Archive for the ‘learning styles’ Category


A Handful of Common Sense Is Worth a Bushel of Learning *

January 26, 2010

Overheard yesterday on Monday of week four of a ten-week quarter. Thirty percent of the class is over. Midterms are next week. It’s after class and the teacher is trying to vacate the room so another group of students can enter. This is paraphrased, but you’ll get the gist:

Hi, I’m Anonymous Student. I’m finally here. I haven’t been to class yet because I had a conflict with work, but I’m here and ready to get caught up.

The teacher says: I already dropped you. The teacher might be thinking: Are you kidding? Are you nuts? This is the first time you’re contacting me? Haven’t you ever heard of phoning or emailing? We could have taken care of this much earlier and I could have told you not to take this course if you weren’t going to be able to attend. (Clearly, no eavesdropper is privy to interior thoughts. I am making this up based on what I am thinking about the situation.)

Avoidance is a form of procrastination. Putting off talking to a teacher about just about anything is not a good idea. Putting off contacting someone about a financial aid problem is not a good idea. Putting off contacting a credit card company about the trouble you’re having making a payment is not a good idea. Some problems go away if you ignore them. Most of them don’t.

It seems like avoiding avoidance would be plain old common sense, but the overheard conversation reminded me of something Mark Twain and Ben Franklin and Voltaire have all been credited with saying: Common sense is not so common. And it’s probably not so common because it’s more difficult than it sounds to be commonsensical. Some people just seem to be better at it than others. I’ve encountered so many students–and other people–who don’t seem to have developed this ability that I’m convinced it’s something schools should deliberately teach instead of assuming that students have common sense and are choosing not to use it. I also believe that a person might be able to self-develop the attributes of common sense.

It’s important to develop critical and creative thinking skills. It’s also important to develop problem-solving skills based in common sense that include giving deliberate attention to using good judgment, thinking things through, considering intended—and unintended—consequences of actions (or lack of them), weighing options, and making sensible decisions.

On a scale of one to ten with one being “have none” and ten being “role model for humanity,” rate your common sense.

The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.
• Thomas Alva Edison

* American proverb


Play The World of Mindcraft: No Purchase Necessary

January 25, 2010

Computer scientist Alan Perlis complained about education, saying, “It goes against the grain of modern education to teach students to program,” asking, “What fun is there to making plans, acquiring discipline, organizing thought, devoting attention to detail, and learning to be self-critical?” Yet the things he describes are exactly the kinds of things that are part of fun in learning. The problem is that not everyone is interested in learning to program. And without interest, almost any activity, no matter how fascinating it is to someone else, is drudgery (see post: “There IS a Formula for Drudgery,” September 16, 2009).

When you’re in school, there’s definitely going to be some drudgery involved whether or not a subject interests you. It’s difficult to avoid it. Almost every discipline has knowledge and skills that take time and deliberate attention to acquire, so even if you love a particular subject, you’re likely to encounter times when what you’re studying is just plain hard work. If you don’t love it, the work may be even harder. Doing the hard work is empowering. Grappling with confusion and uncertainty and coming to understanding builds belief in your ability to successfully meet the challenges not just of school, but of life. It is fun to complete an assignment and know that the work you hand in is meaningful and represents real effort on your part.

It’s week four here on the quarter system and mid-terms are coming. There’s still time to turn the quarter around if you haven’t been making an effort to engage. There’s still time to pay attention, still time to produce quality work, still time to read and study and do what you need to do to be successful. There’s also still time to reflect on your part in the teaching/learning symbiosis, what Perllis refers to as learning to be self-critical. One of the questions students are asked on their course evaluations here is to rank themselves on the degree to which they took responsibility for their own learning. I am always surprised by the number of students who don’t give themselves the highest ranking here. And I always wonder why not.

In “The Curriculum of Necessity or What Must an Educated Person Know?”, John Taylor Gatto (2005) referenced ten learning abilities identified at Harvard University as essential for adapting to a rapidly changing world of work. As you read them, assess where you are as a student/human being related to each one:

• The ability to define problems without a guide.

• The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.

• The ability to work in teams without guidance.

• The ability to work absolutely alone.

• The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.

• The ability to discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy.

• The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.

• The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data.

• The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically. (Note: dialectic, debate to resolve a conflict between two contradictory or seemingly contradictory ideas, with truth on both sides; grappling with essential tensions).

• The ability to attack problems heuristically. (Note: heuristic, trial and error solutions, discovery learning, rather than using set rules).

