Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Part 4: Series: My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

Part Four: In Which I Offer My Son Up as a Guinea Pig for Testing

I am sharing these stories in chronological order but this point is where three things converge. The fact that my older son might have a learning disability was brought to my attention in January 2008 after some testing was done by a student teacher in the fall of 2007. The appointment with the doctor and the actual diagnosis was in April 2008. Also in April 2008, I learned about what is called brain dominance and its affect on learning. These events affected me in ways that profoundly shifted my thinking about children and learning. I also went through a priority shift during this time due to learning all these things and being faced with addressing new challenges. Lastly a state legislative issue that threatened homeschooling freedom affected me greatly as did learning of numerous false reports to the state for educational neglect of homeschooled children and worried about how our homeschool may be judged by an outsider.

At this point a few issues meld together to form my opinions. To make my points and to explain my reason for thinking what I do, I need to tell about each part. I can’t discuss my opinions about learning styles unless I include “brain dominance” (or whatever you prefer to call it) and also discuss my son’s new learning disability. I can’t talk about one or two without talking about the others. I tried to talk about our story in a vague and general way but worried that readers won't understand or will think I'm just tossing about opinions based on nothing concrete. I have a reason for thinking the things I do!


My older son loved (and still loves as a preteen) being read aloud to. I’d been reading aloud to him since he was a baby. He sat more still than my friends say they think boys should be able to do. He loved the illustrations in picture books and seemed to be a visual learner. By that I mean he was very interested in the illustrations and images on the page (he could care less about the text). He also learned a lot from watching documentaries.

My son was not ‘always on the go’ nor was he one of the kids who must move, run, or jump around while listening to a book read aloud or practicing math facts. He didn’t “need to move to learn” even though is learning style was equally visual (pictures) and kinesthetic. (Some homeschooling mothers I know whose kids seem to me to have undiagnosed ADHD or at least be “wild” or seem to have impulse control problems claim their learning style testing shows the child is a kinesthetic learner and credit that for their child’s physical actions.) He learned easily from watching people do things with their hands also but I never classified him as a kid who needed to touch things and do projects related to learning, but give him some LEGOs and he can play alone or with other kids with them for eight hours. He loved making art and doing hand crafts. He never much cared for ‘hands on’ educational projects, acting things out or dressing up like historical characters.  Learning activities that “they say” kinesthetic learners want and thrive on were a turn-off for this son despite his test score saying he was a kinesthetic learner.

My son has a photographic memory. He can remember events attended and places visited in vivid detail. His earliest memory goes back to about his first birthday. Emotional incidents have a large impact on him and those things are more permanently stamped into his mind. Small incidents that upset him may leave a scar while positive emotion incidents seem to be very important for shaping his persona in a positive way (this is harder to credit than the clear, bad experiences’ negative impact). Something like a spanking is etched in his memory forever. I cannot imagine what his mind and heart would be like if spankings or other pain infliction methods were used on him regularly. Although I'm against spanking I did try it a couple of times and it really seemed to scar his mind and heart and it wasn't effective at stopping the problems anyway (other methods worked). I think the emotion has some connection to his memory because he doesn’t have a photographic memory for words, math facts or academic information but for experiences, interpersonal communications (detailed recall of full conversations or exchanges witnessed) or linked to places (travel etc.).

Because I was reading to him from higher level books than his independent reading level, and because we visited museums with displays geared toward adults, and by watching documentaries for adults, he got exposed to higher level information and understood it. He absorbed it like a sponge. I did these things because they worked for my son and also because I was following the Charlotte Mason method which recommended reading from higher level books than the child could read to themselves. I did not do those things because the learning styles test said to do them. I just looked at that son’s test from when he was early age seven and he was equally scored as a visual learner (pictures not text) and kinesthetic. Auditory was low which I recall confused me since he learned so much content that was read aloud to him.

I did not have him reading ‘on grade level’ nonfiction books for academic reasons for kids as I felt the information was too simplified and dumbed down in order to deliver it in a reading level they are able to comprehend. For example a book I could read to him about space exploration had so much more information than on grade level space exploration easy readers. I had clear indications that what my son learned from read-alouds, audio books, videos, and museum trips was being learned and retained. My son could make unbelievable connections. When reading a book about Egypt, when narrating he linked it to something he saw a year ago on a documentary, in the right context. To me that is what we want from learning. (We have so far never used textbooks such as I used in public school for learning about topics such as science and history. The homeschooling methods we chose to use seek to avoid these boring and often dumbed down tomes at all costs.)

