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This paper explores the implications of differential instruction in public school classrooms by considering interactions between teaching and learning styles. The diversity of teaching styles (TS) and learning styles (LS) is discussed and explored, including the surrounding difficulty of defining what constitutes a style. Research shows detrimental implications when the teaching styles and learning styles do not match well, while other research shows beneficial implications when teaching styles and learning styles are matched to accommodate the learner. Finally, the topic of implementing differential instruction in the classroom is considered, and proposed methods for teacher training are discussed.
Matching Teaching and Learning Styles in Public Schools
Marva Collins, a renowned, celebrated, and award-winning public school teacher once declared, Don't try to fix the students, fix ourselves first. The good teacher makes the poor student good and the good student superior. Much debate historically has been centered around holding teachers accountable for student achievement but a new wave of psychological inquiry focuses on the learners, their needs, their surroundings, and their strategies for learning. For example, social psychologists ask questions about the social interactions within the classroom, cognitive psychologists concern themselves with learning strategies that produce the most effective longitudinal retention, and personality psychologists probe the relationships between personality and classroom participation.
One area of research that has captured the attention of many psychologists recently has been in the field of education psychology, specifically regarding improvements in both the quality of the teachers instruction and the achievement of the learner. As do many problem-solvers, psychologists are narrowing in on obstacles in the education system and within public schools as they try to combat increasing dropout rates, ill-prepared college students, and deteriorating interest certain subject matters, to name a few. However, school-related issues are not just based at one level of the education system (e.g. the classroom, the district) but are instead widespread and interrelated. District policies that govern individual schools also influence teachers and, as a result, also influence students.
One of the most important and challenging factors facing educators today is classroom heterogeneity. With even national and local governments contributing to the widespread individual differences in classrooms (for example, No Child Left Behind and standardized test scores), school leaders and educators face an increased need to accommodate such diversity. The effects of classroom heterogeneity are particularly pronounced in the field of mathematics because this subject is structured in a rigid and highly sequential fashion (Oakes, 1990). Additionally, psychologists attempt to answer how learning should be assessed and measured, how teachers should be trained and appraised in the quality if their instruction, and certain problems associated with outcome based learning.
Despite the numerous issues in schools today, equal amounts (if not more) of ways the education system can be improved have also surfaced in the past few decades. Addressing the issue of multi-level problems of classroom heterogeneity, Slavin and Karweit (1985) proposed adjustments for the students at each level: a) interdistrict grouping via specialized or magnet-type schools, b) interschool grouping by curriculum tracking versus curriculum placements, c) interclass grouping by implementing regular instruction versus advanced instruction classes, and d) individualized instruction where students work on learning materials at their own level and their own pace with frequent assistance from their teachers (p357). However, this suggestion is not free from consequences. Parents, in the case of interdistrict and even at interclass levels, largely decide where to send their children and what types of classrooms to place their children, and these decisions may not be well-informed in the sense of what is best for the learning needs of their children. Instead, the decisions might be based on future college admission, reputation of the school, or even neighborhood and proximity to their home or work.
George (2005) addressed classroom heterogeneity on the other end of the spectrum by proposing and discussion the implications of homogenizing classrooms based on how each student best succeeds or best learns. However, this suggestion induces quite a bit of controversy and other important implications including sensitive issues regarding racial integrations (many schools see performance differences between ethnicities, and indicates that culture and other nurturing factors in psychology also influence how an individual learns which may lead to ethnically homogenous classroom settings). Nevertheless, George (2005) emphasizes that classroom heterogeneity more likely benefits students by broadening their awareness of individual differences and other cultures, learning styles, and equal access to all types of teachers and teaching styles. Studies in heterogeneous classrooms further suggests that these diverse situations can promote peer-to-peer learning, may improve the self esteem of all students, and can have far reaching benefits in the realm of education for future citizenship (George, Renzulli, & Reis, 1997).
