Relationships and the Company We Keep.

There are two basic principles that I think as a field, psychologists and learning theorist’s agree upon: The importance of relationships, and that we learn to be like those in whose company we grow up in (and want to be like).

In fact, a 32-year longitudinal study, with about 1000 participants, found that social connectedness was a better predictor of well-being than academic achievement. (


By learning I am not really referring to the remembrance of facts (though, even the remembering of facts depends upon the context of the above factors). There are studies that when they control for (which means do not take into account) all other factors find certain methodologies to be more effective than others—how many repetitions, the order presented, levels of mastery, and so forth. However, to me, what really a matters when we look at the big picture of schooling and learning, is what kind of people we become, what we care about, what is our attitudes toward others, toward learning, and toward the society we live in, and as importantly, how we view ourselves.

If we start with these, relationships and the company we keep as our basic principles of learning, then the design of our school, classroom, learning environment need to reflect that. In other words, do the designs of the above, hinder or support strong relationships and creating a context for students to be surrounded by the kinds of people that we hope they become?

One aspect of creating this environment is thinking about the time and space for all members of the learning community to get to know each other. One factor is class size ratios. With too large class sizes (or numbers of students a teacher has on their total class load), teachers cannot get to know their students (and their families) well. In California, with class sizes often around 30, (and for high school teachers, multiply that by 4, 5 or 6 as they teach multiple groups of students).  I argue that such large classes make strong relationships difficult. Half that, or maybe two adults in the room (or both) would make it more realistic.

I also recommend that students stay with teachers for more than one year. From my personal experience teaching, both having times when I had my students for only one year, and others where I had them for two or even three years, I found I was able to develop much deeper relationships in the second year. It also allowed for a sense of trust of giving students time to grow. (There are also many other advantages to multi-graded classrooms and keeping students for multiple years, for that you can read this previous blog).

School size also matters. The relationship built are more than just within the classroom. The school itself needs to be a community, with all the members having relationships with each other. This matters in part because students do move from teachers to teacher. It also matters because students see what kinds of relationships the adults around them have. They learn as much from watching others as they do form their direct experiences. They learn what it means to be an adult by watching adultas The teachers, and staff of a school are the adults in a working, non-family role that they see most, and most intimately.

However, the curriculum also has an effect. If the teacher’s job is to either be in front lecturing, or monitoring students doing worksheets, neither of these behaviors are likely to foster meaningful relationships no matter what the class size. Curriculum that allows the participants to share their ideas, work together and be creative are more likely to foster relationships. Curriculum that allows the teacher to tailor the the learning to the child/ren, to what is happening in the moment, also fosters relationships, caring.

Besides what goes on in the classroom is the larger learning community. In the majority of school’s children are told their job is to do what the teacher says, who in turn does what that principal says, who in turn does what the school board says, who in turn does what the State mandates. This is the company children keep during probably the majority of their non-family time—the time that represents larger society, a place that they are required by society to be.

If we want students to learn to be people who understand how a democratic society works, and how people who can make decisions over their lives and society act, then the adult in the learning community need to be doing such things. That means the way the school itself runs should be a place where the adults make the important decisions over what goes on in that community—the schedule, the work environment, and how the teaching and learning is structured. If the adults in the schools are mainly following orders from above, then that is what children will learn. They may want to reject that social order, to rebel against it, but the will not be learning how to do so effectively. Or they may reject it by just wanting to be the one’s who are on top, but again not seeing an alternative to the top down model of governance.

In sum, if we want to have healthy well educated students who know what it means to be a citizen of a democratic society, then the schools they grow up in need to reflect such a world, and they need the ability to build meaningful relationships with the adults and each other in those schools. Those adults need to be able to act that students would want to be adults like them.

Should we still require cursive?

I just came across a piece entitled Ten Reasons People Still Need Cursive by Jennifer Doverspike, in the Federalist. The piece is obviously on the importance of teaching cursive. As one who found its imposition on me as an elementary student to get in my way, rather than help me (and in fact, my teachers in middle school were glad when I quit using it, since they found it difficult to read my cursive), I decided to critique the 10 claims.


