Saturday, March 1, 2014

Learning Styles: The Horoscope-Casting of Modern Pedagogy?

Learning Styles, the idea that people have a learning type that favors one sense or modality over another (such as the belief in Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Styles) may well be the most popular pseudoscience being perpetuated in pedagogy today, and deserves wider criticism.

Upon reading many suggestions and references about how to select homeschool curriculum based on a child's presumed "learning style" and seeing that almost every characteristic of each supposed type, applies to my children, I suspected something akin to the Forer Effect was at work, so I did some digging, and found some scientific criticism of the idea of "Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic learning styles", as one of many myths about learning and the brain, that have become widely accepted regardless of their murky relationship to scientific evidence and the understandings of neuroscience.

Whereas I don't want to discourage anyone from sharing their insights as to what curriculum might work better for a certain child (wouldn't that information be golden, if we could get it except through costly experience?), in the interest of discovering and examining underlying controversy, and inviting discussion, here is an excerpt from the linked article above:

From the article Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers, the following excerpt:

"An example of a neuromyth is that learning could be improved if children were classified and taught according to their preferred learning style. This misconception is based on a valid research finding, namely that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain. However, these separate structures in the brain are highly interconnected and there is profound cross-modal activation and transfer of information between sensory modalities (Gilmore et al., 2007). Thus, it is incorrect to assume that only one sensory modality is involved with information processing. Furthermore, although individuals may have preferences for the modality through which they receive information [either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (VAK)], research has shown that children do not process information more effectively when they are educated according to their preferred learning style (Coffield et al., 2004). Other examples of neuromyths include such ideas as “we only use 10% of our brain”, “there are multiple intelligences”, “there are left- and right brain learners”, “there are critical periods for learning” and “certain types of food can influence brain functioning” (e.g., Organisation for Economic Co-operation, and Development, 2002; Geake, 2008; Purdy, 2008; Howard-Jones, 2010). Some of these misunderstandings have served as a basis for popular educational programs, like Brain Gym or the VAK approach (classifying students according to a VAK learning style). These programs claim to be “brain-based” but lack scientific validation (Kr├Ątzig and Arbuthnott, 2006; Waterhouse, 2006; Stephenson, 2009; Lindell and Kidd, 2011). A fast commercialization has led to a spread of these programs into classrooms around the world."

For an interesting look at the mechanism underlying the extraordinary popularity of baseless ideas, including the Forer Effect, and why VAK and other notions about learning style may just be the horoscope-casting pedagogy of our time, I offer for your edification,  "Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching" from the blog 'Evidence Based EFL'

Before we make decisions about education (whether of our own children, or other people's) based on these ideas, it is important to scrutinize them for their basis (or lack thereof!) in science, rather than relying on anecdote, hearsay, and our own tendency to believe out-of-hand, that which sounds vaguely reasonable. We don't, after all, want to use only 10% of our brains, as another widely believed myth states.

Monday, February 10, 2014

I was glad to have the chance to review Time4Writing, because it caused me to review my own paradigms about teaching and learning writing, and to consider the advantages and drawbacks of automated learning systems. My daughter completed the 8-week program for Elementary Paragraph Writing, in 4 weeks (which is simply the faster track, and a reasonable goal for any participant who feels comfortable completing an assignment per day), so I am reviewing it now, while the experience is still fresh in my mind.

The appeal of this program lay primarily in its representation of convenience to the parent, that their child would learn something without the need for direct parental involvement. I myself hoped that this program would improve my awareness of how writing is taught, since my memory of being taught writing as a child, is vague. In that, it has succeeded. By analyzing its process for strengths and weaknesses, I was able to define my own standards and goals for teaching writing to my children.

To parents who might purchase this course in the hopes of having such a hands-off experience, I would warn that the quality of the instruction suffers from the nature of automation. It often felt more like satisfying the conditions of an algorithm, than learning good writing, and she had to produce writing that was of lesser quality than she was capable of, in order to comply exactly with the directions as stated.

In at least one instance, adherence to a standard that calls for individual judgement on the part of the teacher, resulted in the teacher making erroneous corrections. Below, the teacher's corrections are given in purple text. Note that the teacher wanted my daughter to remove commas that actually belong in the sentences:

When I taste dense, chocolatey brownies,[no comma needed] I think they are yummy.
When I go through the green forest,[no comma needed] it smells fresh.
When I go to the ocean,[no comma needed] I love the rushing sound of the shimmering waves.

