Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Whiteboard (and Promethean Board!) Revolution

Teaching with Interactive Whiteboards
Robert J. Marzano

From: November 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 3 
Multiple Measures    Pages 80-82

Interactive whiteboards have become popular over the last few years, and it appears that their use will continue to grow exponentially. Indeed, books like The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution (Betcher & Lee, 2009) attest to the depth and breadth of change that this tool can promote in classroom practice.

For those who may still be unfamiliar with the technology, an interactive whiteboard is a large display that connects to a computer and a projector. The projector projects the computer's desktop onto the board's surface, where users control the computer with a pen, finger, or other device. The board is typically mounted to a wall or floor stand. Various accessories, such as student response systems, enable interactivity.

Although many teachers have enthusiastically adopted interactive whiteboards, little research is available on their effect on student achievement. However, in a study that involved 85 teachers and 170 classrooms, the teachers used interactive whiteboards to teach a set of lessons, which they then taught to a different group of students without using the technology (see Marzano & Haystead, 2009).

What the Research Found

The study results indicated that, in general, using interactive whiteboards was associated with a 16 percentile point gain in student achievement. This means that we can expect a student at the 50th percentile in a classroom without the technology to increase to the 66th percentile in a classroom using whiteboards.

In addition, three features inherent in interactive whiteboards have a statistically significant relationship with student achievement. The first is the learner-response device—handheld voting devices that students use to enter their responses to questions. The percentage of students providing the correct answer is then immediately displayed on the board in a bar graph or pie chart. Using voting devices was associated with a 26 percentile point gain in student achievement.

A second feature is the use of graphics and other visuals to represent information. These include downloaded pictures and video clips from the Internet, sites such as Google Earth, and graphs and charts. Use of these aids was also associated with a 26 percentile point gain in student achievement.
A third feature is the interactive whiteboard reinforcer—applications that teachers can use to signal that an answer is correct or to present information in an unusual context. These applications include dragging and dropping correct answers into specific locations, acknowledging correct answers with virtual applause, and uncovering information hidden under objects. These practices were associated with a 31 percentile point gain in student achievement.

What We Saw in the Classroom

One of the more interesting findings from the study was that in 23 percent of the cases, teachers had better results withoutthe interactive whiteboards. To determine why this occurred, we examined video-tapes of teachers using the boards. These disclosed some potential pitfalls in using the technology:
  • Using the voting devices but doing little with the findings. In many classrooms, teachers simply noted how many students obtained the correct answer instead of probing into why one answer was more appropriate than another.
  • Not organizing or pacing the content well. In these cases, the teachers incorporated video segments from the Internet or images intended to represent important information in their digital flipcharts. However, they ran through the flipcharts so quickly that students, although impressed with the graphics, did not have time to analyze and interact with one another about the content.
  • Using too many visuals. Digital flipchart pages were awash with visual stimuli; it was hard to identify the important content.
  • Paying too much attention to reinforcing features. For example, when teachers who had worse results with the technology used the virtual applause feature to signal a correct answer, the emphasis seemed to be on eliciting the applause rather than on clarifying the content.
Getting the Most Out of the Technology

This study, as well as what we know about good teaching in general, suggests how teachers might use interactive whiteboards more effectively. I recommend the following:

  • Teachers should think through how they intend to organize information. They should group information into small, meaningful segments before they start developing the digital flipcharts. Once they've organized the content, then they can design the flipcharts to complement the organization. To ensure that they don't run through the flipcharts too quickly, teachers can insert flipcharts that remind them to stop the presentation so students can process and analyze the new information.
  • Digital flipcharts should contain visuals, but those visuals should clearly focus on the important information. Also, no single flipchart should contain too many visuals or too much written information.
  • After asking a question and getting student responses using voting devices, the teacher should typically discuss the correct answer along with the incorrect answers, making sure to elicit opinions from as many students as possible.
  • When using reinforcing features like virtual applause, teachers should make sure that students focus on why an answer is correct or incorrect. Although these features can produce high engagement and certainly enliven the atmosphere in a classroom, they can also be distracting if used without a clear focus on essential content.
Interactive whiteboards have great potential as a tool to enhance pedagogical practices in the classroom and ultimately improve student achievement. However, simply assuming that using this or any other technological tool can automatically enhance student achievement would be a mistake. As is the case with all powerful tools, teachers must use interactive whiteboards thoughtfully, in accordance with what we know about good classroom practice.