  1. Cursive Helps People Integrate Knowledge

So do lots of other things at least as well, such as the arts, theater, physical education, all of which there is way too little of in most public schools. These others sound like better and more interesting ways to integrate knowledge to me. And print is just as tactile as cursive, so would it not do this integration just as well?

  1. Writing Long-form Teaches Us How to Write

The author cites a correlation between the good writing and good handwriting in children. However, it may be that those that have good handwriting as children do so simply because they have matured earlier, both physically and mentally—so do not confuse correlation with causation. I would have to see evidence of such a correlation in adults to give it any credit. If you want fast, then learn to type—that is what I did, since I have atrocious handwriting.

  1. Our Hands Should Be Multilingual

“Should be?” Well, there are lots and lots of things maybe we should be—like be multilingual. Is its more important than all the other things that time could be spent on. Remember, time is school is an extremely limited resource. I do not see a reason to force this one particular “should” over all the others I can think of that we do not find time for in school.

  1. We Learn Better When We Write It Down

We can write it down without knowing cursive. In argument 2, they focus on the need for speed in writing, yet in this argument they argue slow is better. Well then go to print. And what the author is referring to writing down is lecture notes. Children rarely do have to do this, and a better way to learn is to be actively doing something rather than listening to lectures anyway.

  1. Handwriting Leads to Cognitive Development, Self-Esteem, and Academic Success

It may only do so because we give it that importance. And in fact, since good handwriting is easier for some, requiring it actually gives an academic advantage to those who have better dexterity, but may not be any smarter. Again from the research cited, they may very well be confusing correlation with causation, or even reversing the cause-effect relationship.

  1. It May Help Those With Special Needs

And it may hurt them too. That it “may” is not a reason to impose it on all. For many using a keyboard opens up a world denied to them, especially students with physical impairments which make handwriting more difficult. If it helps a particular student, great, but this is a sweeping generalization.

  1. It Reduces Distractions and Inspires Creativity

Maybe it does for some, and for others it becomes another burden—I know that when I started typing (in middle school) and then using a computer (in college), it was way less frustrating for me, and in each case I felt more creative, not less. I do not think I am all that unique in that way.

  1. It Keeps Our Brains Active in Old Age

There are millions of ways to keep one’s brain active in old age. It does not happen to be the one I would choose. If you like it great—but do not impose it on me.

  1. We Need to Be Able to Read Cursive

Actually, I have found extremely few times in my adult life when I need to read cursive—and the claim you need to be able to write it to read it is just plain false.  If and when such a time comes up, one can learn it. There is no critical age for learning to read or write cursive. Learning to read it can be done in a tiny fraction of the time needed to learn to write it. To force all to learn to write cursive for the few that might find it necessary seems wasteful and arbitrary.

  1. We Can Create Something Beautiful and Unique.

Again, there are millions of way to create unique and beautiful things. To impose this one way is arbitrary. I would hate it to be imposed on me.

My main argument is not that cursive is bad—but it is no longer necessary in modern society. I could make 10 easily as justifiable arguments for learning to ride a horse , but we do not require horse back riding or many other wonderful things that can integrate our brains and help us be creative. All of the arguments relate to why it may be worth doing, but do not justify it as a requirement, especially given the limited time that schools have with children.

As a teacher I happened to have liked teaching cursive—but that was because I could keep the kids busy and quiet at the end of a long day in a mindless activity that as third graders they saw as important. Learning cursive was, and may still be a sort of right-of-passage. That is the best argument I can come up with to teach it.




Multi-graded Classroom

We think of the age-graded classroom as so normal, as if it is just the natural order of things—and forget that it is a relatively recent modern invention.


The first public schools were mostly small one room buildings with kids of all ages and a teacher. This was mostly done not out of any belief in multi-aged classroom, but since most people lived in rural areas, schools were not likely to have more than a classroom full of kids from the town and surrounding farms, and their attendance often sporadic.

The age-graded classroom was a product of two simultaneous and connected changes in society: urbanization and industrialization. In a primarily agricultural society, there were too few students in close enough proximity to fill up more than a class or two, especially given that most did not spend much time in school. Most of what anyone needed to know could be, and really had to be, learned at home on the farm. Basic reading, writing, and arithmetic were all that was needed from school for most people, and not to a very sophisticated level.

