Pedagogy Stew in Voice of the River Valley

In the category of New Year/New Adventure, this is my favorite so far. I’m very happy to have a column in the very cool regional publication, Voice of the River Valley. The tagline on the masthead says it pretty well: “A guide to people and events that inspire, educate, and enrich life in the River Valley area.”

That covers a lot because there IS a lot here–I’ve been here for more than twenty years, and I’m still amazed. There really does seem to be some kind of vortex that draws in interesting stuff, and I’ve never lived in a prettier place. (Sure, Missoula was gorgeous, but in a way that alarmed me the whole time I was there–I’d be driving and see MOUNTAIN in my rearview mirror and my Midwestern brain kept telling me “MASSIVE THUNDERHEAD.”)

The current publisher, Sara, is picking up nicely from the founder, Mary, and I’m happy to be a part. I’ll be posting monthly some “stewing” on pedagogy–what we teach, how we teach it, why, whether it works…. This column will typically be focused on the two ends of a spectrum I’m involved in, teaching at the college level and then volunteering at the River Valley Elementary Studio School where Wendell attends. Also, parenting involves a fair bit of educating….

The February issue is available in more than 100 locations around southwest Wisconsin, and also online. The January issue contained this piece, which I’m happy to reprint here (I’ll always wait to post one until the next issue is out–and I’m making almost no changes here, except to add links or correct minor things I meant to say differently.)

ALSO NOTE: I’m happy to take requests. What should I write about as I’m stewing over pedagogy that applies to both college and our public schools?

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Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, came out in 1983, the year I graduated from high school. I saw no evidence of its existence in my college or graduate school courses—as an English major, I was supposed to demonstrate what I knew through exams and essays, and I did a pretty good job of it. In creative writing classes, I was supposed to experiment, but on the page, with regular ink. I did occasionally ask professors to assess my learning in ways they hadn’t announced in the syllabus. I once wrote a poem in response to John Betjeman’s “The Conversion of St. Paul” (better than anything I was writing in creative writing) and asked if the professor would grade it instead of the essay he’d assigned, which wasn’t going well. He was a sweet man and said yes, “But try harder to write an essay next time.”

It wasn’t until I’d been teaching full time for several years that I began to hear about multiple intelligences (or their close cousin, learning styles) from two directions: my university colleagues, typically with much derision; and students, some of whom were very aware of what they were good at and how they learned best. In fact, I’ve had several students over the years tell me they were kinesthetic learners and thus not good essay-writers, and could they have an alternate assignment? (For irony, see previous paragraph.)

I’m interested in how students learn, though, so I do not meet multiple intelligences and learning styles (and I know they’re not the same thing) with the same skepticism as many of my colleagues. Asking about this recently, one common response from my colleagues ran along the lines of, “Wasn’t that all debunked?”

In a 2009 article called “Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students,” author David Glenn reported on research that shows that although students may have a preferred learning style, the crucial thing, in terms of learning, is whether the teacher has designed the class to best teach whatever concept or skill is currently on the docket. To me, this is the best match-up of theory and practice.

I volunteer a couple of hours a week in my son’s second-grade classroom at River Valley Elementary Studio School, usually during literacy time. His teacher, Nicole Steigenberger, has done a terrific job of setting up a variety of activities for students to choose from, and she nudges them, gently, over the course of a week, to read to themselves, to a partner, draw in response to written descriptions, write in response to pictures with prompts, write their own stories, etc. They also take online assessments periodically, and they get a few minutes just before lunch to do literacy apps on the iPad. These students are not only learning to read and write. They’re learning to learn and demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways, which, given the amount of learning they have ahead of them, is almost as important as learning to read and write.

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