Betcher, C., & Lee, M. (2009). The interactive whiteboard revolution: Teaching with IWBs. Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.
Marzano, R. J., & Haystead, M. (2009). Final report on the evaluation of the Promethean technology. Englewood, CO: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Robert J. Marzano is Cofounder and CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Denver, Colorado. He is the author ofThe Art and Science of Teaching (ASCD, 2007) and coauthor, with Mark W. Haystead, of Making Standards Useful in the Classroom (ASCD, 2008). To contact Marzano or participate in a study regarding a specific instructional strategy,

Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Art of Writing: A Forgotten Art

Over a lively dinner conversation this week, two other women and I got into a heated discussion about students' writing skills and how low they often are upon entering college. A typical trend: Student A does not receive enough explicit writing instruction in middle or high school; Student A enters college/university unprepared to handle the multitude of writing assignments; Student A's professors blame Student A's secondary school teachers for not adequately preparing him/her in the art of analytical writing; Student A feels cheated and frustrated. This cycle only perpetuates itself with thousands of students across the county as they enter freshman year of college.

I love writing (obviously) and try to hook my eighth graders on it as well. I engage them in a variety of kinds of writing throughout the school year, from analytical textual analysis to a persuasive speech, complex research project, short story writing, and poetry. In May, through a Maryland Council for the Arts grant, I bring in a professional poet to do a Poetry Residence with my students, whereby each student creates at least five original poems and performs them to the wider school community in a poetry coffeehouse. My young adolescents are dying for the chance to express themselves creatively and very much want to have a written outlet to do so. Even my most rambunctious, reluctant, hyperactive boys bought into this process for the past two years and were eager to share their beautiful poetry with peers and other classes.

The challenge for me is often balancing enough opportunities for students to use creative writing with vitally important analytical writing and grammar instruction. Regardless of whether students want to or not, they must learn about the ever-hated appositives, run-on sentences, sentence clauses, parts of speech, usage, and all things grammar. Many current middle and high school curricula, including mine, do not stress grammar as much as they should. Instead of providing teachers with ideas for explicit grammar instruction, the lessons included are often random, surface-level, and disconnected from what else is being taught. I make it a point to start at the beginning and diagram sentences with students until they clearly understand what a subject, predicate, verb, noun, adjective, and adverb all are. It boggles my mind that my 14-year-old students -- even the most high-achieving ones -- give me baffled looks when asking them to know the parts of speech for their vocabulary words.

In addition to extensive grammar and vocabulary work, I also like to provide clear, succinct feedback to my students with their writing. Like any new fledging teacher, I had to learn and stop myself from dousing a student's paper with a red pen years ago. After all, students will not read all of these comments and only become overwhelmed with all the corrections you have made. Instead, I make use a rubric to score students' writing and write three specific comments on their writing -- one thing they did well, one thing they can improve on, and one way to improve this weakness. I emphasize to students that the writing process is never done and insist on seeing all parts of the process -- from brainstorming to the final draft -- turned in when an essay is due.

When former students come back from high school and visit me, they often comment on how difficult my vocabulary quizzes were (and how many of them still save them to refer to later!) and how much they learned from me about writing. Many say that they do not have adequate time or space to practice their writing formally in high school, even in English class. Is this acceptable? No. But essays take SO much time for the teachers to grade! Oh well.

Jay Mathews argues that students need far more serious opportunities for written analysis in high school, even when deemed unnecessary or inappropriate. Oh, and this kind of writing should not just take place in English class (Thank you!). Students need to learn to write effectively for all subjects and be afforded critical, meaningful feedback from their teachers in the process. Mathews writes:

In my search for signs of serious writing instruction in America high schools, I have stumbled across a rare creature: a physics teacher in Fairfax County who makes everyone in his honors classes enter a national science essay contest.
The 67-year-old West Springfield High School instructor, Ed Linz, is unconventional in other ways. He is a retired naval officer who once commanded a ballistic missile submarine. He was an All-Met Coach of the Year in cross country. He had a heart transplant 16 years ago. (When I asked how that was going, he said, “I woke up this morning.”) He wrote a book, “Life Row,” about the experience and does a weekly column for a newspaper in Spokane, Wash.

Teachers with dynamite résumés are not uncommon in the Washington area. Like Linz, they don’t take any nonsense from me. When I gushed over the writing he was teaching his students, and mentioned my view that all schools should require major essays, he said that showed how naive I was about demands on teachers’ time.

