Learning Styles

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What motivates you?

Posted by on 21 Jul 2017 | Tagged as: 3rd Grade, 3rd grade, education, Education Professional, Learning Styles

As a teacher, I am constantly being told (by non-educators!) that I must “motivate” the students. What they usually mean is: make lessons entertaining. They think it should all be fun and game-like. It is similar to the now-passé concept of “learning styles” (link opens a new tab and directs to a study released in 2015) where teachers are encouraged to provide many different types of tasks (it has since been determined that people will learn regardless of the type of task they are given – -although some people are more engaged by specific tasks, the learning occurs regardless).

In an ideal world, if I had VERY small class sizes, only one or two “preps” (lessons to prepare each day), and access to abundant materials that I did not have to prepare or collate in advance, more of the lessons might be engaging to more of the students. However, I can guarantee that even then at least a couple of students would not feel fully engaged for any one lesson. Why?

Because we don’t all think the same way, engage with life the same way, have the same expectations for physical interactions or social time, pursue the same interests… because we are individuals. Students do not all begin a school year at the same level in the various content areas (subjects, for those of us old enough to remember “3-Rs” years). Students may be ill, distracted by out-of-school events, or just dislike the topic or task.

When I homeschooled our TWO children, who were clearly not the same in most respects, I did manage to adapt and adjust for their needs and interests most of the time. Even then, knowing them better than anyone else in the world knew them, I sometimes didn’t quite hit the mark. Still, they learned and grew and are turning into fine young adults. That was just two, with abundant time and energy to think about and generate everything that was needed and wanted. And sometimes, even with the best intentions, I didn’t make it engaging. And sometimes, that was part of the lesson.

Think about it: not everything in life is a competition (and it shouldn’t be); not all tasks are accomplished cooperatively (and needn’t be); many of the necessary tasks appear to be without reward (until they are completed and the final product is useful or beautiful, or…); and sometimes tasks are distasteful, uncomfortable, and tedious. In real life, not everything is fun. Most tasks require the ability to focus for longer than a few minutes (without a sound/movement/visual to pull you back to the task). Most tasks in life are NOT inherently rewarding.

In the real world, of course, I have a much larger class size — 20 or more (sometimes more than 30) students. Children I have generally never met, whose families and communities I may not fully “get” until part-way through the year. Children with vastly varying life experiences and challenges. In elementary school, I have about 6 preps: Language Arts/split between “Reading” and all of the other related skills; both “on-level” and differentiated (we don’t have a current curriculum, so much of this is teacher-created or found); Mathematics/split into the lesson of the day and “differentiation” when I can (this will be easier this year with a curriculum in place!); and Science and Social Studies (when I can fit them in). I have students who come in and out of the classroom, depending on which specialist teachers they see – some I see pretty much only at the very beginning and end of the day, others all the time except ten minutes here or there… I have to account for kids who are absent, who are ill, who have attention or language processing issues, whose vocabularies are limited, who are well-above grade level in all areas, who have traveled to other countries or never gone outside the county they were born in… I have “nuclear” families, extended families, single-parent families, kids with two households, kids in foster care or living with relatives or friends for a while, I have kids living in the home their grandparents were born in, and kids who are homeless. I have hungry kids, tired kids, wiggly kids. I have concrete thinkers and kids who are surprisingly able to connect abstract ideas.

I have kids who master the concept I need to teach in three minutes, and some who will still be struggling with the same concept three months later.

I have some who think the task at hand is inherently fun; and others for whom a reward of candy and games when they finish one question with help is still not enough.

I have students who are just disengaged… it’s not through an “X-box” or a “PS” so they don’t care.

What are we teaching our students when we start to think about education in terms of “fun-only” tasks? I have students who enter third grade not knowing how to hold a writing tool for maximum flexibility and strength, who struggle to write — not just the ideas and conventions, but the PHYSICAL act of writing or drawing, or cutting out paper, or … because those are “hard” and teachers in previous grades, and their own parents, think they are not necessary skills. But, think about it — there are third graders every year who cannot open their own milk cartons because their hand strength is too poor. I have had students who cannot put a straw into a juice pouch for the same reason. The only thing I can tell that keeps these children from having the hand-eye coordination, core control, stamina for learning is that they have never had to really use their bodies.

