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The process of thinking and learning has proved to be fascinating and interesting for many philosophers, academics and scientists for centuries. Due to psychological and neurological research, evidence has been gathered about use of intelligence and the brain’s functioning. Learning, both formal and informal, occurs every day and there are many definitions describing its process. These definitions vary according to theorist’s own views and approaches towards learning (Pritchard, 2009).
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When learning, individuals often choose to use or adapt a preferred learning style. There are many defined learning styles and one way of finding out which style is the one that an individual prefers, is by answering and assessing a learning style questionnaire. Depending on results, learners are being described in various terms such as visual, reflector, pragmatist and many more. Not all theories provide questionnaires or tests to identify learning preferences. These theories, for example Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, are, nevertheless, useful tools helping recognise areas of strengths and weaknesses.
In this assignment I discuss various learning theories and how they are relevant to professional and personal practice. I present a range of learning styles/theories and outline their main points, for example Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Visual, Audio, Kineasthetic learning style, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. I contrast various learning styles and look how they are implemented into the national curriculum. I assess how realistic it is to apply the learning styles in practice and I also reflect on my own practice and experiences.
Learning styles and theories
A learning theory, perhaps more associated with adult learning and staff employment, that identifies and classifies various personal types, is Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The theory originates from ideas of Carl Jung and it identifies four preference scales, they are: Extroversion (E)/ Introversion (I), Sensation (S)/iNtuition (N), Thinking (T)/Feeling (F) and Judgement (J)/Perception (P). By combining the four letters of each preference the personality type is established. In total, there are sixteen whole types that describe individual preferences (Myers, I. Briggs, 1995).
Some critics of MBTI are quick to point out that the descriptions of different personal types are too vague, general and some overlap (Bayne, 1997). Additionally, various factors that can influence individuals when answering questions need to be considered, such as: Have they got previous experiences of specific situations when describing their behaviour and actions? How many experiences can they compare? How do they feel that particular day? Is there a possibility of a reward when falling into a certain category? (For example promotion). Who is going to be reviewing questionnaires, employer or an outside agency? Are results going to influence any changes in current job position? Are individuals going to be stereotyped? Are they going to be encouraged to work with their strengths and not given opportunity to improve their weaknesses?
Despite the flaws, the MBTI enables people to gain a better understanding of themselves and how other people think and interact with each other. It is also important to remember that each particular personal type is as important and useful as the rest of them, and that there is no right, wrong or better type.
Another theory, strongly promoted by the Department for Education and Skills (2004), is the Visual, Audio, Kinaesthetic (VAK) learning style. One way of finding out which style is the one that an individual prefers is by answering and assessing a learning style questionnaire. These preferences can be visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, or sometimes a blend of two or three styles.
The VAK learning style is supported by many educators who are provided with valuable understanding of what learning style is preferred by an individual, which learning environment enables the students to expand their learning and, which teaching strategies provide a balance of opportunities for the students.
However, there are also many professionals who argue that formal VAK tests are misleading for teachers. Instead of drawing attention to how children learn and how various aspects can influence their learning, the theory has led to pupils being labelled as particular types of learners. Many theorists, including Dunn and Dunn and Gregorc, use the VAK approach. Although, Gregorc’s model was ‘theoretically and psychometrically flawed’ and both of their styles should not be used at schools (Coffield et al, 2004, pp. 31, 33) according to the Department for Education and Skills (2004), both theories should be considered by schools. The authors of the ‘VAK or VAK-uous?’ demonstrate, based on their survey, that:
Scratching beneath the surface of it all, we find a rather intriguing world of accelerated and brain-based learning, a world of pseudoscience, psychobabble and neurononsense. (Bowker et al, 2008, p. 311)
Some of the theories take into account other intelligences apart from linguistic and mathematical skills. Howard Gardner (1993) recognises various intelligences, originally there were seven: linguistic, logical/mathematical, musical, spatial/visual, kineasthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal. He is correct to think that intelligence is not linked with IQ but some of his ‘intelligences’ can be viewed as talent. His theory encourages educators to look beyond reading, writing and mathematics, and to reflect on and adapt their practices. Teachers are persuaded to focus on student’s areas of strengths, to notice their skills, and use them to motivate and raise self-esteem of students who are otherwise classed as ‘underachievers’. The Department for Education and Skills (2004) recommends Gardner’s framework of multiple intelligences to be applied to plan lessons and activities ensuring that they are inclusive for all
children, taking into account a range of learning styles identified by teachers.