I think public high school students need to write a serious research paper before they graduate. Private schools insist on it. Students who do the International Baccalaureate program write 4,000-word essays, and many say it was their most satisfying academic experience. But Linz snorts at the notion of essays for all.

“I cannot imagine how any high school teacher with five classes can do a 4,000-word project,” he said. “To be done even semi-correctly, the teacher would have to do virtually nothing else for much of the year.”
Still, Linz has had success requiring his honors physics students to enter the DuPont Challenge, an annual competition requiring a researched 1,000-word science essay. I have never encountered a science teacher who insists on a major writing project, but it works for Linz. He likes the essay contest much better than the science fair. To him, competing experiments mean stacks of liability forms and debates about outside help. “I got tired of judging parents’ work,” Linz said.
He has no honors classes this year, but last year he had three. “We began by choosing appropriate topics in late October,” he said, “and then worked our way through at least three drafts before submitting the documents in late January. This assignment consumed at least half of my outside-of-class time for the second quarter of school to assess the work and four full class periods to discuss the papers with the students.” Having students do much of the work in class reduced the parental over-involvement he found with science fairs.
Like IB essay writers, Linz’s students groan about the high standard they are forced to meet but eventually admit it was good for them. Topics are as varied as why there are no square drums and why botox is more than a beauty treatment. Five Linz students have received DuPont honorable mentions in the past three years, more than in any other high school in the United States or Canada, he said.
“The real benefit for high school students is to sit with the teacher and receive critical feedback,” he said.
Exactly. I want Linz, who solved much more daunting organizational problems as a nuclear sub officer, to design a way to make that happen for everybody in high school.

If we increased class sizes for courses that did not require research papers and freed time for teachers with writing skill to meet with students as they wrote their successive drafts, it might work. Linz has handled a heavy load of writing students even though he is older than even I am and on his second heart.
Good writing is crucial to success in the era of the keyboard. High schools should teach it.
Full article available at:
Couldn't be all channel a little more "Linz" into our classrooms??

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The RIGHT Way to Empower Teachers

As a graduate student at Harvard, one of my favorite education courses was one in teacher leadership taught by Professor Katherine (Kitty) Boles. Having been teaching elementary school for over 20 years (making her the professor with the most K-12 teaching experience by far), she often argued that teachers needed to be challenged and have a clear plan for professional development in place to avoid teacher burn-out or complacency. The best way to do this? Fostering and honing the skills to help teachers become teacher leaders among their colleagues. I am fortunate enough to teach in a county that places high value on teacher leadership and professional development, and it can all start as a first-year teacher.

Now in my fourth year of teaching in my school and sixth overall, I can appreciate the many hats teacher leaders wear on a daily basis for their students and colleagues, from teacher to mentor, role model, liaison, coach, philosopher, disciplinarian, and friend. This balancing act is intricate, delicate, and complex, often pushing me to the breaking point or outer limits of personal sanity. There are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs to get done, and I often feel stretched in a zillion directions. Still, I am never bored and always challenged, both intellectually and socially, to achieve my personal best, the goal of student learning and success always at the forefront of my mind.

I am blessed to have colleagues who are equally as passionate, enthusiastic, and talented at teaching and learning, even with the unpredictable and often disadvantaged student population we have. It is refreshing to read other educational blogs, where teachers share their successes, failures, hopes, dreams, and best practices. I know I am not alone and love hearing other teachers' stories on how they overcame difficult circumstances to become even stronger teachers and leaders for their students and colleagues.

Teacher Anthony Cody has one such blog that continues to inspire and intrigue me. After 18 years as a science teacher in inner-city Oakland, he now works with a team of experienced science teacher-coaches who support the many novice teachers in his school district. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This appeared on his Teachers Magazine blog, Living in Dialogue.

Building teacher accountability from the ground up
By Anthony Cody

I am in my 24th year working in a medium-sized urban school district, and I have experienced school reform first-hand. Most often it takes the form of top-down programs that attempt to involve everyone in the District in a process that the superintendent (or state-appointed administrator) has decided will transform us from chronically under-performing to excellent in the coming year.
Sadly, sweeping programs like these rarely make much difference, and leave teachers feeling as if they are not respected as professionals. This is not to say District level efforts are always worthless -- many of our elementary schools have greatly improved as a result of creative and intensive work by dedicated staff.
If systemic change is going to come, it must come from within. It must draw on the capacity of our own teachers to grapple with the challenges they face.

