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51: Learning Styles: How Educators Divide And Conquer

 
 PLEASE NOTE: ON THIS SITE "EDUCATORS" ALWAYS MEANS THE "EDUCATION ESTABLISHMENT,"
THE BOSSES, THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE POLICY--NOT TEACHERS.
ALSO NOTE LAST COMMENT: NEW YORK TIMES AFFIRMS THIS ARTICLE. 
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 L e a r n i n g   S t y l e s 

How    Educators    Divide

And    Conquer

 

Let's say the year is 1950. You have promoted a bogus way to teach reading. (The method is known as Look-Say and other names.) Kids don’t learn to read; instead they end up functionally illiterate, learning-disabled, or dyslexic. How do you explain away all this failure, and come out looking good?


You need a genius excuse that no one can see through. Does such genius actually exist? Unfortunately, yes. The Education Establishment came up with the concept called “reading readiness,” This con was among the most brilliant ever devised in the 20th century.

 

If a child wasn’t reading, teachers would explain the problem to the parents this way: “Your child lacks reading readiness. Don’t worry. It’s a temporary problem. It might go away in second or third grade. Hopefully by fourth. But it will go away at some point. Almost all children eventually get reading readiness. Parents should be patient.”


You see how brilliant this is? Your child may act, speak, hear, and understand in a normal way. And yet, and yet, it turns out that your child has some mysterious neurological defect which makes the child unable to process words in a book. Your child missed out on reading readiness. Note that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do. You must wait; stay quiet; try not to draw attention to your possibly retarded child; and accept failure as divinely mandated.

 

Keep in mind that if the school were using phonics instead of the bogus Whole Word, your child would learn to read in the first grade. The child does not lack anything. It is the SCHOOL that lacks reading readiness, or more exactly, readiness to teach reading. But who would ever know? The educators invented reading readiness as the all-purpose defense against charges of incompetence, child abuse, and educational malpractice. Genius.

 

Note that the central sophistry here is to invent two kinds of children, even though they all look, think and behave more or less the same. One kind has reading readiness; the other kind of child does not. How could a school possibly be expected to teach anything to a defective child?? Voila, the perfect alibi is born and the perfect crime can be committed.


The gimmick used here has spread through all of public school education. Again and again, we’re told that children have “different learning styles.” Some kids can do X. Some just can’t. It’s obviously not the school’s fault. Not ever.


A professor at Harvard School of Education devised a theory of multiple intelligences. His list included verbal, mathematical, musical, spatial, linguistic, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic intelligences. A new book by other theorists outlines “five learning dispositions, three learning modalities (each with several sub-modalities), and a variety of ways in which children's learning is affected by their environment, talents, and interests.”

 

Not to mention, a sun in Cancer with Gemini rising means you’re a weird learner. While Myers-Briggs Type Indicators tell you everything else there is to know about designing curricula. Some theorists believe special schools should be set up for blondes.

 

What does all this categorizing mean, practically speaking? It means lots of differences, lots of divide-and-conquer. Each category of child will require different textbooks, different instructional techniques, different accommodations, which means that teachers will need different classes at their ed schools. Budgets must be greatly increased to cover all these different tracks and techniques.

 

If children are auditory, they learn through their ears; so they must be read to and can’t learn to read in a normal way. If children are visual, that means they need lots of pictures and cannot be expected to read in the usual way; so put them in a separate group. Meanwhile, if kids are kinesthetic, they are best suited for sports and gymnastics, and can learn only through movement. Take them outdoors. What about the tactile? They learn by touching letters cut out of wood or sandpaper. Note what’s happening here. Children are divided against themselves; and big chunks of the class are relegated to being new types of minority citizens, supposedly unable to learn some basic skill. Exactly like the kids who lacked “reading readiness.” 

Doesn’t common sense suggest that all children would benefit from all kinds of stimulation? The notion that there are auditory kids, and therefore visual cues are wasted on them--isn’t that extreme, unlikely, and indeed totalitarian? Sort of like Alphas, Betas, Gammas, etc. Say you are a visual type. Isn’t that all the more reason to make sure you get a full spectrum of stimulation of other kinds, to make you more balanced and more human? Surely we don’t want to encourage lopsidedness. Our so-called educators seem obsessed with finding a pretext to put kids in slots, and then to keep them there forever. "Learning styles" are often discussed as permanent, unalterable traits, like hair color or a large birthmark. 

 

Some schools take multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles very seriously. Partly, it’s a way of not dealing with the fact that some children don’t have a lot of scholastic intelligence; so focus instead on their interpersonal skills. If you wanted to set up a school to teach kids as the Harvard professor recommended, you would devote much less time to the traditional subjects because you would be busy teaching spatial skills, music skills, interpersonal skills and the rest of it.


These theories have the effect of slowing academic progress, while raising costs. But that’s a small consideration when you realize that these gimmicks give the Education Establishment carte blanche for continued failure. Each of these categories is an endless alibi. Teachers escape condemnation by parents. Bad educational results are always due to a quirk or defect in the kids. Dumbing-down continues unabated and unchallenged. Blaming-the-victim has been taken in exquisite new directions.

