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In this episode, we are talking about the different types of learners, and how we can support our learners in the classroom. We are going to talk about the difference between cognitive ability and cognitive styles, as well as intelligence, and how all of our students can build their intelligence in our classes.

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Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel. Rachel is a flower in a clay pot; Katie is watering the flower.

Show Notes

This week, we are going to be talking all about the different types of learners we have in our classrooms. This is the focus of Chapters 7 & 8 of Daniel Willingham’s book “Why Don’t Students Like School?

In case you haven’t yet listened to our prior episodes on this book, here are some links to check them out:

This one made Katie chuckle a bit as she was reading because it mentions learning styles, which as our listeners may or may not remember, Rachel does NOT like learning styles. This section of the book was sure to get her riled up!

While she definitely did enjoy it, we both also liked reading and understanding some of the brain science and the different aspects of learning that support our learning. One of the biggest reminders and take aways was that our students are really not all that different from each other.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7’s guiding principle is: “Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.” In this chapter, Willingham goes into different cognitive styles versus abilities.

Cognitive ability is the capacity fo success in certain types of thought and thinking. Cognitive styles are the biases or tendencies we have, and how we use those when approaching different things and new learning.

Learning Styles

With this in mind, he goes into the different types or proposals of cognitive styles, and spends a good part of the chapter talking about learning styles, which are visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic. He discusses how prevalent the idea of learning styles is in education, and how studies show that this is not actually a thing – there is no single learning style that works best – they are equally useful!

bitmoji of Katie and Rachel. Rachel is sitting on a stack of books and reading; Katie is holding a large stack of books and looking unimpressed.

While we may have a preference for a specific learning style, that doesn’t mean that we use that preference in everything that we do. It also doesn’t mean that teachers should be altering their lessons or materials specifically to address learning style preferences. There tends to be a lot of misunderstandings of what learning styles are, and an educator’s role in using these in the classroom.

One of the things that he mentions that really resonated with Rachel is that cognitive styles are great when students need to be able to remember what something sounds like or looks like, but most of the time that’s not what we are asking our students to do. Instead, we are asking them to remember what things mean – which is very different!

He goes on to give some really good examples. For an auditory learner, that person may pick up a voice, how deep their voice is, intonation, etc. That being said, when we are usually talking about auditory learners, we are saying that they need to hear it to make meaning of something and to understand it. This example really helped us to see the disconnect that exists between research and education, and how to make sense of it all.

Another example that stood out was when he explains why/how styles don’t give you an edge in situations where meaning is important. When learning vocabulary, a teacher may choose to differentiate and tell auditory learners to listen to the words being spoken; visual learners are provided with the words and pictures to help them visualize; kinaesthetic learners are told to act out the words. The important thing to remember is that it’s more than learning new vocabulary words themselves, but rather the meaning behind them, particularly in the context of the classroom or how they are presented in a text.

Ensuring students have the meaning shifts the dynamic, and the type of learning style becomes less important. It’s better to determine the best way that gives students an understanding of the meaning, and to see the importance of understanding the term.

Willingham then continues on to explain why the theory of learning styles is still around. The first reason is that some learners have excellent visual or auditory memories, so we often equate this ability with the learning style itself. In reality, it has less to do with the learning style and more with the individual capacity that that learner has. The second reason this theory has stuck around is confirmation bias. Once we believe something, we tend to interpret other situations which may not actually be connected – we use that bias or believe to help guide our interpretation.

Bitmoji of Katie clapping at Rachel. Rachel looks happy and excited, and is looking up at a large "A+"

Rachel has an excellent visual memory, and is often able to memorize student names based on where they are sitting in the classroom. She asks students to stay in the same seat for the first two weeks of class, and this helps solidify her learning of names, and connecting them visually. However, this doesn’t mean that this is the only way that she learns, or even the best way in all situations. She learns quite a bit through listening as well, so it really depends on the context and what she is doing.

Rachel always thinks about how we learn to drive a car when talking about learning styles. We can’t learn to drive a car by reading a book or looking at pictures. We learn by actually driving the car. If we label learners as having one learning style, we then remove learning opportunities based on the context – it really is more about the context, and how we set up out learning, not ensuring we cater to an individual’s “learning style.”

Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner introduced his theory of multiple intelligences; there are 8 intelligences (originally 7, however 1 was later added), and they are: linguistic, logical, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical, naturalist, and spatial.

Others interpreted Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, making three claims associated with it:

  1. List is intelligences, NOT abilities/talents
  2. All 8 should be taught
  3. Many/all should be used as conduits when presenting new material

Gardner found the first claim to be agreeable, as it made all 8 seem appealing if they are labelled as an intelligence.