We hear a lot about "bad teachers" and "good teachers," but much less about the processes and practices that help teachers become better. The single greatest thing we could do to improve schools, without huge expense, would be to support processes that engage teachers in working together to examine their practice and their students' work, to reflect on what is working, and inquire into ways to improve.
What does this look like? Here are some examples of practices that work well.
National Board Take One!:
The National Board certification process has been shown to improve student learning by helping teachers reflect on what really matters in their practice. Take One! is a process that allows teachers to submit a single video portfolio entry for scoring. This entry can be used if the teacher decides to continue and complete the remaining portfolio entries for full National Board certification. Some schools or departments within schools have taken on Take One! as a collaborative professional growth experience, working together to improve their practice. Take One! costs just $395 for each participating teacher.
Collaborative Teacher Research:
Teachers work together to develop questions about their teaching practice which can be probed through a research process. Often teachers implement an innovative practice, and then reflect on how student learning changes as a result. When these lessons are shared at a school site, effective practices can be spread and move the entire community move forward. In Minneapolis, union leaders worked with the District to create an innovative pay structure that rewards teachers for engaging in this process, in a way that connects professional growth to the evaluation process.
Critical Friends Group:
Critical Friends Group is described by the National School Reform Faculty as "a professional learning community consisting of approximately 8-12 educators who come together voluntarily at least once a month for about two hours. Group members are committed to improving their practice through collaborative learning." The National School Reform Faculty web site offers an extensive bank of resources, including discussion protocols for looking at student work and exploring equity issues.
Lesson Study:
Originally developed in Japan, 
Lesson Study is now being practiced at many schools across the US. I have done some work with Dr. Catherine Lewis, a proponent of this method, whose web site describes the process thusly:
In Lesson Study teachers:
* Think about the long-term goals of education - such as love of learning and respect for others;
* Carefully consider the goals of a particular subject area, unit or lesson (for example, why science is taught, what is important about levers, how to introduce levers);
* Plan classroom "research lessons" that bring to life both specific subject matter goals and long term goals for students; and
* Carefully study how students respond to these lessons - including their learning, engagement, and treatment of each other.
In my experience, Lesson Study offers teachers a valuable structure for delving into how our teaching intersects with student thinking and learning. Schools need to be prepared, however, to make a sustained commitment of time to the process, because the value comes from the careful planning of the lesson, and the rich discussions that follow.
All of these process share a common set of essential elements:

* They build community and collegiality among participants.
* They make our teaching practices public, in that we are sharing what is actually happening, good and bad, in our classrooms.
* They are focused on evidence of student learning.
* They are active inquiries into our teaching and how it can be improved.
To this list I would add another, equally important element. Teachers must be allowed to choose the model of professional development they will pursue.
I believe the four models I shared are all excellent and have the potential to yield good results, but if one imposes any of these models on a school, without actively involving teachers in the decision, the results will be disappointing. I think teachers should be empowered to choose from any model that combines the essential elements above, or even invent their own model for collective reflection and improvement.
Each of these processes works when it creates a sense of agency among the participants. Teachers conducting action research must select their question and design their own investigation. Lesson Study requires that teachers discuss what is important for the students to learn, and choose critical concepts as the focus of their investigation into learning. Critical Friends guide their groups to productive conversations focused on real issues members face.
Those doing Take One! must create their own portfolio entries. This agency is critical to the enthusiasm and engagement teachers will feel, and this is the true root of accountability, which depends on our ownership of the work. If leaders adopt a top-down approach by mandating a particular model, or micromanaging the processes, by directing teachers to focus on particular research questions or follow particular protocols, teachers are likely to disengage, and actually feel LESS accountable for the processes, since they do not own them.
We all share a sense of urgency about improving our schools, so our students are better able to succeed, and fewer of them drop out. We must hurry deliberately, however, and not rush past the critical steps that engage and activate teachers in doing the hard, and ultimately very personal work of reflecting on and improving our teaching.

Monday, October 25, 2010

When Enough is Enough: Cracking Down on Academic Dishonesty

Now that the first marking period of the new school year is almost over, I have already witnessed several incidences of academic dishonesty (ie: cheating) from many students across subject areas. While this trend certainly does not surprise me, the fact that many of these students are otherwise good kids and high-achieving breaks my heart. It's as if the only way they think they can succeed and get "As" is by cheating and taking the best shortcut available, rather than relying on their own hard work and intelligence.

