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Devil’s Advocate vs Marjorie Rosenberg on Learning Styles

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

So the seventh victim on the hot seat is Marjorie Rosenberg.

Marjorie Rosenberg has been teaching English in Austria since 1981. She has worked in a variety of settings in adult education and currently teaches at the University of Graz as well as working with corporate clients and doing teacher training.

Her interest in making business English fun and accessible to a large group of learners prompted her to write the photocopiable business English activity book Communicative Business Activities which is now available on English 360 http://learn.english360.com. She has also written In Business, two Business Advantage Personal Study Books and is a regular contributor to Professional English Online, Cambridge University Press.

Marjorie’s work with NLP brought her into contact with different models of learning styles and she is currently working on Spotlight on Styles, Delta, which is due out some time in Autumn this year.

Marjorie is the coordinator of the IATEFL Business English Special Interest Group.

 

Chia:  Hi Marjorie, it is such an honour to have you on the DA hotseat today!

Marjorie:  Good to be here.

Chia:  I hear that you are quite the NLP expert and that you have a book coming out soon about learning styles?

Marjorie:  Right. I did my Master Practitioner and Trainer’s Training in NLP with Robert Dilts in Santa Cruz, California where it all started.

Chia:  Wow…that’s impressive! I know we talk a lot about learning styles in our teaching and even in teacher training, but could you give us an overview as to what we are talking about here?

Marjorie:  Sure, NLP and learning styles are actually two separate things. In NLP we look at what has been called ‘representational styles’ meaning how we ‘re-present’ the world to ourselves. These are basically the visual, auditory and kinesthetic modes. …

They also include gustatory and olfactory which are more important in some cultures than in others. That’s why it is sometimes called the VAKgo model. …

These representational systems are used in NLP to help us establish rapport and have some idea of ‘how’ another person perceives the world but certainly NOT what they are thinking.

Does the use of colours indicate a visual learning style?
ELTpics: Picture by @acliltoclimb

Chia:  But learning styles are often considered part of NLP, aren’t they? Could you perhaps give a quick definition of NLP just so our readers could understand the subject at hand and see the difference between the two?

Marjorie:  Learning styles are a much broader field as they include the sensory modalities of the VAK model but they also go on to include cognitive processing which deals with how we think and process information – either globally or analytically) as well as the models which deal with our behavior.

These models include our preferred style of learning something new for example. One way to look at this is a model I use, which is divided into four parts depending on how we perceive and then organise the information we have received. This is based on research done by David Kolb and Anton Gregorc but reworked by April Bowie in the US.

To explain the four types in Bowie’s model, I usually give an example of instruction manuals: some people write them, some use them constantly, some have no idea where they have put them as they just push the buttons till something works and others just need to know someone who has read the manual and can explain it to them. These are four distinct styles.

Chia: That, I am assuming is the general definition of learning styles. What about NLP?

Marjorie:  I realised I didn’t answer your question. NLP began as a short-term therapy and then quickly moved into the business world as a communication model and eventually into the classroom. …

NLP makes use of the representational systems as I mentioned, but in order to improve communication, not necessarily to teach someone something new.

Chia:  Okay, for the purpose of today’s DA debate, let us focus on learning styles then, shall we?

Marjorie:  No problem.

Learning styles were around before NLP but I actually learned about them in an NLP for teachers’ course.

Michael Grinder, whose brother John was one of the founders of NLP, runs classes for teachers where his aim is to help educators find out how their students perceive, store and recall the information they receive. Michael says that school success is actually based more on where we have information stored, rather than what specifically we have learned.

What he means with this is that once we have received information, we need to have access to it and if we are auditory for example, we remember best what we hear or say but if we got the information in visual form we may not be able to access it easily.  This is a bit like a computer, data is useless unless we know where we have saved it.

Is the cat an audio learner? Or is the seat in front of Underhill’s IPA chart simply warm and comfy? Is it even a real cat?
ELTPics: Picture by @Senicko

Chia:  Surely that must depend on the type and nature of the information at hand? If we are trying to learn about the geographical location of Sao Paulo, it clearly would be easier to use a visual way of teaching than an auditory way?

Conversely, if one is trying to get their learners to produce the phonological chunking of a text and the correct placement of the tonic nucleus, it would be easier to drill and do it the auditory way?

Marjorie:  That depends on your style and how well you have learned to adapt. Michael also talks about teaching – which is teaching to all styles in the VAK model – and ‘re-teaching’ which means breaking down a lesson into one of the three (VAK) modes in order to make it accessible to someone whose primary system is not the one which was addressed in the original presentation.

An auditory learner may still need to say the places on the map aloud whereas the visual learner probably just needs to look at the map. And the kinesthetic learner may actually need to draw a map or move bits around to really understand it.

