Gifted and Talented

In a previous post I discussed one aspect of the Special Education population. But another end of it are those we call “gifted.” I often hear from teachers I work with that the gifted students are shortchanged in our educational system, though like other “special needs” students Federal law states that schools are required to attend to the special needs of these students as well.

According to the Federal definition “The term ‘gifted and talented,” when used with respect to students, children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”[1]


The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the main advocacy group for gifted education, makes very explicit their belief in the genetic nature of giftedness and their belief it the accuracy of Intelligence Tests. They are also clear that they see this population as underserved by schools, stating, “America [is unable] to properly meet the needs of its most able students.”

My problems with the gifted education label are several fold. One is that it assumes a “fixed” belief in intelligence. These students are, by this term “gifted” in the sense that they are born superior intellectually in some ways—these gifts and talents are in some way innate. I find this problematic from both a scientific standpoint and from a moral standpoint. The idea that some people are born smarter is not an established fact, despite the claims of the NAGC, though it is a very popular concept and one that most of us intuitively believe. The fact is that whether some are born with more or less potential, we do know as a fact that our experiences –our education—has a huge impact on our intelligence, and that it can change at any age. In other words, I believe virtually all students can be gifted and talented if given the opportunity, and more importantly, there is no way to sort ahead of time those who can be and those who cannot. We can only measure what someone can do and has learned so far, and so we have no accurate way test for potential However, our assumptions that we do can become self-fulfilling prophesies in both directions.

Just as with learning disabilities, the label is highly subjective. As can be seen, the definition is quite vague. The “objective” part comes from scores on standardized achievement tests and IQ tests, both of which I find highly suspect.[2] Intelligence tests, and standardized tests cannot and do not measure some real object, but a construct, and idea. They are designed by people who had and have a predetermined notion of who should do well and who should not. If the results do not give the expected results it is the test that ends up being changed. The definition is also highly subjective in terms of how one decides a particular student “gives evidence of high ability” in the non “academic”  areas—who gets to decide if one is artistically gifted, etc.

While we find students from low-income backgrounds and minorities overrepresented in the learning disabled category, we find them underrepresented in the gifted and talented category. This is likely due to two factors—one is the high correlation with scholastic and testing success and socio-economic status. The other is the ability of higher SES families to advocate for getting their children the advantages of the gifted and talented label.

Another major problem I have with the label is similar to my issue of the label learning disabled—labeling students and the message it sends. Do I really want to send the message that some students are “better” and more valuable than others? Separating out kids as smarter and dumber I think is not good for a democratic mentality. This elitist mentality is very clear if you read any of the literature put out by organization supporting the idea of giftedness.

Just as importantly, I also dispute that “gifted” children need a different kind of education than other students. Virtually every suggestion I hear for “gifted” children I think is good for all children, and in fact maybe even more so for those who are having schooling difficulties.

The argument for gifted students is that they are not challenged in regular classrooms, and do not have opportunities to pursue their gifts and talents. Given the current state of most public schools—especially one’s serving low-income schools, I could argue that almost all students need services not provided by the schools to develop their “intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity.” The idea that only certain, gifted, children should have their leadership abilities fostered sounds dangerous to a society that is trying to be democratic. And in a civilized society, development of creativity and the arts should be for all.

The types of strategies generally supported for gifted students are more open-ended tasks, projects, problem solving, etc. These are all strategies supported by progressive educators for all students. Gifted advocates argue that the general curriculum holds back and bores their students. Well, teacher-centered, textbook, rote learning approaches bore most kids.

Rather than create special opportunities for some students to receive enriched educational opportunities, I would extend such opportunities to all students. Many successful progressive schools, often working with very disadvantaged students, work from that premise with outstanding results. (See my list of innovative schools for examples. Central Park East was also one of the first schools to implement full inclusion for students with disabilities back in the early 1970s.)

[1] No Child Left Behind Act, P.L. 107-110 (Title IX, Part A, Definition 22) (2002); 20 USC 7801(22) (2004)

[2] Read Kohn, Alfie. The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000 and on IQ tests, Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

Loving Learning: Book Review

Loving Learning:
How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools


by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison

Tom Little, in collaboration with Katherine Ellison, has written a very nice book about Progressive Education. To start with, it is just easily readable. Not only is it readable but it is quite enjoyable as well. While authorship is given to Tom Little (co-founder of Park Day School) and Katherine Ellison (journalist), it is written in the first person from Tom’s perspective. At 200 pages of text (plus some useful appendices), it can be read leisurely in just few days.

Tom helped start and then direct a small independent progressive elementary school in Oakland California. At the end of his career he decided to tour the United States visiting other schools that identified as being progressive or that he thought met the definition of progressive. This book is the outcome of that tour. Sadly, Tom died of cancer shortly before the publication of this book.

The book starts out giving Tom’s history of becoming a teacher and founder of Park Day School. He weaves into this a brief history of progressive education since the late 1800s of John Dewey and Francis Parker. In giving us this history, he also gives us a definition of progressive education.