When, then, is enough enough? How much more cheating and plagiarism are we going to tolerate from students whom we are preparing for life and work in the real world? What life lessons are we teaching them if they realize they can get by and earn their highly-coveted As (and eventual admission into top colleges) through copying others' work, cheating, and handing in work that is really not their own?

In the September 1st edition of Education Week, high school teacher Christopher L. Doyle wrote a thought-provoking and honest commentary entitled "All my favorite students cheat." Doyle argues that students are protecting themselves from widespread insecurity in a declining America, while other prominent education commentators and authors, such as Jay Mathews (one of my personal favorites!), stresses the larger problem is that teachers love and trust their students so much that they have become easy targets for cheating to occur in the daily classroom. While I can appreciate both viewpoints, I'd argue that kids are looking for the easy way out and responding to a society that places a tremendous amount of pressure on them beginning at an early age. You want to get into Harvard, Stanley? Good; then you better outperform and accomplish more than all of your classmates, from earning top grades to being the best athlete, musician, volunteer, and leader in your community. And you better start in kindergarten...or else!

From day one of the school year, my colleagues and I stress the importance of students taking pride in their own work and turning in only what is theirs. We have the whole academic dishonesty discussion, ask students to display academic integrity, and discuss the severe consequences of what will happen if they decide to cheat, but still, cheating inevitably happens, across subjects, grade levels, and even racial and cultural lines. What gives? 

Yes, even "great" kids cheat. We'd like to think we can trust students to do their own work and not take the easy way out, but this is just not realistic. So how can we, as teachers, create an "anti-cheating" classroom environment and culture? This is no easy path. In fact, a Washington, DC high school teacher was recently involuntarily transferred to another school due, in large part, to his use of anti-cheating devices. For example, he would make the text of his tests too small to be read from the next desk. The principal's response? This teacher was "creating an expectation that students will cheat" and ought to have more faith in his students' character. Bye-bye to him. Wow. 

The biggest proactive action schools can choose to stop student cheating in its tracks is to administer consistent, severe, and no-nonsense consequences for students caught cheating. My eighth grade team of teachers has a consistent no-tolerance policy with cheating. If a student is caught cheating or suspected of it, we will issue the student(s) involved a zero on the assignment, call home, and put a citation for academic dishonesty in the student's file. I pride myself on being vigilant and hyper-observant of students' work during tests, constantly circling the classroom and making multiple editions of reading and vocabulary tests (Yes, this is extremely time consuming). The high school our students feed into is even harsher, as it should be. 

Still, cheating persists, but we cannot back down. Doing so will only send the message to students that it is OK to cheat and even better to get away with it. This dishonesty and lack of integrity is then bound to follow them into college and the real world. Do we want our next generation to have a careless attitude of sloth, dishonesty, and complacence toward the quality or integrity of their work and careers? Do we want them to learn to copy and paste information from websites and elsewhere for their essay and have no problem claiming it as their own work? I certainly hope not. So, let's do everyone a favor by having a no-tolerance cheating policy and consistently following through with harsh consequences, regardless of who the student involved in it is.

I also want to include Mathews's aforementioned column, "A crackdown on cheating would benefit everyone." He makes some valid and surprising discoveries.

A crackdown on cheating would benefit all
By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sept. 1 edition of Education Week had a provocative commentary, "All my favorite students cheat," by high school teacher Christopher L. Doyle. He and I agree that cheating is rife, but we don't agree on what causes that. He thinks students are protecting themselves against widespread insecurity in a declining America. I think the larger problem is that teachers so love and trust their students that the teachers become easy marks.

America used to be tough on cheaters. Before World War II, miscreants could be suspended, expelled or caned. Schools went soft in the 1960s, and although we have little data, cheating probably increased. In a 1995 survey by "Who's Who Among American High School Students," 76 percent of high-schoolers with at least B averages said they had cheated at least once. In suburban, upper-middle-class, high-achieving schools, such as the place Doyle still teaches or many Washington area schools, cheating is still common.

Some students want their schools to do something about it. In the mid-1990s, I served on a citizen-teacher-student governance committee at Scarsdale High School in Westchester County, N.Y. When our chairman asked whether anyone had any personal complaints about the school, our two student members raised a topic we had never addressed: cheating. Non-cheating students, they said, felt abused by lax enforcement. They blamed teachers for not proctoring their own exams. Some teachers, they said, left the room for the hour to sip coffee in the teachers lounge.

