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In recent years, the desire among educators to enhance the learning process for students has led to a growing concern with learning styles. CDTL Brief now presents the first of a two-part discussion on the issues surrounding Learning Styles.

September 2002, Vol. 5 No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Productive Diversity in the Classroom: Practising the Theories of Differences in Learning Styles
 
Dr Francis Adu-Febiri
Sociology Professor and Diversity Consultant
Camosun College and University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C., Canada
 

The classroom in many societies is a representation of people with different social class, gender, age, ability, ableness, sexuality, religious, racial, and/or ethnic backgrounds, as well as different personality types. Many of these differences are reflected in the multiplicity of learning styles of students. The irony is that most classrooms tend to cater mainly to the learning style needs of a particular group. According to Ginsburg (2001a, p. 109),

most university instruction is geared for abstract sequential learning. We emphasize the development of analytical skills and focus most classes on theoretical and conceptual issues; we eagerly give “corrective feedback” and often, if inadvertently, encourage perfectionism; we rely more on lectures than group discussions and in our small groups we feature the cut and thrust of debate over the exchange of feelings and spiritual insights.

The above observation of Jerry Ginsburg’s seems very true even in most pre-university classrooms in many societies. So far, because of lack of recognition and facilitation of differences in learning styles, diversity in the classroom frustrates many students and teachers. The result is that development of fruitful learning and teaching is stunted. If the classroom is to motivate students to learn effectively, efficiently, and with joy rather than pain, the differences in their learning styles should be taken into account in the design and delivery of courses. To succeed in facilitating productive diversification in the classroom, the main principles of productive diversity—full inclusion and accommodation—must be diligently applied to course content, materials, assessment criteria, and delivery. Since the practice of these diversity principles is tedious, teachers must be convinced of diversity benefits first.

Different Learning Styles

Scholars of learning and thinking have identified many learning styles (c.f. Jung, 1971; Kolb, 1976; Wheeler, 1980; Butler, 1984; Myers & McCaulley, 1985; Gregorc, 1985; Belensky, et al., 1986; Tobias, 1990; and Gibbs 1992 for detailed discussion of learning styles). For analytical purposes, the learning styles identified in the literature can be integrated into what Gregorc (1985) designates as concrete sequential learning, abstract sequential learning, abstract random learning, and concrete random learning (Ginsburg, 2001), and various combinations of these styles. The existence of diversity of learning styles has serious pedagogical implications. However, many classrooms ignore the implications of diversity of learning styles. The result is the prevalence of parochial approaches to learning in the education system (Rogers, 2001) that homogenise the learning process of a diversity of students. This serves the interest of the status quo but kills initiative, innovation, and creativity that are needed to produce productive workers and citizens. Students and society benefit from productive diversity in the classroom, and adapting pedagogy to different learning styles promotes productive diversity.

Developing Diversity Pedagogy

Although students have different learning styles, the conventional approach to learning presented to them in the school system makes them think that other pedagogies are either not right or are only useful outside the classroom. “Indeed, traditional schooling might have taught them [students] that…teachers are endowed with the information and that their role is to listen, take notes and be ready to reproduce the notes in the examination” (James, 2001, p. 47). Because of this privileging of the conventional learning/teaching style, students are likely to initially resist the introduction of other pedagogies. For example, in a class where I use a delivery system that involves small-group discussions on the selected topic to identify problems with the text before I do a presentation on the topic, students initially complain that they expect to be lectured before group exercises. Many of the students come to like the approach later when they realise that it makes lecture presentations more meaningful. Introducing pedagogy that validates or legitimises the neglected learning styles in the classroom will initially be resisted but will eventually flourish when the benefits of such diversity become evident. The bigger challenge, however, is how to successfully design and deliver curricula relevant to the multiplicity of learning styles represented in the classroom.

From the literature (Anderson, 2001; Clarke, 2001; Ginsburg, 2001), it is clear that the main areas that require diversification are course content, material, assessment criteria, delivery, and accessibility. Below are some details of how I practise the principle of diversity in these areas in my classroom.

Content

In my courses I ensure that content covers a diversity of dimensions in the subject area: methodologies, methods, perspectives, theories/models, concepts, empirical evidence, and practices/applications.

Material

Particular attention is paid to the sources of reading materials for my classes. Inclusiveness is imperative in this process. Materials are selected from scholarly books, refereed journals, the Internet, magazines and newspapers, videos, documents, and statistical data produced from academic and non-academic perspectives with diversity of affiliations. For example, my ‘Legal and Political History of First Nations—White Relations in Canada’ course uses texts written by Western academics, Aboriginal academics, and Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal students.

Assessment Criteria

In the interest of diversity of learning styles, it is important that there are a variety of assessment components and options built into a course. My typical course has the following assessment criteria: individual critical reviews, small-group discussions of selected chapters of texts to generate questions for class discussions, small-group discussions of term paper/research essay, class discussions, student oral presentations, research essay/term paper, multiple-choice mid-term exam, and essay-type final exam. In my ‘Research Methods’ course, weekly laboratory sections are an additional component. Bi-weekly workshops are an integral feature of my ‘Workplace Diversity’ class. The grades are fairly distributed over the various assessment criteria. This minimises the risk of experimenting with new learning styles for students.