As for claims two and three, he disagreed, noting that decisions about curriculum and what is taught should be based on curriculum goals, not based on the multiple intelligences. It isn’t particularly helpful to learn subjects using other skills that students have. For example, learning about golf through music or poetry won’t help a golfer with their swing; and math won’t help a student learn to play the trumpet.

Often times, logical and linguistic intelligences are seen has having more value, or are given more status. The use of the word intelligence for the other areas helps to level that out and show the importance of recognizing the different areas in which students may excel.

Implications for the classroom

There were a few takeaways for this chapter:

  • It’s important to treat and teach students based on your experience with each student, paying attention to what works best to facilitate their learning
  • Don’t place too much emphasis on multiple intelligences, or a student’s lack of skill in a particular intelligence, as it could affect students’ motivation and engagement in their learning
  • If you like learning styles, then make sure you think of them in terms of content versus students preferences; present content in a variety of modalities as a way of reaching more students, and ensuring that they can understand what they are learning
  • “It is never smart to tell a child that she’s smart. Believe it or not, doing so makes her less smart” – Be careful how you talk about learning styles and intelligences with your students

Chapter 8

The guiding principle for this chapter says “Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.”

This is an important principle, as it tells us, and students, that while we may have a baseline of intelligence, with hard work and practice, we can improve.

bitmoji of Katie and Rachel; Katie looks interested; text: "Go on . . . "

Willingham spends a good chunk of this chapter discussing the idea of nature versus nurture, and the impact on intelligence. It was super fascinating, as he shared a number of studies done on twins that showed that it really is more about exposure and practice, ie nurture, versus natural alone. While genetics may have an impact, it does not determine the outcome – there are a number of other factors at play.

After discussing this, he then goes on to suggest how we can improve intelligence by building knowledge and teaching students the skills that are needed to be successful in a wide range of disciplines; and how, by convincing students that intelligence can be improved, one can improve their intelligence.

With this in mind, Willingham recognizes that convincing students of this is likely far more difficult than it sounds, but it’s the idea of helping students to develop a growth mindset. While it may not have a huge impact, it still does have an effect, so we need to continue to encourage a growth mindset, and ensuring students know that they can learn.

This reminded us quite a bit about mastery-based approaches and ungrading in the classroom, and how they help foster a growth mindset in students. By shifting the conversation away from grades, and focusing more on the learning and skill development, students are shown that they can indeed learn, fostering a growth mindset. Providing students with specific feedback that they can take back and actually see the next steps, and what they need to do, we are showing them how to continue their learning.

Learners that don’t pick up new content as quickly are referred to as slow learners in this chapter. These learners differ in what they know, and perhaps in their motivation to learn. This doesn’t mean that they can’t learn, it just means that we need to recognize this and help them to stay motivated and engaged in their learning. Intelligence can be changed; it can be improved.

It’s how we embrace this knowledge, and how we make sure our learners don’t feel dumb or lesser than in our classrooms – we need to show them that change is possible. This can be a particularly tough task for teachers, as many of these students have likely felt like they are not as smart as their peers for much of their schooling careers. Changing that mindset is tough, and it isn’t going to happen overnight, but we need to persist and support our students.

Classroom implications

There are a few different takeaways that we got from this chapter, and that we feel are important to note:

bitmoji of Katie and Rachel looking happy; Text: SMART!
  • Teachers need to talk about intelligence as something that we can grow and improve; we need to share strategies on how we can improve, learn from our mistakes, and the importance of taking risks because that tends to lead to authentic learning opportunities
  • Tell students that hard work pays off! This lets students know that it’s something that they can control; they can’t control the process of learning, or their own intelligences, so knowing that they can put in time and effort in order to make a difference is important.
  • Failure is a natural part of the learning process – it’s okay to fail! It helps us to learn and better understand something that we didn’t know – there’s so much that we can learn from our mistakes.
  • Don’t take study skills for granted! As educators, we can’t assume that students know and recognize the skills that they need to use in order to improve their learning – we need to be more explicit in guiding and teaching them, ensuring they can develop the necessary skills to become successful.
  • Cramming versus long term study – While cramming may help a student achieve short term success, it does not ensure long term learning. It is more beneficial for a students to study 20 minutes or so per sitting over a longer stretch of time.
  • Catching up = long term goal; Students that are already behind will need to work harder that students that find learning easy. The achievement gap will continue to grow as students continue in school, but educators can help by teaching learners to set small, achievable goals, and study skills.

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