Here are the same sentences, with the teacher's corrections applied:

When I taste dense, chocolatey brownies I think they are yummy.
When I go through the green forest it smells fresh.
When I go to the ocean I love the rushing sound of the shimmering waves.

The problems are self-evident.

I emailed the teacher, and she was very prompt and professional in replying. She even provided the standard she was given to grade with, that she applied in this case:

  "It is permissible, even commonplace, to omit a comma after most brief introductory elements — a prepositional phrase, an adverb, or a noun phrase." 

Note, if you will, that had this same rule been applied without good judgement, to the rule itself, the rule would read:

"It is permissible, even commonplace to omit a comma..." Note the run-on aspect it takes on, without the necessary second comma. There was little consistency to application of the rule, for when my daughter deliberately omitted commas in order to comply with the teacher's indicated preferences, she was again corrected, this time in the opposite manner. 'Permissible' in some situations, does not equal correct in all; the judgement of a competent writer is necessary to guide the learner to good writing. Since the teacher's email correspondence with me demonstrated good writing ability, I could only assume that the pace at which she had to work, or the volume of submissions she had to assess, interfered with her normal ability.

Additionally, I found it necessary to intervene to help my daughter make sense of the paragraph development assignment. She was required to write supporting detail sentences before developing a topic sentence for a paragraph, as if growing a tree from the leaves, inward. When she wasn't able to write supporting details without a defined topic, I instructed her to phrase a topic sentence first, and then brainstorm supporting details, next. With that traditional approach to organizing thoughts, she was able to craft her paragraph nicely. 

Since both of us were eager by this time, to be done with the course, I did not email to ask why they required writing supporting detail sentences in advance of writing the topic, so I cannot present their rationale here, but I do not believe in any case, that I would have been persuaded as to its advantages.

The teacher is not accountable for the shortcomings of the system in which she works, but this mechanized form of packaging educational services is a meager substitute for meaningful interchange with someone who can take the time to encourage the best work from each student instead of adequate adherence to a disembodied set of rules. I do not doubt the teacher's dedication or personal worthiness, and would not want to hurt her feelings, or the feelings of any teacher who works hard under systems that pit profit and efficiency against their desire to engage in the inspired, personal teaching that first moved them to enter the profession.

But as anyone who would point out that you get what you pay for would say, expecting the value-menu fast-food chain fare to pass as gourmet fare, is ignoring the reality of what we give up when we look for a compromise on quality in the name of expediency. Since I did not pay for this course, I most certainly got an excellent value for the money.

To be fair, it did give her a challenge and an opportunity for growth, and as a result of this experience, she is more committed to private tutoring from me at home, and to applying herself conscientiously to her ongoing studies. What I took from the experience was a clearer idea of how to go about preparing her to write essays, with a better view for what did and did not work for her. That alone makes it a moderate value, in my mind, though I would warn against expecting it to serve as a complete replacement for the parent teacher. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dispelling our misconceptions about learning, in order to teach and learn better

We know less about learning than we think, and there is something we can do about it, but first we have to see it for ourselves, in order to believe it. On the daily bulletin of a MOOC I am taking about Mathematical Thinking, was this article on "Improving Classroom Performance by Challenging Student Misconceptions About Learning" by Stephen L. Chow, which calls for applying known insights from the field of psychology, to the problems of metacognition and learning efficiency. We all know less than we think we do, and our misconceptions about the learning process can harm our learning efficiency.

That "Many students arrive at college with highly overlearned study skills developed in high school that are now ineffective" implies that what it takes to be successful in the K-12 educational institutions, is at cross-purposes with deep learning. However, so long as schools increasingly require teaching to the test, the skills for success at public school, will not be sufficient for college-level work. Debate and discussion of this problem is so commonplace that it has practically become a trope, with attackers and defenders on all sides, so I will not belabor it further here, as my purpose is simply to present and partially describe an article on how to use what is known to the field of psychology, to improve learning (and potentially, teaching), by addressing common misconceptions about learning.

Notably, according to the author of the article, active learning is ineffective if it does not lead to deep processing. Teachers can benefit from this if they apply active learning to deep processing, but active learning that does not lead to deep processing will not be effective, according to the author, who recommends using formative assessment to improve metacognition and to give students practice in recalling and using information.

