it is so different from my own.

“As a teacher, I have always used lots of visuals, mind maps, sketches, and diagrams to explain language. When I helped my daughter prepare for her 8th grade final Portuguese exams, none of my explanations worked. I’d laid out a cardboard sheet on the table on which I’d drawn color lines and maps of the verb conjugations, adverbials, clauses, and other categories. “Just say it,” “I don’t need to see it,” she said impatiently.

Secondly, you are absolutely right when you say that  authors believe in learning styles despite the lack of evidence. What I mean by ‘obvious’ is that it is present in many course books and yet teachers overlook it.

My blog post addresses both experienced and inexperienced teachers. It is also a fact that many of us — experienced or not, do not always read teachers’ manuals. I have lost count of how many times I have been given a class and a book to teach and not having access to the teachers’ manual. I have probably missed out on relevant information about authors’ beliefs and approaches to ELT. I bet many teachers out there do not have a chance to study the materials beforehand. When I started teaching in the mid-eighties, I taught audio-lingual and I had no idea of the beliefs and assumptions behind it; I just did what I had been told in the one-day training session. That said, it is fair to assume that many teachers apply learning styles in their classes without even being aware of it; and yet, some claim they do not believe in learning styles.

Thirdly, by no ‘right’ or no ‘wrong‘, I mean applying activities based on  learning styles simply because it is exactly what my post is about: Learning Styles, and not about any other theory. I believe I have mentioned that Harmer has no objection to adopting learning styles as long as our classes are not ‘based solely on any of the learning style instruments.’ (2009).

In your enlightening IATEFL Harrogate talk, you quote Thornbury, who says that the learning styles theory is ‘ a convenient untruth.’ You go on on to say that it is convenient and useful for the students, but it is untrue. Well, I can only assume that learning styles are by no means harmful. The word choice speaks for itself: useful.

As for the prohibitions, you mention sounding like native speakers, which  used to be the ultimate goal for students and teachers back in the 80s when I started teaching in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a time when teachers and learners strived to achieve native-like fluency. So, it is proof that  the so-called truths and fads come and go.  I would not be surprised if any of what we both claim to be absurd today made a comeback sometime in the near future.

Finally, you claim that learning styles do not exist. However, I claim they do. They are not a fad. They have been around in my classes all these years. In my teaching experience, I have observed students deal with an activity in different ways and I have helped these students learn in ways that work for them. Can researchers actually prove they do not exist at all? What is the foundation for the non existence of Learning Styles?

There may be little or no evidence of their existence, but I have the right to claim they exist even if it is just sheer intuition. I am myself a kinesthetic/visual learner. I need to see things and this — together with my beliefs,  has an impact on the way I teach. Anyone who observes my classes will clearly notice that my students move around more than in other teachers’ classes and see things I draw on the board.  However, because I believe in learning styles, I do not let my own teaching style dominate my classes. I also craft activities for auditory students, for example.

As a mentor, I have observed a large number of classes and I have had the privilege to   sit back and observe teachers and students in action. I have concluded that the way one learns is definitely reflected in their teaching. I once observed an excellent class in which the teacher used no visual cues except for the ones in the material. He spoke and used body language to explain a grammar point. ‘How can he explain grammar this way?,’ I asked myself. To me, that would be just  impossible.

Furthermore, I would like to remind you and  my readers that my post is about learning styles only and why I believe they exist. By no means do I wish to extend it to other aspects of life or society when I affirm that ‘they are standing right before your eyes.’ I would like to clarify that the pronoun ‘the‘ is anaphoric and therefore it refers back to ‘learning styles’ in ‘yes, learning styles exist…’ so it is wrong to assume that they refer to any aspects other than learning styles.

I have been teaching long enough to form my own opinions and I am entitled to agree with whomever reflects my views; I might go a bit further and say that I feel free to change my mind whenever new possibilities and ideas emerge. So far, the evidence I have seen in my classes along all these years tell me that individuals have different learning styles which influence their behavior as students.

As Marjorie Rosenberg says in her webinar, it is not about labeling people; it is about offering learners activities and strategies they feel comfortable with.

I am a language learner and I have always been. I speak English as a foreign language and I have worked my way into the grammar system differently from my classmates. I am now learning French and my belief in Learning Styles allows me to adopt strategies that are consistent with my preferences.

We are not solely cognitive beings; we are much more complex than that. We cannot assume that people experience learning in the same way; many factors come into play: external and internal motivation, previous experiences, expectations, personality traits, and in my opinion, learning styles. I do not know what approaches or methods you use in your classes, but if you do not believe in learning styles, then how do you deal with your students’ preferred learning styles in practical terms?

Further Reading:

Grandin, T. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Vintage Books 2006

Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Pearson Longman: 2008

Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. How Languages are Learned. Oxford: 2006

Mayne, R. A Guide to Pseudo-Science in English Language Teaching. (recorded IATEFL Harrogate Session)

http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/sessions/2014-04-02/guide-pseudo-science-english-language-teaching

Richards & Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP:  2008

Rosenberg, M. (January 11, 2015) Teaching to Learners of All Styles. IATEFL YLTSIG (recorded webinar)

http://iateflyltsig.wiziq.com/online-class/2144602-ylt-webinars-teaching-to-learners-of-all-styles

Serra, R..  (November 14, 2014) Do we Care about Learning Styles? Wandering Educators (online):

http://www.wanderingeducators.com/language/learning/do-we-care-about-learning-styles.html

Grandin, T. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Vintage Books 2006

Welcome to my IATEFL talk – Harrogate 2014

from being a teacher to

Part 1

What does it mean to be a role model for teenage students?