If heterogeneous classrooms benefit most, or at best all students, then why is it such a predominant and persisting problem in schools? The problem is that teaching to such a diverse population of students may not be the most effective method of instruction. Research exploring these difficulties explain why certain education laws (e.g. No Child Left Behind) and test standardization exist; students do not learn and perform on equal levels, despite the same school setting, the same general classroom and time of day, and in most cases, the same subject material. One popular response on how to address achievement gaps within classrooms is to provide individualized instruction, as suggested by Slavin and Karweit (1985), which is a concept more widely referred to as differentiated instruction (FOOTNOTE: also content differentiation, individualized teaching methods, etc). The National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM) endorse the idea of differentiated instruction, using the synonymous phrase content differentiation and defining it as the depth to which a topic is explored should depend on the level of abstraction at which the student is capable of operating (NCTM, 2000, PAGE). By providing all students with concrete examples and applications for any given topic, teachers can make higher levels of abstraction and generalization available to any student who desires to be challenged, but would not require any student who does not wish to be challenged or is already challenged by the topic at hand to be concerned with any additional information. Instruction this manner, however, may induce certain self-fulfilling prophecies by either the teacher or the students on perceived learning ability, and differentiated instruction can be rather difficult to implement (more on this topic later).
Differentiated instruction can be defined as a process through which teachers enhance learning by matching student characteristics to instruction and assessment (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2003). At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom (Tomlinson, 2000, p1). While there are slight variations to the wording chosen by each researcher, the concept of differentiated instruction essentially remains identical.
According to Tomlinson (2003) and George (2005), differentiated instruction entails the introduction of classrooms in which students sometimes exercise varied learning options, work at different paces, and are assessed with a variety of indicators appropriate to their interests and needs (p189). Therefore content, instruction techniques, and types of assessment can be altered to meet the individual needs of each learner. It is therefore the utmost importance to discuss how differentiated instruction, the heterogeneous classroom, and public education affect each other and depend on each other (George 2005).
While the definition of differential instruction is generally accepted, there tends to be a lot of disagreement about how to define learning style or what constitutes as someones learning style. According to Atkinson (2004), learning style refers to a distinct and consistent way for an individual to encode, store, and perform (p663). However, research suggests that learning styles are not permanent or stagnant, and may even differ depending on the subject matter (Sternberg, 1994).
Originally, students were thought to learn through either visual means or auditory means, and that about the population fell evenly into both categories. During the past few decades, though, Dunn and Dunn (1979) and other researchers like them have found that between 20 and 30 percent of learners appear to be auditory learners, 40 percent are visual learners, and the remaining are some combination of visual, auditory, tactual, or kinesthetic learners. But most researchers agree that these are not the only criteria that determine an individuals learning style. Dunn and Dunn (1979) put forth an 18 element list of learning styles involving 5 categories of stimuli: environmental (e.g. sound, light, temperature), emotional (e.g. motivation, responsibility), sociological (e.g. working alone or with peers), physical (e.g. time of day, need for mobility), and psychological (e.g. new/imposed, analytic/reflexive). Some researchers claim that there are only three types of learners: those that need a lot of structure and assistance, those that need some, and those that need a lot (Hunt, 1979). Still others claim that learning styles consist of distinctive behaviors which indicate how a person learns from and adapts to his environment, but it also gives clues as to how a persons mind operates (Gregorc, 1979). Researchers have struggled for decades about why people are complex and different, so it makes why claims about learning styles are so diverse as well.
Various models attempt to operationally define and standardize learning style, including the Cognitive Style Analysis, which addresses holistic versus analytic learners and verbal versus imagery learners (Riding, 1991); the 4MAT system which addresses right brain learners from left brain learners (McCarthy, 1990); Dunns Learning Style Inventory which describes 18 factors involved in learning (Dunn & Dunn, 1992); and Renzulli and Smiths Learning Style Inventory which gives students the opportunity to designate their favorite teaching style out of 9 described teaching styles (Renzulli & Smith, 1998); to name a few. However, there is very little consistency in how these inventories are used in research studies, and most of the time the researchers has his own unique inventory or personalized way of defining and measuring learning styles. As a result, comparing research on learning styles has proven difficult and meta-analyses often inconclusive.
According to Hyman and Rosoff (1984), current definitions are far from encompassing all aspects of what they consider to be important factors in learning styles. Even more recent research and definitions regarding learning styles tends to be inadequate to Hyman and Rosoff. The major complaint they have is that most definitions are incomplete, and a large majority lack any acknowledgement of the role that intelligence may play in determining a persons learning style. Additionally, they explain:
Dunn and Dunns (1979) definition does not tell us what the student does as he/she learns but only how certain elements affect a persons ability to absorb and retain. It would seem that learning style would deal with behavior and not ability. By analogy, when we speak of teaching style we speak of the characterics of the ways a teacher acts. We do not refer to what the teacher IS but rather to what is characteristic of how the teacher ACTS with students when teaching. Similarly a definition of learning style would be helpful and meaningful if it referred to or indicated actions which a student performs. (p36).