Anyone seeking to improve their own learning, or to support the learning of others (whether through being a tutor or mentor, educating their own children privately (with or without the use of school systems), or performing the job of teacher-for-pay within a school system, can benefit from this information.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

We've reached the two-week mark since enrolling my daughter in Time4Writing's 8-week "Extreme Paragraphs" course at the elementary level. She's at the last assignment of Week 5, which is well ahead of schedule, but the course went from easy, to challenging, just about now, and so I expect that her pace will slow as the difficulty increases. I think it benefits our homeschooling in that it jogs my memory about how to break down the teaching of writing, making me a better teacher even as it gives her a set of challenges from an external source.

So far, I can see benefits, and also some problems, with the mechanization of learning in this manner. Outsourcing to a private tutor is not an option for many families, but in any case, getting an 8-week course organized, graded, and run by someone else for $99 is a hard deal to beat. However, in approach and content, some of the sacrifices which are necessary in the name of automation, make this system compare very poorly to real one-on-one personal feedback, even the kind I recall from a teacher responsible for the whole class, in school. The teacher does respond promptly to any questions or concerns, though.

I'm not ready to make a full review, but am looking forward to seeing what we take away from this experience, ultimately.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Getting from spelling, to writing: an 8-week course!

By happy coincidence, we were offered an opportunity to try out a course in writing, to help my daughter bridge the gap between her previous work on spelling, punctuation and mechanics, and grammar, to fluent writing. Perusing the class offerings, I was undecided whether the class in sentence-writing, or the class in paragraph-writing, would be best. After consulting with the representative, we resolved to try paragraph writing first, and if that proves too difficult, move to sentence writing and work our way up.

Whichever turns out to be her proper placement, I am certain that this will be an enriching and challenging experience, and that she will grow in her abilities as a result.

For the next several weeks, we will be working on our writing skills at  This online writing program is designed to teach students how to write, focusing on writing structure and writing improvement.  Come back in a few weeks to see how we are progressing!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of Time4Learning

We were pleased to have the chance to try Time4Learning free for 30 days in exchange for reviewing it here.

Time4Learning, so near as I could tell, is simply a service licensing access for subscribers, to Compass Learning Odyssey, a Common Core-aligned data collection and education content provider that services businesses and schools. If that is not correct, I welcome elaboration from Time4Learning on its relationship with Compass Learning.

Due to the age range of my kids, we were able to try both the Upper Level and Lower Level curricula.  At both levels, there was some flexibility to differentiate instruction, up to a full grade level higher or lower than the declared one, and that is a crucial feature when working with learners who exhibit asynchronous development.

My review ended up being ambivalent, and I found myself unable to wholly like, or wholly dislike, Time4Learning. Despite my kids' objections, I am still tempted to subscribe at least for a while and see if the benefits of automaticity outweigh the negatives, and perhaps my daughter's feelings about it might improve once she is used to the format and understands how to "play the game" of standardized test formats. The ability to navigate that despite divergent thinking might be useful.

In some ways the automated system too much resembled an automated telephone answering menu system.
Both kids found having to listen to their answer repeated each time, and then sit through an animated cheer/boo session depending on whether they got the right answers, tedious and annoying.

Both kids found the animated praise or blame based on getting it right or wrong, demotivating. The negative comments on getting things wrong were upsetting, and seemed like a put-down, and the praise for getting something right quickly started sounding hollow.

Test results as a goal and endpoint for learning, promotes superficiality. However, that problem is endemic to schools, and as a support for and supplement to school performance on that basis, Time4Learning ought to be successful. Its execution is mostly good, and people who have no problems with its architecture and philosophy will likely appreciate the animations of the Upper Level learning, and the fast-paced, entertainment-style lessons.

Accepting the basic architecture and philosophy, we move on to a few notable examples of glitches in the execution of it, which are easily addressable and fixable:

In the math section, my daughter was measuring 3-D objects with a virtual ruler. She called me over because an answer she was sure was right, was listed as wrong. The object in question was basically cylindrical, and I watched as she lined up the virtual ruler with the drawn front edge of the cylindrical object's base. She did not line the ruler up with the rear edge of the ellipse depicting the cylindrical base, because in a 3-D object, which this was a drawing of, that would make no sense. The only way the "correct" answer according to the program, would make sense, is if the intention were to measure the total length of a paper cutout or line drawing, without attempting to measure the object it represented. In other words, the way this particular problem worked, had it been a cube she had been measuring the width of, she would have needed to include the depicted rear lines as well, so would be measuring the hexagonal shadow of the cube depicted. Addressing this problem should be straightforward, and I hope will be resolved soon for the sake of the participants.

