Teaching styles and why mind maps are useless.

Digital decay? No an interesting take on clock design by one of our pupils.

Digital decay? No an interesting take on clock design by one of our pupils.

It’s the last week of a very busy term but then, they all are like that. ( How many times have you heard the old idea, “Lets wait until the summer term when we have some more time,” and, be honest, when did you ever find you had more time in the summer term?)  It is probably the case that too much time spent wrestling with the imponderables of the job mean that what I am about to write will make little or no sense.  I can only hope.  I cannot imagine that there is a teacher anywhere who does not know about learning styles, at the very least the classic VAK; visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.   More likely you have a passing acquaintance with Gardner’s seven forms of intelligence, or is it eight yet?  Possibly you have tried valiantly to teach your lessons so that they all feature each of the three, seven or eight learning styles and having had the nervous breakdown have settled for varying your approach now and again.  It is even possible that you work in a school which tests for learning styles and tells pupils what they “are”.  You know the sort of thing, ask them twenty questions and tell them they are visual learners, sometimes leading to the classic excuse, “I can’t do this sir, I’m a visual learner”.  Well I had an interesting lesson today, let me rephrase that all my lessons were interesting but I want to talk about one in particular.

I work with a group of 15 year olds who are just about to take their exams.  We had a conversation about how they were going to prepare for each subject exam and I started by asking them what type of learning they would need to do for each subject.  I suggested that factual knowledge, process skills and the ability to argue a case might be three starting points.  The first interesting thing that came out of the discussion was that they were able to explain clearly which combination of those skills applied to each subject.  I provoked a few by suggesting that some subjects were all fact based but they were quick to correct me.  The next thing that came up, which I already knew was that some of them had got the studying thing off to a fine art, some were convinced that they couldn’t learn anything.  It is easy to convince them, that they can learn, just ask them which computer game they have learned to play recently or which trick on the skateboard/surfboard/BMX bike they have conquered.  Of course they all claim that that is different.

We discussed a few things about ways of learning; who has some sort of photographic memory, does anybody have a degree of synesthesia, who finds stories really memorable, who can picture diagrams easily and so on.  You can imagine where this is going, my aim is to get them to use whatever learning method works for them to revise for their exams.  A very honest contribution came from one girl who related that all her teachers expected her to stay behind after school to work on their exam and then when she got home she was exhausted, went into her room for a couple of hours which were actually useless time and then came down and told her parents that she had done two hours revision. We agreed that most of us knew what that felt like.    As the conversation moved on we discussed the different styles of learning in each subject, agreeing that skill based pursuits like Dance could only be done by repetitive practice, fact based subjects had to involve not only reading but processing and out putting the information by for example summarising paragraphs and so on.

What began to worry me was a growing realisation that while we might all have preferred learning styles we probably all have preferred teaching styles.  One much respected colleague is a great advocate of mindmaps, you know the kind of thing and there are a stack of websites out there with ‘how to’ guides if you are not sure.  What I have not told my colleague is that one of his students is a rarity in that when he attempts a VAK test he scores zero on the visual component.   When I asked him about that he freely admitted that he found it almost impossible to learn in the lessons he had with my colleague.  The result for him was frustration and inevitably a sense of failure for which he compensated by misbehaving and getting into trouble.  No I don’t think all bad behavior is down to this sort of issue but I have watched highly educated adult colleagues get so frustrated by their inability to learn that they have walked out of  training sessions.

Now comes the time for self reflection, what is my preferred teaching style?  Well to some extent I know this because others have commented on my work in various forms.  But what do I do for the child in my lessons who really does not learn the same way that I do?  One of the learning styles questions that always makes me think asks what distracts you most and one of the options is untidiness.  Now I have to confess that my teaching space is what I like to call creative clutter and that probably works for some people but is there a child who just dread coming into my room because it is such a mess?

Time to end with a positive suggestion that is gradually emerging in my teaching.  Perhaps the teacher is not the mediator of the knowledge but the guide, setting out what needs to be learned, accomplished, achieved and giving pupils the option of picking the way in which they best do it.  Increasingly I am finding ways to do this.  In a recent lesson I set up half the class to argue a case and half to argue against it, almost immediately the request came, “Can we use our phones?”  The answer of course is , yes.  Most students have in their pockets access to a vast resource and are adept at using it even if they do need to be more selective n their judgments.

It is a small step but if we are to change the culture from education being something that is done to you to one where it is something you do for yourself then it is an important one.

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