Learning Styles Revisited

After my first post about learning styles appeared, I heard from a number of past students and their parents, who affirmed the good things our learning styles work had done for them. I’m so glad!

I also heard from Anne Powell, coauthor of the book that’s been my learning styles bible, How Your Child Is Smart. Annie said, “Write more!” and then filled me in on some of the ways the terminology has continued to evolve. For example, Dawna Markova’s approach to the subtleties of individual learning, what we called “learning styles” in my class, is now more commonly referred to as “Mind Patterns.”

I love that term, mind patterns. It evokes streams braiding together in a delta, or lines of music, or people dancing to weave the ribbons of a maypole–or the braiding together of different states of consciousness, in the way we do almost anything.

learning poster 1All the illustrations for this post come from my archival set of learning style posters. For each student, we brainstormed evidence in a class discussion, and I took notes (in apparently very variable handwriting) to help the class keep track of what had been said, and to create a recording of the discussion that could be given to the focus child.  For each poster, I’ve cropped off the name at the top, and also the letters representing students’ hypotheses about Mind Patterns that could fit the evidence.

All day long you cycle among different states of mind, with various kinds of alertness to your surroundings, or attention to your own internal processing.

  • Sometimes you’re fully conscious: alert, systematic, able to attend to the world’s detail and organize it, comfortable with the view from the front porch of your personality. (Just in the way I describe all this, I inadvertently manifest my own pattern, by talking about a view from a porch. For some people it’s more like hearing all the strands in the flow of a conversation, or grasping the physical processes in the workings of an engine, or…)
  • In the blink of an eye, though, you can switch to the state of mind Markova calls subconscious, where input and output are more balanced, where you question and process, perhaps continuing to pursue an interesting thought instead of listening to a musical performance, or distracted by something you see off on the edge of what you’re meant to be seeing, or continuing to think of ways to solve a challenge in building something. You mull things over. You are less efficient, less systematic, but more intuitive than in your conscious channel. Your processing has the motion, the flow between poles, that can lead to new insights, fresh approaches, good decisions.
  • You also cycle through moments when you are in a state Markova and Powell referred to as unconscious–although they didn’t mean asleep, or in a coma. They meant that loose place, that fuzzy place, where you are “in another world,” much less aware of detail and much more aware of essence; where you are your most intuitive, your most receptive–but in a way you can’t easily organize or control–so you’re also vulnerable.

These three states of mind, described much more fully in How Your Child Is Smart, have become increasingly associated with brain wave patterns, in the ways Mind Pattern people talk about them.

  • learning poster 6Beta waves predominate when you’re conscious, in your front channel.
  • Alpha waves characterize the middle channel, what Markova called the subconscious.
  • Theta waves, trance-like, characterize the back channel, the unconscious.

(I’m simplifying this considerably, to get where I want to go with it.)

The Mind Patterns schema also thinks about types of experience, both receptive and active.

  • Auditory experience involves both listening (passively) and speaking or singing (actively.)
  • Visual experience involves both seeing–landscapes or charts or people’s facial expressions–and also creating things to be seen: drawings, presentations, maps.
  • Kinesthetic experience involves both feeling, receiving sensation–and also building, moving, acting out a story, transforming things by changing their position or connections or condition.

Mind Patterns analysis says that these three states of mind (conscious, subconscious, and unconscious) and the three realms of experience (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic) tend to interact in interesting ways, triggering each other. Nothing’s absolute, but for each of us visual experience, for example, tends to trigger a particular state of mind. Also, given a new experience, each of us tends to process it in a relatively predictable pattern or sequence.

Those interactions and patterns affect, for example, not whether we see but with what kind of attention–not whether we speak, but within what kinds of safety–not whether we feel, but with what kind of access to our own feelings.

learning poster 3Another italics interruption, to marvel at these recordings of kids’ comments about each other. Some comments are pretty blunt, as in “sometimes brags”, to the left. (I’m surprised I wrote that down–it’s possible that the kid himself said it!) Overall, though, the comments are both astute and kind. Within our community, we regularly affirmed that none of us were perfect, that all of us were figuring out how to be both true to ourselves and respectful of others. Reading the posters, I’m struck again by the safety these kids created for each other.

In class with my students, when I got to that point, having explained the three kinds of consciousness and the three realms of experience as seen within this schema, and having gotten the kids to help me list examples within the categories, I wanted to help them see how it all comes together, and sometimes I began with myself.

learning poster 4By the time we were doing this–never at the very beginning of the year, in spite of public demand–the kids knew me pretty well. They knew that my ability to see what was happening in the entire room could be kind of spooky. They knew that I wanted to see their faces while I read aloud, so I had learned to grab big chunks of print in quick looks down at the page. They knew that my particular kind of visual attention let me do that back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between the print and their faces, almost any time–unless I was too tired or too emotional about the book.

