Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Do the Learning Preferences of Teachers Rule the Day?

Corey Bunje Bower brings up a very, very good question. Since teachers represent a smaller segment of teh general public but tend to have a great deal of influence (and at the college level near dicatorial power) over how courses are taught that they unconcisously shortchange those students who learn different than they. Bower writes:
And she reminded me of a question that I've been wondering about for a long time: do teachers have different learning preferences, on average, than students?

In other words, do teachers (including professors) have different views on what constitutes successful teaching than the average student? Only about a quarter of our students go on to complete a 4-year college degree, but all teachers must have at least that. Similarly, only about 5% of undergrads go on to earn a PhD -- something that almost all professors have at most institutions. In other words, teachers are not a representative sample of the population.


During my undergrad years I served on a committee to revise the course evaluations that are given at the end of each semester. I pushed for the surveys to include more questions about how engaging the teaching and assignments of the professor were, while many of the faculty on the committee pushed to ask more questions about how much time and effort students had put into the course. I resented the implication that if students weren't getting what they wanted out of a class that it was their fault. And then I started teaching. Students complained that classes and assignments were boring, and I was shocked at student behavior and blamed them for not working hard enough (as did, I think I think it's fair to say, most teachers at the school).
If we think back to our own schooling, we can look at all the teachers we had (both formal and informal) that we liked. So if we look at Bower's question from another angle we might ask, did we respond to certain teachers because of they way they taught? We have to assume that for every learning style out there, there is a teacher who, again unconsciously or subconsciously, teaches better in that style because it is a style they either prefer or it is how they learn themselves.

It is kind of a hard question to answer since to generate a good response we would have had to have taken the same course with two different instructors with two different instructional styles. But I can offer a bit of a possible answer. In law school, one of the first year required courses is Real Property. Most lawyers will tell you that they hated the course, for a variety of reasons. Most of my study group was in one section taught by one professor. I was in a different section taught by a different professor. My professor taught in a given style, which I assume is either most comfortable to him or how he himself learns and it is how he clearly prefers to manage his class. The other professor taught in a different style. I sat in on review sessions in the other professor's class from time to time mostly because I found that she was able to explain certain cases and principles better than my professor. In evaluating that experience I determined that neither professor was inherently superior to the other (both had recieved teaching awards from student groups), but that the other professor's teaching style was more in line with my learning style. I still find Real Estate law (outside of litigation) interminably dull, but the other professor was able to engage me even in a limited context of a few review sessions here and there, where my Real Property professor had a student (me) who found his style interminable dry and difficult to engage with. Keep in mind, the material, course text and syllabi were largely the same.

So in looking at the current debates over learning preferences, instead of expecting teachers to teach to all these different learning styles, why don't we simply accept that teachers themselves have learning preferences and thus teaching preferences, and stop trying to make a leopard change its spots. Why not work with what is known (assuming a teacher can articulate their teaching/learning style) and allow that to flourish by matching students with a given learning style to a teacher with a similar teaching style?

Certainly interest by the student in a given subject can overcome some disconnect between teaching and learning styles. But when a course is required, like Real Property, it would seem that when multiple teachers/professors are leading different classes, it would behoove the institution to have their instructors describe their teaching and learning style so that students can match their learning preferences with a similar teacher.

There will not be perfect matching, but it probably only has to be close. This of course is difficult at lower grade levels, but not so much as you move up the educational ladder and certainly when you get to higher education.

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