Posts Tagged ‘Art of Teaching’


See also Differences in Learning Styles — Symbols and Modes of Thinking.

I was consulting with a college teacher in a beginning psychology class.  She was troubled by a particular student who was engaged, participated in class with enthusiasm but was failing all the tests.  After deconstructing how the class was taught, I had a theory about what was wrong.  The instructor’s tests formed the greater part of the grade.  The tests were taken almost exclusively from the textbook while the lectures and discussions were considered as supplementary enrichment. I suggested that the student, who was successful in other college classes might highly prefer to acquire auditory information  like in lectures and discussions as opposed to visual input like reading.  An interview confirmed that in classes where tests were dependent on lecture material, the student did well.  When tests were primarily taken from reading material, the student had more difficulty.  The student did know how to read.  I suggested the student get a tape recorder and as he read the textbook, he record it aloud and then replay it and listen to it.  He tried this.  It worked.  He raised his overall grade from failing to a B.

I had a similar experience with a High School student.  The student came to me from another school with an incomplete in algebra.  The former teacher reported the student had no self discipline, no motivation.  That seemed to contradict their participation in sports and cheer leading.  In a discussion, the student offered to come in every day during their free period to clear up this incomplete.  I asked how the incomplete class was taught.  She reported that the teacher was doing individualized teaching.  He gave the students the assignment, the students were to read the math text book description and then work the assigned exercises.  She constantly needed the teacher to explain the lesson, one on one but there were too many students so that she did not get enough time with the teacher.  Again, I theorized this was a strong preference for auditory learning, that she had difficulty with written instructions.  I found a set of lessons on tape she could use.  She came in every day during her free period, listened to the tapes and then worked the exercises successfully.  It was not a lack of motivation or self discipline.  It was a poorly constructed individualized program that was dependent on students being able to acquire their math through visual (reading) means.  Since she could not get enough time feeding her strong preference for auditory learning, she could not succeed.

If you have read my series on Brain Efficiency you understand my view on how our brains are model builders.   That process develops from birth as the newborn’s brain attempts to make sense out of the world into which it was born.  I don’t know whether the differences in physical wiring in the brain or environmental influences are responsible, but we all develop certain preferences for acquiring information.  For some, it is visual stimulation that is preferred.  For others, it is auditory stimulation that is preferred.  For a lucky few, there is balance so that either or both are preferred depending on the situation or information.  What is your preference?  Would you rather go to a lecture or read the text of the lecture?  If you would prefer to hear the lecture and would never be interested in reading the text of it, you probably prefer auditory over visual input.  In contrast, if you would just as soon read the text as hear the lecture, you may have a preference for visual stimuli.

For some people, strong kinesthetic learning is powerful in learning.  Before a child learns the formal rules of mathematics, it is helpful for many to have kenesthetic experiences first, so there are manipulatives that allow learners to carry out physical activities, work with counting items and arrays of unit cubes, etc.  Notice that children frequently learn counting using their fingers.

The point seems to be that a teacher who is focused on learning pays attention to preferences, notes who has what kinds of preferences for acquiring information and helps them learn.  In addition, at an early age, where there is a strong negative preference for visual or auditory learning, attempts to help develop the missing skill.  A good teacher realizes that in a class, there are likely some students that are effectively blind and some effectively deaf and that has to be taken in consideration in planning and preparing learning experiences.


See also Differences in Learning Styles — Symbols and Preferences.

Not only do many students have preferred sensory modes for acquiring information, they also have preferred well or poorly developed modes of making inferences, of thinking about new material.  We all build models in our brains as a way of constructing an understanding the external universe, but we don’t necessarily do it in the same manner.  Dr. Joseph Hill developed an area called The Educational Sciences a number of years ago, but before he could convey this knowledge to a broad audience, he passed away.

In a training that he conducted in the late 1960’s I learned and then applied concepts about several aspects of his learning model with great success.  I have outlined some of the basic concepts in three blogs dealing with Differences in Learning Styles,  Symbols, Preferences and this one Modes of Inference.

There are three predominant modes of assessing and acquiring new information.  Dr. Hill modeled these after the three primary ways that statisticians interact with statistical problems.  I will contrast the three modes  Magnitude, Difference, Relational.    I will explain why I tend to be an appraiser and what that means, but here I want to share my approach to teaching that was very successful although I did not understand why until I learned about The Educational Sciences.  It helps explain the various modes with a teaching example.  My general approach in the high school math classes I taught was as follows:

  1. Check the previous day’s assignment  answering students questions.
  2. Put today’s homework assignment on the board
  3. Describe the new content relevant to the homework assignment
  4. Describe how the new concept was different from previous work we had done
  5. Begin to actually work out the homework problems on the board
  6. Work with students individually that needed additional help or had additional

Now let me explain the modes of interference and then explain why this approach was successful for virtually all of my students.

