What do you believe about learning?

Lucy, 13 years old
The theory that there are various types of talented learners has been around for some time. Teachers are generally aware of the fact that students have different learning styles, i.e. natural or habitual patterns of acquiring and processing information in the learning process. Unfortunately, from my experience, this notion is treated as mere theory or even worse, as an unpopular cliché.

The other day, I was sitting at the school canteen, having lunch with a bunch of colleagues. They were discussing a class of final-year students and their alarming results. However, one of the teachers added in passing that she was quite surprised that the class had achieved fairly good grades in a recent exam. According to her, it was a challenging exam including questions across all levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Not only were the students required to remember facts but also apply and analyze information and think critically. The other teachers were shaking their heads distrustfully but then she went on describing a few activities she had used with the class to present and practise the matter. To cut a long story short, she gave an excellent example of project-based learning where the students were working in groups, looking up information in encyclopaedias, taking down notes, sorting out the facts, collaborating, discussing, etc. This probably led to a greater depth of understanding of concepts and appropriate application of the knowledge in the test because it is just striking that a class that everybody had long written off suddenly achieved such amazing scores. So, had the predominant learning styles of these learners been neglected in the past? Or was it sheer coincidence that they succeeded in this single exam?

There's one more experience I'd like to share. I work at a grammar school so I mostly teach children with a high level of cognitive intelligence (I'm deliberately avoiding the words intelligent or clever, which I believe are totally inappropriate for the reasons I'm about to introduce). In English lessons, like in other subjects, it sometimes happens that a student with a slightly lower level of cognitive intelligence strives to keep up with the others. I should stress that this student would otherwise be excellent in a different environment. However, this girl, 13-year-old Lucy, really struggles with her English, written or oral, vocabulary or grammar. Moreover, or as a consequence of this, she is quite shy and unconfident, and she needs to learn to perform in front of the class. In order to help her improve her speaking skills, I came up with a suggestion that she could choose two related pictures from the coursbook (or elsewhere) for every lesson to describe and contrast. She is only required to use simple language such as present progressive and preset simple tenses.
A couple of days ago I asked her to show me what she had prepared for her first presentation; I asked her what pictures she had chosen. To my amazement, her answer was: 'I drew them myself'. You can see (above) that her work is quite elaborate and that it must have taken her a while to create it. But, apparently, it was worthwhile because the language she used naturally emerged from her own 'world of imagination' and she succeeded.

To conclude my post, here are a couple of thought-provoking questions... Do we really experiment with different methods to help our students get better results? Or do we strictly divide our learners into the talented and the incompetent types? Does this dichotomy exist at all or is it just a convenient illusion? What do we truly believe about learning? And do we actually apply what we believe or do we sometimes try to find an easy way out? These are some of the issues that must be raised by every single educator, every single day and every single minute of each lesson. Otherwise the multiple talents and intelligences of our students will remain hidden and lost forever.

*Goal 3/ 2011