Thursday, October 22, 2009

Part 5 Series My Experience With and Theories About Learning Styles

The Testing Process and the Results

Note: I had not shared all this information in detail on my blog in the past as I worried of possible negative ramifications from doing so. What if someone filed an educational neglect charge against our family based on what I shared about these test results?

Since we are two years out from this testing and I have further information to discredit some of these results I’m no longer scared to share this story.

It is my hope that perhaps some parent with a child in school or at home may learn something from our experience with a battery of tests. I pity the school children who are subjects of just one test and get a label from that one test. The fact is the test may be sub-par and the result may be wrong. I can only hope that perhaps a quick and easy test is done first and if the child does poorly, that more extensive testing is done to verify and double-check the results. Still I have questions about testing accuracy. If the child is not fully engaged, if the tests run too long, if the child grows bored or has a bad attitude during testing (including from feeling low self-esteem or being worried over what the result may show) the test result could be disastrous, a falsely lower score than reality.


The Testing Timeframe

I had no stake in this test. I didn't worry about the results. There would be no negative consequences to doing this, or so I thought.

Due to the student teacher’s class deadlines there was a push to get this done. Issues that arose during testing were not a consideration for the student teacher to question the validity of the tests. To give tests in subpar conditions then treat the results as if they were totally accurate and perfect is a bit ridiculous. Given what my son went through in this timeframe, if an accurate result was desired the testing should have been rescheduled for a month or more down the road. Given the two separate things that happened, this would mean two postponements should have occurred. I let the testing continue as it was to help this student teacher and I understood her deadline and the importance of finishing this up on time. The student teacher was also praising my son's performance and behavior so I though the results would be good or fantastic.

Not all the restuls were great. I beat myself up about this for a long time. This is something I didn't even share with some of my closest friends and something I tried to hide from my blog readers. However in 20/20 hindsight now that two years has gone by, I feel I was too hard on myself and perhaps my son too, about what the results showed.

The tests were done over about two and a half months if my memory is correct. The visits were usually weekly. The testing was done in my home and was usually 90-120 minutes in length; some went longer than two hours. I was at home but in another room during the testing. I kept my younger son occupied and quiet by playing quiet games with him so he would not disturb the testing.

Problems During Testing

Two monkey wrenches were thrown into this testing process.

One was the fact that my son contracted Lyme Disease during the testing including having fever symptoms and headache during one testing period. He was on antibiotic therapy after the diagnosis and was still not feeling well during treatment. Lyme can affect the thinking process and memory and can cause “brain fog” and indeed he was having that as I saw his learning negatively affected during that time.

Second, a very close relative died. My father-in-law finally passed away after suffering with Cancer. He had a decline in health during the last few weeks of his life, during the testing period. (Our family helped him a lot and we were busy caring for him, my son was with him often, seeing his decline. This was a very emotional time for our whole family and my children were there to see it all. At the time of his death, my children were present in the next room. The rest of our family was at his bedside but I felt that was a bit too much for my boys aged seven and ten to actually see happen since neither me or my husband had ever been bedside to watch a person pass away and we didn’t know what to expect. Additionally some of the other family members were very emotional and that would have upset my kids (who could not hear everything since they were watching television).

One testing session was given two days after the four day long family gatherings and funeral finally ended. That was an emotionally grueling week and my children’s sleep schedules were off due to all the activities. The teacher was under a tight deadline since the death was near the end of her class, and insisted on doing the testing, not wanting to cancel the appointment the week we were busy with the funeral.

Lastly my son admitted to intentionally guessing and not paying attention then making up answers because he was burned out, especially in sequencing testing where he was flashed 4-6 numbers or letters on a card and was told to state back what he saw. If the card said CABBCA and he said GXUTMS, I’m sorry but that is not a processing issue or dyslexia that is a nonsense answer done on purpose. You see for some answers, my son was giving gibberish letters and numbers which had no resemblance to what was there so I could not resist asking him what was he thinking? And that’s when he said he was just making up some of the answers!