Magnitude:  A person who predominantly utilizes the magnitude mode does this by organizing incoming information into a categorical structure.  When one is presented with new information, the tendency of a “magnitude preferential” learner is to build a new “pigeon hole” in which to put the information or to store the information within an existing categorical structure.  It is an emphasis on WHAT THE INFORMATION IS, how to classify it or do it.

Difference:  A person who predominantly utilizes the difference mode does this by building contrasts with what they already know.  They learn what something is by knowing WHAT A THING IS NOT.  To do this, they may have to build multiple contrasts until, having exhausted ways to see what something is not, they say, “Oh, now I understand” and if you ask they what they understand, they will tell you all the things it is not.

Relational: A person who predominantly utilizes the relational mode does this by building ASSOCIATIONS WITH LIKE THINGS.  They understand by building relationships between the new and the old.  (Contrast this with Difference where the relationship is with things that ARE NOT LIKE the current new information or thing.)

As it turns out, for reasons I don’t know enough about to describe, various people tend to have preference for one or more modes of inference, or decision making.  In the even a person normally applies all of these modes in learning every time, we can call that comprehensive mode the APPRAISER mode.  One characteristic of the appraiser mode is the built in delay in decision making or information acquisition.  In a situation in which rapid decision making is required, being an appraiser can be a handicap.  We probably prefer that our generals are magnitude thinkers, quick to determine what the new information means and able to make a decision rapidly.

I have noticed that the difference mode is characteristic and probably a necessary mode for a visual artist.  An artist has a way of seeing what is different from what other people see and being able to relate to that and express it.  I have noticed that strong magnitude students with weak relational modes can do well in Algebra that depends on a rule oriented structure, but poorly in geometry which is dependent heavily on seeing relationships, constructing proofs out of a long list of related theorems.  I have found it is frequently the case that strong magnitude thinkers equally preferred  algebra and English grammar and disliked literature while strong relational preference students preferred geometry and literature which was dependent on relationships, discovering the plot from disparate clues for example.

I noticed the students who expressed a mostly difference orientation because of the frequent question they had that had the form of “why is the way I worked the problem not correct?”   Once I noticed that was the operative mode, I would take their approach and work out how it led to contradictions and frequently got an “Ah Ha” response.  I noticed that these were frequently the same students who challenged rules and who in other classes were considered problem students.  They frustrated teachers, were frequently told “because I said so” type answers and frequently got in trouble — not because they were trouble makers, but because teachers were not tuned in to their preferred mode of understanding.  I also noticed these same students tending to wear contrasting colors.  They were budding artists, creative, wanting to learn as much as other students, just not well understood.

The magnitude mode students tended to take off on the assignment immediately after the assignment was listed or right after an explanation of the new method.  They seldom created problems, provided the homework assignment was long enough.  I gave long assignments, but I also gave a lot of class time to work on it.  The difference mode students hung in till their “how is this different” questions were answered.  And then, there were the students with strong preferences for relational learning.

For relational mode students, it did not help to repeat the “here is what is new” explanation.  It did not help either to repeat the “here is what is different” explanation.  What did help was working out homework assignment problems on the board.  And, that meant not trying to do too much explanation other than verbalizing what I was doing at each step.  If after one or two examples they still did not seem to understand, I would do another assignment problem which they would copy.  It was always amazing to watch these relational students one by one have their own “Ah Ha” experiences, not be cause I was explaining how or drawing contrasts, but by following example after example.  I admit this was the most mysterious case, but somehow, they seemed to understand by seeing lots of examples.  Of course, they had also seen the initial explanation and had heard the questions by the difference mode students, but still, it was only after a number of examples they had their epiphany.

I found some self disclosing questions I could ask people to suggest their style in test taking and shopping.  I asked “When you take a multiple choice test, which is your preferred method of selecting the correct answer:  read the question stem and then A.  read the choices until you find one that is correct, likely not reading the rest of the choices that followed your choice (magnitude)   B. Read choice 1 and 2 and eliminate the least likely, comparing and throwing out possibilities pairwise (difference)  C. Read all the choices, not making any decision until all were read, then picking the most likely answer (relational).  Or in the case of shopping, when you determine you need something do you   A. Research or know before you go exactly what you want and as soon as you find it buy it (magnitude)   B. Have not necessarily determined before you go what you want, but as you find items, compare them, one against the other, eliminating ones that you do not want. (difference)  or  C.  Have a general idea of what you want, but keep an open mind until you have found several items that are possible and then select one (relational) or D. End up doing all three and taking forever to make a decision (appraiser).  Although not perfect, these two questions have tended to help identify a person’s modes.