They knew that I tended to process anything unresolved by talking or writing about it; or getting them to talk or write. They knew that I depended on hearing every voice in the class–which meant side conversations within a group meeting could throw me off. I wanted to hear everything, but I couldn’t sort and organize what I heard as quickly or comfortably as with visual information.

They knew that active kinesthetic experience was exciting for me–bicycling! canoeing! building things!–but often a little out-of-control. Almost everyone talks with their hands. I talk with my entire arms, and bystanders have been known to look for helmets. I’m trying to sketch, in the air, the thing I’m talking about, to make it visible, and that can get messy.

My students had also experienced me as a person with very strong feelings, sometimes surprising to myself, revealed to me, often, only by the intercession of language.

learning poster 5None of this is about what I like most or least, or what I do more or less well. It’s about relationships between states of mind and kinds of experience.

Most of the time, I tend to use the VAK pattern (visual consciously / auditory subconsciously / kinesthetic unconsciously.)

Like each of the six patterns, VAK has many variations, and it has its ups and downs. VAKs drink in the visual world, and love to create things to be seen. We tend to be eager and compliant students, for whom the traditional classroom setup actually works pretty well. In an active classroom, we can easily become overwhelmed by kinesthetic experiences and demands–but they are really helpful for us, long-term, if we’re given support from our friends.

Reading the advice for parents of a VAK child, in How Your Child Is Smart, and reaching a part about helping your VAK child understand “how long it takes her to do anything,” I burst into tears. “Oh,” I thought, “if only they could have!” They were doing their best, like most parents. Still, if they’d known how to help me understand my slowness, I might have avoided years of considering myself useless for anything practical, that really mattered.

Here’s the fundamental fact: no one of us can be everyone.

learning poster 7So we put up big pieces of paper on the walls of the classroom, and brainstormed what we had noticed about each student’s patterns–with the focus child getting to put in his or her own two cents, with huge competition for who would be next, with gradually increasing clarity about the whole business. It was fun–

–and it was also an indispensable part of what our school called “the social and emotional curriculum.” As we explored these ideas together, kids could discover and experience for themselves, in a very direct way, Markova’s and Powell’s central insight: there are many ways to experience the world and join in its creation.

In the previous post about our learning styles work, I wrote about the ways my understanding shaped my teaching, my sense of individual needs, and my sense of appropriate (and sustainable) ways to respond. (Short version: I invited them in, to be “their own best teachers.”)

The learning-styles work was never about alibis, giving kids reasons to try less hard when faced with challenges. All of us can grow and become more balanced versions of ourselves, more receptive to the insights that aren’t native to us, more active in ways that take greater effort or practice.

Still, none of us should be made to give constant attention to what is challenging for us. We need to encourage each other–in schools, in our families, in our workplaces, in our communities–to live in the happy momentum of our strengths, to give with joy whatever is ours to give.

Vive la difference!

Get Out!–and Find Four Things

Someone on the radio said research had shown that the typical American kid spends an average of just 7 minutes each day outside. “Yikes!” I thought later, as I walked under oak woods and tall white pines, past a beach still covered with snow. I couldn’t have heard that right.

What happened to the outdoor recess that should be every schoolchild’s right? Even in winter, it had to be really cold and windy to keep us inside. Kids conducted unscheduled experiments with snow and rocks and mud, learned how to approach a group and join it, invented complicated variations on gym games and argued about the rules; shouted each others’ names under the sky, and learned how to run in a long chain, or backwards–or how to conduct a complicated conversation while walking at full speed.

We could read the importance of this outdoor time, in experiments conducted by nature. Even a few days of pouring rain took their toll on kids’ patience, stamina, confidence and social skills.

get out playground-sprinkler-runMy father died a few weeks ago, a long, slow, mostly peaceful death. I kept seeing him, in my mind, in one of his boats, following the bends of a creek in no hurry to reach open water.

The mortality curriculum, I used to call it–something we would never go hunting for, or plan into the life of a class–something that would find us, one way or another–not an experiment of nature, exactly, but a reality.

Reading and writing can give us ways to think about endings, and the place they have in stories. That’s part of why we send our students there. Taking a break from blog posts, I gave myself the kind of assignment I used to give my students, and wrote a version of my dad’s story, going back to think again about the impact of his war on his life.

