Reform politics overlooks the importance of learning styles

ONCE upon a time, educators spent time arguing whether reading should be taught by the phonetic approach or the look-say approach. Eventually we discovered that the correct answer is - whichever way works best for the individual student. Since then, research on learning styles has equipped teachers with important facts. We know that there are: Auditory learners, who learn best from the traditional basic skill and sequential college-prep programs being encouraged or mandated as the ``answer for all'': talking, writing.

Haptic, or hands-on, learners, who learn best from a balanced combination of traditional courses and hands-on programs ranging from manipulative math materials in primary school to vocational courses in secondary school to cooperative education on the college level: doing.

Visual learners, who learn best from demonstrations, experiments, drawing, discussions, and images helped by laboratory or hands-on programs: visualizing.

In the name of ``reform'' and ``excellence'' some state and national leaders have been mandating traditional requirements that impose less effective learning styles for 50 percent or more of our students. Now some of these same leaders are expressing disappointment at the unavoidable results - an increasing dropout rate in 30 states as students react negatively to an inappropriate prescription.

The politics of reform is so superficial that youngsters and the future of our nation are being harmed. We are watching an almost unbelievable cycle of:

Ignoring learning research.

Mandating one type of curriculum for all students regardless of individual learning styles.

Decrying the cost of mandates and the disappointment of the resulting increase in dropouts.

Ignoring the destruction of vocational education and other hands-on approaches that help teach academic skills best to many students.

We are a nation at risk because the public has been misled about excellence in education. Educators, concerned parents, boards of education, and legislators should unite in pursuing this agenda:

1.Help the public to understand that mandating one traditional set of curriculum requirements for all students is a path to disaffection, not excellence.

2.Help students and their parents to understand and use learning styles to reach the highest levels of individual motivation and personal achievement.

3.Insist that strong alternative curriculum paths, including broad vocational and/or work-study opportunities, are readily available to all students.

4.Ensure that strong academic skills are developed and required on all curriculum paths, preparing all students for the lifelong learning now necessary for success in most career fields.

5.Ensure that state curriculum and college admission policies keep doors open to students from all curriculum paths, never blocking the haptic learners (like Edison) or the visual thinkers (like Einstein) from more learning.

The last agenda item above is especially serious. Visual learners tend to be artistic and creative and people-oriented; they are not very attracted to administrative positions. Auditory learners tend to be sequential, organized, and oriented to things and sequential plans; they are often attracted to administrative and bureaucratic positions. The reality of the current politics of reform is that the latter group is promoting policies that mandate their style of learning because, for them, that was the path to success. While there are certainly many other reasons for dropouts, auditory insensitivity to haptic and visual learning is a factor.

It is ironic that narrow and destructive reform is being promoted by some at the same time that action on learning style research is flourishing. In school district after school district, ``at risk'' secondary students are being helped by giving academic study a vocational context. It is time for national, state, and college administrators to catch up with research on learning and to pay at least as much attention to ``how'' and ``whether'' learning is taking place as to what ``content'' is being covered. If this is not done, if more autonomy on adjusting to learning styles is not given to the local level where our creative teachers stand on the front line of service, the disaster of disaffection among students will continue to grow. Our nation and our states are capable of more quality in reform, of politics that supports learning in a more functional and less superficial manner.

Ronald Fitzgerald is the superintendent of Minuteman Tech in Lexington, Mass.

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