In an early chapter he give us six core strategies which he distills as “passed down form Dewey, Parker, and the other pioneers, and still in robust practice at progressive schools today” (p.52). In sum these are: Emotions as well as intellect; Student interest as a guide; ban of standardized testing and ranking; real-world endeavors; integration of curriculum and disciplines; and active civil participation for social justice. He illustrates these ideas through the rest of book.

However, mostly what this book does is describe what progressive education looks like, using anecdotes from Park Day School as well as many of the other progressive schools Tom visited. He uses these stories to illustrate the points about what progressive education is and can be, and why it is so vital to both a solid education and to a democratic society. In this way it reminds me of the style of two of my very favorite books in education, Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, and Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. All of these books are told in conversational tone, using the authors’ own experiences to illustrate important big lessons about what education can and should look like.

If you want an easy and enjoyable read on the power and practice of progressive education, then you must pick up Loving Learning.

Learning Disabilities

The topic of learning disabilities is highly controversial. What are they? How do we know? Are such labels useful? How to “treat” them?

On the down side of the learning disability label is just that—that it is a label. The problem with labeling is that it creates an identity. When students are given the label of learning disabled it can mean they then think of themselves as disabled, and create a self-fulfilling prophesy of helplessness. It also shapes how others see them—as damaged.

diability cartoon

On the other hand, I know many adults that tell me that having been identified as having a specific learning disability helped them understand that maybe they were not “stupid” for having so much trouble in school, and that in some cases it allowed them to get help to manage that difficulty. One suggestion in the literature on disabilities is to name the behavior or issue rather than the person, as in a student with a learning disability, rather than a learning disabled student, having dyslexia rather than dyslexic. This may mitigate the harmful aspects of labeling.

One of my problems specifically with the term learning disabilities is the lack of a good measure and lack of strong evidence that it is actually a physical problem. To test for blindness we have a eye test, and there is no controversy over the basic validity and reliability of such tests. However, there is a strong lack of consistency about who gets labeled with learning disabilities versus who is just considered a “slow learner.” To get the label of learning disabled one criterion is a discrepancy between achievement and potential. However, since I find tests for either highly problematic in terms of validity and reliability, I do not trust the results of either. (I am unsure how one measures “potential”). Another criterion is whether a person seems to learn fine in one area, but not in another. But we all have different strengths and weaknesses. And in fact, it has been shown that students who in one school system get labeled one way, would be labeled differently in another school. In research I did a while back, the chance of low achieving students being labeled as learning disabled was almost completely arbitrary—in other words if they were assessed by different people, they were just as likely to be labeled learning disabled as not, with almost no consistency among assessors.

Some researchers point to differences in brain scans of those considered “normal” learners in the specific area of the brain that is related to ability as demonstrating the validity of such labels. However correlation does not mean causation. An alternate hypothesis is that the brain difference and the learning problem are both caused by poor teaching/learning. In other words, if you learned it the wrong way, it might end up looking different in your brain when no prior difference may have existed. I was recently reading how the brain of someone called “dyslexic” looks similar to someone who just has not learned how to read, rather than as damaged in some way.

Some have talked about a sign of a learning disability as when students have trouble hanging on to or retrieving information or facts even after multiple exposures. However, another hypothesis is lack of conceptual understanding. If you do not understand a subject well conceptually, than retrieving information is harder. I find that a more plausible explanation than a theorized brain abnormality.

The sheer number of children we now label as disabled is troubling in itself. Most sources put estimates of the number of students with learning disabilities at about 10% (and given the disagreement about who should be labeled as such, there is a wide range in estimates of how many “really” have learning disabilities). If that many children are seen as not “normal” learners, then maybe there is something wrong with our definition of “normal.”

Another issue is that much (though not all) of what we call learning disabilities only show up as problems in school contexts—so maybe the problem is with the school context or expectations. We are all different, but schools favor some learning styles and behaviors and ignore or even discourage others. In part, I am arguing that learning disabilities are at least in part culturally constructed.

Rather than label some children as learning disabled and others as normal, I would rather see schools where teachers (and everyone really) pays attention to individual differences and creates an environment that makes room for all of these differences then provides the supports needed for all to flourish. These are called full inclusion schools or classrooms, and there are many successful examples of them out there. The teacher as lecturer and textbook based model will not work well for that to happen, and probably more training and supports are needed than we currently provide to most schools. However, since the schools that I know that have full inclusion, do it on basically the same budgets as other schools, it is less a question of total resources than how they are allocated.

A difficulty of my approach is how do you allocate resources fairly. The labels help us legally justify giving expensive equipment or more one on one time to certain students, and these can be expensive. Of course, even with the laws and labels, what I have seen and heard is that those who are more advantaged are better able to use the system and laws to get whatever resources they think their child should have, and those who are less savvy and from more disadvantaged groups, are less able to successfully advocate for those same things, or just unaware of what their child might be entitled to.

My approach is based on trust—trust that those in charge will allocate the resources fairly. Without such labels and laws some argue that schools will be reluctant (or unable) to give expensive resources to students with those needs. Or that others will argue, why should that kid get all that extra stuff, without the weight of law behind it. These are valid points without easy answers. And even full inclusion schools use the labels to provide the resources.

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.