Beyond that, spending a lot of time outdoors was always the most important way we held onto huge, hard-to-manage realities–and it remains that for me now. Because my father always spent as much time as possible outside–gardening, shooting baskets, working on boats–it’s a way to think about him even without thinking. I’m walking a lot these days.

Richard working on boatAs I watch the spring melt (finally) pouring over the steps of the channel downhill, I keep worrying about all those kids indoors too much. What about sitting outdoors at dismissal? Walking or bicycling home from school?

garden studying compostFor that matter, what about outdoor learning? At Touchstone, we deliberately encouraged curriculum that could be carried outdoors, or actually required the outdoors– outdoor sketching, perched on stools in the gardens; outdoor biology directly related to the school grounds, for example, studies of the macroinvertebrates to be found in our compost.

What about quick unaccompanied runs around the school, and the invaluable discussions of the ground rules needed to guard against people hitting the ground?

Finally, what about outdoor homework? We asked kids to follow the run-off water from their back yards, or pace off the distance from the front door to the nearest rock bigger than a loaf of bread (rarely a long distance, where I live, in the glacial debris field of New England.)

But maybe the most important thing we did, to preserve kids’ free time outdoors–emphasis on the word free–was our homework policy, limiting homework strictly, faithfully, including a generous amount of reading time within the limit. (Almost every year, at some point, my class had a conversation about kids’ favorite places to read outdoors.)

Minn Holling Clancy HollingHere’s a game, or an assignment, or a meditative practice–take your pick. It’s based on something Holling C. Holling says in the feast of marginal notes in his rich, sprawling, problematic and wonderful classic of American geography, Minn of the Mississippi. 

As he’s following a snapping turtle down the river, Holling says that a miniature natural history museum could consist of just four things–a pebble, a leaf, a feather, and a button. Something mineral, for geology / from a plant, for biology / from an animal, for zoology / made by a human, for anthropology.

Minn was published in 1951. We might organize those sciences differently, now–and I was always tickled by the kids who said, “But humans are animals, too. Why are they made separate here?” Still, I come back again and again to the task of finding Holling’s four things, when I’m walking,

Here’s a collection from a recent walk at  Hopkinton State Park.

find four things with feather and shard croppedEarly on, in my career of using this exercise, I swore that I wouldn’t pick up cigarette butts, although they are almost always the easiest human artifact to find. That day, I found two human-made things that intrigued me: a piece of crockery, and a tiny woven cord. For my final collection, I chose the crockery.

That day, as almost always, the hardest thing to find was the animal thing. The melting snowbanks were strewn with dog poop, but I wasn’t going to pick that up and carry it away.

mole wine cellar croppedRodent tunnels disappeared into the remaining snow, and I thought of the mole’s wine cellar I found at the family farm in Maine, crabapples crammed and fermenting in a tunnel beneath the snow, revealed when the snow melted away. I’m just guessing that the critter was a mole. In any case, that too defied being carried anywhere.

Unless you’re at the beach, it takes very careful observation to find a feather, or a shell, or a bone, or a bit of hair or fur snagged on a thorn. Mostly, animal remains get hauled off to be eaten, or processed by beetles and bacteria pretty quickly. They disappear. But this day, I found that tiny feather where the snow had just melted.

get out four things collectionsFind Four Things made a wonderful assignment for homework outdoors. (Here, to the left, are most of the collections of a recent class.) We said that kids could do this in their backyards, or in other outdoor places, but should skip things found indoors–so, for example, no shells from Florida, sent north by cousins.

We took plenty of time sharing these collections, hearing about where they came from. Then we left them set up on the table–a museum of miniature museums.

What’s learning without arguments? If you can’t find any animal remains at all, can you count a souvenir of animal activity, for example an acorn bearing obvious toothmarks, or those channels of tiny micro-arthropod travel inscribed on the inner surface of tree bark? Is it a human artifact, or a plant thing, if it’s something humans made out of wood? But isn’t everything mineral in origin?

I’ll let you imagine all the productive channels those discussions could follow.

Sometimes I bring home the set of four things I settle on. But I’m here mostly to practice gathering and letting go. I stand outside, under an enormous sky, and hold enormous things in my small and always aging heart. All the living beings of the natural world–not just we humans–dwell in the compost pile of what has been, and in the seeds and (often invisible) eggs of what will be.

As I lay down my collection, gathered from that dear rubble the melting snow reveals, I think of all those children trapped indoors. I really don’t believe that thing about seven minutes. Still, just in case, I mutter to the air at large: Let my people go.