Furthermore, Hyman and Rosoff emphasize that teaching is not simply a two-way relationship between the student and the teacher, but is instead a three-way relationship between the student, teacher, and the subject material. While most research only focuses on how and if teaching styles and learning styles interact, there is little discussion about how subject matter influences those findings. Considering the task at hand in relationship to the subject material, the teacher (and also the researcher) must look at what demands the task makes of the teacher and the student. (insert math example??)
So what accounts for differences in learning style? It would seem that, as with most psychology inquiries, the differences are a product of both nature and nurture. Genetics certainly influence aspects of learning styles, but culture and expectations can play a large part in how our learning styles are shaped as well (Gregorc, 1979). Are learning styles as diverse as people are? Are there underlying aspects of learning styles that are universal? Are certain types of learning styles more common than others, and what would explain this? These questions have yet to be fully answered, and certainly warrant further research.
The task of accommodating these diverse learning styles, however difficult it is to define them, rests largely with the teacher who heads the classroom. Employing differential instruction suggests that more than one teaching style exists, which is nearly universally accepted by researchers in the educational psychology field, but the definitions and categorizations of teaching styles is as widely varied as with learning styles.
Teaching style has been defined as a teachers personalized method of handling educational information, including the choice of curriculum, its content, level, sequence, pace, and style of presentation (MacNeil, 1980). Many attempts have been made to try to isolate the variables that determine teaching styles, but still little is known about the stability of them, or the teachers use or perception of them (Kulinna & Cothran, 2003; Evans, 2004). Often, teaching styles involve a teachers personal philosophy about teaching, which may be affected by their values, beliefs, attitudes, goals, social identities, cultural background, and experience. Additionally, teachers styles are influenced by subject matter (Evans, 2004); government initiatives (Richards, 1998); preservice teacher preparation (Evans, 2004); and job satisfaction, to name a few (Opdenakker & Van Damme, 2006).
Dunn and Dunn (1979) indicate that there are 9 elements that determine teaching style, but there have been references to only three (Rosenfeld & Rosenfeld, 2004; Jarvis 1985). More recent research on teaching styles surveyed 25 elementary, secondary, and college level textbooks, resulting in 8 categories of teaching styles with eighty or more described strategies employed by each category of teaching style (Beck, 2001). Regardless of the number of styles, Ellis (1979) summarized that models of teaching are strategies based on theories and research [of educated people] who question how individuals learn (p275). Most models are designed to help students grow in self awareness or creativity, some foster the development of self-discipline or responsible participation in a group, stimulate inductive reasoning or theory building, or provide mastery for a subject matter.
Matching theory refers loosely to how well a teaching style matches or accommodates a students learning style. This is being explored by researches as the concept of differentiated instruction, which evolved as a concept when researchers started to notice that when a teaching style does not match well with the learners learning style, there may be detrimental effects. For example, George (2005) discussed that traditional teacher-centered classrooms reward those who learn well in that style of classroom instruction, but have a more critical outcome for those students who do not learn well in such structure. Especially in a subject like mathematics, where there is much scaffolding of information in the sense that the information is cumulative throughout the years, a feeling of inadequacy in the classroom because the structure is not optimal for how that student learns can decrease a students motivation in the subject, interest, self-direction, and confidence. Many students find that they lack the ability to adapt to certain teaching styles. They may feel trapped in certain environments and may tune out, or become indifferent (Gregorc, 1979, p235).
If some students have a learning advantage because they associate well with the teaching strategy implemented in the classroom, it would seem highly beneficial to even out the playing field for all students; i.e., try to accommodate for those students whose learning styles contrasts highly with a teachers teaching style. Yet MacNeils (1980) study found insignificant relationships between teaching style, learning style, and learning performance. The researcher explored the effects of two teaching styles, discovery and expository, on two contrasting learning styles, field dependent and field independent. Three instructors were trained to teach in one of the two teaching styles, while 64 undergraduates were tested to for their cognitive preference of either field dependence or independence. Learning performance was defined as short term concept attainment of knowledge measured by pre-test and post-test scores on the Behavior Modification Achievement Test (BMAT).
MacNeil hypothesized that the learning performance of students differing in learning styles would be significantly affected by a particular style of instruction, but the results obtained from his study revealed that differential effects did not occur. Other researchers strengthen this finding, citing consistent results but with middle school ages and younger (Coop and Brown, 1970). Despite the fact that learning styles may change over the course of ones life, a consistent lack of interaction between learning style, teaching style, and performance contradicts the matching theory.
