Friday, April 15, 2005

Learning Styles - Accommodate or Contest

Two summers ago I attended the Frye Leadership Institute held in June at Emory University. The event had lots of outstanding speakers. One of the best was Otto Kroeger who taught us about learning styles a la Myers-Briggs. Two years later, my take away from that experience is first that my type (there are 16 possible types) is INTP, which places me squarely in the absent minded professor category. Second, I was the only one at Frye who hadn't heard about this form of personality typing going in. (My excuse, which Otto accepted, is that until recently I was a faculty member and it had never come up in that context.) Third, we went through a live demo where we attendees were the guinea pigs. We were grouped by type though we were only told that afterwards. We were asked in the group to work through some particular task (what that was fails me now). The point was to show that the different types approached the task quite differently. Some like to make lists. Personally, I hate to make lists. It was an eye opener to see that was forecastable.

Fourth and most important, the experience was aimed at pointing out that we are different and understanding the source of the differences is a way of tolerating them and learning to work together. This is a really important lesson and I'm glad I got it at Frye. The best I had before was "trying to walking around in the other person's shoes." I think I did that fairly diligently, if in the background, but it was still always me in those shoes. I now understand that is not sufficient. There are others who really are different from me and they won't become me. They have their own legitimate way to approach things and manage issues. I need to respect that. That perspective has really helped working with colleagues and with staff.

Now I want to switch gears and talk about learning styles differently but before I do I want to note that those who attended Frye were mature adults who had functioned in the world of work for a while (in an Academic setting of course). None of them were under thirty, I believe, (though many were junior to me and much quicker on the trigger, but that is a different story). In switching gears I want to focus on learning styles as they are applied to the students who are entering our campuses in the residential courses. By and large these are kids on their way to adulthood. They are eighteen or nineteen and they are experimenting with the personal freedoms involved with living away from home while they go to school and engage in classroom learning. Together this forms some kind of stew that I believe most of us think is greater than the sum of the parts.

Many of these kids have spent much of their childhood and adolesence involved in video games, communication online, and watching TV. A subset of these kids don't read very much, in the sense of reading books or newspapers. No doubt that their experiences are substantially different from the experiences I had during the same period of my life. I'm quite ok with talking about generational characteristics based on those experiential differences. But I'm not ok, and indeed I think we're making a big mistake, in treating those generational characteristics as learning style differences. We're told to distinguish between visual learners and textual learners. Visual learners learn the same way they play video games, which is an immersive experience. So let's reframe their formal education that way. I don't buy that and I think we need to fight it. When I taught my Campus Honors course last year, I found the kids quite similar to how I remember bright kids from 30 years ago when I was a student. I believe their motivation was the same and I believe the course was a success in large part because I understood how to tap into that motivation.

College students may be largely illiterate and accommodating that is a mistake, in my opinion. The world of work that these kids are expecting to enter won't accomodate that. And, further, it would be a crime if our very best students are literate but the the rest are not, especially if we are encouraging the rest to be comfortable where they are rather than to work hard, and undoubtedly getting people to read and engage in serious reading as adults is very hard work, in becoming serious readers. I am all for showing brain scans in a neuroscience course and photgraphs of paintings in an art history course. But let these kids read too. Indeed make these kids read. Please, let's not abandon that.

No comments: