What an interesting couple of weeks. Daniel Willingham, author of Why Some Students Don't Like School, writes a blog on the Washington Post claiming that learning styles theory is bunk. In the following days Edutopia carries a pieces about research at Rutgers that shows that challenging problems actually improved the motivation of struggling math students. Naturally, the students tackled the problems in ways that leveraged their, yes, individual learning styles. So are learning styles bunk or something to be embraced?
Although Willingham's blog generated a lot of controversy, I think the rhetoric is overblown on both sides. Willingham's main point reinforces what I've been reading and hearing in the adult education and cognitive psychology world for quite some time. Certainly there are individual differences among learners. Some of the differences are innate, but most of them are environmental, including learning styles. In fact, the term I most commonly hear, and prefer, is learning preferences. We all have familiar ways of attacking learning and other tasks based on how we've done them in the past. We prefer the familiar, but that doesn't mean we have a locked-in learning style.
Since different tasks and contexts will require people to perform tasks in different ways, we may do kids a disservice by constraining their instruction to a particular approach -- kinesthetic, visual, auditory, or whatever. We should make sure that students have a breadth of options and metacognitive flexibility in selecting among them, even if they tend to pick a particular, comforting one most of the time, as the students described in the Edutopia piece appear to have done. They leveraged their learning preferences to tackle a real challenging math problem. They felt frustration, but the support in the classroom helped them to achieve ultimate success and satisfaction. It's a great story that supports my previous posts about the value of effort and how motivating overcoming obstacles can be.
I find a helpful lesson in these two articles. We shouldn't challenge students with both tackling a challenging problem AND mastering a new learning approach at the same time. We don't have fixed learning styles, and we should make sure students develop a repertoire. But adding to one's learning approaches is its own learning task. We shouldn't overburden the cognitive demands by coupling it with a new and challenging problem. In fact, it's probably better to build the repertoire with familiar tasks. Keep the cognitive load focused on targeted goals, and we're much more likely to have success.
After reading Obama's education speech today, I felt like shouting: "That's what I've been trying to tell you!!!" My little welcome back to school blog last week targeted a similar theme of the value of failure. Mistakes are learning opportunities, signals to persevere, not signals to quit.
Indeed, I think the President has been reading the same research that I've been perusing. He spoke about the importance of effort, that your ability is not innate, that practice is critical, and that students have some important responsibilities in the classroom, along with teachers and parents. I'll add curriculum developers and publishers to the list of folks who share the obligation of creating a powerful and engaging learning environment for our children. I certainly take the responsibility very seriously.
I'm glad that the President used the beginning of the school year to share his message of hard work and perseverance. Typically I hear this message at graduation speeches. In fact, I had the pleasure of sitting on stage when J.K. Rowling, whom Obama mentioned, delivered her value-of-failure message to Harvard's graduating class of 2008. She made the point that "failure" for Harvard students might not be the same as "failure" for others, but whatever your standards, you need to have failure. If you never fail, it means you never tried. And if you never tried, you really never lived. It was a wonderful talk that inspired the world's top performing college graduates to step into unfamiliar places. That's when you really learn. That's a good message at the outset of a school year too.
Obama, too, tried to inspire students to reach for greater things. In many academically high performing countries, students do feel that educational success is a civic duty. The President made that connection very explicit: "Don't let your family or your country down." Students need to work hard and succeed for the good of the nation. The message feels a bit old-fashioned to me, but that doesn't mean it isn't true and won't work. I'm anxious to hear how kids respond.
I'm also curious how students will respond to role models like J.K. Rowling, Michael Jordan, and the founders of Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Certainly, Obama noted kids who overcame the odds of poverty and physical disability, very achievable goals. But does the prospect of changing the world -- being the best basketball player ever or creating new ways to communicate -- motivate students or place unreasonable burdens on them? Another graduation speaker, at my son's high school commencement, did a nice job I thought of walking the line between big aspirations and "It's a Wonderful Life". Dr. Eric Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT and co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, gave a marvelous address in June in which he talked about what could happen in the next 50 years of these students' lives. Lander talked about his experience on the Human Genome Project which announced the mapping of the human genome 50 years to the day of Crick and Watson's initial proposal of the double helix.
So, in 50 years, the life of these students' professional careers, you can change everything. Lander recounted example after example of ideas, inventions, and actions that prompted dramatic changes in about 50 years. The parents in the audience, including myself, felt a sense of excitement at the prospect of what our children could be a part of, let alone potentially cause. But we also felt a huge weight on the shoulders of these teenagers. Is changing the world the measure of success? How could our children measure up?
Then Lander reminded us that the scope of one's actions is not necessarily indicative of the importance. It's like he felt our anxiety. The most important thing you can do, he said, is raise a family, and that effort, too, is about a 50 year commitment. You don't have to change the world all at once. You can make a huge contribution in your family or your neighborhood. It's still a heroic effort, but it's one that we can all reach. Michael Jordan and J.K. Rowling are exceptions, but we don't have to be exceptions to do exceptional things. That's the message I want to leave our students as they start this new school year.
It’s that time of year, and I’m feeling it from several perspectives -- as a parent, as a teacher, and as a developer chomping at the bit to test out some new ideas in real classrooms. Our only son is now a freshman at college. My wife and I have joined the ranks of empty-nesters, and my kid is enjoying a new found independence. I welcomed new students into the Technology, Innovation, and Education program at Harvard and started prepping for my first class on Friday. And we’ve been devising new programs at Tom Snyder Productions, testing out new ideas internally and getting ready to try them with actual middle school students and teachers. For me, a common theme running through these various perspectives is failure. I expect it, and I’m actually looking forward to it.
School is all too often associated with getting it right, but where’s the learning in that? We gain so much more from our mistakes. The original Deep Blue IBM chess computer that defeated chess champion Gary Kasporov was a monster machine. It had been programmed with all the possible moves for each situation on the chess board. Searching all those moves required incredible processing power, and technicians were nearby with fire extinguishers to handle the potential overload of the machine. Nowadays, software engineers build learning machines that don’t know all the answers ahead of time, as Deep Blue did. Instead, these new programs make mistakes, thousands of them every minute, and they learn from them. Researchers at IBM produced backgammon learning software that followed this approach, playing hundreds of thousands of simulated games to learn how to play. That program now plays at an expert level.
One nice thing about a computer playing games with itself is that the results are low stakes. Losing doesn’t matter. Learning does. Schools should be similar learning environments, a place where it’s safe to make mistakes…so long as we learn from them. So my message to my son and my students at the beginning of this new school year: take some chances, try out new ideas, and learn from the inevitable missteps. Getting everything right on the first try generally indicates a lack of challenge. Challenge leads to growth, and what better place to grow than a safe, supported place like school.