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If Learning Styles are “Out,” What’s “In” for Differentiated Instruction?

Recently, Bryan Goodwyn wrote an article on zombie education ideas that need to go six feet under for good. And, he rightly included teaching to visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles, or modalities, to improve student academic performance in that burial. Why?

We’ve known for decades that content needs to drive instruction.

You don’t perfect science lab techniques by reading a book. Nor can you learn to read by jumping rope.

That said, not all students learn in the same way. If we teach in just one way, we put some students at a disadvantage. Further, while each child is unique, teachers need some sort of framework or set of patterns to plan instruction to meet different needs; how else could a secondary teacher with more than a hundred students possibly proceed? So, if modalities don’t work, what does?

Enter the Cognitive Processes

The cognitive processes that form the framework for Doable Differentiation are something entirely different. What are they? Brain-based differences in how we process information. These differences are both observable—you’ve seen them in students—and verified through research that I summarize in the book.

To understand these crucial differences in what students need to succeed academically, let’s listen to the voice of one who didn’t fit the mold of traditional schooling—whose natural cognitive process doesn’t lend itself to structured learning. I haven’t met Josh Hedquist, but when I read about him, I thought, Dang, he sounds like an Experience and Movement learner—the group we most often leave out in traditional schooling. He is starting a restaurant partly to serve great food and partly to employ ex-felons who need a second chance. As he told a journalist how he went from being a 9th grade dropout doing jail time to being an award-winning chef, he said:

“School is standardized. If you don’t learn that way you’re told you’re bad or dumb. In the kitchen, it’s about watching and doing. I can’t read a book and apply it but I can watch a guy and then do it,” said Hedquist. “Right away I was good and fast and I loved it.” (Berger, 2021, page E1).

Did he fail at school, or did school fail him? Once he was in an environment that met his learning needs, he moved quickly from unskilled fry cook through a series of restaurant positions to where he is today. You might say he’s a practical, hands-on learner. And he isn’t the only one.

Want to learn more about cognitive processes?

Jane recently sat down with Justin Baeder, Ph.D. to discuss Doable Differentiation and how teachers can seamlessly integrate these powerful strategies into their instruction to increase student success, engagement, and maturity. Justin is the Director of The Principal Center, where he helps school leaders build capacity for instructional leadership. Click icon to listen or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes

The Experience and Movement Students

In my framework for instruction, Josh seems to fit with the “Experience and Movement” students, also referred to as “Let me do something!” students. They make up about 25 percent of the US population, yet account for 50 percent of those who drop out of regular school. About 4 percent of US teachers share their approach to learning. Can you see the problem, the mismatch?

These students seldom have teachers who, like them, learn best by

  • Moving—and when they do, they’re often told to sit still.
  • Touching and manipulating objects and the environment—and how often are they told, “Don’t touch!”
  • Doing first and then reflecting—completing a step-by-step experiment and then reading or hearing about the theory, shifting around math manipulative until a word problem becomes “real”, and so on.
  • Talking—in fact, they think best by voicing their thoughts, forming their ideas as they hear themselves. And how often are they told to be quiet?
  • Asking questions to gain clarity immediately—which may be labeled as “blurting” or seen as annoying by teachers who are trying to give directions.

I’m talking about individuals who in Carl Jung’s framework of psychological type are gifted at seeing the details in the world around them. This isn’t a “learning style” but a hard-wired cognitive process for taking in information.

Jung defined four of these cognitive processes—you might be familiar with them as being more attuned to details or to the big picture, and more of an introvert or extravert. Jung did NOT say that we are stuck in one of these processes, but that they are irrational, as in, not under our control. As we mature, we gain more facility with all four of them. But, by definition, students aren’t mature, are they?

We need Experience and Movement students to succeed in all areas of schooling. Why? They gravitate toward careers in hands-on engineering (need any leaks fixed on oil rigs?), emergency response (need any ER doctors or firefighters?), coaching and athletics, sales, entrepreneurship—all kinds of places where hands-on learning and problem-solving are not only honored but essential.

Yet, most classroom environments put them at risk, don’t they? Is that equitable?

Is This Equitable?

Let me be clear. These students will NOT flourish long-term if classrooms always accommodate the needs listed above. The problem is that classrooms seldom accommodate these needs, putting these students at a disadvantage. My colleague Dario Nardi (2020), using EEG technology, found that these “Experience and Movement” students show little brain activity until something happens—in fact they show more brain activity looking out a window than sitting and doing a worksheet! Yes, they need to learn to do individual seat work, but other students need to learn how to learn through experience and movement.

Is This Good Instruction? Best Practice?

And THAT’s where what I’m promoting: teaching AROUND the cognitive processes is different from teaching TO learning styles. Successful students develop agility with all four of the styles I use as a framework for differentiation. Teaching around the cognitive processes involves creating clear goals for a lesson, identifying the cognitive process most naturally employed for the materials, and then adjusting for students who learn in the opposite way. Since all lessons need to start with clear goals, doable differentiation only involves two steps.

What are the cognitive styles? Here are brief descriptions along with when academic content or processes require or benefit from their use.

All students learn in this style when for example learning procedures, memorizing facts, practicing algorithms or spelling etc. independently All students learn in this style when for example they are engaged in independent reading, creative writing, independent study, or open task
All students learn in this style when for example engaging in science labs, physical education, music, hands-on problem solving, using manipulative All students learn in this style when for example engaging in drama, debates, collaborative activities, higher-level discussions that include critical thinking

Which do students experience the most in your classroom or school? Is any group at a disadvantage? Might you need doable differentiation to create a more equitable learning environment?

References

Berger, K. (2021). Serving up redemption: Joshua Hedquist’s new restaurant Joey Meatballs will give diners fresh pasta and workers a second chance. StarTribune, May 16, 2021, page E1, E6.

Nardi, D. (2020). The magic diamond: Jung’s 8 paths for self-coaching. Radiance House.

Jane Kise

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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