Urbanization meant more of the population was living in larger cities, which meant schools could have larger enrollments. With more of the population living in large cities, now in many places there were enough children of one age to make a entire class or even more than one. It also meant more people’s jobs were working for someone else, and so schooling seemed more important as well. Further, since parents were working outside the home, they needed a place to send their kids.

Industrialization brought with it as well the idea of assembly line efficiency. It only made sense to apply the modern ideas of such efficiency to the classroom, especially given having so many children in one place. Curriculum was designed along these lines, where all teachers could give the same lessons to all the kids of a certain age in the proper order.

Soon this way of doing things, where students were grouped by age and taught subjects and content in a linear order, became what seemed the natural order of things. Multi-graded classrooms were now just an inconvenience of the few places left rural enough not to be able to have age-graded classrooms, or in larger schools to avoid hiring extra teachers when the numbers did not work out to have a complete class at every grade, putting the extra kids form two grades together.

When most teachers are now assigned such a combination grade class they dread it. After all, it is gong to mean two different curricula they have to teach; kids of different ages to manage; more different groups. How to instruct one group while keeping the other busy doing something meaningful? Given the paradigm of teaching as the delivery of curriculum, these fears are probably realistic ones.

However, if one has a different paradigm, multi-graded teaching can be wonderful. In my third year of teaching, when I had a second grade, I asked to keep my students the following year. I found it a huge advantage to start the year knowing my students. I felt I developed a much deeper relationship with these students. I could start the year right off and take them on from where they were. Classroom management was easier since we had already established the classroom norms. Having students for two years was a blessing.

The following year I switched school districts and was assigned a first grade. But as the year progressed, I started scouting among the other faculty for a teacher that might want to join me for teaming for multi-graded classrooms. My idea was to do a first/second, and keep half of my students, but the teacher I found that was willing to try this with me did not want to do first, so we ended up agreeing to do second/third. After doing that for several years, I also had years where I did 4/5, 4/5/6 and 3/4/5.

The big difference in the paradigm that makes one seem advantageous over the other is a belief in how people learn. Much of schooling is based, mostly implicitly, on a belief in learning as a linear process, generally passed from teacher (or any form of directed instruction which can be in the from text books, workbooks, or even computer programs as well as a teacher) to pupils. In this paradigm, teaching a group where everyone is around the same level is most efficient for delivering the correct instruction.

Another paradigm of learning—one which follows most of our out of school learning, is that we learn in communities of diversity, where different people have different levels of knowledge and ability, and just different ways of approaching and looking at things. We learn in this context by doing purposeful activities along side others—learning with and from them. If this is your paradigm for how learning takes place, then you will see multi-graded classrooms as an advantage rather than hardship.

As in moving up a grade with my students, my multi-grade classroom meant that I already knew half of my students. I could see how they were maturing, what they needed. In many ways knowing I had two years with them meant I had more patience for the natural differences in how children develop at different rates.

Learning is also to a large degree built on trust. Real trust is something that comes over time and with two years that trust is also deeper. This goes for the teacher’s relationship to the family families as well as the students themselves. In having my students for two or three years, I found the trust level increased exponentially.

Then there is socialization to how the classroom runs. With half the children knowing the routines, the other half easily learn them as well, as they can follow the lead of the students who were with me the previous year.

In terms of curriculum, for much of it, I use a thematic approach. A thematic approach allows students of a variety of interests, abilities and styles to approach the theme in their own way at their own level. When students are reading real books and literature rather than text books, they naturally find the books that interest them—and a book that is too easy or too hard is not interesting. The same goes for writing, using a writer’s workshop model. For math, students would have self-paced workbooks for arithmetic, and I would do on-the-spot grouping for particular skills, as well as thematic projects for the whole class to work together on. Themes could be anything from building a town, creating houses, studying bugs, investigating the environment, learning about the solar system, studying the peopling of the America’s to name just a few that I have done. The possibilities are practically endless.

