Fervor over learning styles a waste of time and money?

The science behind learning styles

According to Learning Styles, Concepts and Evicence, a study [pdf] published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, that whole learning styles thing may not be all we think it is.  Sure, it seems to form the basis for many a text both for public school teachers and homeschoolers, but what is the basis for it?

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education.  Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.  Learning Styles, Concepts and Evidence

Rather than hard science, the movement has its origins in the more touchy-feely self-esteem movement of the 70s. And while their study in no way disproves that learning styles exist nor even that teaching in a child’s preferred modality may be beneficial, they argue rather strongly that we are spending a lot of time and money on something with very little scientific evidence behind it.

If education is to be transformed into an evidence-based field, it is important not only to identify teaching techniques that have experimental support but also to identify widely held beliefs that affect the choices made by educational practitioners but that lack empirical support.  Ibid.

Transforming education into an evidence-based field

And that’s where the researchers begin to lose me.  I am all for effective classrooms, but I’m not so sure we want education to become an evidence-based field.  I’m not sure we want to view teaching as data delivery, learning as data acquisition and testing as the measurable difference between the two.

I’m not sure we want education reduced to what can be tested in a multiple-choice format.

There is so much more to education.  It is about the whole child and how he is to be brought up.  It is about “enlightening the understanding, correcting the temper, forming the manners and habits of youth and fitting him for usefulness in his future station.”  Direct instruction and other behavior based programs may be empirically proven to improve math scores, but do they improve children?

How a child is taught is important, and not just for its ability to transfer the largest amount of data for the least amount of resources.  I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing JJRoss’ decision to unschool, the Headmistress’ decision to use Charlotte Mason, Renae’s decision to use the Principle Approach, and The Mama’s decision to use a classical approach had little to do with which methodology would most efficiently lead to proficiency in any given subject.  Their decisions were based in what they believe about the nature of teaching and learning, and the role of the teacher and student.  As such, how we teach our children invariably communicates our beliefs about teaching and learning and the roles of teachers and students to our children.

How we learn affects how we think.  It affects our attitudes and beliefs about the very nature of human learning and the role we play in the construction of our own knowledge.

And this is why we must be careful of the so-called research-based classroom.  It carries with it its own definition of education that has been somewhat narrowly interpreted as high test scores.  I am all for assessing what we are doing in our classrooms and in our homes, but before we do this, we need to carefully define what we are looking for.  As The Core Knowledge Blog points out,

If we begin instead with a definition of education, then a curious thing may happen. The results will likely be better, yet they will not rule what we do. We will recognize that learning is for the long term as well as for the next day. We will recognize that some of the most difficult concepts and works last the longest in the mind. They may not translate immediately into results, yet they are unlikely to vanish. We will expect short-term results but teach beyond them.  There’s No Such Thing As Teaching

Discussing education as an evidence-based field restricts it to what is observable, measurable and testable.  It tells us what teaching methodologies produce good results on standardized tests such as the CAT or I-STEP.  It does not, however, tell us which methodologies produce thinkers, problem-solvers, artists, book-lovers, and teachers.  It does not tell us which methodologies support the child in setting and achieving their own goals, nor which help them to take responsibility for their own learning.

Are we really willing to let go of all that in the name of higher test scores?  Or do we want to hold on to the belief that education means just a little bit more than that?

Still, children need to learn to read, but I will continue with that thought in a future posting.

Why we should listen to the president

Like I mentioned yesterday, I will be watching President Obama’s speech to America’s school children with my children later today.  We have little ones around here, so we’ll be using the elementary lesson plans, legal or not. Actually, we’ll be focusing specifically on this question, because it fits perfectly with some ongoing conversations we have been having around here:

Why is it important that we listen to the president and other elected officials, like the mayor, senators, members of congress, or the governor? Why is what they say important?  Classroom Activities, Pre-K-6 (pdf)

I’ll let you know my children’s answers to that later, after I ask them, but here are mine:

I.  I’m Christian, and the bible is pretty clear:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake:  whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.  For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:  As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.  –1Peter 2:13-16 (KJV)

I consider myself blessed to live in a nation whose ordinances allow me considerable liberty to express my disagreement with established authority, but I try very hard to apply this verse especially to my discussions:  “For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men…” By well doing hearts and minds are changed, not by inflammatory rhetoric.