One explanation for the lack of significant interactions may have to do with the subject matter tested within the study. MacNeil used the BMAT, which has high internal consistency and reliability, but may have been insufficiently difficult. A lack of sensitivity may not have measured the effects of a students learning style on performance, especially if the material was not challenging enough. Additionally, the BMAT has multiple choice questions, in which the correct answer is present along with the question, which can tend to facilitate guessing and inflate scores. Guessing is a problem when studying learning style and teaching styles because the chance of answering correctly for those types of problems is equal for all students, regardless of the independent variables.
Another explanation could be that the subject matter in the BMAT (behavioral modification) was chosen for experimental reasons, but does not necessarily reflect common subjects taught in public schools. Witkin et al. (1977) suggests that subject content can have a differential effect on the learning performance of subjects of contrasting learning style. The BMAT is considered in MacNeil (2001) to be neutral requiring neither a high degree of analytic ability, nor attentiveness to social cues (p358). However, matching theory may be important to some subjects, especially in subjects like mathematics in which analytic skills are stressed. Additionally, field dependence and independence are only collectively one aspect of learning styles. It may be the case that this dimension of learning style is not as productive an avenue for scientific investigation as some would suggest.
Can matching theory have detrimental implications? Doyle and Rutherford (1984) explored this possibility by critiquing large bodies of research on matching teaching styles and learning styles. These researchers claim that problems arise when teachers attempt to modify their teaching style to account for the diversity of their students learning styles. With eight (or more) categories of teaching styles, and five (or more) categories of learning styles, there are thousands of possible combinations for matching; Doyle and Rutherford pose the question Where does a teacher stop in the pursuit of diversity? (p21). Furthermore, the researchers caution that many studies promoting matching theory underestimate the difficulties associated with matching theory. They claim that designing alternative classroom matches requires skills in a variety of teaching models and styles, devising a system for administering a large quantity of records and papers, as well as a high level of skills in managing multiple formats within the complex classroom setting. Ultimately, the researchers allege, if these alternate instructional arrangements and systems are not carefully developed, it is quite likely that the quality of instruction will suffer (p22).
Furthermore, a massive review of research on matching theory with regard to student achievement was collected by Cronbach and Snow (1977), in which they found few consistent results for programs matching instruction treatments to learning styles. However, other effects of matching on non-cognitive variables (e.g. self-esteem, motivation) were found to be significant (Peterson (1979), and research also supported the general finding that direct, active instruction is effective for teaching basic skills to pupils. Good and Stipek (1983) stipulate that a uniform instructional strategy is often preferable and superior to differential instruction because they are compatible with the teachers skills and are easier to manage (PAGE#).
While it is important to consider the outcomes of matching teaching styles and learning styles, it is also important to train teachers to be capable of many types of teaching styles. Doyle and Rutherford (1984) and Good and Stipek (1983) seem to underestimate teachers and their ability to teach outside of their preferred teaching style. The researchers emphasize the burden of increased planning and preparation to deal with diverse classrooms, but this can be addressed in teacher training and teacher preparation programs. Differential instruction has not been shown to have detrimental effects on student performance. Evidence of increased motivation and other non-cognitive variables have practical implications, so despite a non-relationship or weak relationship between teaching styles and learning styles, there do seem to be other benefits associated with matching theory that should be further explored (see House, 1995).
MacNeil (2001), Doyle and Rutherford (1984), and other researchers do not necessarily claim that the educational system is acceptable as is, nor do they claim that teaching styles and learning styles should never be matched. As Gregorc (1979) states, the alignment of any style is dependent upon the capacities and abilities of both the learner and the teacher to adapt (p236). There are dimensions of both teaching and learning styles that can be matched to produce positive results and associated research that points toward these promising, practical outcomes.
Students involvement in the learning process is widely known to have a direct, positive and significant effect on academic achievement. Betoret (2006) explored how students involvement affected their achievement by studying 240 psychology students, administering two questionnaires, assessing students input methods and learning processes, and analyzing the resulting academic achievement. Factors such as expectation, mathematic self concepts and interest had a significant and positive effect on the students learning processes. If a student feels left out or indifferent due to a mismatch in teaching style and learning style, it would follow logically that that student would not achieve academically on the same level as a student who finds that the teaching style is a good fit for his learning style. Increasing involvement is most likely achieved in an environment where teachers create a climate for learning by considering individual differences (Opdenakker & Van Damme, 2006).