Getting the Test Results

In January 2008 I finally got the test results. To be honest I was expecting to hear he was on grade level or slightly above. I had no worries other than what I knew about him guessing on some of the answers.

The Big Picture or Parroting?

One thing the teacher noted was her surprise at something he did which she did not like at all. This has to do with seeing things in a big picture context. For the open ended oral questions, she said often he’d include on topic information which was not in the passage that had been read. I asked for some examples and I was shown them. I recognized information that my son had learned at a museum a year earlier and explained that to her, how he had taken the new information from the reading test and mixed it together with what he already knew and his answers were synthesized into one coherent answer. Another test item had data from a unit study we did when my son was in first grade and had not covered again since! I was so happy because he retained that old information and infused new information in proper context and learned! I took that as an education success story.

I should also mention that our homeschool method has never been about parroting back information or practicing spitting back just exactly what was said twisted up a bit and with a few words switched out so as to not look like plagiarism. The Charlotte Mason method is dead set against parroting. The method encourages the learner to take in information, make it his own by picking out parts of it that speak to him and impress him and then narrating about that. The only wrong action in a narration is to state back wrong facts or misunderstood information. If a student winds up discussing a certain element from a history lesson such as how the society built roads and managed the community and another student focuses on the way people dressed at the time and another focuses on battles and dates, that is fine!

But the teacher said this accurate telling of information that included bits from other sources properly placed in context caused her a problem for scoring, and sometimes she marked the answers incorrect as she wanted him to say only what he’d just learned form that one passage in the test (parroting). She said she repeatedly asked him to only reply with the information from the passage just read but that he didn’t always comply. I asked if he said the right information from that reading and extra information was included that was from another source, to me that meant he learned from both the new information and the old. She disagreed, saying the only way to gauge if reading comprehension was achieved is if the student only parrots back what was in that exact passage.

Later when I had time to ponder this it occurred to me how difficult that can be, I know it would be for me. Think about this for a minute. Let’s say you know X about a topic then read a new passage. While reading you are trying to understand it and in so doing some assimilation with prior knowledge in your mind is thought about. Then to answer a battery of test questions about what was read you would have to concentrate back on just what was read at that last reading to be aware to not reply in open-ended questions with any single thing that was known formerly.

This was my first taste of when school test measurements may not match to the bigger picture of what we want learning to be. I thought also that teachers wanted this type of “big picture” learning but apparently not all of them do. I thought that learning was about setting a foundation then building upon it. As a person grows older the knowledge builds up and up and information and ideas intersect and weave together with connections happening all over the place. I asked myself, “Is it not the goal of teaching and reading new material to link it to past information learned, make connections, synthesize it and understand the new information in a bigger picture way?” I still can’t understand a teaching model used in public school where this type of learning is not the goal. I remain totally miffed about this.

Perhaps the answer is that the goal of public education in America is truly not what the publicly stated goal is, but this is not something I’ve researched thoroughly or chosen to buy in to. I am speaking of the idea that our country wants robot like compliant citizens to be passive participants in what factory owners or corporations want from a workforce or what our government wants from its citizens. That theory is laid out in “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto if you want to learn more about that. If that book is too much for you consider reading “Dumbing Us Down” by the same author.

Results All Over the Place
I will also share my son got some excellent scores on the testing, so the picture painted of him was all over the place. In the same content areas, he was deemed ahead in some areas, behind in others, and on grade level in others. The tests themselves were scattered even when testing the same thing, thus leaving me with little confidence about school testing of academic ability!

For example one phonics test said “doesn’t know enough phonics to be able to decode and learn to read and needs remedial phonics work” when in fact he can read and did score on another test “decoding words with phonics at a grade eight level”. (My son was in grade five, second month at that time.)