Montessori Then and Now

I was recently thinking about a story from the work of Marie Montessori. I think an interesting irony of the work of Montessori in terms of who she saw her mission as serving and who the schools in her name mostly serve today (at least in the U.S.). She did her work first with children with learning disabilities, getting better results in teaching reading to them than the children not so labeled were getting in regular schools. Next she went on to work with the poorest of the young children in the housing projects of Italy of her time. She was a pioneer of showing how students need to be actively involved in their learning using all their senses (particularly through movement and touching things, what we would now call kinesthetic learning). She also saw her job as working with the families, not just the children individually.

Maria Montessori

But, in this country anyway, schools using her methods have been made available almost exclusively to the privileged in independent private school setting. I wonder what she would have made of this evolution of her work.

“Our aim is not only to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his innermost core.” ~ Maria Montessori


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.

Inquiry into Meaning

Inquiry into Meaning


by Edward Chittenden, Terry Salinger, and Anne Bussis
Teachers College Press.

For those interested in how children learn to read, I really think this is one of the very best books out there. It is actually a study of how children learn to read, rather than a study of how people teach reading or a book describing a theory of learning to read.

Academic studies that claim they are about learning to read are almost exclusively studies of a particular approach to teaching and how well students did on tests of reading after being exposed to that approach (the National Reading Panel report, which I have critiqued in an earlier post, for instance, was based solely on such studies).

This book took a different approach. A group of researchers sponsored from, of all places, the Educational Testing Service, decided to do an in-depth qualitative and somewhat longitudinal study of the children, rather than the teaching. This was a close examination of what the children were doing as they were learning to read, how they approached text. This was done much in the spirit of how Piaget examined intellectual growth of babies—by close examination of individuals. It takes a deductive, grounded theory, approach. Rather than testing some theory, it attempts to build a theory out of the data.

As the preface puts it: “This project entailed classroom documentation of over 80 children going about the challenge of making sense of print…over 2 years of instruction” (p.xi). The children came from several different classrooms and schools, with teachers using very different teaching methods.

The book is divided into several section. In the beginning the research process is described. Then the book looks at what they learned in different areas, from what supports learning to read, to how students use those supports and knowledge. The next part, which seems to be the main conclusion of the book, is a look at learning styles and its relevance to learning to read. It seems the teaching approach had little if any direct connection with the approach the students actually took to learning to read.  Lastly are case studies of three representative children.

The book is fascinating and full of rich description of the children and how they attempt to make sense of print, books and the world.

I think it should be required reading for anyone who teaches reading, and recommend it to anyone who is just fascinated by the topic.

P.S. Here are some other good reads on the topic of how children learn to read.:

  • Frank Smith, Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. 6th ed. (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).
  • Stephen D. Krashen, Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong (Heinemann, 1999)
  • Gerald Coles, Misreading Reading: The Bad Science That Hurts Children (Heinemann, 2000)
  • Kenneth S. Goodman, In Defense Of Good Teaching: What Teachers Need to Know about the “Reading Wars” (York, Me: Stenhouse Publishers, 1998)
  • Jeff McQuillan, Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions (Heinemann, 1998)

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.

Emotional Intelligence

I am writing this from the Fall Forum of the Coalition for Essential Schools. I just attended a workshop by Kathleen Cushman on “Learning by Heart: The Power of Social Emotional Learning.”

She stated in one of the bullet points of her slides of how building social emotional learning supports academic learning. I think there are very few people who would disagree with this, though it is true that many teachers feel unequipped for, resentful toward, or object to being expected to deal with this aspect of teaching. However, what I notice here, is that often as educators we feel the need to defend anything we do in schools not as valuable for itself, but for how it will help raise test scores, or at least help academically. I have seen this in defense of the arts, in defense of physical education, in defense of good nutrition, etc.

dumb question

As the author of Emotional Intelligence demonstrated fairly convincingly, to get ahead in most occupations takes emotional intelligence at least as much as it took academic smarts (according to the web site EQ accounts for 58% of your job performance, though I have no idea how one would quantify that). I would argue that this is at least as true in civic life. Political and social change happens when people work together for such change. Not to mention the importance of getting along with our neighbors, our families, etc.

Now, since my assumption is that the purpose of public schools is to serve the larger public—that is not just to help the individual become smarter and more marketable, but to be the place where society educates the next generation into the knowledge and values that are required to sustain and maintain itself. In the case of our country, I see that as helping create a democratic citizenry of a pluralistic society.

This leads me to challenge what we just take for granted—what is the purpose of schools. Most of use rarely think deeply about this question, and assume it is self evident—and that it is primarily “academic.”

But how about this thought experiment; What if we turned this on its head? What if we thought the primary responsibility of schools was to get a citizenry that has a strong social/emotional education? That our schools’ responsibility was to have graduates that had a strong sense of self-knowledge, that are good at managing their own emotions? Graduates that know how to be empathetic, that know how to effectively work with others, and be sensitive to others. Academics, P.E., the Arts, Nutrition, etc., might be seen as instrumental to living an emotionally and socially satisfying life and to contributing to the social and emotional health of the larger society. Just a thought.