The other day I went over to Steve Wheeler’s blog and watched a short interview recorded at the INTED 2015 conference in Madrid, Spain. I highly recommend watching the video, in which Steve talks about the importance of technology in education. The progressive, yet moderate view on technology resonates with me but what really struck a chord with me was the following line: Every student has different preferences, approaches and aspirations. Nothing new under the sun, right? Yet, it got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. When I heard the line, I immediately thought of learning styles and the heated debate they have recently inspired, and I realised that it’s much better to think of students’ differences in terms of their preferences, approaches and aspirations than in terms of the looked-down-on learning styles, which, to me, represent a rather narrow perspective. However, as you’ll see, it’d probably be more comfortable and easier to deal with just seven learning styles than with a plethora of different preferences, approaches and aspirations.
It’s obvious that each and every student wants a different thing – hence the different preferences. When learning English, one student prefers grammar tables; another favours picking up the language through reading books. You don’t need to prove this scientifically because you can tell what your students want – they show you, implicitly or explicitly, or they just tell you if you ask. Also, it’s beyond doubt that each and every student deals with school work in a different way. You can observe this directly, provided you give your students some choice and control over their learning approaches. For example, some like learning vocabulary by underlining words and recording them in their notebooks; others use apps on mobile phones to memorise and revise lexical items. As for aspirations, it’s unlikely that you’ll find two students who aspire for the very same thing. Few students will do without English when they leave school, but there might be some in the end. Maybe they’ll need German or Russian instead – not English. Not all students will need to be able to speak the language at a high level; some will get by with passive knowledge of vocabulary since they won’t use the language to communicate orally. For instance, they will only read texts for academic purposes. Others won’t have to do a lot of writing, so they won’t have to panic about spelling and linking words a big deal.
Now, if you take into account that there are at least 3 constants – preferences, approaches and aspirations, which, by the way, can be highly variable – and you have a class of, say, 25 students, then it’s really difficult to adjust your teaching to satisfy every student’s needs. You’d have to have an inventory of up to 25 times 3 different teaching approaches/methods/techniques/styles/magic tricks, which you obviously can’t perform all at once. i e. in one lesson. Plus you would sometimes have to be a fortune teller to be able to tell what exactly you students want on a particular day, in a particular lesson.
What is the solution, then? Individualisation? Yes, but there are 25 individuals with various preferences, approaches and aspirations in your class, remember? Personalisation? Yes, but there are 25 persons sitting in front of you ready to start talking about what concerns them. Making your teaching learner-centred? Absolutely! However, there are 25 learners to be focused on. Give them tasks to complete? Yes, but what if they prefer to absorb knowledge through listening and taking notes, and it bugs them when they are forced to learn through completing inauthentic tasks. Dogme? Well, yes, but imagine how much variety would suddenly emerge at one point if you were really liberal; would you be able to handle it? Let them use technology then? Good idea but there are some who prefer to see things on paper and they hate looking at the computer screen. The matter is complicated by the fact that I, too, have my preferences, approaches and aspirations, and beliefs.
I’m not exactly pessimistic but whenever I enter the classroom and see those 25 little heads, I can’t help feeling I’m not doing enough – I can never do enough. What is my role as a teacher then? Mind you, this is not a philosophical question; this is a question I ask as a practitioner with some experience in the classroom and I bit of theoretical knowledge. Can we do anything at all or would the whole system of schooling have to change completely, as some argue? Before this happens, I guess I’ll just be there for my students trying to do what I believe is best for them …