If it’s hard to write, their parents put them on a computer. If it’s hard to sit, they are propped up. If it’s hard to walk as a toddler, someone carries them or puts them in a stroller, or … Many of my students don’t seem to do things like build forts, play with building toys such as blocks, or even color with crayons in coloring books. They have tablets and video games, they even have cellphones. But they do NOT have an awareness of their own bodies. Other students have been accomplished horseback riders, skilled hunters/fishers, avid creators with found objects, dancers, musicians, sports players…

So, what motivates them? Depends on the child.

Many students enjoy seeing how they do compared to the class — others are beaten down again and again when they are ALWAYS at the bottom of the results. I don’t keep track of progress on public boards any more… I give the competitive kids ambitious personal goals instead. And I give the kids who are less-skilled personal goals that will be attainable but still show strong growth.

Many students like to work toward rewards — stickers, small prizes, time to play games. Others aren’t motivated by external forces — they have a more mature approach and realize that they are working toward their own goals. They prefer to be told what they are doing right and supported in the areas where they can improve — those students love to track their own learning.

Many students like to play games with material they are learning, but just like anything else, some children struggle to be successful whether as an individual or as part of a team… letting down one’s team is a big deal in third grade.

Many students like to work with others, except those who don’t — maybe they are just not that social, maybe they get confused when there are lots of ideas; and sometimes they are TOO social and have articulated to me that when they work in groups they cannot help but visit and so they prefer to work alone so they can focus on the tasks at hand.

Some kids LOVE videos that demonstrate tasks and concepts. A few really don’t. Some love music. Many don’t. Some love to MOOOOOOVE! Many don’t.

Some read well and happily at or above grade level and enjoy “popcorn” reading (where their names are picked randomly); many don’t.

And so it goes.

I started thinking about this because I have goals for my summertime. The most important goal for me was to heal from the stress of being sick and teaching all last year (and half of the year before). The reward? I have more energy and strength!

Another goal was to lose a few inches that I gained during the testing interval… since I don’t have a scale at home I don’t know what weight I reached, but let’s just say that the larger sizes I always keep on hand for allergic reactions weren’t quite comfortable even on non-reactive days! The reward? I am more comfortable not only in my clothes but in my movements.

Another goal was to re-organize my office space (requires cooperative support)… not getting there very fast… the reward will be that I can put craft supplies away, and have a desk for doing lesson planning — freeing up the living room for RELAXING in the evenings with small projects and books to read.

A final goal was to get the front entrance garden back in form. The reward, once I am done, will be a more attractive home to return to after a long day at school, more visiting space when guests are over, and a few flowers for bringing inside. And I am getting there… but slowly.

My students’ goals are even more diverse — every year we start out with what they hope to learn: multiplication often tops the list, followed by “curly” handwriting (we do cursive in our school); some want to write better/longer stories. A few know we’ll do bird reports in our room. Many want to study science of some kind (which I fit in when and where I can). Almost none say they want to learn to spell more words — but it is necessary. None have ever articulated that they want to understand parts of speech, or new punctuation marks! They don’t generally perk up when I mention we will be doing more difficult addition and subtraction, or be writing more than two handwritten pages at a time! But again, those are necessary. And most of them seem to think that the learning will just happen, that a single lesson is all it takes… a common misconception even in middle school. The idea that they need to review, revisit, rework, and rethink many times before they have mastered a task or internalized the learning is very distant and difficult for them.

Which is the final point about motivation: not everything can or should be accomplished in one go, or the first time, or instantly, or easily. When we turn all the necessary tasks that kids do into games, into fun, they miss out on the opportunity to learn about patience and persistence. As an adult, I often have to wait: Wait to have a meal; wait to find out the results of a project; wait one’s turn at licensing; wait for a response from a job application; wait, wait, wait.

What motivates a person to tolerate waiting? Practice. Practice in school, and in the family. Practice learning that a question needn’t be answered immediately; a boo-boo doesn’t need a kiss this minute; a flower takes weeks to grow from seed…

What motivates me? Seeing progress, whether it is insignificant or ground-breaking. Knowing that sometimes I won’t see progress and that is okay, too.