A Panel of Tests

At age ten I offered my son up as a guinea pig. A post came across a local homeschool discussion board asking if any children could be test subjects for a student teacher. The woman was an experienced middle school teacher who was getting her master’s degree to be a reading specialist. She had to give a full battery of tests to one child in order to learn how to administer them. This was her first time administering these tests. For her grade she had to do a big report on the child including making recommendations for addressing any weaknesses. One purpose of the exercise was to realize how different tests exist that test the same concepts but the tests are weaker or stronger than each other (all these tests are presently used). I was told different schools use different tests (the same school might not use two tests; someone at the school has chosen which will be used and which will not be used). Some are considered more credible than others. (The fact that any schools use the sub-par tests is confusing to me, why don’t they all use only the most accurate tests? But I digress.)

I thought my son had fantastic reading comprehension based on his oral narrations which was a key element of the Charlotte Mason home education method. This was my son’s first time taking tests like this. He seemed to tolerate it well, being patient, calm, and polite. The teacher complimented me many times on how easy it was to work with him and what a ‘great kid’ he was.

Bottom Line Lesson Learned

If you teach with a certain goal and method and then you test a student using different standards and methods, the student may not score well. In some academic areas where defined content is learned if that is tested, the student may perform well. However even in some cases such as something as seemingly clear cut as math, this may not work.

For example if I homeschool my children using old style math such as I learned in public school in the 1970s and 1980s, if they took the Connecticut Mastery Test and were asked to estimate first not just do the operation, then write a paragraph explaining their thought process and show two ways the problem could be solved, my kids may get that wrong. I do not have my children writing out in words how they do math. I do not teach guesswork methods of math. I focus on concrete operations not guesswork as a primary objective.

Lastly anything having to do with a calculator may not work out well as my children are banned from using them to do schoolwork. Thus if I teach my kids to read and they can read and enjoy the selection and learn from it they still may not fare will doing testing that focuses on other objectives.

One test prep booklet with real test examples was asking my child to guess at emotions of characters in the selection with subjective answers such as after a young child was lost at the zoo my son said the mother would be happy when the child was found but the right answer was the mother would be angry with the child for having wandered off. In our family this mother would have been happy!

So one impression I had of testing was to be careful that if an alternative education method is used (even a popular homeschooling method) that effective learning might not be clearly shown on standardized tests that are built to measure learning effectiveness used in a different model of education.

I know that some studies show that homeschoolers score well in standardized tests and that homeschoolers outperform public schools in those studies. However I question who is taking those tests. Are those homeschooled students just having public school replicated at home (albeit maybe adding in religious content or some great extra learning experiences)? Are the test takers using alternative learning methods such as unschooling? Are kids who are late readers given the test at the young ages when they can't read (they'd fail, wouldn't they?). Are any of those students suffering with learning disabilities taking those tests? I don’t know.

I’ll share more details of the testing and the results in my next post. I wanted to share this in one post but it was too long!

1 comment:

christinethecurious said...

Oh I'm being bad: I have company coming tomorrow and we need to clean house; however:

My son was a late reader, so I didn't use standardized tests for his assesment until he was in 3rd grade. I turned in a portfolio which showed what he HAD done, not what showed up on a test. I did want him to get used to tests however, least timed tests, coloring in bubbles, and such things be scary when he was a teen.

I have since switched over to using his tests as assessment, because his scores are good, and his handwriting is impossible (Massachusetts only requires one of three assessments, dated work samples, narration, or standardized test). I was getting tired of the detailed questions about why didn't I have him fill in answer sheets about the literature we read? ( I guess they didn't read the detailed narrative about his narrations and our discussions of the text - or else they were worried about the lack of objective questions. When his very general narrations did not become smooth writing, I did switch to a hybrid approach using Writing with Ease, by Susan Wise Bauer, about a year after you posted that your son needed to practice objective questions, not just give narrations, but the standardized tests were less intrusive.)

The shape of his scores does not change, but he has gone up a percentile each year he has taken the test. So did a late reader skip a standardized test? You bet. Did a child with learning disabilities? I'd call him doubly exceptional, but yes.

We aren't a statistic, but anecdotes are fun.

Got to go pick up the floors, make will be fun tomorrow!

-Christine in Massachusetts