Teenagers are leaving childhood behind and they’re beginning to see themselves as individuals with their own tastes, preferences, weaknesses, and strengths. This may be a painful experience for many teenagers as they realize their parents no longer fulfill all their emotional or social needs. They  must now seek experiences outside their family circles.  As social beings, teenagers are now more self-conscious of their looks, personality traits , and their need to be  connected and accepted within other communities as well.

On their quest for individuality, teenagers  need people they can look up to and those who would make good models to help them decide who they’d like (or not like) to be.

Surely,  as language teachers, we have to be up to the task of providing good, positive models — language and attitudes. However, we tend to think that all you have to do to become a role model is  set good examples and we usually come up with a huge list of do’s and don’ts:

Don’t be late for class, have a positive attitude, don’t be rude to your students, use nice language, teach them respect, don’t shout…

We lead busy lives ourselves in a busy, noisy world. We greet our students as they come in and we get down to business: we check homework, we correct their grammar, and we set homework. We plan for success and positive outcomes.  Despite all our concerns,  we don’t always think about the different ways we impact our students.

In our busy, noisy lives we tend to think that do’s and don’ts are enough.  We believe that at the end of the day what matters is what they’ve learned and what we’ve taught even if the former does not really match the latter. However, we need to go beyond all this if we really want to become role models for our students. We need to find ways to help our students cope with a host of feelings such as loneliness, anger, anxiety,  and all their highs and lows, which may spill over into the classroom and surface as misbehavior and negative attitudes towards us and their own peers. Most importantly, we need to reflect on our social role as teachers.

meu video closeup

We need to find  strategies to connect with our students in ways we’ve never tried before.

Let’s start then with my story:

viagem iatefl 2014 196

This is me. I’m a 15-year-old teenage girl who barely looks 14. I’m short and  skinny. I look happy in this picture. I remember posing for this photo and I am having a good time at a friend’s house. I do the usual teenage things: I hang out with my friends, I listen to music, and I play handball in my P.E. classes.

jogando handball

This is me playing handball. Well, not exactly my thing as you can see. It’s a terrifying experience. I’m way too feeble to catch or throw the ball. I’m clumsy beyond belief. My life revolves around books and daydreams.  I’ll move on with my life holding a strong belief that sports aren’t for me even though I like tennis. However, I keep it a secret  for fear of being ridiculed.

Well, at least until the day I met a tennis coach. I’d made up my mind about getting fit so a neighbor drove me to the local sports club. There were many options to choose from: swimming, aerobics, and … tennis. Maybe it was the sun, or perhaps my uncounscious, secret wish to play tennis  that attracted us to the tennis court, but somehow we ended up there. The tennis coach happened to be a friend of hers and you can imagine what happened next.

So we engaged in a conversation about tennis and its benefits. We started discussing the schedule and the fees, but I felt that the coach wasn’t only interested in talking about it. She was interested in my story and everyone has a story to tell,  so I told her my story.

No one ever took the time to talk to me like that. She took the time to ask me some questions and listened to me. She got deeper and made more and more questions as we talked about the reasons why I’d never tried it before.

She made me realize that I was actually afraid of doing it and that I didn’t believe I had the potential to do it. Looking back, I trusted her when she said I could do it. She instilled in me the belief that I could do it.

annemarie

This is me today. And this is my tennis coach,  Annemarie.

I’m not the best tennis player in the world, but I can surely play tennis. There’s nothing wrong with me. My old beliefs are long gone.

What she did was  show genuine interest in what I had to say and unpack my beliefs by asking the right questions, which definitely helped her build rapport with me. And here’s a definition of rapport:

rapport

The cool thing is that it’s a skill we can learn. But we need to start out from somewhere. What about listening to our students?

Carl Rogers talks about empathic listening and the importance of reacting to what someone is saying by helping them verbalize exactly what they feel or have in mind. Ask the right questions!

Listening is a skill we already have and it can become a powerful tool to understand our students and show them they have a voice and that we’re listening to them. Still,  rarely do we take the time to listen to our students.

Here’s what an empathic listener does:

  • builds trust and respect,
  • enables the disputants to release their emotions,
  • reduces tensions,
  • encourages the surfacing of information, and
  • creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving.

And here are important characteristics of empathic listening:

  • willingness to let the other parties dominate the discussion,
  • attentiveness to what is being said,
  • care not to interrupt,
  • use of open-ended questions,
  • sensitivity to the emotions being expressed, and
  • ability to reflect back to the other party the substance and feelings being expressed.

Source: http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic-listening

window to the world

And above is  my metaphor for empathic listening.

It opens windows to new understanding.  We need to know what our students’ model of the world is.

