Sunday, July 19, 2009

What I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science (Part 3): Learning Styles

This is a continuation of my Top Ten List of Things I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science:

#8) "What it means when someone doesn't follow directions"

I have my share of stories of students ignoring directions, stories that end in many ways, although colored with different shades of disappointment and anger, as do all teachers. For the new high school teacher fresh out of college, gone is the idea of a chemistry lab manual, one that lists out the numerous steps of the chemical reaction concocted in a given lab, being the primary instructor and not the graduate student ambling around the room. Forget about 90-minute PowerPoint lectures every single day. As a high school teacher, one needs to be versed in the theories of learning modalities and multiple intelligences.

Over the past couple decades, research on learning and intelligence has given rise to theories related to learning modalities, or different ways of learning. In 1983, Dr. Howard Gardner published work relating to his theory of multiple intelligences, suggesting that defining intelligence in one specific way (numbers on an IQ scale, for example) gave an incomplete and subjective outlook on human learning. The theory of multiple intelligences states that the diversity of backgrounds and experiences a person possesses gives rise to a prowess for particular ways of learning. Gardner asserts there are at least 8 intelligences that a person may align with (image cite), while some researchers condense this into 3: visual, motor, and auditory. While one may learn about a new subject best by reading, another might need to act out the new content, and yet another might require verbal instructions.

As educators, this theory holds crucial importance in our line of work as we support students in building their own understandings. In a given class of 30 students, how many will learn best by just reading the textbook about the topic? Will I still have anyone's attention after I've unleashed a 90-minute lecture? How many students will hurt themselves trying to run the chemistry lab mentioned above? Being an effective teacher means realizing this diversity of learning types and structuring lessons so that every student has a chance to learn in a way that they learn best. It follows that a successful high school chemistry lab requires time for students to read each step of the manual individually, explain the purpose of the lab to their partner, watch the teacher act out the steps of the lab, act out a pretend run through of the lab, and finally, actually run the lab!

Usually there is nothing malicious behind a student's inability to grasp directions, and it's more of an indicator of poor planning and failure to address different learning modalities. This understanding of learning modalities also comes in handy with other leadership roles and with working as a team. If there is already a goal in place for the team, and plans created to meet that goal, it behooves the leader to successfully communicate these plans to others, and to do so in the way that the other person learns best.

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