What motivates me to get out of bed in the morning? My family. My students. My Wally. My friends. My garden. My music. My books. Learning new things, and sharing with those around me. Making the world better in the small ways that are possible for me.

What motivates you?

Stepping Forward, Stepping Back: The dance of change

Posted by on 11 Jul 2013 | Tagged as: Gardens and Life, hope, house building, housefire, Learning Styles, musings, teaching, Uncategorized

In the wake of the fire, Tom and I are still working on finding equilibrium. The size of the apartment, the distance from my gardens, the lack of comfortable space and privacy, the noises of the city — and our neighbors — all conspire against the comfortable routines and patterns we used to have. He continues to focus on his work though without the long drive or the need to get up early to help Grant go to zero hour he has a lot more time on his hands. I focus on trying to make sense of the house plans and what we need to look at and learn about the systems and design decisions, and wish I had teaching to help me focus my energies on things other than our situation. We no longer need to think about or worry much about what Grant is up to — he will be a senior in high school and a college freshman this coming year, so he makes most of his own scheduling and activity decisions. We no longer have much to do in the yard, the garden; I have no real space to “do art”… and with our free time we aren’t yet settled in to expectations. And there are moments of extreme activity around house decisions, cleaning up items we salvaged and maintaining the apartment, followed by times when we are adrift.

It seems that some (most?) days we are caught up in a tango — step this way slowly, that way quickly, spin, reverse, proceed. Not necessarily in that order. We are stumbling along, trying to match our moves to the wild and varied rhythms of the band. It’s a metaphor that rings true, particularly since I never mastered the tango, and as far as I know Tom hasn’t ever learned the basic steps. Our lives right now are pretty clumsy. Our communication is rudimentary, and so we lack coordination of effort and focus. When dancing, once the basic pattern is mastered, there are logical sequences of steps and moves that follow; all in time to the music. In life, it is rarely that smooth; right now it is as disjointed as dancing the tango to a jitterbug tune.

One of the ideas that was prevalent in the teaching program was that learning is hard work. That what you thought you knew is challenged with each new fact, process or idea. The “newness” of the learning not only makes the current tasks difficult, it muddles the previously mastered tasks and renders any fluency, any panache, impossible. The learner stumbles, and sometimes fails outright.

Although I was once an admin assistant (and a pretty good one), all my training went by the wayside as an onslaught of emotions, immediate needs and demands from many quarters descended. Paperwork was misplaced or outright lost. Deadlines were missed. Opportunities overlooked. The many people we were supposed to talk to and work with, the coordination of who to talk to (and when) and who else needs the same information… It was too much, too fast, too overwhelming.

Stumbling. It all gets sorted out eventually, I suppose, but we are definitely not there yet.

Today, a moment of rest between sets. The band is silent, at least for the time being. The furniture is in the apartment and set up. Once the recycling truck takes the bins away, I can move some of the packing materials out of the office. I will put the cardboard in my van and take it to the house today, store it in the carport and use it in a little bit to make barriers around plants and along paths. I will have coffee with mother, lunch with a friend, a visit with another friend…

Tom will go to work, come home in the evening. We will have supper, watch some television. He will play some video games or work on his computer, and I will play my online game and interrupt him periodically with comments or thoughts that pop into my head.

In the background, we will be thinking about the next steps. Do we push for the contractor to move ahead, call the bank about the appraiser’s decision, work on making lists of items that we need to start looking for on sale so we can be ready with everything once the house is done?

What is happening with the music? Was that one beat, or two? Which direction should we move to keep from crashing into other dancers on the floor? Oops, sorry, that was your foot, wasn’t it?

A really good teaching moment…

Posted by on 01 Feb 2012 | Tagged as: Learning Styles, reading, teaching, Uncategorized

I was in a friend’s elementary classroom for a couple days, and was able to create a couple lessons (one social studies based, the other language arts) in advance. They were engaging and most students were very successful. I will probably repeat those lessons in other classes since they worked so well. Perhaps because I had spent time thinking about the capabilities of students at that age, or this particular class, I was already “tuned in” to possibilities when an opportunity for in-the-moment lesson creation occurred.