In the multi-graded classroom, less-able students have more experienced and knowledgeable students to model and guide them, who are just enough above to act as effective models. The more-able students, in helping guide the less experienced, actually learn even more in the process of offering such help and guidance. It creates a form of having to meta-cognize—think about their own knowledge—in helping others. Teaching can actually be the most powerful form of learning.

In summary, multi-graded classrooms offer a variety of advantages: Getting to know students and families better; allowing more time to work with students; building greater levels of trust; easier classroom management; creating a more natural environment where those of different abilities learn from and with each other; and built in peer tutoring.

For these various reasons multi-graded classrooms can offer a more powerful environment for learning than a standard age graded classroom.

Progressive Education

My blogs here focus on my ideas about curriculum, teaching practices and educational policy, often critiquing what is currently practiced. What this essay will focus on is defining my philosophy of Progressive Education. And as a student and teacher of educational psychology, I feel I can safely say that the practices of Progressive Education match more closely what we know about how the brain works and how people learn in natural settings than what is practiced in the large majority of schools today. As importantly, Progressive Education matches more closely with the ideals and philosophy of a democratic society.

johndeweyquotes31Progressive teaching has deep roots in American education, from the Transcendentalist movement  of the early 1800s to John Dewey and Francis Parker in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and on to modern educators such as Herbert Kohl, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier to name just a few. For me, and those listed above, Progressive Education includes both the purpose and the methods of teaching and learning, In term of purpose, progressive education is about preparing students to be members a pluralistic democratic society. In terms of practice, progressive education is about student-centered and constructivist-based curriculum. (Though some use the term progressive education to describe practice that really is more focused on one or the other of those aspects.)

Historically, the idea of student-centered curriculum goes back at least to the 1700s with the ideas of Rousseau and Friedrich Fröbel (the inventor of Kindergarten). There were many experiments with child-centered education in the U.S. going back at least to the early 1800s. John Dewey introduced the ideas of progressive education more widely in the early 1900s.

In the 1930s, there was a famous study which promoted the use of progressive pedagogy in high schools, known as the Eight Year Study, to look at the effects of such student-centered practices in a large number of high schools using such practices (and the study showed it to be quite effective).

In terms of modern psychology, in the 1960s, the work of psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky on learning theory became popularized. Both Piaget and Vygotsky emphasized that children—people—actively construct their ideas and sense of the world from their interaction with the environment, and that they do not just passively receive information and knowledge. Based on their theories, the term constructivist caught on in many circles to describe such practices that put students at the center of instruction as active participants in the learning process, practices that take advantage of what we had discovered about how the brain learns. The ideas of these theorists made their ways into the field of education, and had an effect on teaching practices that were more in line with the philosophies of progressive education.

The terms progressive and constructivist have in common a belief that students belong at the center of the learning process, that they need to be in charge of their own learning, that learning should take place in the context of meaningful and authentic tasks, and that learning is social and interactive.

There is a strong body of research from the field of psychology to support many of the theoretical foundations of the types of teaching practices that progressive schools adhere to. Having students actively engaged, focusing on the intrinsic motivation students bring to learning, having curriculum that is relevant and meaningful individually and culturally, and having students learn through social interaction are all based on solid empirical and basic research in psychology and social psychology, and even recent research of the brain.

There is a smaller body of longitudinal empirical research examining progressive and child-centered schooling, showing it to be effective. These include the Eight-Year Study done in the 1930s, as well as more recent studies of progressive schools, such as one on the well-known Central Park East Schools of New York City. A couple of recent studies of preschool practices, comparing developmental child-centered approaches against academic skills-based approaches, have shown better academic and social outcomes in later elementary grades for those in the child-centered developmental programs. These studies focused mostly on defining progressive or constructivist teaching in terms of the pedagogical side.

The other side of progressive education is the democratic purpose. Traditionally schools have been designed on a hierarchical, rather than egalitarian model. One of the tenets of constructivist thought is that we learn from our environment, what some have called situational learning. We absorb the habits and practices of our culture as Vygotsky might say. Hence, students will internalize the habits and practices of school, even as they study democracy in their textbooks. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words.

