April 19th, 2009

Learning Style, Teaching Style

True story: I once had to attend a corporate development seminar (I swear, this happened). I was looking forward to it, and for this was roundly mocked by my colleagues, who were dreading it. When we arrived, the seminar leader told us that the teaching style popular in most post-elementary classrooms–teacher at the front offering information, students taking notes and answering questions–is easily absorbed only by a tiny fraction of the population. We all have a learning style, and most people’s is not to absorb information passively through their ears.

Then we took a test to find out our own learning styles. As it turns out, I’m the minority that those classrooms are designed for, an auditory learner. I had suspected this, as I’m rarely happier than when someone is explaining something to me (although, like a wine connisseur, I can spot fakes and half-assers pretty well). When the room was surveyed, I turned out to be the only one of my kind present.

The rest of the seminar was a lecture on how to make the best use of all the different learning styles. Ahahaha.


If you don’t attend corporate learning seminars, work in education or have children in school, you won’t know lingo like “kinaesthetic learner” but you likely know the truth: many more people can learn by images, actions, models, interpersonal interaction, and experiment than by simply being told. There’s a bunch of tests similar to what I took online, and it’s actually really a fun and satisfying way to procrastinate. Go find out your learning style, and I bet it’ll validate a lot of what you already know about yourself.

What makes me an ideal student in a conservative classroom–ability to concentrate silently, passivity, openmindedness, inability to process simultaneous streams of data, a (reasonably) good memory, high boredom threshhold–is, I think, what’s giving me such a tough time as a teacher. I like to take in information and then, much later and over a long period, analyze and synthesize and think critically and all that other good stuff that more dynamic learners can do on the spot. I’m a bad extemporizer and a worse debater, and I get very worried when I have to think on my feet.

Teachers *really* need to think on their feet. To give even a minimal foothold to those interpersonal/visual/kinaesthetic learners, there’s got to be some back and forth with the class, a few pictures and diagrams, and a readiness to change gears when something doesn’t work. Even when I am just talking, I try to stay away from “lecture mode.” It’s bad enough kids have to sit there and listen, it’d be that much worse if you just read off a page of notes and didn’t engage in that Emily from Bell Telephone voice (and we’ve all been in a “that much worse” class, I think, and know the horror). And anyway, I *want* to engage–I love my students and often consider what they say, when I can get them to say anything, far more interesting than what I have brought to the table. But to get the ball rolling, I have say something, and often, quite a lot of somethings.

It’s not like I have nothing to say (you know this if you’ve had dinner with me); it’s that I often require a couple stabs to say it so it makes sense (ditto). That’s the great great thing about writing short stories, blog posts, anything that doesn’t involve any witnesses to “first draft” thoughts. I’m wondering if a lot of writers are similar to me; have an easy time absorbing new info, and enjoy doing so, but it takes a longer time to make use of it in creative ways. If you are–or aren’t–like me, I’d be curious to hear about it.

It’s worth trying this think-fast business. I have had many egregious fumbles–like when students announce to me “I just like to write about death” or “I’m a stud” and I helpfully stare at them for a moment and finally say my all-purpose teacher phrase, “Well, you’ll just have to use your best judgement on that.” But I have managed one or two decent insights. I’m proud of these:

–“Wow, [Student], that writing was so visceral.” Blank faces. “What does ‘visceral’ mean?” Blank faces. “It means describing something physical in such a good way that the reader feels it in their body, or feels as if they could. It’s body writing. Because what’s inside your body?” Blank faces. “Viscera, your organs, all that stuff.” Sadly, still blank faces, but *I* had never made that connection before, so at least somebody learned something.

–“Everyone’s metaphor examples are really good, ok, but they are all really elaborate. I would love to hear some metaphors that you guys use yourselves.” Blank faces. “What about slang? Slang is often metaphoric.” Blank faces. “Like when [Student] said *The Life of Pi* was “pretty bomb”, she didn’t mean it might blow up, she meant it was good.” (it’s true, she actually said that!!! hooray!) “If you say a movie is cool, you don’t mean it’s below average in temperature, and if you say a girl is sweet, it doesn’t mean you’ve licked her.”

Beyond the highlights and the fumbles are the really really great parts where I don’t talk much, and I get to listen what the students say, leaning back in my chair and happily absorbing all their wicked cool insights about life, the universe, and energy beverages. I hope they’re learning half as much as I am.

Full professor / studying romances

PS–I wrote this post last week, blogger ate it, and this post was reconstructed from memory. I don’t recall *exactly* what was different about the first one, but I estimate that it was about 30% funnier and 18% more insightful.

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