I was in need of an activity to fill a gap between when one set of kids finished a math activity and the others were still working on it, with half an hour or so left to go in the class.

From experience, I know that kids at almost every age need to work on how to “do” story problems in terms of interpreting from the words to the concepts they need to engage. I also knew this class was working on multiplication: basic facts as well as how to interpret real-life situations that use multiplication.

I know that when kids can work together that it supports many learning types and issues, and that the process of thinking about a good story problem and writing it down engages many areas of the brain. What I think I would do next time is add in the idea of drawing a picture to illustrate the story problem…

Other experience, as well as research I have done, tells me that “content area literacy” (the current buzzword) is something that all teachers should be thinking about. In other words, even in a math class, there are things to read, write, talk about, present…

So I decided to use several things:

  • group work (mostly self-selected groups)
  • student-generated story problems
  • student presentation and explanation
  • individual thinking work
  • whole-class discussion

Most of the groups had about 15 minutes to generate two or three problems (which meant that they also engaged in self-monitoring for time, complexity of task and “keeping it real”). A few kids were not able to participate because they took the entire time to work on the previous activity. One or two students managed to individually write story problems!

We had about twenty minutes to share, and got through all (or most of) the groups, choosing their best story problem.

Listening to them, reading over some of the work a few turned in (I hadn’t asked them to turn in their work, I will next time), I discovered things about what they do and don’t understand (formative assessment). What I didn’t expect to get from the experience was the robust understanding of how the kids are connecting different parts of mathematics and literacies. Or not — the insights into why they might be struggling in specific areas were good for me to get.

The kids were:

  • engaged
  • productive
  • cooperative
  • respectful
  • learning!

And when it was time to go to lunch… they actually wanted to stay a little longer!

Yep. A really good teaching moment.

Teaching, Learning, and Growing

Posted by on 05 Jul 2011 | Tagged as: 4MAT, education, Learning Styles, teaching, Uncategorized

Now that I am officially a teacher, it was time for me to something about the professional development plan I wrote at the end of the Master’s program.

The first component of my plan is intended to help me get a better handle on both differentiating instruction for special needs as well as on developing a teaching style that would meet the needs of (most) children seamlessly. My mother and other teachers had recommended 4MAT training as something that had been useful to them in their careers. So I found out that they offer online courses (useful, since the commute time is often prohibitive for me), and that two were offered this summer – a 6-session course and a 4-session course. I opted for the longer one (of course) since I think that more information can generally only be good.

I am so very glad I decided to do this! I am refining my understanding of and, in great measure, learning solidly for the first time, the way that the brain works during the entire learning cycle from experience through personal ownership of the information. Unfortunately, the Master’s program I was in did not give me the support I needed to make significant progress in understanding how to move from the theory of the learning cycle to the implementation in multi-modal or whole-brained instruction. The 4MAT course is doing this, and making a huge difference in how I think about my own instructional planning and presentation.

A real bonus is that this particular course is being taught by Dr. Bernice McCarthy herself, linking this course directly to some of the great educators of the 20th century. Her descriptions of her process as she developed the 4MAT system and the conversations with and support she had from people like Kolb and Eisner along the way help me make sense of things. Her excitement over the intersection of neurophysiology and education theory makes the discussions interesting as well as current.

This week, the homework is to begin to use the 4MAT cycle to plan a lesson. First hurdle: finding a lesson I want to teach! I am choosing grammar, specifically punctuation, since it’s something that so many students struggle with in middle school, and was also a sticking point for the students in the 5th grade. I am going with use of commas as a first point for instruction because those are the most common punctuation marks that are mis-used by middle school.

The framework for lesson planning is different from the “reverse engineering” idea promulgated by Wiggins and McTighe in their book . I am not sure yet which one will feel more comfortable to me, but the 4MAT seems to more completely consider the entire learning cycle.

Yes, I had intended to avoid study this summer, but this was an opportunity I felt I had to take! Next year, perhaps, I will go back and review and refine mathematics concepts so I am better able to substitute in math classes!