Democracy requires thoughtful, critical, independent thinkers. Citizens trained in schools only to carry out assigned tasks and regurgitate memorized bits of knowledge are not those needed to drive a democracy. A thriving democracy ought to inspire all its citizens to be civicly active, to educate themselves on society’s issues, and to regularly participate in critical discussion of the daily affairs of society. What is more, to tackle the problems and challenges of an ever changing society requires creative thinkers who do not just know past knowledge.

An alternative paradigm to the hierarchical, and authoritarian structure found in most schools is to have schools include the entire staff, along with the students and their families in making the important decisions. In such a school students experience democracy personally, and grow up immersed in a democratic rather than autocratic environment.

Just as the leader in such a school includes the participation of the staff in the school’s operation, in a democratic school the teacher includes the students’ active engagement in the decision making of the classroom. In progressive democratic classrooms, the students are involved in the planning of the classroom design, in the enactment of classroom norms, and in the management of classroom conflicts. Democratic classrooms include student voice, classroom meetings, and student-selected projects. While the teacher still retains authority in the classroom, students are given choice and opportunity over setting classroom rules and selecting project topics. By involving the students in the running of the classroom, the teacher allows students to take ownership of their learning, as well as modeling democratic culture.

The curriculum in the democratic classroom within the democratic school necessarily is democratic in both theory and practice. Democracy implies community. Community implies working together. Therefore, the democratic curriculum will involve collaborative learning where all students participate in the pursuit of a shared purpose.

Democracy, in part, includes a degree of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. Thus, students will choose many of their educational pursuits in the democratic curriculum. Student-selected projects will be important in the democratic curriculum. Projects will be of both the individual and group design, sometimes allowing for individual pursuits, and other times deferring to group collaboration.

Democracy also means having to confront controversial topics. Most schools avoid, or sometimes even prohibit, the discussion of controversial topics. Being able to discuss controversial topics is difficult. Most of what we see currently in the media is either one-sided presentations, or shouting matches. Public schools are the one place we have as a society to prepare people to actually civilly discuss their differences of viewpoints and differences.

In summary, Progressive Education, at least for me, includes student-centered curriculum that actively engages students in authentic projects and problems. It includes a democratic process of decision-making and inclusion. It includes the preparing students to confront differences with understanding and civil discourse.

Here are a few organizations that support progressive education:
The Progressive Education Network
The Coalition of Essential Schools
Association for Constructivist Teaching

To read more deeply on the meaning and History of Progressive Education:

  • Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school; progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. New York: Knopf
  • Little, T., & Ellison, K. (2015). Loving learning: How progressive education can save America’s schools. New York: Norton.

Self-Initiated Cognitive Activity

The education world is full of acronyms for educational practices. I have one that I would like to promote. SICA: Self Initiated Cognitive Activity.

We know that self-initiation is an important quality for everyone to have to be successful in life. We should design activities in school that promote such behavior. Every day we hear about how entrepreneurship is the wave of the future—or is it the present? Every “self-made” millionaire required self-initiation.

And cognitive means thinking. If education is not meant to help students think better, then I don’t know what it is for!

Cognitive learning theory and even recent brain research has demonstrated how learning is enhanced when the learner is actively engaged in their own learning process, rather than being a passive recipient of knowledge from someone else.

This leads us to the obvious conclusion that school activities that are designed with student initiation and that engaging them in heads on, hands on activities, need to be centerpieces of our curriculum.

So, what are such activities you might ask? A simple word for such activities that you may be familiar with is … play! According to the best researchers and psychologists, play engages children—and adults too—in self –initiated cognitive activity in ways that foster their cognitive, social, emotional and even physical development. While most of what you see and read in the literature regarding the role of play in learning is about early childhood education, the truth is it is really almost as important at any age.

Ask any inventor or serious scientist and I bet you they will tell you they used to “tinker” and play around, taking things apart, putting things together, and just “fooling around” with stuff from a young age. I recently read that that is what some companies look for in the scientists or engineers they hire—more than good grades in school—is those tinkerers.


So, if you are a teacher or other educator, find time to allow your students to engage in play, of whatever form. If your supervisor asks you what they are doing, tell him or her that they are engaged in the latest research-based best-practice of SICA.