Beck (2001) explains that students are more apt to respond favorably when teaching styles match well with their learning styles. Additionally, Peterson (1979) and Betoret (2006) discussed how thinking styles differ depending on the context, and that there is no universal style for all learning contexts. The best predictors of student learning process are domain specific (such as interest and mathematic self-concept in Betorets study), but above all, the motivational variables (categories of expectations in Betorets study) increase student involvement in study, approaches to content difficulty, and study techniques. Self-initiation to study, motivation to learn, and positive attitudes associated with achieving various levels of content difficulty are attractive to many teachers because it would potentially lessen the amount of indifference and behavioral problems in the classroom. Self-esteem and motivation could also lead to higher achievement levels themselves (Beck, 2001)! Dunn and Dunn (1979) suggest direct significant improvements in both student achievement and motivation when learning and teaching styles are matched, but this finding is being challenged had has not yet been successfully been replicated (p242).
While there seems to be more evidence suggestion that there is no relationship between teaching styles and learning styles in relation to a third variable (e.g. student academic achievement), there are still many third variables that have yet to be explored. The concept of matching theory is not necessarily new, but research has a lot of catching up to do with the theory behind it all. One barrier to this research is the learning styles and teaching styles themselves. As discussed earlier, there is much disagreement about what constitutes a style or how many styles there are for teaching and learning, and thus many researchers are focusing on only one aspect of teaching and one aspect of learning to determine a relationship. Many further directions need to be addressed, and many limitations are apparent in the studies published so far.
Implementing Differentiated Instruction
Due to the variation between teaching styles and learning styles, it is unlikely research will uncover a strict one-to-one matching that will optimize teacher-student interaction. Instead, it is more likely that research will yield certain trends about various teaching style accommodating all or most of the learning styles, but when we find out the relationship between teaching styles and learning styles, how will it affect the classroom? Hyman and Rosoff (1984) proposed a fairly simple, straightforward, four step paradigm which is not new (p35): 1) consider and investigate the students individual learning style, 2) understand and classify it according to some categorical system, 3) match a teaching style that will complement the students learning style, and 4) teach other teachers to do steps 1-3 in preservice and inservice training programs. This paradigm gently suggests that the learner should be paired up with a suitable teacher, but early discussion about the detriments of homogenous classrooms and the benefits of heterogeneous classrooms quickly deem that idea not the most ideal.
Similarly, Dunn and Dunn (1979) propose a 7 step process that develops independence skills and facilitates that management process in classrooms. The researchers claim that their system promotes learning, decreases tension, and permits youngsters to achieve more easily, but due to their controversial findings on the outcomes of student achievement, this process is not generally held as practical to implement (Beck, 2001). Many researchers call for better teaching training, and increased attention to teacher preparation and teacher education programs. These programs should help teachers select an appropriate learning styles inventory to distribute in their classes to determine the types of learning styles present, and they should also help teachers feel more comfortable instructing in various teaching styles (Beck, 2001).
Beck (2001) warns against stereotyping students based on their learning strategies because learning styles are dynamic during ones lifetime. It would also be prudent to be aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy so certain students whose learning styles match up naturally with a teachers preferred teaching style do have an advantage or receive extra, special attention (see Sternberg, 1994).
So why not just match teachers with students? Dunn and Dunn (1979), Good and Stipek (1983), and Doyle and Rutherford (1984) state that there is no one-to-one matching between teaching styles and learning styles, nor do the styles cluster into neat packages that can be matched one-to-one. Additionally, students are not consistent in their learning styles, and neither are teachers consistent in their teaching style. Teachers are also not necessarily excellent teachers to begin with; it is possible to match a teaching style with a learning style and still not provide the student with an effective teacher. Finally, given the practiced and sufficient preparation, teachers can become effective with most students (Dunn and Dunn, 1979).
In conclusion, matching theory requires much more research in order to become a driving force in modern research. The barriers affecting progress of this theory also need to be addressed in the form of identifying and defining a unified approach to learning styles and teaching styles. Once defined, research can advance to determine which factors, categories, and styles are best matched, and what subsequently results when there is a matching. Other variables can then be explored to determine their effect; for example, with learning styles and teaching styles matched, does reducing class size result in better classroom management? With smaller classrooms, teachers can pay more attention to the needs of each learner on his or her level, so does better classroom management allow for both styles to match resulting higher achievement? This area of research is still in its infancy, but there is a vast horizon ahead to be pursued.