What is "rain"?
Is it a word? an idea? a bit of science? something to drink? the thought of being cold? food for crops?
For me, first and foremost, it is a sound. It is a specific sound on an uninsulated roof as I lay in an attic, a Hudson's Bay Blanket pulled over my head.
Oh sure, I've learned the other concepts over the years, but at the core of my understanding "rain" is a sound, and a particular kind of moment surrounded by that sound, and every other idea of "rain" has to first go through my original way of comprehending it.
I don't know if I'm a "visual learner" or an "auditory learner." Maybe I am an "atmospheric learner" - ideas, if I am to efficiently take them in and process them, must form into a "vision" that includes many, if not all, of the senses. I am not "sensorally confused" - I do not "smell green" rather than see it - but I do picture the operations of mathematics. It makes arithmetic very hard for me but mathematical concepts much easier. And even in arithmetic I do far better without paper in front of me, those numeric symbols confuse, they are not the images I need.
On Sunday Paul Hamilton asked me to react to a YouTube presentation by Dr. Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia.
Dr. Willingham is many things I am not. He is a distinguished faculty member at one of America's most prestigious universities. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology (from Harvard). And he seems to be a conservative educational theorist as one of his primary activities, based on a quick look through some of his publications. One of his ideas is "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise." By "conservative" I suggest that he might be a modernist, rationalist, believer in scientism.
For Dr. Willingham might suspect me of being not only "not sufficiently credentialed," but also a dreaded "post modernist" who doubts all reality. And he might be right. But, let's first look at Dr. Willingham's assault on the notion of "Learning Styles."
Dr. Willingham does not claim any new or original research. He describes this as "summarizing about 50 years of research conducted by 100's [sic] of other investigators." And he acknowledges that very few people agree with him. Although, in truth, almost the entire educational establishment behaves as if it agrees with him.
I am not saying that Dr. Willingham is wrong in his analysis of others' work (though I commented that he didn't know what he was talking about). Within the very narrow definitions he creates of "knowledge," "comprehension," "understanding," and "learning" - all definitions unconsciously developed to match his own personal understandings of these "ideas" - he might be completely right. Of course he has chosen the studies to analyze. He has chosen how to read those studies. He has chosen the definitions of the concepts that he will study. If I say I am studying "the value of currencies over the past year," and I choose to study only the Euro and Euro-linked currencies, I will demonstrate that "the value of currencies has increased."
Where I think he runs off the rails is his attempt to use this analysis educationally. "Good teaching is good teaching," he says, providing the ultimate comfort to the unchanging lecturer or the AP classroom teacher whose students all get "4" or above after reading the book straight through. How wonderful to discover - to scientifically prove! - that a teacher need not respond to student difference in teaching.
And this is the pure colonialism of his argument. It reminds me of ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's "One City" policing strategy. From a "pure" viewpoint, why would anyone imagine that public safety needs in Crown Heights might differ from public safety needs in Greenwich Village? That is, from 5,000 feet up and looking down, as modernist scientist is trained to, humans look very similar and so do communities. Down on the ground, of course, it looks very different. Scientific Imperialism designs conceptions of humanity in ways that make a certain type of white Protestant male "the norm" - and that norm's understandings the norms.
That said, even science - hard science - can see things in other ways.
Functional MRIs (fMRIs) suggest great learning differences among humans. Since at least the Eden-NIMH study of 1996 fMRIs have shown the different people process learning in radically different ways in terms of which regions of the brain are utilized. fMRIs also indicate that learning, and ways of learning, alter the brain in definitive ways (Maguire, Woollett, and Spiers, 2006). So even if Dr. Willingham were completely correct, and all humans began with the exact same brain processing system, the evidence is very strong that that equipment is significantly varied by the time children enter school - a point in time which follows life's most rapid period of learning.
Dr. Willingham has argued with me that the brain scans prove nothing. He suggests that though different brain regions are activated differently by similar stimuli applied to different people, there is no proof that this means that "learning styles" exist. And from this negative assumption he seeks to assure teachers they may continue their industrial processing of students, as long as their processing is "good."
Which should make bad teachers everywhere happy. If a student doesn't learn, Dr. Willingham infers, it is not a mismatch of instructional strategy and learning style, it is simple the student's fault.
A long time ago there was a joke about a Microsoft engineer who joined the army. On the rifle range his target remained untouched no matter how many shots he fired. When approached by the instructor, he held his finger over the barrel and pulled the trigger, blowing his finger off.
"It's working here," he told the instructor, "the problem must be at the other end."
When I heard Dr. Willingham pronounce that "Good teaching is good teaching," that's the joke I immediately thought of.
I hope it rains tonight. I really need the sound.
- Ira Socol