Saturday, March 24, 2012

Learning differently - standardized teaching -v- customized learning

Our new professional reading group book is Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen and the first chapter is about how we all learn differently.  Howard Gardner has defined 8 different intelligences - linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, interpersonal and naturalist - however he has a simple definition of what intelligence is:

  • The ability to solve problems that one encounters in real life
  • The ability to generate new problems to solve
  • The ability to make something or offer a service that is valued within one's culture.
We are all blessed with each of the 8 intelligences, though we tend to be strong in only 2 or 3 of them.  As teachers we may be able to recognize some of the stronger intelligences in our students but it's also important to try to encourage the development of all of them.

As well as differences in intelligences, there are also differences in learning styles and in the pace of learning - some people learn things quickly, for others it takes longer.  It was interesting to me to discover at a recent parent conference, that my daughter's way of learning and revising is to write everything down - I was the same when I was her age and studying for my exams and even today I have to write in order to learn.  I'm always in awe of those who can comprehend simply through listening or through visuals.  I was really interested to read in Chapter 1 of Disrupting Class:
A person who learns best with a visual learning style for one type of intelligence - by seeing images or reading text - may not necessarily do well using that same learning style when using another type of intelligence.
He goes on to ask the question:  "If we agree that we learn differently and that students need customized pathways and paces to learn, why do schools standardize the way they teach and the way the test?"  In part, Christensen argues, this is because of the economic pressure on schools to standardize teaching and assessment despite the fact that all students have different needs.  He goes on to write that:
The students who succeed in schools do so largely because their intelligence happens to match the dominant paradigm in use in a particular classroom - or somehow they have found ways to adapt to it.
Partly it is also to do with the sheer size of schools today.  At one time schools were much smaller and local and multi-age classes were full of students with different abilities so teachers had to differentiate and personalize instruction.

Another factor that comes into the equation is that as well as students all having different learning styles, teachers also have different teaching styles and so teach in ways that are compatible with their strengths.  Christensen refers to what happens in classrooms as "reverse magnetic attraction" where similar types of intelligences attract.  This means that students who enjoy the teaching style of a particular teacher tend to excel in those classes, those with different sorts of intelligences may feel excluded.  He goes on to write:
The current educational system - the way it trains teachers, the way it groups students, the way curriculum is designed and the way the school buildings are laid out - is designed for standardization.
In such a situation, how can learning be customized?  Christensen writes that:
Computer based learning is emerging as a disruptive force and a promising opportunity.  The proper use of technology as a platform for learning offers a chance to modularize the system and thereby customize learning ... Student-centric learning opens the door for students to learn in ways that match their intelligence types in the places and at the paces they prefer by combining content in customized sequences ... Teachers can serve as professional learning coaches and content architects to help individual students progress.
One of the joys of working in good international schools is that they are constantly questioning what they do and how they can improve the learning for all students - and because these schools are not tied down by national curriculums or standards so have the flexibility to try new things.  They are providing various forms of PD for teachers so that they are supported in embracing change, they are reflecting on whether multi-age classrooms might provide a more supportive social structure for the students, they are looking at different curricula and are rethinking school design.  I've been lucky to have this experience in the excellent schools where I have worked.  ISA was one of the schools that pioneered both the PYP and the MYP.  While I was there a new campus was built and teachers got involved in the school design.  We were all given amazing PD opportunities.  At NIST my learning continued.  Again the school was going through a building programme and there was a lot of discussion about different designs.  Again, PD was supported and encouraged.  Again my knowledge of best practice in teaching and learning deepened.  My new school, ASB, I believe is going even further.  The R&D task forces are studying and developing new  teaching and learning environments for the 21st century.  In my short visit there, it was clear to see that they absolutely believe that all students learn differently and that they believe in using technology to customize learning.  I'm looking forward to teaching and learning differently myself when I'm there.  I'm counting the weeks (just another 11 now!)

Photo Credit:  colors that reflect joy by Riling Hoxha, 2011 AttributionNo Derivative Works

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