II.  These are our elected leaders, and our responsibility as citizens is pretty clear.

The Salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.  –Hartley Burr Alexander, inscribed on the Nebraska State Capitol Building

If we do not listen, we cannot know, and if we do not know, we cannot act.  Listening precedes all useful action, something I fear some may be forgetting.

Please share your thoughts on the prepared speech, the speech as it is delivered and the accompanying lesson plans.  If you had the stage, what would you tell America’s youth?  And what have you told your own children?

On Obama’s “indoctrination” speech

Tomorrow, President Obama will speak to the nation’s school children, presumably about setting education goals and staying in school.  At least that is what the White House is saying.

This is the first time an American president has spoken directly to the nation’s school children about persisting and succeeding in school. We encourage you to use this historic moment to help your students get focused and begin the school year strong.  Letter from Secretary Arne Duncan to Principals

This historic moment.  We are inviting students to become a part of history, much like when I was in school and the television cart was rolled in to watch the Challenger lift off.  I don’t know why I exactly stumbled over that part of Duncan’s letter to principals.  His job is PR for the program, but it still seems a bit over the top.  Even if George Bush, Sr. hadn’t done it almost 20 years ago.  The technology may be a bit different, but it appears that speech was about succeeding in school and was intended to address all students.

Both Bush’s went much further than Obama toward making our schools a national stage for federal education politics.  Granted, Obama wishes to go further still, but the course has already been charted.

For twenty years, we steadily shift the power in education from the local community toward the federal government, and do nothing but occasionally grumble.  The president makes a speech, however, and we call for a National Keep Your Child at Home Day.  Suddenly, we’re worried about brainwashing in a “totalitarian-type telecast” befitting “banana dictators.”

Compared to the power we have willingly handed over (even demanded to be taken from us), I must agree with Joanne Jacobs on this one.  What is so sinister?

It certainly isn’t because he’s black, so why the uproar?  Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with something My Domestic Church quipped.

This president has used more prime time press conferences and informercials than any previous president.

Even liberal bloggers can see a bit of public relations overkill in the speech and its pre-game show.  Which brings us back to that word “historic” that made me choke on my coffee.  But there’s more to it than just that.

Read the post over at American Elephant.  How much of it really has to do with the speech?  Not much.  Instead, it is expressing general frustration over the direction the country is heading.  It is a direction we have very little control over individually, but we certainly can pull our kids out of school for one day.

One day.

Education has been moving toward national standards and centralized control for my entire life.  Finally, some people are standing up and saying “Enough.”  Unfortunately, it is an insignificant gesture aimed at an irrelevant event.

Incidentally, I do believe it is important to listen to the President so I’d like to invite you to discuss the speech here tomorrow.  We’ll be doing some warm up activities I’ll share here for discussion before viewing the video.  I have an appointment so will be watching it after the copy is made available, but feel free to share your thoughts!

When we begin to wonder…

It has been a long time since I’ve picked up a book that I could not put down.  Perhaps I should be a bit embarrassed by the fact that I finally relived that pleasure of a book read in a single sitting with a children’s book.  Or maybe not.  I have always loved quality children’s literature and its ability to express ideas with simplicity. . .and a bit of perspicuity not often found in books aimed at older audiences.

But The Wheel on the School starts off with an intriguing premise made through the insight of a village teacher.

For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.

And the teacher dismisses his small class of six a whole hour early with the promise that they will spend the evening wondering why.  All because little Lina wrote an unassigned essay about storks which nest all around her small village but not in it.

And I’m not sure which I found more delightful: an afternoon off school in order to wonder or indignant little Lina the following morning.

“Why, Teacher, they never did [wonder]!  They went ditch jumping.”

As if wonder only happened while sitting quietly on the dike and trying to wonder.  But an unanswered question is a curious thing and once it captivates your imagination, it does not let go so easily.

Imagine if we had more teachers like this one, ready to set aside arithmetic for an unassigned essay and let out school to simply wonder why.  I had an instructor in college who said it was her job as a public educator to stamp out creativity wherever it reared its ugly head.  She was part of a system whose greatest achievement was that it educated children until their favorite question was no longer “Why” but “Will this be on the test?”