I consoled myself also with the information that his verbal communication portion of an IQ test tested at age 17 which impressed the teacher very much. A person cannot be a good oral communicator if they can’t think or if they don’t have any content to discuss, right? At least that very high score balanced out the writing composition which was all over the place from grade 5, grade 4 and grade 1! Also I didn’t believe the grade level score for two of the tests. I checked these writing pieces he did for homework which I had copies of against the Flesch-Kinkaid scores in Microsoft Word and instead of coming out below grade 5 level, and they scored grades 4 and 5. So what is up with her scoring system?

A Problem with the Tests Themselves?

When I heard the results I asked about the inconsistency. I wanted to know how the same kid could score below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level on reading comprehension when tested by the same person in the same time frame. She looked at the tests and made the connection for the first time that he scored well on the short passages of one or two paragraphs but did worse on the longer tests. The test with 1.5 pages of reading he did the worst on.

She also mentioned that on the long passage test he was skipping some lines and losing his place on the line. She said she noted he could not answer questions on data he missed due to skipping lines or skipping words (which she said makes perfect sense). She said she thought me may have had an eye tracking problem, that she saw his eyes jumping around or searching to find his place when he got lost on the page, but was quick to say she’d not yet learned about what that exactly is. I told her I have some friends with kids under treatment for eye tracking problems and I’d get him to a qualified doctor for an evaluation.

The eye tracking thing really surprised me because in the past he had never skipped words or lost his place on the line. I used to have him read aloud to me and he never used to do that. But in third grade I stopped having him read aloud since he was doing so well (and never skipped a line or lost his place on the line) and he went on to silent reading. In third grade he was reading Boxcar Children series of books which was on grade level. For fourth grade he was battling with me to move on to harder reading, longer books and such. I read about eye tracking problems and saw many symptoms that my son had but they were things that parents and teachers often dismiss with things like “not all boys like to read long books in fourth and fifth grade” or “boys love to read comics” and “not every kids is a bookworm”.

Learning Styles?

To be honest I was still touting the benefits of being aware of a child’s learning style but I was not using the data from his tests very much (I’d retested him over the years) in a very thorough way. I was focusing more on doing what works for him and also doing what is recommended by the classical homeschool method and the Charlotte Mason method.

After doing his fiction reading for reading practice he seemed ‘tapped out’ of energy to read any more. (I later learned this is a huge issue for kids with any kind of learning disability or who struggle with an area of weakness. One source of this information in book form is "The Motivation Breakthrough" by Richard LaVoie.) I saw this "tapped out of learning energy" starting in about grade three and it continued up to that point when he was in grade five. I had continued using heavy Charlotte Mason influences and classical methods from "The Well Trained Mind" (book) but was still relying on a lot of reading aloud for educational content not just to follow those homeschooling methods as I thought they were wonderful but also because my son had no energy or desire to switch to independent reading for history, science, and other content.

I was also surprised on retesting my kid’s learning styles when they were in grade 2 and 5 that they scored exactly the same as each other for learning styles. They learn very differently and want different things from their learning experiences so this mystified me. (I will explain more details in the Brain Dominance portion of this series that helped things fall into place.) I just left the question dangling unanswered but I did wonder if learning style were really accurate. Again I was not obsessing over learning styles. I felt they were something that might be helpful, one part of the puzzle, but they were not the ‘end all and be all’.

Books Mentioned in This Post

The book I used for learning styles was:

1 comment:

Melissa Y. said...

This series has been very eye opening for me. Why is it we never talk about our mistakes, but tell our children that's how you learn by making mistakes. I'm so glad to read you had experiences when your son was burnt out. My daughter age 10 has started showing signs of burn out. It is so new she has always been so motivated to learn and now I have to push, daily. My son is 6 he is still so happy about being included and learning. I miss those days with my daughter. I was wondering if it was time to let her go to school? I finally got my courage up and asked her what she wanted and she does want to keep home schooling, but she is unmotivated. So we're trying something new where she picks out her curriculum or studies for 8 weeks and see if that helps. I had to put my planned lesson plans away and allow her to grow and be involved in her studies. It was a learning moment for her and me. Thank You for sharing, bumps and all, Melissa