We originally published this short piece in our January 2007 issue of The Teaching Professor. I think you’ll find it, as I did, a lovely portrait of an individual learner illustrated with honest examples. My friend Larry Spence used to lecture me all the time about how learning was highly individualized. He argued that brains were way too complicated and diverse to approach learning with only a few discrete styles. And lots of questions have now been raised about learning styles—the research and practical applications of it. As the idea of learning styles gained traction, some beliefs about them tended to go beyond the research. We ended up with students telling us they couldn’t do assigned readings because they were visual learners or couldn’t understand diagrams because they weren’t spatially oriented.
Learning styles did resonant with a lot of teachers and for reasons that make sense. We do approach learning in some profoundly different ways. The work on learning styles made some of those differences clear. And to be fair, the research never proposed that the preferred style was the only way a person could or should learn.
So there’s no need to abandon the idea of some common approaches to learning (styles, if you wish) and to find ourselves and our students within and between those major categories. What’s particularly valuable is doing what Alice has done—creating a simple learning portrait, reacquainting us with how we learn, and using examples to illustrate. I agree with her that most of those portraits will be unique, having some shared aspects but lots of individual details and differences.
Our conceptions of learning focus almost exclusively on the individual doing the learning as opposed to the learning task or the context in which the learning occurs. What you want to learn or have to learn does prescribe what you need to do to learn it. You can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book that tells you how. You can’t avoid historical mistakes if you haven’t read some history. In these examples the implications are obvious. But with other tasks it’s more complicated. They can be mastered in more than one way, but are some ways better than others? Then there are tasks that require multiple skills, but triaged in what order?
I’m not sure that when we approach learning we think about the characteristics of the task and the best skills for learning it. I’m pretty sure we default to our strengths. In my case, I try to “read” icons (on the dashboard in the car, everywhere on my computer, on my balls of yarn), look for text that describes what’s found on the tables, and go for my knitting books instead of YouTube. If those default modes don’t work, we’re quick to use the “I can’t do it” excuse and let someone else who has the skill complete the task.
Alice’s chicken piccata example highlights the role context plays in learning. We learn how to do something in a given context, but change the context even slightly when students are involved, and you’ve got them complaining that the problems on the test don’t look at all like the ones solved in class and assigned as homework. If the context happens to include pressure to perform, that regularly puts what’s been learned to the test. Most of our learning portraits aren’t glamour shots. We don’t look good in every learning situation, and neither do our students. But we can acquire the skills we need to learn most things, at least at some level. It helps if we start with an understanding of ourselves as learners, a recognition of the skills the learning tasks requires, and an awareness of the context and the challenge of applying what we know when that context changes.
I have fond memories of the start of the academic year, whether it was grade school or university. One such memory is bringing home my brand-new textbooks from the university bookstore. I love the feeling of opening up a new book—such promise, such potential. But the truth of the matter was that I never thought I learned much from books assigned in my university courses. It seemed there was either a total disconnect with what happened in class or lab or it was an exact replica. I felt a lot like Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister in the famous Charles Schultz cartoon strip. She’s always asking, “Who cares?” Maybe she wanted her teachers to be more explicit about the book’s relevance.
So, books aren’t the best learning tool for me, at least required texts in courses. But I know they work well for some other folks. This leads me to think about the times, way and places where learning takes place and how different that is for everyone (including faculty and students).
I know that I learn effectively during field trips where the things I want to learn about are all very real to me. The field trip can be an actual one where I’m identifying mint by its square stems or birds by their
songs and habits. Or it can be just a trip, like one that takes me to a new city where the questions I ask about buildings result in fascinating lessons about history and architecture.
I also learn well when there’s a “need to know,” like when I’m in the kitchen and wanting to learn how to perfectly soft boil an egg. I use a lot of trial and error methods there. Or maybe I’m in the garage and I’m being encouraged to measure and adjust spark plug gaps so that my car engine will once again run smoothly.
I know for sure that I learn well when I get to plan the study myself, asking the research questions and devising the best experimental technique to answer them, and finally presenting the findings as clearly and meaningfully as I can.
Finally, I learn when I’m called upon to apply what I already know in a new way. I make a delicious Chicken Piccata in my kitchen at home. But I learned a lot more about making it when I was required to do so on a tippy single burner in a less than ideal cooking pan while camping on a lovely small island and trying to impress the love of my life.
And these are just the ways I learn. Each of my colleagues would construct a different list. And in working with students, I know that their lists are just as unique. Sometimes they can’t yet construct their lists—they still don’t know themselves as learners. I think that as teachers we need to find ways to help them with this. It has been my experience that when we find ways to ask this important question, students’ answers to “Who cares?” will shed light on the many different times, ways, and places where learning takes place.
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