Of course, some people are just naturals, being able to use all three methods selectively as the situation dictates but not feeling compelled to use any particular method.  They are considered adaptable, competent, and talented people on the whole more so than the rest of us.

CONCLUSION:  Teaching is complicated.  If a teacher is focused on methods of presentation as though a particular method is evaluated on its merits without reference to the preferences of the learner, they won’t be effective teachers.  In contrast, if they are focused on the learner and the various styles and preferences they have for acquiring information, they will need a highly adaptable approach themselves and are best served by having abilities in all three modes of acquiring information so as to be able to relate to what ever mode the learner needs.  I for one wish more teachers were trained to recognize differences that mattered in learning and less attentive to differences of race, economic status, or advantages in life.


Let’s consider for a moment the problem presented by introducing a new topic to a class via the lecture or teacher presentation/explanation method. This is not a process like memorizing a script and providing an acting performance. It is more like improvisation for which one is familiar with the topic presented. Of course, one prepares by reviewing the material to be explained or presented, but a teacher seldom writes our a script or has a detailed script to work from. A lesson plan at best outlines topics to be presented. Depending on the teacher, it may also involve interaction with the students for which only a limited anticipation for the kinds of questions raised or comments made by students can be planned for, much less scripted. In cases where the teacher has a great deal of experience in the topic, they may indeed be able to anticipate most of what will be said and what questions will be asked. With experience, the teacher can ad hoc discuss/present considerable detail on their subject at hand.

If a teacher is particularly skilled at constructing a compelling story to go along with the topic, they may in fact provide an engaging presentation or lecture. Consider that some presentations are considered so compelling they have been recorded and are sold for subsequent replay because of their quality. These cases, unfortunately, are few and far between. So, is this description a criticism of the current state of teacher prepared presentations? Yes and No. What is being illustrated is a contrast between teacher led lectures and presentations and something students have access to outside the school setting.

Consider the work that goes into the creation of a modern day hour long television drama. If you look at the list of people given credit for the program, you get the idea that it takes many people and lots of equipment. It takes script writers, usually a team of them. At times, it requires content expertise advice to guide the script. It takes people to screen for appropriate and talented actors to act out the script. It takes rehearsals. It takes stage craft crews. It takes people to secure funding for what is likely to cost many thousands of dollars. Because this show will be viewed by thousands of people, they can interest advertisers in sponsoring it in return for their commercials which themselves cost thousands of dollars to prepare. The commercials also require psychologists to advise on the impact of the ad. The students in a class listening to a teacher is aware, if not consciously at least subconsciously, of the contrast between the low cost presentation by the teacher and the high cost presentation of their favorite TV program.

Generally, the teacher can not compete and is it any wonder that given a choice, a student would select even a low budget TV show over a teachers presentation. Furthermore, consider the level of interaction that a student can expect from a lecture. Little to none. If a teacher has 30 students in a class and 60 minutes in a class session, at most, each student can be given 2 minutes of individual attention. So, when it comes to asking questions and getting answers, students better hope someone asks the questions they need answered because odds are, there will be no time for them to get their own question answered. Either the lecture needs to be so good it anticipates everyone’s questions, or the right students are called on to frame questions for the rest of the class. Compare the mental engagement that instant messages and tweets and other modern means of communication with cell phones provide with sitting quietly trying to listen to a lecture prepared with a very low budget by a teacher that has to prepare presentations virtually daily? There is no comparison.

The idea that one teacher in a self-contained classroom can be successful reaching all their students via presentations and lectures given the current competition for attention and the comparative cost of preparing TV programs is just ludicrous. Television, interactive games, cell phones and the instant transmission and receipt of messages have made the teacher made presentations obsolete and the students get that and are turned off by the current educational methodologies. The world has changed but our way of systematic teaching has not. We are in desperate need for some new way to educate our population. Granted, teacher lecture or presentation is not the only thing that goes on in the educational process, but at least this part of it no longer meets the needs of our society, the schools, or the students we are trying to educate. We are in need of a new model.  I wish, in this case, that I knew the answer.