November 19, 2006

Kids as snowflakes

The buzz phrase in Ed circles is differentiated instruction which is based on the notion that since all kids are different, they each must be taught differently. Such sentiments are thought to be profound and are sure to procure lots of knowing nods from the educrati.

The kernel of true in such statements is that children are indeed different in many ways; however, it is equally true that children are the same in many ways.

As far as teaching goes, we only really care about the differences and similarities that influence learning and instruction. Of course, the vast majority of differences between children have little or nothing to do with how kids learn. Often these differences are expressed in terms of "learning styles and modalities," "multiple intelligences," and "differing interests."

Allow me to practice what I preach by pointing out that all of these so-called differences are similar in that none has any empirical support nor has any been shown to have an effect on learning or instruction. This is because the content of instruction dictates about 90% of what has to be taught:

Content, and the nature of content, doesn't change according to the interests of children, nor according to any other characteristic of children. If we were trying to teach a gorilla to read, the nature of reading wouldn't change. Obviously, when it comes to the nature of content, differences among learners don't have much to do with anything.
Learning style differences are usually assessed informally through teacher observation. Teachers, however, often know little about inducing real learning. These learning styles are often expressed as superficial external traits like visual, auditory, tactile or kinesthetic which mask the underlying complex cognitive traits.

For example, children cope with their inability to read in ways that might superficially seem like a learning style, but that actually reflect poor reading skills. It's easy to misinterpret certain behaviors. Consider the following examples.
  1. Sometimes elementary teachers say that poor readers are auditory learners because they can't track words with their fingers. It's more likely that they can't read the words. Usually these auditory learners can keep their eyes riveted to a television or video game screen for hours.
  2. Sometimes elementary teachers say that poor readers are visual learners because they memorize and rely on picture clues rather than sounding out words. It's more likely that they revert to visual clues because they can't read the words. Without knowledge of the underlying sound structure of language, they have little choice but to rely on memorization and guessing.
  3. Sometimes high school teachers say that poor readers are auditory learners because they need the text read aloud or explained to them.
  4. Sometimes high school teachers say that poor readers are visual learners because they need pictures, graphics, and visual displays to explain the text to them.
  5. When students are labeled tactile/kinesthetic learners, they often need hands-on experience, group work, and activities to learn, not because of their learning style but because they need structure, assistance, and feedback on difficult or unfamiliar tasks.
In all of these examples, the source of the observed behavior is poor reading skills. To ignore the basic problem in no way benefits the students.

The point is that all kids (and humans) share some characteristics that are useful for learning, and, therefore, instruction has to accommodate those samenesses among learners, rather than the many differences among them. Learning styles and "intelligences" and student interests and modalities couldn't possibly have too much influence on learning, not when the nature of content doesn't vary among learners, and not when some of those things that make us all human are so central to learning.

Efficient instructional programs make every effort to communicate the essential nature of content to all learners (because it is the same for all learners), and they make every effort to take full advantage of the ways all humans generalize more accurately and efficiently. What is the same about children is their innate capacity for language, to learn to read and think inductively and deductively. What is the same about all children is that they will learn if given appropriate instruction. They may learn at different rates and may need different amounts of structure and practice to master academic skills and concepts, but they can learn.

Educators should be designing and delivering instruction that capitalizes on the sameness of all children, rather than to cater to their differences.

7 comments:

rightwingprof said...

Shame on you! Don't you celebrate diversity?

Mr. Person said...

It should be mentioned, too, that one of the innovations of the modern public school system was to reduce the amount of diversity teachers had to deal with by assigning them students grouped by age.

The range of individual differences in most modern school classrooms is far less than that present in the old one-room schoolhouses.

I of course agree that content is king. And content controls practice in a very real way.

Anonymous said...

The schools had better hope that the kids are more similar than different. If each kid needs individual instruction that is totally different from every other kid in the class, a typical student will receive about 1 hour/week of instruction (carefully tailored to that student) per week.

At 1 hour/week of instruction, most kids won't be getting *any* education.

-Mark Roulo

Barry Garelick said...

A lot of times, what they mean by individual learning styles, is that some students do not speak or understand English. That is indeed a handicap, and one that should not be the teacher's respnsibility.

Tracy W said...

A lot of times, what they mean by individual learning styles, is that some students do not speak or understand English. That is indeed a handicap, and one that should not be the teacher's respnsibility.

It should however be the schools' responsibility.

Despite being born to English-speaking parents, and spending all my pre-school years in English-speaking schools, at age 4 I was not speaking English very well. I was understanding it fine, just not speaking it clearly.

And an excellent pre-school teacher picked up on this and dispatched me to a speech therapist.

This should be happening to every kid who has a speech problem.

NYC Math Teacher said...

"Despite being born to English-speaking parents, and spending all my pre-school years in English-speaking schools, at age 4 I was not speaking English very well. I was understanding it fine, just not speaking it clearly.

And an excellent pre-school teacher picked up on this and dispatched me to a speech therapist."

This should've been caught by a good pediatrician asking your parents the right questions about milestones in your development.

Tracy said...

I don't think I ever saw a pediatrician in my childhood. Nor did my brothers. Not a NZ custom.

There was Plunkett, which questioned Mum about my meeting childhood developement milestones. Mum would claim that I was doing everything, and then her and Dad would figure out how to teach me to do whatever it was at home.

(They both have post-graduate degrees and Mum was actually a high school teacher at the time).