Whether or not something will be on a test is the last question on my children’s minds.  But they certainly ask why.  Again and again.  Sometimes I answer and sometimes I don’t, but at the end of the day I find I have to remind myself that asking why is the beginning of learning.  So while making dinner when I’m again asked to explain the color of the sky or why my daughter is not a bird, I try not to send the little explorers away.  Instead I answer,

Hmmm. . . I wonder.  Why do you think?

And sometimes the answers can be quite intriguing.

In protest of the modest, secluded life of homeschooling

Apparently, there is a one woman campaign out of Maine to “wake-up” society to the dangers of homeschooling, via Doris Anne Beaulieu and her book The Torments of the Modest Secluded Farm Life as well as her website, Life’s Ultimate Test.  I’ve spent a little time looking for additional information, but unfortunately our library does not carry the book and all I could find online was the same description she left on my blog as a comment across multiple sites and no independent reviews.  She has received some honors for her work, including some attention from the Obama campaign.  (All block quotes are from the comment she left.  Unfortunately, the comment was post length by itself so I’m going to try to pare it down a bit,)

. . . Who we become as adults is greatly influenced by the way we are raised as children. . . .

I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, I dare say this is one of the primary motivations which unites us as homeschoolers…the desire to provide positive models to our children.

. . . I believe that living a sheltered life at home and home-schooling is not the best way to raise your children. I was a sheltered child at home and attended a private school. Private schools have since improved in time, with legislation to accredit the institution and greater attendance.

I’m not sure that accreditation necessary translates to improvements, but I am not that familiar with the history of private schools in general, nor of Catholic schools in particular.  At any rate, so far the argument being developed seems to be based solely on her experiences as a child raised in a secluded area attending a private school.  One person’s experience, and it wasn’t even with homeschooling.

Home-schooling, however, has been left on the back burner without much legislation to monitor it and has turned into the private schools of the past. Who is ensuring that the home-schooled children are receiving an education that will enable them to be socially acceptable?

I would say predominantly the parents.  As well as neighbors, friends, churches and pediatricians.  In other words, the communities we live in.  And just what is “socially acceptable?”  A lot of people homeschool because their children are not socially accepted and find themselves bullied relentlessly.  In fact, concerns about this environment are the top cited reason for homeschooling.  Sometimes this world still catches up with them because you can never truly shelter a child from the world.

My book paints a very clear picture of the closeness of families who live a protective, sheltered life going to a private school(Which is not the home-schools of today). One’s only friends are those also living under that protective blanket, or in my case, only my siblings. One is raised to believe the whole world lives this way.

If you grow up in a small rural area, chances are you will find a similar environment in the local public school.  These communities are small and your teacher may have educated all your siblings, your parents and graduated with your grandmother.  I’m sure there is some culture shock leaving such a world, but I’m not convinced that there is anything the government can do to help that transition.  Nor that parents are wrong or are guilty of anything but loving their children for wanting to bring their children up this way.

Individuals only speak the truth because one is taught a person is only as good as his word. It is also emphasized that everyone treats others with kindness as that is the pure moral way to live life . . . No matter the direction life may take, make no mistake, one’s childhood mentally follows him or her throughout life, causing doubt in every move because one knows how naive he or she was raised and things are just not the same in the world he or she now must live in.

So children need to be abused in a public system to grow up and transition into the world?  I grew up with this harsh world she goes on to discuss as so shocking when she emerged from her sheltered existence.  And believe me, having been raised watching the lying, stealing, favoritism, bullying, immorality, immodesty, etc., left me with plenty of baggage to carry mentally throughout my life.

. . . I had a conversation on one of the political sites on Myspace where a man said “I quit school at 16 because school was nothing but a waste of my time.” This same man said he was going to home-school his children. Can you just imagine the education his children are going to receive? And how are they going to adjust into society when they turn eighteen? Schools are all being academically measured up, but what are we going to have for these failing parents? What kind of society are we creating?  In the year 2003 there were over one million children being home-schooled and various forms of unschooled. Yes, you heard me right “unschooled,” where counting eggs while picking them is math. . . .

He hasn’t failed at anything yet…except at fitting in to the public school model Ms. Beaulieu seems to idealize.  What kind of society are we creating when our schools fail so many of our children?  Twenty percent of high school drop outs test in the gifted range.  It isn’t just the poor and the minorities we are failing in a system designed for the average rather than the individual.

And until the system can get it right, I’m not terribly confident in what it could possibly do to “improve” education in the homes of homeschoolers.