These were not state tests or the SAT, which require proctoring, but the regular course exams that would determine students' report card grades. The Scarsdale assistant principal told me many teachers assumed their students would never cheat because they were such great kids.

Such deep belief in the inner goodness of American teens is not easily challenged. Erich Martel, a history teacher at Wilson High School in the District, was recently involuntarily transferred to another school in part because he used anti-cheating devices such as printing tests with fonts too small to be read from the next desk. His principal complained he was "creating an expectation that students will cheat" and ought to have more faith in the character of his pupils.

Schools here and throughout the country have struggled for years with the issue but made little progress. Attitudes differ on what constitutes cheating. In one survey of students at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., 97 percent said looking at another student's exam was wrong. Only 46 percent, however, had the same view about asking someone in an earlier class what was on the test. Teachers I know encourage team projects, so their students ask why they can't share their homework results. Multiple-choice tests are easier to cheat on, but they take less time to grade than essay exams. Essays are more difficult to copy.

Some surveys suggest pressure to get admitted to a favorite college can cause cheating, but so can adolescent sloth. One teacher at a New York school I visited said how proud she was that her students never took those illegal shortcuts. Hearing that, a student journalist quickly found two good students who had cheated on each of the teacher's last three exams. The reporter asked them why. "It was just easier," one said.

Despite the cheating, learning continues. Students have to know something to do well on heavily proctored exams, such as the SAT or Advanced Placement tests. Perhaps if we took cheating more seriously on exams that affect high school grades, our students would not cheat and would have more respect for us. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What are learning styles....really?

One of my former peers at Harvard posed a question to our old classmates this week about learning styles. Some educators find credibility in Howard Garnder's theory of the nine multiple intelligences children can have, while others like to believe we need to focus on students' specific learning styles. There are many articles that go back and forth  on learning styles.

Professor Carol Tomlinson from the University of California, Merced also stresses that everyone is a combination of styles and that children should be encouraged to adapt to other styles outside of the ones that they feel most comfortable with. Teachers just need to make sure that use a range of strategies so that no one group benefits more than the others.

In that regard, an article from
Teacher Magazine earlier this year from a cognitive psychologist responds to Heather Wolpert-Gawron's recent article on learning styles, saying teachers and research scientists need to do a better job of trying to understand one another. I could not agree more. I hope you can relate to some of his points.

Full article available at:
Published: February 24, 2010

Learning Styles: What's Being Debunked

In her recent article “The Bunk of Debunking Learning Styles,” Heather Wolpert-Gawron makes a plea for common sense in the face of research findings that contradict her direct observations of learning styles in the classroom. She cites a recent article (“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest) which claimed that there is no scientific evidence that learning styles exist, and argues that the knowledge she’s gained during her 11-year career in the classroom prove that they do.
As a psychological scientist and a son and husband of classroom teachers, I feel the need to respond. First, it is necessary to clarify the definition of learning styles and the predictions of learning styles theory. Second, I want to pinpoint what the “debunkers” in question are claiming, which I think is more specific than what Ms. Gawron-Wolpert describes. Finally, since she seems to believe that basic science is useless when it comes to the practice of teaching, I want to describe how basic cognitive science can apply to teaching.

Learning Styles Defined

We must begin with how learning styles have been defined, both in the research literature as well as in educational practice. Learning-styles theory does not propose generic differences between how students learn, but asserts a specific kind of difference. A learning style, by the prevailing account, is a preferred mode of learning, distinct from ability and independent of content area. For example, a visual learner is not necessarily better at learning math or geography than other students, but in a better learner when material is presented visually, compared to other modes of presentation. This may not be Ms. Wolpert-Gawron’s definition of learning style, but it is the definition used by researchers for over 50 years, as well as the educational policymakers who are currently implementing learning styles theory. For example, although multiple intelligences may seem similar to learning styles, Howard Gardner has made it quite clear that multiple intelligences is a theory of abilities, not of styles. The current learning styles theory defines “mode of learning” as a preferred sensory channel, either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, but there have been many ways of defining “mode” in the past.
Why is it critical that a learning style be distinct from content and ability? Because one important claim of learning-styles theory is that no one learning style is superior to another. If visual learners learned math faster, and kinesthetic learners learned basketball faster, we wouldn’t need to label them with learning styles at all: We could say that one group has mathematical aptitude and the other athletic aptitude. Unlike decisions about what works in any given classroom, which are for individual teachers to make, learning styles is a theory of how the mind works, and it is framed in a way that makes it suited to controlled scientific testing. The key scientific claim for learning-styles theory is that we could teach two classrooms of randomly assigned students the same content, but one would be taught “visually” and one “auditorially.” The visual learners should do better than the auditory learners in the visual classroom and vice versa in the auditory classroom. If everyone does better in the visual classroom, then we would conclude that the content is more suitable for visual presentation. If the “visual learners” do better in both classrooms, then you have identified an ability, not a style. This “matching styles to instruction” pattern of relative differences in learning is the evidence that the authors of the paper Wolpert-Gawron cites searched for in the scientific literature. Several studies claim to support learning styles, but did not perform this critical test. Those few that did satisfy this design failed to find evidence for learning styles.