Chia:  But saying the places on the map out loud isn’t exactly going to help the learner know its geographical position though…and draw a map and moving bits around just to figure out that Sao Paulo is in Brazil seems like an awful waste of time…

Is there a non-visual way of learning this?
ELTpics: Picture by @SandyMillin

Marjorie:  It may seem like a waste of time to someone who understood it right away but for someone who didn’t, this may be the only way to really learn the material.

A few years ago we helped out the son of friends of ours who couldn’t learn English vocabulary. He did the usual, writing a list and trying to remember the words but as a kinesthetic learner it didn’t help him. I suggested he write the words on flashcards and move them around. He immediately started tearing up pieces of paper, played with the words, his English grades improved and in the end, he went on to study English.  His parents were also surprised at this fairly simple solution.  Another young person recently told me that she doesn’t like having to learn everything from books and would really prefer it if someone would just read everything to her. I have known her since she was four, she’s now 22 and has always been auditory.

Chia:  But are we really either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners? Aren’t most of us just a mix of all of the above?

Marjorie:  To some extent, we are a mix.  But the latest brain research is actually showing that we are born with one stronger tendency. We learn to adapt but tend to go back to our strong channel in stress situations. It could be that ‘stress’ is the important word here, when we are relaxed we have access to all our channels but when faced with an exam or answering a question, it is exactly then that we need to tend to rely on our strongest channel.

However, learning styles are NOT an excuse. We still have to put up with whatever is done in the classroom, we just have to find the best way for ourselves to deal with it.

A classroom that is always ready to deal with different learning styles
ELTpics: Picture by @mrsdkreb

Chia:  You use the phrase ‘put up with whatever is done in the classroom’, which seems to suggest that most teachers are not very attentive to their students’ learning styles. Do you think most teachers do not take this into consideration?

Marjorie:  I think a lot of teachers don’t have the time to try and accommodate all the students they have. When a teacher has a group of 20 – 30 students, it just isn’t possible to do activities in three different ways. And most of us tend to teach in the way we learn.

I co-train with a friend who is auditory – kinesthetic (motoric) and I am visual and kinesthetic but emotional. We once started a training session and there was no flip chart, which didn’t bother her at all, but I insisted we find one. She goes running at lunch and I find someone who I can talk to who I like.

Chia:  I can see the benefit applying our knowledge of different learning styles and varying our lessons so that most of the students feel motivated and catered for. But don’t you think it is a bit essentialist and categorical to say ‘You are visual’ and ‘You are kinaesthetic of the emotional sort’? Surely, everyone reacts and learns well when what they are presented information they can connect emotionally too and can discuss that with a partner?

Marjorie:  Not everyone connects emotionally to material, this is also dependent on type. This is one of the reasons I wanted to do a book on learning styles. The idea is to give teachers more insight as to the different styles in their classroom and expand their repertoire to try out activities aimed at specific styles. As a non-auditory type, I don’t do a lot with listening comprehensions I have to admit, even though I used my guitar for years in class. But CDs were not at the top of my list of teaching tools.  Pictures and photos were, however!

Chia:  I don’t think I’m a visual learner at all, considering the fact that I tend to think in words rather than pictures, I can never remember faces and I always dream in black and white or sepia tone. But I see the words, rather than hear them. And although mindmaps don’t work for me, I often have a photographic memory of lists and paragraphs with words. So I’m visual only when it comes to words. Does that make me a visual learner or not? It’s all so ambiguous!

Could memorising all this be a turn-on for some? Am I just weird? Or plain nerdy?
ELTpics: Picture by @acliltoclimb

Marjorie:  This still sounds visual to me.  However, you may be an analytic learner as well rather than a global one, which would mean that the individual words are more memorable than a picture. VAK is only part of the mix – we have to look at the whole picture. …

Having said that, however, I never analyse my students unless they are having problems learning something and ask for advice. Then it may help them to suggest that they approach a task in a different way and that just may do the trick.  However, using a variety of tasks taking these different styles into account or allowing groups to organise themselves when it comes to completing a task gives them the chance to make us of their individual strengths.

Chia:  That’s interesting that you say that because on the CELTA course, one of the criteria states that trainees have to show an awareness of different learning styles in their assignment ‘Focus on the Learner’. This means that most CELTA tutors deliver an obligatory input session on learning styles, coupled with multiple intelligences and the different kinds of motivation, just to fulfil the criteria. But CELTA trainees never seem to know what to do with this information, and neither do the tutors, to be honest. The end message, of course, is always ‘VARY YOUR LESSON AND METHODS’ but that message can be delivered without mentioning learning styles at all. Do you agree?

Are cuisenaire rods for the visual or the kinaesthetic learner? How can we better connect emotionally with the rods?
ELTpics: picture by Scott Thornbury

Marjorie:  Yes, I do agree. It would be good to actually teach the background of VAK which means that teachers can determine the input and output of the information but not the storage.  That is up to the individual.