Similarly, in a problem involving perimeter, the measurements did not add up to the "correct" answer. When her careful measurements and calculations came out wrong, my daughter again called me over. She knew what she was doing; it wasn't a lack of knowledge or user error on her part. So I attempted the problem myself. Clicking and dragging the virtual ruler, I measured and got the same results she had. In order to get the answer that was considered correct, I had to pretend one side of the quadrilateral was 7 cm when it clearly measured longer than that by more than a millimeter. Had it been less than a millimeter, I might have considered that line thickness in the drawing might have thrown the results off, but offsetting for that didn't help, and neither did resizing my screen. The error was too large for discounting as a line thickness and offsetting issue. It was a real error in the problem. Either fixing the error in the size of the quadrilateral, or else wording it to round to the nearest correct answer, would resolve that issue.

Some issues we had were perceived ambiguity, but that is a problem more to do with being a divergent thinker, than with the service, because we encounter this problem everywhere: In the science section, she encountered the question of which system an impulse from the hand encounters: the central, or the peripheral nervous system? She happened to know it didn't engage only one or the other. Had the question asked which system the impulse engaged with *first*, there would have been no problem for us.

Overall, I found the science section weak, but saw in the user forum some complaints about it being out-of-date, and the moderator responded that science is not the primary focus of this service because it is primarily concerned with Common Core adherence, and therefore the Language Arts and Math subjects are the ones that are updated and maintained robustly, with subjects like Social Studies and Science being offered more as a bonus on the side, and that for the price, it's still a bargain. Since people who are passionate about science probably wouldn't be using this service as the entirety of their child's education, I suppose that's acceptable.

Additionally, it offers these nice features which have my attention as a potential subscriber despite the drawbacks:

- It offers a discussion forum where issues, questions, and support are available, both from moderators and other users.

- It sends regular informative emails about the product and how to get the most from it.

- The math curriculum in particular, has my attention, because many elementary-level math curricula treat arithmetic as nearly the sole topic of math, sometimes for years on end. This product emphasizes that while important, math is not merely arithmetic, and offers good opportunities to use math as a way to analyze data, solve real-world problems, think spatially, and use logic and the properties of numbers to solve problems strategically. The shortcomings of presenting nothing but arithmetic and rote for the first several years of instruction are becoming widely acknowledged, but many curricula still present it that way, and this does not. The occasional glitches are something I verify and assist with, on a case-by-case basis. The math curriculum alone may still be worth the entire package and all its warts.

I do see the value of this automated quiz-driven system, for moving through concepts in math and reading in a hands-off way, and am still not entirely writing it off, because even though they find the animated format more groan-worthy than great, it would free up a lot of time on my part, and sometimes that is a pressing need when homeschooling multiple children with a wide age range.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Diversity vs. Uniformity of thought, and is there really any such thing as a Common Core? 

Overhearing someone talk about wishing they enjoyed a certain book, but reading it despite finding it terribly dull, gave rise to pondering what is to be gained from doing that when there are more books than a person can read in a lifetime, to choose from, and surely from that large set, something enlightening to the individual, could be chosen instead? Life's too short to spend time reading things you gain nothing from but bragging rights (and the shame of knowing that the time spent in doing so, would have been better spent doing almost anything else).

That's what I dislike about the whole philosophy of an arbitrary set of songs and stories that 'must' be read for a child to be considered educated, and that is my chief objection to the entire philosophy behind the books titled "What Your X-Grader Needs To Know".

It presumes that in a nearly limitless set of possibilities, the particular choices of one person, bear more weight, than the differing choices of anyone else. It also presumes that every child needs to learn the same songs, the same fables, the same cultural stories, to be educated, and that is provincial at best. 'Uniformity Uber Alles' is not a paradigm for brilliance. 

I counter that it is actually more important that we have diversity in upbringing and education, than uniformity. Since no one can cover the whole body of human learning, unless their learning is as wide as it is shallow, attempting to grow a monoculture of such shallow-rooted, short-clipped grass, (to use a metaphor) based on one master scheme for what makes every child well-educated, is bound only to produce widespread equal mediocrity, if it were to succeed. 

I would rather encourage my child to be (if this were her passion), the very best underwater basket-weaver there is (and only those following their passion ever become the great masters of it), rather than live in unhappy mediocrity, following someone else's blueprint.