What the Debunkers Do, and Why

These researchers have identified the central claim of learning styles theory and failed to find any scientific evidence for this particular claim, despite many relevant studies. Ms. Wolpert-Gawron accuses them of invalidating the practice of differentiating learners. She suggests that they don’t mention the “alternative—that of teaching all students the same way.” This is not the alternative that the scientists have in mind. One representative quote from the article is, “it is undeniable that the instruction that is optimal for a given student will often need to be guided by the aptitude, prior knowledge, and cultural assumptions that student brings to a learning task.” In other words, obviously students differ, just not by learning style.
If scientists agree that learners are different, why should they bother debunking the learning-styles theory at all, since many people define it as generally as Ms. Wolpert-Gawron? Those scientists who debunk learning styles do so in order to remove the obstacles to teachers’ focusing their attention on dimensions of learners that both science and practice have identified as critical. In their words: “Assuming that people are enormously heterogeneous in their instructional needs may draw attention away from the body of basic and applied research on learning that provides a foundation of principles and practices that can upgrade everybody’s learning.” Learning-styles theory distracts teachers from principles and practices that we all agree are successful.
Ms. Wolpert-Gawron clearly agrees, stating that the engagement of all students is crucial to learning, but she maintains that a learning-styles approach fosters attention to student engagement. Perhaps this is true for the way that she has defined learning styles, but it is not true for learning-styles theory as a scientific theory of mind, as it is applied to many teacher evaluations, or state standards. Enforcing attention to learning styles directs teachers to a particular method of student engagement, and necessarily away from another. For example, to illustrate a certain concept, one could tell a very engaging story, related to the lives of the students themselves. But if one were a teacher with intense time pressure, meetings galore, and multiple classes to prepare (which is to say, any teacher), learning-styles theory would encourage attention to the sensory modality of the story (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), rather than to the meaning of its content, its intrinsic interest, and its appropriateness for the particular lesson of the day. This doesn’t seem to trouble many teachers, who like Ms Wolpert-Gawron have been happily ignoring the central claims of learning-styles theorists. However, this may not be the case with beginning teachers, or teachers who are stringently evaluated by arbitrary criteria based on the myth of learning styles.