Then if someone is more global and needs the big picture or more analytic and prefers details, that also makes a difference in how they learn/remember information, for example.

Then we can look at David Kolb’s model of those who perceive concretely but reflect on the information or need to actively experiment with it and those who prefer abstract concepts and then reflect on it or experiment with it – these are the four styles April Bowie worked with which I mentioned earlier.

Chia:  …or we can also talk about learners with more organic learning styles and those who prefer systematic approaches, couldn’t we? There are just so many…

What then should we teach on CELTA training courses, if any of these models…?

Marjorie:  Good question. I am concentrating in the book on the VAK, global-analytic and the model of the four styles April researched. In my opinion, these are the models which come up most often and include academic research. I haven’t touched multiple intelligences as they are more talents for me although some of the categories overlap with the other models. …

Visual-spatial, for example, is similar to visual but the standard visual model does not include the spatial aspect. This means that although I recognise a house on a street I still get lost because my spatial orientation is not very acute.

Chia:  My spatial orientation is terrible! Ask anyone who knows me! I could walk into a shop on the high street and by the time I walk out of it, I would have no clue which side I came from!

My teachers should have done more spatial orienteering with me when I was at school. I blame them!
ELTpics: Picture by @Raquel_EFL

Marjorie:  I understand as I have the same problem. However, to sum up some of this discussion, I would say that what is important for me in the whole learning style debate is that it is important for teachers to recognise their own preferred modes and to be able to stretch out of them from time to time in order to reach more of their learners. We also need to be tolerant of someone who does something in a different way. We criticise students who mouth words while reading, for example, but auditory learners may actually need to do this.

Since I began working with styles I find my students to be fascinating as I observe the way they do things when left to their own devices. There is a jigsaw puzzle game with phrases on it in one of the photocopiable books. I gave out the game to two groups – one read the phrases aloud and put the puzzle together based on the phrases which matched and the other group simply looked for the pieces which went together and looked at the phrases at the end. That was really interesting to watch!

Chia:  I love doing tests that help me know my learning styles, etc. But a lot of the time, these tests are so obvious to the people answering them that I wonder if they are really testing my learning style, or what I THINK my learning style is and reaffirming my assumptions about myself…in a placebo effect sort of way? Also, doesn’t categorising people and letting them think they are a visual or auditory learner close them off to other ways of learning? I know people who would say stubbornly, ‘That just won’t work for me because I’m not auditory!’ before even trying things out.

I love doing personality tests from these magazines…! Oh, have I let on that I am a bit of a bimbo…?
Photo from http://meggiecat.blogspot.co.uk/2004_08_01_archive.html

Marjorie:  I was just thinking about that. One possibility is to have students or learners observe themselves in relation to any learning style survey before actually ticking the answers. And, as I mentioned earlier, it is really important to remember that this info is most important in a stressful situation. I can listen to the radio in the car when I am not stressed but the minute I have to park, it goes off.  My partner, however, is auditory and the radio is on non-stop as it relaxes him. I collect photos – he collects CDs. But again, styles ARE NOT an excuse.  In order to be successful we all have to learn to accommodate to the world around us.

I would say that the goal of the teacher is to help a student (who is having problems) to learn how to stretch out of one mode if that is what is holding him / her back and learn to work in other ways which are necessary for the task at hand (looking at a map for example or learning chunks of language).

Chia:  And will your soon-to-be-published book be showing us teachers how to do that?

Marjorie:  That’s the plan.  The first section deals with the general information about styles, then there is a transition part with surveys, learning characteristics and learning tips and the middle part is full of activities for the different styles including ideas on adapting the activities to suit more than one style …

Chia:  That sounds brilliant! What’s it called and when can we expect it on the shelves?

Marjorie:  It is called Spotlight on Styles, being published by Delta and is about 3/4 done. Hopefully out in the late fall this year.

Chia:  I’ll definitely be looking forward to getting a copy!

Thanks so much for taking time to be subjected to the DA grilling today.

Will you still sign my copy despite me playing DA with you today? : )

Marjorie:  Thanks for asking me.  I hope that some of the ideas I presented will help teachers to work with types who are different than they are. It takes patience and tolerance but the end result is worth it. And yes, I will sign your copy, no problem.

Chia: Fantastic!

Hmmm…does my obsession with this picture make me a gustatory learner? Feed me and I will learn!
Photo by Chia Suan Chong. Food courtesy of http://www.highlife.ie

Epilogue: Marjorie’s views are her own and do not represent any organization she is associated with. Chia was mainly playing DA but did have some genuine doubts and queries about the topic in question. Marjorie hasn’t kicked Chia out of IATEFL BESIG yet, so that must mean that they are still due to have those few drinks together at the BESIG Summer Symposium in Paris in June.

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