 

It seems to me that sane educational theory would produce a multi-sensory and multi-intelligences classroom. Isn't that why teachers have always explained things, shown maps, discussed models, and played films? Now, with all the new digital and internet tools, the truly enriched classroom is much more easily achieved. So what does our Education Establishment do? Why, look for new reasons to segregate students.

 

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about reading; I hear continual references to “phonemic awareness.” Failure is said to result from a child’s lack of phonemic awareness. Or phonological awareness. My suspicion is that these words mean little. Think how many millions of kids learned to read perfectly without mention of these words. New cognitive and bureaucratic groups are created out of thin air. There also seems to be a concomitant tendency to make everything technological and pseudo-scientific. Techno-mush, I call it. 


Phonemic awareness? If kids are told to memorize nursery rhymes, their brains will figure out what they need to know. But what do too many schools do now? They don’t focus on the beauty of poetry or the discipline of memorizing lovely, sensuous sounds. The foundational steps are ignored. Then when the kids don’t instantly grasp some aspect of reading, the so-called “literacy expert” jumps in with: “Your child lacks phonemic awareness!” And that becomes an all-purpose excuse for glacial progress.  

 

Here’s the alarming pattern. Educators pretend to teach things but in fact use ways that don’t work. And then to cover themselves, they pretend that your child has a defect that no one had noticed. Our educators seem to prefer to use bad methods, and thereby spin off many types of supposedly hard-to-teach students. Each type is a ticket to spend more on research and training, to quarantine kids, to expect little. Kids are divided and conquered. Parents too. And communities.

 

Now let’s come at this from the opposite direction. Suppose a school sincerely wanted to educate children. Here’s the best, simplest, cheapest plan. Treat everyone the same. Teach everything in the one best way.  


Wow, what a radical idea. Has this ever been tried? Only forever, and everywhere, except in American public schools, which might be called the Kingdom of Diversification Unhinged.  


When you have stragglers, then you use Plan B. You help the slower students with the best tutoring, remediation or reinforcement you can devise. (But first be sure they are stragglers. Check their eyes, their hearing, their motor skills. If a kid needs glasses, do we need to talk about such kids having a different learning style?)  


There is one feature of Army training that made a particular impression on me. Imagine 100 young men, as different as they can be, sitting in a classroom. Instructors say, “Do it like this.” And instructors check to see that everybody does it the right way. Then they move to the next step. 


It’s amazing how much you can teach to a group of people, and how quickly, if everything is presented in a simple, logical way; and the students have to master each step before going on. The secret is not to go looking for differences and obstacles. The secret is not to divide. The secret is to teach, just teach, with shrewdness and sincerity. Most of all, sincerity.


My guess is that if kids are taught properly from the outset, and stragglers are aggressively helped, that you would find--surprise--that most of the kids were more or less the same. The whole notion of learning styles wouldn’t serve much purpose. After all, it was invented to shield educators, not to help students.

 

“Reading readiness,” never forget, was devised by “Progressive Educators” using a hoax to teach reading. These people had to know their method was a fraud. The bad results, the human costs, were everywhere manifest. Whole Word was a kid-killer. What to do? What to do? How explain all the horrific results? Why, blame them on the kids....Sure, the kids caused all the problems. If only they had the good sense and decency to be born with reading readiness. Instead, they showed up at school completely lacking that je ne sais quoi which lets readers read. The nerve. Know what? These kids deserve to be illiterate. We’ll do what we can, but we can’t be expected to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The public expects too much.... 

 

And thus our Education Establishment consoles itself for the tragic plight of having to work with inferior material. 

 
SUMMARY:
MILLIONS OF KIDS. MANY DOZENS OF SO-CALLED LEARNING STYLES.
SOME OF THEM MIGHT NOW AND THEN BE REAL, AND BE HELPFUL.
THE STOPPED CLOCK HAS TO BE RIGHT SOMETIMES.
I MERELY SUGGEST: BE WARY.
"READING READINESS" WAS A VERY DANGEROUS FRAUD;
AND I BELIEVE IT ESTABLISHED A PATTERN.
PRETEND THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE KIDS.
THEN SCHOOLS ARE NEVER GUILTY OF ANYTHING BAD.
HOW CONVENIENT.
AND HOW TEMPTING TO REPEAT OVER AND OVER.
AS A PRACTICAL MATTER, "DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES" TAKES PRESSURE OFF SCHOOLS TO IMPROVE.     
 

ADDENDA

Here’s the kind of thing you find all over the web:
 
MAKING YOUR LEARNING STYLE WORK FOR YOU!
To help you cope with your learning disabilities and ADD, it is important to identify your learning style. Once you have figured out the way you learn, you will need to use specific strategies to fit into your way of learning. For example, if you are a visual learner, you could use a highlighter when reading a text book. The bright color would appeal to your artistic sense and help you concentrate on the reading.”