Assessing yourself isn’t enough. To be successful in school—and in life—you must also set goals that target building on your strengths and addressing your weaknesses. This isn’t a one-time activity, but an ongoing process. It’s playing the game of mindcraft and reaching higher and higher levels of self-empowerment as a learner.

What learning goals would be beneficial for you this term?

It’s not only the ability to raise and answer those questions [referring to habits of mind that explore evidence, point of view, connections, supposition, and relevance] though, but also the disposition to do so. For that matter, any set of intellectual objectives, any description of what it means to think deeply and critically, should be accompanied by a reference to one’s interest or intrinsic motivation to do such thinking. Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well-educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.
–Alfie Kohn (2004),
What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?, pp. 9-10


Finding the Language of Your Dreams

January 20, 2010

I am a poet. This is one of my public dreams. Why do I write poetry? Of course, I’m a wordy kind of gal. Others may delight in mathematical equations and the dance of numbers, but I love words, and most especially I love the challenges of poetry. When I write an essay, I am not constrained by form. There are patterns to an essay, of course, but the content can go on and on and often does. Not so with poetry whose formulas often require subtraction, not addition.

I’ve been rereading Ken Robinson’s (2001), Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, and I refound (Note: Refound is a word even though your computer might not recognize it. If you Google® it you will find that it has multiple definitions, but here I’m using it linked to research. If you read or research a lot, you will discover that you “lose” crucial elements of your explorations and can refind them as you revisit favorite sources. This is why I am a believer in owning actual books and in flagging things of interest with fluttering yellow Post-Its®. Note within the note: I have Post-Its® of other colors, but like the good china, I find it difficult to use them except on special occasions.) the following information that makes sense to me:

Many people have problems with mathematics. Sir Harry Kroto sees this as a linguistic problem. People don’t speak mathematics. They see it as sort of a puzzle, the point of which isn’t wholly clear. Trying to appreciate equations if you don’t speak mathematics is like trying to appreciate a musical score if you don’t read music. Non-musicians see a puzzle; musicians hear a symphony. Those who speak mathematics look through equations to the beauty and complexity of the ideas they express. They hear the music. For the rest of us, grasping mathematical beauty is like trying to read Proust with a French phrasebook. (p. 131)

I speak poetry. I do not speak mathematics easily. I am a foreigner in its land and have learned to speak its language well enough to survive. Although I am married to a musician and am the daughter of a talented musician, the language of music is one that I once knew well, but have forgotten. Music is a competence I developed early in life, but it has never been a joy to me. I once played the piano quite well and it’s not that I cannot and do not appreciate music, but rather that it is not a primary passion nor a competence and talent that I choose to pursue. My only creative musical output now is the poetry of lyrics.

Robinson calls this finding your medium. If you are interested in actualizing your dreams, finding your medium is crucial. School can help, but it requires deliberate attention to discriminate among the things that are appealing and that you may even be good at, and those that will activate your passions.

What is your medium? What is the language of your dreams?

I get up at six in the morning. I wear cotton clothes so that I can sleep in them or I can work in them—I don’t want to waste time. Sometimes I work two or three days without sleeping and without paying attention to food.
• Louise Nevelson, artist


I Hope You’re Building Your Vocabulary Regularly, Not Sporadically

January 18, 2010

Be seeing you.—Paul Rudd as Josh

Yeah. I hope not sporadically.—Brittney Murphy as Tai, who’s learning new vocabulary at Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) urging as part of a program of self improvement in Clueless (1995)

It’s been a while since I nagged you about adding words to your vocabulary. I was reminded of this because I have been watching teen movies, hoping to hear some quotations to use with my course in adolescent development and with an upcoming exhibit, Flaming Youth. Plus, I must admit that I love teen movies which reminds me that I haven’t seen Pretty in Pink for a while. I was very disappointed to see Molly Ringwald as a mom on TV. I know that everyone needs to make a living, but somehow, I always imagined her as forever young, sassy, and stylish. This is the danger of growing older in the public eye.

If you haven’t given any thought to improving your vocabulary lately, the words that follow are some of my favorites. You’re welcome to borrow them:


What five new words will you add to your vocabulary this week?

First girl: “I know you can be overwhelmed and I know you can be underwhelmed. But can you ever just be whelmed?” Second girl: “ I think you can in Europe.”
• from
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die. • Evelyn Waugh


You’re Paying for School, but Are You Paying Attention?