However, Gardner’s theory lacks research and evidence to support this. His critic John White (2006, pp. 82-83) openly says that because it is ‘backed by
authority of a famous Harvard professor’ does not mean that it is accurate and even Gardner himself admits that ‘it is only by chance that he (Gardner) decided to call his categories ‘intelligences”.
Another theorist that focuses on intelligence separate from IQ is Daniel Goleman. In his work he speaks of Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI has become ubiquitous and is widely used in various areas, which proves that many adults, as well as children, can benefit from using Goleman’s principles in practice every day. Goleman (2004) identifies five key principles: self and other awareness, mood management, self-motivation, empathy and management of relationships. The term ’emotional intelligence’ is known worldwide and closely associated with working environment. Goleman (2004) argues that EI is more important than IQ. For example when considering employing a nursery practitioner, emotional and social skills are more important than academic skills as the practitioner needs to be able to relate to parents, children, colleagues and other professionals involved in a child’s care. Additional training, to ensure that the practitioner has appropriate qualification, can be provided by employer or sought by an employee.
One of the key points of Goleman’s response to criticisms is that he is not presenting a new theory but a subject that has been studied for years under personality research. The theory was originally introduced by Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey, whom Goleman rarely mentions in his work. He uses the term emotional intelligence too broadly as he also includes aspects of personality and behaviour. Even so, many schools in the United States of America have successfully incorporated programmes on emotional intelligence in their curriculum and have been running them for a decade (Gilbert, 2008).
Both, Goleman and Gardner, suggest that not just academic skills, such as writing and reading, but also other intelligences are part of the learning process. They suggest the intelligences are equally important, and need to be considered when forming inclusive learning environment for children and adults.
With the Department for Education and Skills (DfES, 2004) and the Office for standards in education (Ofsted, 2006) promoting personalised ‘tailored’ learning for all students and raising standards, educators are put under pressure to ensure that learning needs of all students are met. DfES (2004, unit 19, p. 2) states that theory of learning styles is based on ‘tried and tested techniques and draws on academic research and the experience of practising teachers’. However, the unit 19 was withdrawn in 2007.
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Various learning theories offer their own explanation of a learning style, their point of view and often also a formal test or questionnaire. They all promise positive results and an explanation why a learner prefers a particular learning style. It is then up to a teacher to find ways how to implement the national curriculum that best suits the learner. Nevertheless, according to Susan Greenfield (2007) the practice is ‘nonsense’ from a neuroscientific point of view and she stresses that after thirty years of educational research, there is no independent evidence that any learning style inventory has any direct educational benefits.
Evaluation of my practice and past experiences
For me, the most significant aspect of this assignment was the whole concept of learning styles and theories. Initially, I did not know much about the subject and I found it more and more fascinating as I continued in my reading. Previously, I realised that children’s learning preferences can be monitored through detailed observations and evaluations, I was able to focus on children’s strengths and weaknesses. I think that observations are as important as questionnaires but I also realise that they are more time consuming, which was rarely an issue for me as I have only previously worked with small groups of young children. Having analysed various learning styles I now wonder how useful they are to my practice. I realise that children’s different approaches to learning need to be recognised. However, I am not confident about benefits of various learning styles to children’s learning, especially after reading Coffield’s critical points of view that arose from his research.
In my practice I have always believed that promoting empathy and positive attitudes amongst children would minimise unwanted behaviour, therefore, providing a calm and stimulating learning environment. As children grow they become aware of their own feelings and responses they receive when displaying a particular emotion. By fostering empathy, rather than sympathy, children and adults can gain a better understanding of each others feelings and emotions, what triggers them, how to control and deal with them. I would not go as far as saying that these aspects should be classed as ‘intelligences’, they are, in my opinion, more associated with personal/social skills and behaviour, thus having an impact on learning attitudes. A theorist who recognised empathy as an important part in children’s learning and development was Carl Rogers. He identified that not only children but also adults need to feel valued, respected and treated with affection. Rogers (1989) speaks of unconditional positive regard, meaning that parents and others, who play important part in a child’s life, accept and love a child/person for what they are no matter their actions and behaviour. To create emotionally warm environment where all children are accepted but also becoming more effective in interpersonal relationships, teachers need to display empathic understanding and communicate openly and honestly.
