“That Thing with the Letters”: Working with Perceptual Thinking Patterns

Kids who’d heard rumors from older brothers or sisters often sidled up to me in the first days of school, to ask, “You know that thing with the letters–which one am I?”

How your child is smart“That thing with the letters” referred to Perceptual Thinking Patterns, PTP’s, a system for thinking about the diverse ways people receive the world and respond to it. The PTP schema was first developed by Dawna Markova, and interpreted by Anne Powell, particularly for parents and teachers, in a book called How Your Child Is Smart. (Conari, 2011.)

In class, we usually referred to the patterns as learning styles. The terms “learning styles” and “diverse learning approaches” are occasionally used in writing about education as  euphemisms for different levels of ability. That’s not what PTP’s are about. They’re also not about what activities you like best. nate with tube and vortexInstead, Markova and Powell ask people to think about their uses of various modes of perception–visual, auditory, kinesthetic–and then think about how those modes are linked with the states of consciousness they trigger or require for each person.

Alhambra new luke and deanThey ask, “What mode brings you to your most alert awareness? Within which mode are you less efficient, less in control, but perhaps more intuitive? What are you comfortable doing for an audience, and what will you need support to do in front of an audience? What would you rather do unobserved, in more freedom? Where are you most active? Most receptive?”

The PTP schema offers subtler ways of thinking about learning approach than the conventional shorthand, which says things like, “I’m a visual learner.” That’s crazy! We’re all visual learners! But–exploring just one dimension–some of us become more alert when asked to draw something with detail. Others paint in bold color with wild freedom. Still others scrutinize and create maps to ask questions and sort out possibilities, to hold a kind of conversation. We all use visual perception and visual thinking, but in different ways. StefanIn fact, we all use all the modes of perception, one way or another. If we think carefully, though–about when, and how, with what support, and to what effect–our answers to those questions will vary considerably.

At my school, we were introduced to PTP’s by a Touchstone parent, Peter Senge, who had written an introduction to How Your Child Is Smart. Anne Powell visited the school to do workshops with staff and parents, and spent additional time in my classroom, videotaping me as I worked with students, and helping me interpret what I saw when I watched the video. She also did detailed PTP analyses for some of my students.

Farm School 2012 mine black lambMarkova’s and Powell’s insights clicked for me, so much that I drove my family a little crazy, applying PTP’s to family interactions, conversations overheard in restaurants, even political campaigns. Markova and Powell spoke to my own convictions about the very diverse ways people learn and make sense–a diversity which had fascinated me since childhood. Years later I continue to be most excited by what I see as Markova’s and Powell’s fundamental message: We experience the world in very different ways, and the world needs all those ways. 

We are lucky to be so diverse in our approaches to learning and thinking and doing, lucky for the sake of our survival as a species, and lucky in the resultant richness of our culture.

Learning style diversity may be a wonderful thing in the world, but it can also be a deal-breaking challenge in a regimented, industrialized classroom, with too many students for any teacher to know each of them well, and all of it warped by constant testing and grading.

river group recording some editsConsider something as fundamental as taking notes. If you are taught just one approach to note-taking, and graded on your use of that method, it’s chancy whether the outcome will show the learning you could have experienced, if you’d been given an opportunity to choose between several methods, or invent a variation that works for you. One size does NOT fit all.

On the other hand, does this mean that a teacher has to hand-tailor completely individualized assignments? Or six assignments, one for each of the six basic Perceptual Thinking Patterns?

Heaven forbid, as my grandmother would say. Life is too short. (And there are too many variations on each of the patterns.) projects marble chutes editIf we want to honor individual learning styles, do we have to forgo the enormous benefits of kids learning in groups, and send them all back to their corners to learn in individualized autonomy?

I can’t describe here all the ways we found to make room for individual learning approaches within a busily collaborative classroom. (That may be the most important preoccupation of this whole blog.) Many of our methods came down to this: handing both power and responsibility to each child. We encouraged children to observe themselves and each other, in order to come to tentative understandings of their patterns. We modeled–and let them model for each other–many ways of approaching new material, and many ways of making it their own and sharing it. We gave them realms of choice within which they could try approaches and methods, and see what worked. We consulted with them, asking them to describe their processes and assess their results.

Above all, we said that being active in their own behalf, being “their own best teachers,” was part of their job. And it worked. transportation projects hauling sand editSometimes, after I refused to answer the “Which one am I?” question, the sidling-up child would ask, “And what are you?”

Me? I’m a VAK, although I wouldn’t say that for a ways down the road, knowing that I make a pretty good guinea pig for kids who are learning about this stuff.

Hooray for all the connections that led from Dawna Markova to a child who had struggled all his student life, who arranged his portfolio according to the perceptual thinking pattern with which he’d come to identify.

Hooray for the difference it’s made in my own life, to understand my VAK-ness. I’ll explain what that means, and tell more about the ways we worked with learning styles in class, and how students responded, in my next post.

One thought on ““That Thing with the Letters”: Working with Perceptual Thinking Patterns

  1. Learning this from you was eye opening. It truly did broaden the discussion from “I’m a blank learner” as I knew from myself that I processed information many ways and found it hard to peg myself as only a visual or only an auditory learner. Thank you for this, which really did change how I looked at learning, as well as your persistent message that difference without judgment benefits us all.

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