What’s your metaphor for empathic listening?

Part 2

tools for empathic listening
https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/

When we interact with others, we don’t always realize that we have a number  of tools at our disposal. Seeing, speaking, using a number of approaches to get to know our students better. But listening is essential to understand others.

I always ask myself this question:

“Behind disruptive, negative behavior, perhaps there’s something I don’t know.”

Of course it’s  easy to interact and create rapport with people who are like us, students who always smile and enjoy being in our classes.

happy happy
https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/

These friendly,  accomplished students  aren’t  the reason why we are here right now.

amedeo modigliani
Modigliani’s portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne with Necklace, from 1917,

This girl  is the reason why we’re here today. She is the indigestible member of our group, a piece of work, she is the one who gives us a hard time.  She refuses to interact with her peers during pair work.

We all have beliefs about our students and this is what you’re  probably thinking:

i believe

And deep inside this is what you’d like to ask her:

“You hate my classes, don’t you?”

But this is exactly what you dare not ask because you don’t want to confront her or be on the same footing. Still,  you need to find out and maybe it’s time for a little chat after class. Here’s why you should do it:

We create myths based on our perceptions of the world. We forget that these beliefs are often a byproduct of  our very own experiences, not someone else’s experiences.

So here are some questions based on the principles of empathic listening you can ask to challenge your own beliefs and hers as well so that you find some common ground.

questions

Let’s focus on the following words I have chosen:

I’ve noticed’ means that I see you; you aren’t just one among so many students I have.

I avoid using words like ‘hate‘ and I use ‘don’t like‘ because I don’t want to bring up strong, negative feelings into the conversation;

I feel‘ means that I have feelings and that my student’s negative behavior affects me as well. Teenagers may find it difficult to put themselves in someone’s shoes. We need to remind them that teachers are as sensitive as they are;

We can do something about it‘ signals that we can  work out the problem collaboratively.

I’ve chosen ‘exactly‘ because people tend to overgeneralize things when they talk about a problem. The idea here is to help them focus and narrow down the options so that we know exactly what is bothering them.  Are the topics not interesting enoughIs it about her partners? Are there language issues involved? Is it because my student is afraid of exposing her spoken English?

Put simply,  overgeneralization is ” a mental skewing wherein a person sees a sole occurrence as an invariable rule, so that, for instance, failure at attaining one job will predict an ongoing trend of defeat in all jobs.”

Source: http://psychologydictionary.org/overgeneralization/

Here are a few more examples of overgeneralization contained in discourse:

We don’t like your classes.”

“This always/never  happens.”

“I’m a failure.”

How would you challenge these beliefs?

Perhaps because your student behaves as if she hates you, your very behavior reinforces  her negative feelings towards you and her peers. One distortion leads to another and it can be especially damaging because it creates a vicious cycle that is difficult to break after some time.

It’s rather complex because it’s not only about  challenging your beliefs about your student. Ultimately,  it’s  about helping her challenge her own beliefs about herself and others. What’s more: This is about change and compromise. Here are the questions you  need to ask yourself:

‘Am I  really ready to change?

Am I ready to get (negative) feedback from my student?” 

Roughly, there might be two types of reactions to feedback from students:

(a) We  secretly scoff that students might actually point out any relevant, real  issues in our teaching that we find hard to admit. This mindset means that we’re not ready for feedback, let alone empathic listening. It can get even worse as people can read our thoughts: Facial expressions, emotions, and things we say between the lines can give away our real intentions and feelings.

(b) We might overreact and express strong negative feelings. Sometimes people can be rather harsh and really assertive. In this case, hold back your tears and anger before you decide to talk with your student. If she’s given you hell today, don’t talk to her immediately after class. Schedule a meeting with her for your next class rather than  talk with  her  on the spur of the moment.

I asked myself all these questions before I decided to talk with my student. Of course, I could have simply ignored her and moved on, but my answer was ‘yes’ to those questions.   So, one day  before I began to pull my hair out, I  asked her to stay after class. Here was her side of the story:

  • She was 2 years older than the rest of the group.
  • They were all from the same class at school. She wasn’t in their class at school, so she felt singled out.
  • That’s why she didn’t participate in pair work activities.
  • Her previous teachers didn’t use pair work activities;
  • She liked her other teacher better (deal with that, Teresa). They had group discussions instead!

We finally made a deal: I told her we’d carry out group discussions in which she would participate as a moderator and in turn she would try to interact with her classmates. She realized that the more she interacted with them the less singled out she would feel. The cool thing about this conversation was that I didn’t push her. I just shaped my questions in such a way that both of us were able to unlock our beliefs. We realized that both us needed to change. We needed to compromise.

 Part 3

colors and shapes
https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/

We come in different shapes and sizes,  but  we can work collaboratively and I think these are values we can pass on to our students and anyone who we happen to guide in our lives.

If we help our students improve their listening skills and listen to one another empathetically, I’m sure we will create an atmosphere of mutual respect and reverse things  even when it’s all gone pear-shaped, as the British say. What’s more, students will see us in a different light because we care.

Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with this story, which captures the importance of others and how they impact us:

teacher man

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