I was recently covering a Language and Literacy class for a colleague of mine. The students were teacher credential candidates. For part of the session the students divided into “centers.” In one of the centers one student was presenting to the others about “Concepts of Print.” In her talk, I overheard her say how reading “is not natural.” Her statement struck me. What I gathered she meant by it is that many aspects of reading are arbitrary, and therefore should be taught explicitly, e.g., that we read form right to left, which side is the front and which side is that back of a book.

FC Reading

I do not know where she came up with the phrase of reading “not being natural,” and did not get an opportunity to ask her about it. However, I think it plays into a larger debate about reading. To what extent is learning to read more or less natural than learning other things? Does it matter?

Chomsky, half a century ago, developed a hypothesis that language learning was hard-wired into the human brain. He used this hypothesis to debunk behaviorist theories of language learning, and proposed that humans are born with a universal grammar.

While it is clear that humans have a certain portion of the brain that ends up being allocated to language, the rest of his hypothesis is speculation. As behavioral psychology has demonstrated, it is easier to train an animal to do those things for which it is predisposed toward. For instance, since birds peck instinctively, getting them to peck in a certain way or at certain things is a lot easier than to use their wing to point.

Humans seem to be born with a predilection to learn language. While someone who does not have contact with other humans will not develop language, it does appear that if in any sort of social environment, language will emerge. No one without some sort of brain abnormality or injury needs to be explicitly taught language—being exposed to others who use language seems to be all that is necessary. So, in that sense language could be seen as more natural to learn than many other things that some people learn and others do not.

Is literacy another form of language learning and therefore just as natural? Or is more like other things we learn?

Current trends in teaching literacy tend to take the view that it is not natural—some are explicit about that rationale, for others it is just implicit. One could argue that most of formal schooling is based on the notion that learning is an unnatural act, and only takes place through coercion (rewards and punishments) as a motivator, and direct explicit instruction as a methodology. The main reason students are given to do well in school is grades, diplomas and the reward of better job prospects. Information is directly imparted to students through lectures and readings. How to carry out mathematics is explained in the form of algorithms.

If you have read my earlier blogs you can probably guess my belief is more along the lines that effective learning happens naturally. But when I look at the basic principals of how language is learned—the conditions and stages of it—and compare it to other non-formal learning, I do not see any fundamental differences. In other word, I do not see a big difference in how and why we learn language as being all that different from how we learn most meaningful things in life.

My point here, therefore, is that the most effective way to teach literacy is to create an environment that most is like those in which we learn other things naturally. An important aspect of that is a form of immersion. We need to be, at least for significant portions of time, in a community where there is a lot of print, and people using that print for a variety of purposes, both reading and writing. If you look at homes where parents read and write regularly, you will find even toddlers imitating those behaviors. I think you will find that the “concepts of print” mentioned above are for the most part learned without explicit direct instruction or explicit teaching.

Another aspect is that it is risk free. No one gives us grades or benchmarks as we learn to speak, telling us we are ahead or behind our peers. When we get graded and judged, unless we are really good at something, this interferes with our performance, adding anxiety and a sense that maybe we are not good enough. When we judge ourselves as doing more poorly, we are likely to want to avoid doing that activity, and develop a sense that it is something we are bad at.

Yet at school children are constantly being judged and compared to their peers and benchmarks of expectations. Almost nothing a student does at school does not have some judgment attached to it. If not given an actual grade, students are told good job, or given a star or check mark that is was done correctly (or not). And the feedback is mostly about the level of skill, not about the meaningfulness, beauty or effectiveness in any real world sense. As Deborah Meier put it recently in a TV interview, if we taught children to speak that way, we would likely have a nation of stutterers and mutes.

We learn best when the activity we are engaged in has an authentic purpose. In school we seem to teach reading and writing as if the only purpose was so that we can pass tests of reading and writing—or for some future need. In the rest of life we learn most things, language included, because they have a specific purpose at the time we are learning to do them.

When we create schooling that uses the normal outside of school factors of learning – immersion in authentic activities with mentors and peers in a non-judgmental climate — we see a lot more success.

