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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Learning Strategies, Not Learning Styles

By Peter DeWitt — August 16, 2016 5 min read
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For way too long, students were defined and confined by learning styles. It most likely all began as a positive move toward helping students grow as learners, but it was one of those times educators took some research and went the wrong way with it. We (I include myself in this issue) would tell certain students they were visual learners, and others that they were auditory learners.

It’s not that we don’t have preferred methods of learning, but too often our students are boxed in by their learning styles as if they didn’t have more than one. This issue caused me to write about the Myth of Learning Styles a few years ago. It became a big issue because students, and their parents and teachers, began to believe that students only had one way of preferred learning which prevented them from strengthening other styles of learning.

Howard Gardner dealt with this issue a few years ago as well. In his seminal work around Multiple Intelligences, it became popular to tell students they were linguistic learners or bodily-kinesthetic. Multiple Intelligences has been such an important contribution o education, but it started to get used improperly to the point that Gardner had to address the issue in this Washington Post blog a few years ago as well.

And many of us know the work of Daniel Willingham, who co-authored this article on the Learning Styles with Cedar Reiner in the higher education magazine called Change. Willingham has long been at the forefront of distilling the myth of learning styles.

What these cases show us, is that in an effort to help our students, we seem to like to put them in boxes. We package them up and categorize them in an effort to help them, which really just goes on to enable and force them into one or two types of learning. And then we wonder why they don’t have a growth mindset (Why the Growth Mindset Doesn’t Work).

Perhaps what we need are learning strategies and not be consumed by learning styles.

Learning Strategies NOT Styles
In Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model written by John Hattie and Gregory Donoghue, they explore 4 different strategies and three necessary components to help lead to successful learning. For full disclosure, I work with John Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer, but Hattie’s research has had a profound impact on my learning. Hattie’s research is one of those areas that after you learn it, you simply cannot unlearn it.

Hattie and Donoghue write,

Boekaerts, for example, argued for three types of learning strategies: (1) cognitive strategies such as elaboration, to deepen the understanding of the domain studied; (2) metacognitive strategies such as planning, to regulate the learning process; and (3) motivational strategies such as self-efficacy, to motivate oneself to engage in learning.

Hattie and Donighue offer further information when write, “Dignath, Buettner and Langfeldt added a fourth category--management strategies such as finding, navigating, and evaluating resources.” These four strategies together focus on the learning, and the next three areas support how to do it. Equally as important as the student being in the position of the learner, which holds the teacher in the position as the...well...teacher, there are three other components that help increase the status of the learner and put them in the position of something more important...which is the self-regulated learner. Or, as Hattie refers to them...the assessment capable learner.

The Skill, Thrill and Will of Learning
Too often when we walk into classrooms, or when parents talk to their children about their day at school, we ask, “What did you do today?” A simple way to change the dialogue around from doing stuff all day to learning (both curating and consuming) we need to ask, “What did you learn today?

In order to inspire students to learn, Hattie and Donoghue suggest that they have to have the skill, will and thrill to dive into surface and deep level learning. The following are examples of all three of those important components.

The Skill - “The first component describes the prior achievement the student brings to the task. As Ausubel claimed ‘if I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this ‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the leaner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”

The Will - “Dispositions are more habits of mind or tendencies to respond to situations in certain ways. Claxton claimed that the mind frame of a ‘powerful learner’ is based on the four major dispositions: resilience or emotional strength, resourcefulness or cognitive capabilities, reflection or strategic awareness, and relating or social sophistication.”

The Thrill - “Biggs learning processes model, which combines motivation (why the student wants to study the task) and their related strategies (how the student approaches the task). He outlined three common approaches to learning: deep, surface and achieving. When students are taking a deep strategy, they aim to develop understanding and make sense of what they are learning, and create meaning and make ideas their own.”

In the End
Hattie has over 150 influences on learning, which come with an average effect size from the massive amounts of meta-analysis that he has reviewed, studied and dissected over the last few decades. When the effect size is a .40 (hinge point) we know that that equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. Anything less equates to less growth (and we need to look at why and not necessarily dump it from our educational vernacular) and anything above the hinge point could lead to more than a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

We hear and read all about influences like classroom discussion (.82), assessment capable learners (1.44), collective teacher efficacy (1.57) and feedback (.75). Additionally, there are also subsets of influences that are accompanied by effect sizes, all of which you can read about in this new research paper by Hattie and Donoghue.

More importantly, we have to make sure we are not so concerned about helping our students that we hurt them by putting them in boxes labeled with learning styles, and we have to listen to Hattie when he says, “Know Thy Impact” and understand if we are using different strategies, teaching them to our students so they know what to do when we aren’t there, and gather evidence to see how well they are working.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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