Isn't this sick? Note that with proper instruction (phonics), the so-called disability and ADD would probably never have appeared in the first place. Now, it has not only appeared, it has become the bedrock of some kid’s life. You can’t cure it, you can only "cope."
 
And look at how TRIVIAL the one example is. Highlighters? That's it, that's all you've got to help this poor victim of bad schools? And you know what else? Seems to me a visual learner, an artistic type, might just spend all day looking at the pretty colors! I know--I'm one of them. Wouldn't drab, non-creative, financial types be the ones who really need some bright colors to make them concentrate? Point is, this advice is as pretty as cotton candy and just as substantial.    
 
YOUR LEARNING DISABILITIES--as if they are talking about a hunchback. Shouldn’t these kids be focused on correcting or moving past the so-called disabilities? Of course. But the rhetoric here is all about permanent afflictions and eternal states. And kids must spend time figuring out their defects--this being time that will not be used for anything academic.
 
“The way you learn”? As if each person has one way and it’s always the same!

If you had never heard this sort of thing, wouldn’t you immediately assume it was a con? Sort of like a snipe hunt or an elaborate practical joke.  
 

PRIOR KNOWLEDGE 
One of the biggest fads in education today is Constructivism (see #34). A central feature of this method is the concept of “prior knowledge.” The teacher is supposed to devote a lot of time to ascertaining, and then building upon, whatever each child may have learned prior to the class. Following this requirement in a diligent way will use up a lot of time.   

But focus for the moment on a separate problem. Because each child has different prior knowledge, each child is different from all the other children. Each child becomes an island.

The gimmicks called “learning styles” and “prior knowledge” might seem totally unconnected but both take the teacher in the same direction, toward dealing with a multitude of individuals, rather than with a class. A vast amount of energy and patience will be squandered in dealing with these differences. How could a class divided against itself possibly make as much progress as a unified, harmonious class?
 
THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS ARTICLE

I got the following email, which was quite a shock to me: ”I am getting ready to start my daughter reading (she is 4) and not sure a which way to go. She can identify rhymes in print..sat..cat....house..mouse...however not verbally, if I ask her out loud...(weird, huh). What are your thoughts on this? She has a huge vocabulary, so I think it’s weird she doesn't 'hear' rhyming..Have you ever heard anything like this? Do you think this means phonics will be a struggle for her?”

Note this little girl is only four but she has a huge vocabulary and she already half-understands rhyming. (Even there we are dependent on the mother’s casual testing.) Apparently this mother had heard that lacking such-and-such a skill at this tender age was like a death sentence. The mother seems to think that the child’s “learning style” is defective, or she lacks some variation of phonemic awareness. And note that the proper response is to give up on phonics!
 
The pattern I’ve seeing is that people are looking for reasons to consign a child to failure, rather than building whatever momentum they can on whatever skills the child does exhibit.

So I suggested, let the girl learn some nursery rhymes, have fun with that, wait several months, and then see if the child lacks any sort of readiness. (I bet not.)
 
I have to point out I’m not an expert in any of these things; I’m more a guy who follows patterns. And the pattern I see here is suspicious. If this little girl didn't learn phonics until she’s six years old, that’s perfectly acceptable. And it’s a long, long way from age 4 to age 6. My take is that the mother has been exposed to a lot of misinformation. Could it be that some "literacy expert" wanted the little girl memorizing sight-words, and tried to panic the mother in that direction? Saying, in effect, Your kid doesn't have readiness for phonics, better turn to Whole Word!
 
(Whole Word is what got us into trouble in the first place. But the Education Estabishment can't stand to admit error or to stop pushing this drug. See "42: Reading Resources" for more on this subject.)
 
"THE HARSH TRUTH ABOUT PUBLIC SCHOOLS"
 
is an excellent book by Bruce Shortt. He discusses the over-prescribing of Ritalin for keeping boys under control. Their main "illness" is known as ADHD. What got my attention is the mention that some psychiatrists wanted to regard ADHD as a "learning style." Again, I think this is a behavioral pattern that schools induce (compare the supposed lack of reading readiness), and then the kids are blamed, labeled, and sometimes drugged. Properly, educators would try to create schools where boys did not feel the need to "act up" so much. 

 

 

THE NEW YORK TIMES AGREES WITH ME (AGAIN)

Honestly, I thought I was taking an extremely contrarian position. I did this because I sensed it was true even if ultimately unprovable; and partly I wanted to stir up debate. In any event, I never imagined that any authority figures would agree with me. Two weeks later, Sept. 6, The New York Times said:

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

QED: IF YOU DOUBT WHAT THE TOP EDUCATORS ARE SAYING,

YOU'RE PROBABLY RIGHT. AND VICE VERSA.    

 

 
RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE ARE THOSE DEALING WITH SOPHISTRY.
SEE: "9: PHILOSOPHY WEEPS"
AND "22: ON BULLSH*T AND SOPHISTRY"
 
ALSO SEE ARTICLES ABOUT TEACHING, E.G.,
"26: HOW TO TEACH HISTORY, ETC." 
 

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