Learning style questionnaires and my learning attitudes
By completing one of VAK self-assessment questionnaires I identified that my preferred learning style was a visual one. On reflection, I can see elements of this style in the way I learn and organise tasks as I do work best from lists and written directions. I also write down notes and bullet points when reading, preparing lessons and activities for children or planning staff meetings. I often use different symbols or colours to link up subjects. I have discovered that seeing something written down enables me to make connections quicker and remember information better. According to MBTI online report my personality
type code is probably ESTJ or perhaps ESTP. After carefully reviewing the outcomes I agree with most of the results. I always plan ahead, I have got very good organisational skills and I use them well in my professional and personal life. Although, I prefer tasks to be done in a certain way, I am also willing to accept new suggestions (see appendix A).
Having analysed outcomes of other tests I undertook, such as Belbin’s Self-perception Inventory and Honey and Mumford questionnaire, I discovered new aspects of myself and I identified patterns that are dominant in my personal preferences. Furthermore, it confirmed that I am efficient and reliable, and I like structure and routine. However, I am introverted, I do not like role-play in front of onlookers, I am reluctant to delegate (which was commented on in an appraisals by my previous employer) and sometimes I do not respond to new ideas. Additionally, I do not like being rushed though I seem to work better under pressure. I also stand by my decision or view if I am sure that I can support it with a valid argument.
The evaluation was helpful as it made me aware of my preferred learning manner but also encouraged me to acknowledge, consider and develop other styles, as on many occasions I have expected people to share my learning preferences.
As a next step, I need to use the knowledge of my learning attitudes in my studies and implement my ‘study plan’. I have devised a new structured timetable and monthly plan, which enables me to clearly see my targets. I made sure that I allowed myself a sufficient amount of time for library research, visits and reading and I also took into account time that I spend undertaking online research. Equally, I made sure that I took regular breaks and I also allocated time for regular exercise.
It has been a couple of years since I completed level three in Children’s Care, Learning and Development, and the return to education was exciting but also a nervous step. I was aware that the studies were going to be more demanding. Rather than collecting evidence and information, building portfolio and being assessed at work as required in the past, future studies would be
based on thorough evidence based research and personal and professional reflections. Having acknowledged strengths and identified weaknesses, I now feel that I can use them to my advantage. In the past I learned how to deal with criticism, which I did not always take well, but being aware of this encouraged me to work on my skills. Now I use criticism to my benefit and look at it from a positive angle as a tool to improve myself.
In conclusion, the main principle that we are all different to each other, and that we develop and learn in a different way is still core. The knowledge of various learning styles provides teachers and practitioners with useful information on how to enhance children’s learning. The teachers are then able to plan lessons and organise activities accommodating various learning styles that results in a lesson that engages all of the students in the class. Pritchard (2009, p. 43) states that ‘Learning styles are not fixed traits which an individual will always display’. There are many factors that can influence learner, thus cause a change of a learning style.
As this assignment shows, every learning style and its theory have its dedicated supporters and firm critics. It is up to educators to find a balance and ensure questionnaires and tests do not overwhelm children.
When using questionnaires to establish learning styles, it is important to remember that results are not one hundred per cent accurate and some questionnaires are easy to fake. Nevertheless, they are practical tools to help individuals find out more about their strengths and weaknesses. However, time and resources should not be wasted on evaluating results that may have an insignificant or no impact on students’ learning. Also there is a certain amount of risk of children being confused with various labels and approaches, which may change as pupils leave school settings. Alternatively, a wide variety of teaching methods and an understanding of an individual’s needs results in a class environment that is inclusive, appealing and that makes learners aware of their own qualities. Most importantly, children should come out of a school system as whole ‘complete’ learners able to challenge and adapt various approaches to learning. They should gain an understanding of what their strengths are and how to use them so they can maximise their potential, and be aware of their weaknesses and how to improve and better themselves.
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