January 17, 2010

Genius is nothing but continued attention.
• Claude Adrien Helvetius

It is interesting how many people pay for experiences and then fail to pay attention to the very things they were willing to spend money for. I see small examples of this at the movie theatre when a person in front of me or next to me tries to hide texting or checking email or whatever under a coat—the glow shows and it’s obvious from the downturned gaze that whatever’s on the big screen matters less than what’s coming in on the small.

I’ve seen lots of inattentiveness in my years as a teacher. Since we’re headed into the third week of the quarter and there’s still time to assess your ability to pay attention in class before midterms, this seems like a good time for a gentle reminder. I recently gave my students the ethics quiz I referenced earlier in this blog (see “Tell the Truth Nowl Are You a Cheater?” from November 22, 2009). Only two out of almost fifty of us said that we’ve never worked on something else in class. I say “we” because I include myself in the group and I am guilty because, as I’ve already admitted, I write poetry when I ought to be concentrating on other things.

I hear something and it sends me off on a mind trip into things that are related, yet often irrelevant at the time. When this happens, it’s easy to miss the other stuff I should be getting. Crucial stuff, like an explanation of a difficult assignment, or insights into what will be on the midterm. I used to think that I had reliable antennae that would pick crucial words out of the air and alert me when I needed to pay attention. This strategy has proven to be exceedingly unreliable and I have sometimes found myself desperately whispering to my neighbor, trying to find out what was just said. Sadly, sometimes s/he wasn’t paying attention either, leading to embarrassment when I’ve had to ask for a repetition. You might think that this only happens to students, but it’s obvious in almost any meeting that some participants are not paying attention. At work, this can get you mandateered into undesirable duties.

How can you help yourself pay attention? How do you keep yourself from getting distracted? How do you stave off boredom? Many note-taking strategies are designed not just to capture crucial information but also to keep you focused on what’s happening in class. Taking notes helps. What’s the best way to take notes? I can’t tell you that. I take almost verbatim notes when I know I will be prone to distraction. I don’t recommend this for you unless you will find it helpful. Taking notes is a personal skill that requires a bit of experimentation to find what actually helps you capture and later utilize information.

Another is to put away the things you know will be distracting, those attractive nuisances that will seduce you and destroy your concentration. Unfortunately for me, this would mean putting away my brain and my pen, that’s why the verbatim note-taking helps me stay focused. Yet another is to track your distractions. Notice when you are not on track and get yourself back on. Perhaps there is a pattern to your inattention that you can discover and then deal with. Sadly this often happens when we don’t understand something. Instead of grappling with the uncertainty, it’s much easier to tune out the discussion. This might work at work, but it’s not an effective approach in a class where you will eventually have to demonstrate your understanding.

When you are in school, you are quite literally paying for it—with your time and with your money. It’s easy for me to tell you not to waste either, but more difficult for you to live within this reality. Still, as the relentless optimist I am, I hope you will: pay attention, take notes, concentrate, and get the most out of your classes.

What advice would you give to someone who’s having trouble paying attention in class?

You learn something every day if you pay attention.
• Ray LeBlond


These Arms Are Snakes; They Hold a Secret Message: We All Have Hooks for Hands. More Band Names I Love.

January 16, 2010

As I have said before, I am an expert procrastinator. Sometimes, I just spend my procrastinatory moments awastin’ time, doing not much of anything except that I’m almost always doing something even if it’s not what I ought to be doing at the time. I am not good at doing nothing. I have always envied hammock loungers and beach layers (Wait! Is that beach liers? Either one of these seems a bit confusing, but sunbathers sounds too purposeful for my purposes here. Writing is such a complicated thing, isn’t it?) and armchair idlers. When I waste time and do nothing I’m usually engaged in some meaningless task that doesn’t have anything to do with anything except that it amuses me to do it. Band names is one of those amusements.

My latest collection is from the November 26, 2009, issue of The Stranger that I picked up in Seattle. Now that I’m done capturing the band names in it, I can recycle it or use it to practice origami, something that newspaper is very useful for and another useless amusement that occupies some of my procrastinatory time. While what follows may appear to be a random list, there’s actually a secret message here that’s related to yet another of my preoccupations:

Antique Scream
High Class Wreckage
Red Fang
Trampled by Turtles
A Lesson in Chaos
Your Divine Tragedy
I See Stars
Navigator vs. Navigator
Groovy Ghoulies
Odd Rule
Feeding George
The Legend of Bigfoot
Explode into Colors
Ninth Gate
Curtains for You
One Eskimo
Trombone Cake
Afraid of Figs
Smile Empty Soul
Mobile Deathcamp
Under the Red Door
Counter Fist
Head Like a Kite
We Came as Romans
Iron Lung
Sod Hauler
Dreadful Children
Outdancing Guests
Moon Pulls the Ocean
Stranger than You
Outlaw Carnies
Post Stardom Depression
Horse the Band
Of Mice & Men
Culling the Weak
Loving Thunder
Exit to Main
Schoolyard Heroes

Did you get the secret message hidden right there in plain sight? It doesn’t really matter because it amused me greatly to create it, and this is, after all, all about me. Hint: I had lots of names left over, including some I wish I’d had room for like Waves of the Mind and Beefcake Almighty and Plaster and Dreaming Dead and Stop Biting and Zero Gravity Circus and Brain Callous and Vibrant Society and Shattered Reality and Losing Daylight and Dirge Within and Mal de Mer (So much sexier than Seasick, n’est ce pas?) and oh, so many more.

What useless amusements delight you? If you’re a busy person, whether you’re a student or not, it is useful to know what these things are. Sometimes you just need to do nothing and if you’re someone like me, nothing needs to be something!

My son does not appreciate classical musicians such as the Stones; he is more into bands with names like “Heave” and “Squatting Turnips.”
• Dave Barry

P.S. I’m thinking that maybe I will name my band after something utilitarian like The Hanging Folders, Grocery Sack, The Spatulas, or Freshly Sharpened Pencils, a name that just about everyone can relate to.


Excavating Memory: It All Began at the Dump

January 14, 2010

I’d reached the age of thirty-eight and wanted to assess my life–figure out what had gone wrong, what had gone right. I started at the beginning: I started with my first memory. As soon as I remembered the first memory of my life, everything started to flow.
• Sting

My first memories are of my grandpa. He was a bad influence, at least that’s what grandma used to say, shaking her head about the scary radio shows he let me listen to, but still letting him take me with him wherever he went. She probably wanted some peace and quiet. I asked a lot of questions. I have always wondered why about just about everything, and I’ve never been very good at doing something just because someone told me too. I was mouthy. I still am.

Grandma never knew about the places grandpa took me when we were supposed to be going to the hardware store or the grocery store or out to glean in the fields. We did the errands, but we did them quickly. “In and out,” grandpa used to say, “In and out.” And then we were off on adventures that I learned very early to keep my mouth shut about. I can keep my mouth shut when it matters.

Grandpa was a pool player; in fact, my grandparents ended up staying in Springfield, Illinois, because they couldn’t afford to travel back to Indiana after he lost their travel money on a pool hall bet. He met his political cronies at the tavern and played pool while figuring out what candidate to back in the next election. I didn’t pay much attention to what he was doing. All my attention was focused on practicing my tap dancing on the tavern’s bar. It was heavy wood, with shelves beneath, and the tapping echoed, a sound I loved and haven’t been able to recreate since. I still marvel that no one seemed to mind the ruckus I was making.

Our other secret forays were to the dump where grandpa’s best friend Whitey lived in the Shantytown that had grown up around the looming mounds of trash. There were many treasures to be found in the heaped-up leavings edged with the carefully-stacked discards of post-Depression sensibility. The denizens of the dump crafted colorful homes from broken-but-still-useable mirrors, picture frames, wooden crates, and other detritus. Flattened tin cans, their labels tattering in the wind, protected many roofs, and the mosaics of discards delighted me.

“Keep a sharp eye out—you never know what you’ll see.” With these words, grandpa deposited me at the edge of the dump while he and Whitey searched its landscape, scavenging for things to barter. I was five years old. I read books with broken backs, rescued dolls with missing limbs, and combined this with that to make something else, always encouraged by grandpa who fixed cars and appliances, crafted furniture, revived houses, and supported grandma and me with his finds.

Not all of our education happens in school. I learned my lessons well at the dump. I am the woman of the sharp eye. I take this; I make that. I recycle, repurpose, reuse. I thrift shop and create outfits I love. I stretch one chicken into four meals. I decorate with discards, make art with the leavings of other lives. I am a bricoleur—a patchworker—always re-viewing what I have collected with the imaginative eye of possibility.

Our memories—our stories—are inextricably linked to who we become and to what we value. How do you learn? How do you prefer to share what you’ve learned? Why? What might you learn about yourself and your preferences and your direction in life from excavating your earliest memories?

What are your first memories and what can you learn about yourself from them?

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order. . .the continuous thread of revelation.
• Eudora Welty