Learning Modalities

It is common knowledge in education that knowing one’s, or one’s students’, preferred learning modality is important or at least helpful in designing learning strategies for ourselves or them. When I do a search of learning modalities I find dozens of articles in educational journals about how to use this information and why it is important. The interesting thing is that the empirical evidence does not support the claim, despite its popularity. And this lack of support is not for lack of investigation.


First, I want to be clear on what learning modalities are and are not. They are basically the receptive modes of taking in the world—most commonly aural (hearing,), visual (seeing), and kinesthetic (feeling, touching). These are not to be confused with learning styles (of which there are many versions such as field dependent or independent, liking to work alone or with others, risk-avoidant or risk-taker, introverted, extroverted). Nor is it to be confused with Gardner’s seven or eight Intelligences, which are ways of understanding, and really describe thinking about the world rather than how we receive information, which is what modalities are about.

We believe in our modality preference for the same reason humans believe many things that are not true. It just seems so intuitively true. We all have a sense of how we best take in information. Also, it is so often repeated – and even accepted and promoted by supposed experts – that it must be true. There are lots of tests designed by psychologists to measure our modality prefernces and help you figure out your strength. When I first took psychology in the 1980s this dichotomy between the common sense belief and the evidence was pointed out by one of my professors. Even then it had been studied and found to be false. In the 30+ years since then, the literature has continued to pour out on how to teach to modalities, and the evidence that such teaching does not actually enhance learning has also continued, and continued to be ignored by the practitioner side of the field. Special education teachers might say, “Well maybe it is true for regular education, but in special education these differences are real.” However, most of the research is with special education (as are most of the advise articles), and it is just as false in special education as in regular education.

It is a fact that in humans it is the visual area of the brain that is really the biggest—it is just the way that humans have evolved to take in the world. This is true of everyone unless they are blind or are brain damaged in some way. As social beings, however, we interact with other humans to a large extent though hearing and speaking. It is our verbal communication with others that to a large extent fulfills our needs as social animals. Many people claim that, although sight is our most central perception, being deaf is psychologically worse, because it isolates us to a greater extent than does blindness.

And whenever I ask about how people like to learn (not meaning modalities) virtually everyone says “Oh, I’m one of those people that needs to be actively involobved.” We are all kinesthetic, we all learn though doing, touching. And again, the humans have evolved to actually need, desire, touch. There is a famous experiment where a baby monkey will choose the artificial mother that provides soft embrace to the one that provides milk but no physical stimulation.

The fact is that the human brain is extremely interconnected, with each part constantly communicating with the other parts and it puts all the information together to make sense and act on the world. This misreading of the fact that we can divide the brain into parts that control certain functions and trying to then act is if they work independently reminds me of the other fallacy people used to talk about–being “right” or left” brained. Again, while different functions are controlled on the right and left hemisphere, unless we have had an old fashioned type lobotomy, both sides interact at every moment and our brain acts as a whole.

What I have discussed is that all of these modalities are central to being human. What the research has shown is that when you use all modalities all learners learn better! This is really a boon for teachers, since instead of feeling like you need to test each of your students for their strengths and then design separate lessons for each type learner, now what you are best off doing is designing lessons that utilize all modalities. The more modalities you use, the more all students do better. For all students relying on just one or two is exactly that—less.

I give the example of my getting directions. I could just hear it (or read it) (auditory) “Turn right here, turn left there….” Or I could look at on a map (visual). But getting both helps me remember it even better. And then what I like to do, to really get it down pat, is stand up and point the direction of each turn, in turn, maybe even turning my body as well, as I go over it (kinesthetic).

So take heart, the truth in this case makes our teaching easier, not harder.

As one researcher put it, “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” (Pashler el at, 2009).

Some references:

Kampwirth, T. J., & Bates, M. (1980). Modality preference and teaching method: A review of the research. Intervention in School and Clinic, 15(5), 597-605.

Kavale, K. A., & LiFever, G. (2007). Dunn and Dunn model of learning-style preferences critique of Lovelace meta-analysis. The Journal of Educational Research, 101(2).

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Sanley, J. D. (1987). An examination of student learning styles and learning modalities on problem-solving success. Unpublished Dissertation, University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

Woolfolk, A. E. (2013). Educational psychology, 12th ed. Pearson.