The Role of Basic Cognitive Science in the Classroom

The misunderstanding of the scientific claims does undermine Ms. Wolpert-Gawron’s article, but as a cognitive scientist who often reports research findings to my family of teachers, I feel it is important to address and confront the gaps that she mentions (and doesn’t mention) between research and practice, as well as her clear disdain for the scientists in question and their unwelcome incursion into her classroom. She is not unique in this attitude, nor is it limited to learning styles. This gap between basic research in cognitive psychology and the practice of teaching has negative consequences for each side. In their distrust of basic science, teachers miss an opportunity to improve their students’ learning by applying their expertise on relevant dimensions of learning. In allowing this distrust to exist, scientists undermine the public’s trust in the value of the basic science to understanding human behavior. Just as the science of medicine need not undermine the expertise of a doctor, the science of psychology need not invalidate practice-based knowledge, but rather supplement it with general information about theories of the mind and learning, without direct prescriptions for what to do in a certain classroom situation. In order to repair this distrust, scientists must first summarize our findings for audiences outside of our community, with an eye toward informing educational practice. In doing so, we need to describe our basic science findings as theories of how the mind works, not straightforward recipes for educational reform.
Daniel Willingham’s recent book Why Don’t Students Like School? may not do a great job answering the question in the title, but it serves as an excellent summary of consensus views in cognitive science as they apply to education (the learning styles and multiple intelligences chapter is particularly cogent and insightful). But we can’t stop there. We must also dispel myths, and we in psychology have a larger set of myths to dispel than others. When these myths exist, they are corrosive to science, because while seeming to represent science (“Well, it says it’s a theory”) they do not provide the measurable, reliable results that science demands. These myths are perpetuating identity theft of science, calling themselves science and wrecking havoc on our credit scores, yet many scientists don’t connect the bankruptcy of public trust in science with the myths that we let roam freely. In the case of learning styles, minimal evidence has been exaggerated and marketed to educators and administrators, outside of the checks of the scientific process. As scientists we must take greater efforts to reign in this misapplication of science. The recent article on learning styles that Ms. Wolpert-Gawron refers to is an example of this, as is another excellent book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, by Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyestein (learning styles is number 18).
In addition to summarizing the scientific consensus, and dispelling myths, the basic science of learning should clearly state the questions that we do not know the answer to, and get out of the way of expert teachers. Experienced teachers certainly have knowledge that science does not. Given that practice-based knowledge is practical knowledge, gained by classroom experience, it can sometimes be specific to the population a teacher serves, rather than a general knowledge of how people learn (just like baseball players are not necessarily experts in the general rules of projectile motion). It is not basic scientists but political reformers who are turning scientific theories into coarse criteria for evaluating teachers based on test scores, or a simple checklist. Basic psychological scientists are in general cautious, as well as skeptical of attempts to directly apply general theories to particular classroom situations. What Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is interpreting as science telling her what she sees in her classroom is in fact a summary statement of scientists telling her what they don’t see, despite having looked in the best ways they know how. The authors of the study, in my mind, are attempting to empower teachers to use the principles of learning that they know work, while encouraging them to steer clear of myths, which may have had a scientific-seeming provenance (if it’s from Harvard…), but have not received rigorous scientific support for critical claims.
I argue that basic science can concern itself with general mechanisms, and teachers can practice applied science in their own classrooms, but what happens when there seems to be a direct confrontation? How do we decide between the scientist in his sterile lab vs. the expert teacher with 11 years experience and 2500 students? In other words, why should experienced teachers let scientists tell them what is and isn’t a myth when common sense dictates otherwise? Because despite the fact that personal experience is very compelling and convincing, human beings are notoriously bad at direct observation of complex relationships. Our stone-aged brains notice patterns that aren’t there, seek out evidence that confirms our preconceived notions (called the confirmation bias), and ignore evidence that might prove us wrong. This is just as true for surgeons and scientists as it is for teachers, and the controlled observation, whether in a scientific lab, or through a double-blind study, or using randomized assignment to experimental groups, is absolutely critical element to the success of science in explaining and predicting complex human phenomena. This holds equally true whether it be the spread of disease or the process of learning. The history of common sense has been remarkably wrong, even in those experts who have seen thousands of cases. Scientists are people too, and so we don’t trust our own observations any more than anyone else’s, but rather use them to inform what should be tested in a controlled study. If controlled study after controlled study fails to observe, or offers contrary evidence to our most cherished beliefs, we have no choice but to give them up.
The goal, then, is a collaboration to arrive at the most relevant dimensions in learning, and the most effective way of teaching: respecting the expertise of the teacher, but accepting that in some cases, science can point out where myths exist. For example, the science of cognitive psychology can point to the necessity of practice (for example, through drilling) and background knowledge for deeper learning as well as the ways in which motivation and engagement are critical to learning, but cannot offer an ideal way to balance these two in a American History lesson for English Language Learners. The science can note that there is considerable evidence for the organization and meaning of a lesson having a large effect on learning, and little evidence that the color of the ink, or whether the words are on a page or on a blackboard have any effect. This does not mean that it doesn’t matter in any classroom, just that teachers should be cautious in choosing to spend time on choosing the color of the ink and err towards thinking about the structure and meaning of their lessons. However, only the teacher can apply these considerations to their subject and the particular students in front of them. As Ms. Wolpert-Gawron notes, teaching learning styles is far more difficult than not, but science here is trying to offer a way to make things easier. Just as science in medicine can call a doctor’s attention to a set of manageable indexes of health, science in education should aim to suggest to our teachers a set of relevant dimensions of learning, with the understanding that teaching is immensely complex. While basic science can offer theories and insight into how learning works, no one knows the particular students in front of her better than the experienced teacher.