Delivery

Like the assessment criteria, my course delivery takes learning styles diversity into account. A combination of delivery modes is used in the same course. The instructor’s interactive presentation in which students are motivated to make comments, ask and answer questions at any point are combined with videos, skits, readings, labs, group/class discussions, and workshops. Transparencies, PowerPoint presentations, and the chalkboard are used as aids. All these delivery methods are well integrated into the main theme of the course.

Accessibility

A key principle of classroom diversity is flexibility of the teacher and the class organisation. Flexibility entails the teacher being accessible to all students by providing diversity of avenues for interaction and participation. I have practised this flexibility in a number of ways: sometimes I leave the last five minutes of class time to meet with students who are not available in my regular office hours because of the demands of their family situation, job situation and/or other classes. I hold regular office hours at various times of the day and days of the week, as well as make room for students to see me by appointment. Those students for whom none of the above options works can reach me through voice mail or email. With regard to accommodating students for participation, there have been instances where I have allowed students to bring their pre-school children to class.

Guidelines and Boundaries

The growing representation of diversity in the classroom heightens the emotional dimension of learning/teaching. To validate these emotions and channel them to facilitate learning/teaching in the classroom, the teacher and students must work together to develop clear guidelines and boundaries at the start of the class. The highpoints of these guidelines and boundaries should be respect, safety, support, sensitivity, and zero tolerance of abuse.

From the above discussion on attempts to create and implement diversity pedagogy to reflect the variety of learning styles of students, it is clear that the process is complex and tedious. However, it is worthwhile pursuing it because it enhances student success by providing students from various backgrounds with voices in the classroom, encouraging student-teacher and student-student dialogue, and helping all students to identify with the learning process in the classroom. Not surprisingly, hardly do students fail or perform poorly in my courses in which diversity is conscientiously practised. An important thing that I have learned from the classroom diversity efforts is that to be successful, one has to possess both diversity competency (Cox & Beale, 1997) and human factor competency (Adu-Febiri, 2001), apart from motivation. Diversity competency is the ability to use awareness of differences, knowledge and understanding of differences, and facilitation skills to leverage differences to benefit people and organisations. Teachers need this competency in addition to the human factor competencies of commitment, dedication, loving-kindness, acceptance, persistence, responsibility and accountability to effectively facilitate productive diversity in the classroom. The school system should provide teachers with the adequate incentives and support to acquire and apply the necessary competencies to make classroom diversity work.

Conclusion

Diversity in learning styles exists in the classroom, and if not well facilitated frustrates both learners and teachers. Despite this situation most classrooms continue to experience monolithic approaches to learning. It takes a lot of work to facilitate productive diversity in the classroom, but it is doable and is worth the effort. Diversity works in the classroom, and it works well when teachers value full inclusion, are motivated, supported, and provided with the necessary competencies. The growing diversity in the classroom represents learning style differences, and provides opportunity for teachers to substantially contribute to developing productive labour force and citizens.

References

Adu-Febiri, Francis. (2001). ‘Human Factor Competency and the Performance Effectiveness of Hospitality Industry Professionals’. In Senyo Adjibolosoo (Ed.). Portraits of Human Behavior and Performance: The Human Factor in Action. Lanham: University Press of America.

Anderson, Rae. (2001). ‘Empowering Students Through Feminist Pedagogy?’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

Belensky, M.F., et al. (1986). Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Butler, Kathleen. (1984). Learning and Teaching Style: In Theory and Practice. Columbia, CT: Learner’s Dimension.

Clarke, Sarah. (2001). ‘DisABILITY in the Classroom: The Forgotten Dimension of Diversity?’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

Clarkson, Austin. (2001). ‘Teaching Styles/Learning Styles: The Myers Briggs Model’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds.). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

Cox, Jr., Taylor & Beale, Ruby L. (1997). Developing Competency to Manage Diversity. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Gibbs, Graham. (1992). Improving the Quality of Student Learning. Bristol: Technical and Education Service.

Ginsburg, Jerry. (2001a). ‘The Gregorc Model of Learning Styles’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds.). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

Ginsburg, Jerry. (2001b). ‘The Dialectic of Course Development: I Theorize, They React…Then?’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds.). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

Gregorc, Anthony. (1985). An Adult’s Guide to Style. Maynard, M.E: n.p.

James, Carl E. (2001). ‘Diversity in the Classroom: Engagement and Resistance’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds.). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

Jung, Carl. (1971). Psychological Types. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kolb, D.A. (1976). Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual. Boston: McBer.

Myers, I.B. & McCualley, M.H. (1985). Manual: A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Rogers, Pat. (2001). ‘Student Development: From Problem Solving to Problem Finding’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds.). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

Tobias, Sheila. (1990). They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier. Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation.

Wheeler, Daniel. (1980). ‘Learning Styles: A Tool for Faculty Development’. POD Quarterly, 2(3–4): 164–74.

 
 
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Students’ Learning Styles and Their Implications for Teachers
   
Productive Diversity in the Classroom: Practising the Theories of Differences in Learning Styles
   
Singapore Adolescents Also Got ‘Style’