The Many Identities of a Learner

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Originally posted March 11, 2015 on Scholastic EduBlog

Although many educators like putting students into learning style buckets – Lisa is a visual learner; Vinod is kinesthetic; Pat is auditory – no research supports that we are actually one kind of learner or another. In fact, we are more likely different learners under different circumstances. This variability was very nicely described by education writer Annie Murphy Paul at a recent Math Leadership Summit sponsored by Scholastic.

Annie, who has a new book -- Brilliant: The New Science of Smart -- coming out this year, is one of the few writers who eschews headline-grabbing oversimplifications of the research and focuses on respecting and articulating the evidence. Daniel Willingham, who has carefully debunked the learning styles myth (linked above), is another.

As she poured over the research for her book, Annie found that intelligence, or “smart,” is fluid. In her talk she asked the audience to picture themselves at a cocktail party. You’re talking to someone. You’re witty, comfortable, informed, and, yes, sounding smart. You turn to talk to someone else. Maybe you find this new person particularly attractive or intelligent. Suddenly, you’re at a loss for words. You misspeak, say “uh” a bunch, and generally sound like a dope. What happened? Same you, same place, but not at all the same experience.

Annie’s example reminds me of how different I am with different groups of family or friends. I become deferential, for instance, when I’m with my older brother, but I can be very decisive with my students. I hear these differences all the time in teacher and parent talk. “Jake is so well-behaved in your class. He’s not like that for me.” In fact, each of us has many identities. The one we exhibit at any time is heavily influenced by our situation, the external cues and triggers that bombard us.

The learning identities of our students are similarly varied. Sometimes a student seems very engaged, willing to take risks and speak up in class. Other times that same student seems locked in a shell. Sometimes a student will persevere through obstacles; other times she quickly surrenders. I’m the same way as a learner. Sometimes reading and re-reading is the best way for me to understand something; sometimes I need a movie or someone to walk me through it.

Context matters. If we want our students to become smart, we need to do more than just demand that they work harder (although that’s important). We also need to look at what kind of learner identity the learning environment is invoking. As Bill Daggett, the founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) says, “Culture trumps strategy.” That statement is true for districts, schools, and classrooms.

How well are culture and strategy aligned in your classrooms? What reference points are you establishing to trigger good learning behaviors in your students? Think of smart as the intersection of the individual and the environment. Both fluctuate and need to be monitored. There’s only so much we can do to alter what’s inside of individual students. We can do a lot, though, to adjust the learning environment to evoke the learning face we want to see from one learning opportunity to the next.

So the next time one of your “smart” students is acting like a dope, look at the external cues and circumstances that might be drawing out the undesirable behavior. And the next time one of your underperforming students is shining, try to identify the environmental triggers, including your own words and actions, that are feeding his sudden “smartness.” Differentiation isn’t just about adjusting content. Educators have lots of levers to adjust to promote the beliefs and behaviors that underlie turning students into “smart” learners.

©Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.

Last updated on 05/31/2016