By Bart Bronk
Head of School
Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.
One of the most persistent educational myths of the last three or four decades professes power of individual “learning styles” to impact the educative process. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the notion that each individual had a learning style – be it auditory, visual, or kinesthetic – that worked best for him or her, and others that decidedly did not work, swept the globe. Incredible resources were poured in to helping teachers diversify their instructional styles and identify, and cater to, what worked best for each student. As recently as the mid 2010s, some 90% of teachers professed belief that this idea was indisputable.
Recent advances in neuroscience, however – chief among them the ability to monitor brain activity in real time, via MRI, during cognitive activities – and a wave of scientific reviews critical of flawed research that failed to meet the rigorous scientific conditions necessary to prove that such individual predilections exist have largely debunked this theory (see this terrific article from the April 2018 Atlantic if you are interested in learning more).
The reality is that our brain, which advances in neuroscience continue to prove is far more complex and interconnected than previously imagined, learns in all these ways. Each of us is capable, excepting those with diagnosed sensory processing issues, of learning through sight, sound, and touch, and we all employ all of those tools in learning processes in appropriate measure depending on the task at hand. A teacher catering to one exclusively and intentionally provides no tangible benefit.
The best teachers then, of course, use their own toolboxes of instructional strategies that cross these sensory boundaries and create learning opportunities that are diverse and engaging.
That’s just what I experienced in my day shadowing sophomore John K. Our day began in Ms. Kendall’s yearbook photography class, where John and classmates were engaged in the visual exercise of selecting and editing photos based on desired traits – composition, color, and tone – and learning about what makes a photograph particularly engaging to the viewer.
In Senor Carunchia’s intermediate Spanish class, we were immersed in an auditory/verbal learning process. Students mastered the future tense in small group conversations about their upcoming weekend. Interestingly, rather than give English counterparts for Spanish words he was using that the students had not yet encountered, the teacher used visual cues – hand motions – to indicate the word. The exercise was both practice and performance – valuable skills for our students to have.
In Mrs. Galea’s chemistry class, we participated in a sweet – quite literally – kinesthetic exercise. To kick off their study of stoichiometry – the study of chemical reactions – students were using ingredients and their Bunsen burners to make S’mores and discovering what limiting reactants were (in this case, chocolate).
Continuing our experience in STEM, Mr. Hartigan’s algebra II class was a powerful example that visual learning itself can be diverse. Rather than simply relying on symbolic images – numbers and operators – to introduce the students to logarithms, graphs and real world examples related to velocity and distance were used to illustrate how logarithmic relationships work.
We ended our day in the Mr. Guedes’s U.S. history course, which focuses closely on the history of the city, state and region, where students were working in a team on projects to communicate their understanding of the reconstruction era in Detroit. Their final project was to create an Escape Room – in the upper school faculty lounge no less – which required demonstrated knowledge of the era to solve physical clues. In teams that ran the gamut from research to puzzles to refreshments, teams worked on creating a kinesthetic experience that reflected their deep understanding of the topic.
I regularly profess my admittedly biased belief to students that there is “no such thing as a bad day at University Liggett School.” This day, on which I experienced learning I could hear, see, touch – and even smell and taste – was a great one.