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The Best Lesson for New Readers Might Be the One They Teach Themselves

by Julia Lipscomb

October 5, 2015
To improve students’ reading skills, these books were written by teachers and students together in class, based on the stories found in the library books and left open-ended with a big question mark on the last page to engage students. Dadal County, Mongolia. Photo: Khasar Sandag / Flickr user World Bank (cc)

If some of your earlier lessons in reading and writing involved a teacher standing at the head of a classroom, lecturing you about letters and grammar, you’re not alone. As much as 80 percent of classroom instruction in the United States is delivered orally—whether it’s being used to help students develop their literacy or tackle any other subject. Yet, we’re all different human beings with different needs and circumstances—and, according to certain researchers, many of us respond more effectively to alternative methods of instruction.

First spelled out 1983 and continually revised by one Dr. Howard Gardner, there are many different learning styles. Visual-spatial learners respond best to pictures, bodily-kinesthetic learners benefit greatly through physical activity, sound patterns encourage musical learners, written language inspires linguistic learners, problem solving fuels logical-mathematical learners, and naturalist learners are at their best in an outdoor environment. Interpersonal learners respond to calls for self-improvement, while intrapersonal learners prefer to share information with others.

Whether our favorite teachers explicitly worked from these definitions or not—and debate about the learning styles theory can get heated—there’s no doubt that when our personal needs are attended to in the classroom, we’re more apt to respond positively. But even the most attentive teacher can struggle to tailor lessons to every student, especially in the era of ever-expanding class sizes and increasingly demanding standards.

Today, Dr. Gardner—now an adjunct professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Boston University School of Medicine—is working to empower educators everywhere to accommodate the needs of all kinds of students through Project Zero: Multiple Intelligences Schools, of which he is chair. It turns out that his approach is much more nuanced than the learning styles to which he is so frequently linked.

As Dr. Gardner has explained in The Washington Post and on the Project Zero website, each of us has multiple intelligences—not simply learning styles—and though we may lean toward one educational mindset or another, we all learn best in different ways at different times:

“If we all had exactly the same kind of mind and there was only one kind of intelligence, then we could teach everybody the same thing in the same way and assess them in the same way and that would be fair. But once we realize that people have very different kinds of minds, different kinds of strengths—some people are good in thinking spatially, some in thinking language, others are very logical, other people need to be hands on and explore actively and try things out—then education, which treats everybody the same way, is actually the most unfair education. Because it picks out one kind of mind, which I call the law professor mind—somebody who's very linguistic and logical—and says, if you think like that, great, if you don't think like that, there's no room on the train for you.”

“People have this idea that intelligence is fixed and it’s not true,” adds Dr. Jen Gowers, director of curriculum for Equality Charter School. Dr. Gowers studied with Dr. Gardner when getting her Master’s in Secondary Education at Harvard, before earning her doctorate at Teacher’s College. “Today in school, you learn to be a good reader and writer, and you learn to be good at mathematics. But real-life careers are so much more project-based. The opportunity to showcase the way you learn best and apply that to skills you’re going to need is what makes you successful.”

Really, it boils down to this: approaching the same material in different ways, and offering students the opportunity for individual attention. Sometimes it’s easier to keep in mind students’ personality traits, rather than their learning styles. “I noticed for my introverts there were a lot of times when I needed to say, ‘Let’s take a minute and gather our thoughts before we jump in,’” says Dr. Gowers. “Otherwise, my class is designed to put the extroverts first, because I would take the first hand that goes up.”

Overall, Dr. Gowers simply recommends that educators keep trying out new methods, letting go of a degree of control every once in awhile. “I think it’s a matter of not being afraid to fail, trying new things, breathing, and reflecting. It’s not always going to go great.” And when classes are so large that experimentation feels like a burden, Dr. Gowers recommends making time for learning in small groups. She says, “I think that stations and groupings provide a real opportunity for [one-on-one learning]… Give [students] opportunities to get up and out of their seat and have discussions... Start the lesson instead of writing down in a book or listening to me talk—talk about the theme of the text with your partner. Now move to Station 2 and we’re going to write what you think the theme is on a giant piece of chalk paper and the people around you comment on it. Then move to Station 3 and we’re going to discuss it and have people with post-its say what they think the takeaway is.”

At the end of the day, both Dr. Gowers and Dr. Gardner are advocates for teachers who find ways to enable students to take control of the material. “[It’s about] saying ‘Your thoughts matter,’ and structuring it in a way where, even though I’m going to guide and facilitate [the activity], it’s their responsibility to take the reigns on learning.”

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The Best Lesson for New Readers Might Be the One They Teach Themselves