I rewatched a superb TedX talk yesterday by Tesia Marshik called Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection. She talks about the myth of learning styles and the danger of believing in them, and it’s a powerful and persuasive critique. What particularly struck me watching it this time was her explanation of how we store what we learn in terms of meaning, and a few of us had a long conversation about this afterwards.
Years ago my mum taught remedial maths to secondary school children. They didn’t want to be there – they didn’t see the point. But most of the boys wanted to have a motor bike when they were old enough, and most of the girls wanted a fairy tale wedding, so mum’s brainwave was to give them all a project of planning for their bike, or wedding, or whatever else it was that they wanted. So, rather than ask them to do abstract sums, she got them to work out a budget for something they really wanted – she gave maths a meaning for these students.
When I’ve thought about this before, I’ve thought about it in terms of giving students reasons to want to learn, and I still think that’s true, but I think that putting it in terms of helping them to find something that makes it meaningful to them is a better approach. I can give my students instrumental reasons to study philosophy – because they want to pass the course for example – but these reasons don’t actually help them to learn anything. Helping them to make it meaningful to them, on the other hand, is helping them to store it in a way that will be valuable to them – it will actually help them to learn.
The picture at the top of this blog post, by the way, is from the talk. Apparently the board on the left is an actual game of chess, and the one on the right is just random pieces. If you show these images to folk who can’t play chess, they’ll only remember where a few of the pieces are on each of the boards. But if you show them both to expert chess players, they’ll remember where most of the pieces on the left hand board were, but do no better than the novices at remembering where the ones on the right hand board – the left hand board means something to them. I think that’s a stunning demonstration of Marsik’s argument.
Here’s the talk in full – I recommend it. I’m now off to think more about the implications of this for how we assess and give feedback to our students, and how I can frame this in the context of my thesis and CLMooc