Sunday, May 1, 2011

What Might Charlotte Mason have Said about 'Learning Styles'?

Many parents who are just beginning to look into a Charlotte Mason education are concerned with whether or not Miss Mason's methods are a good choice for their own children. Quite often, their questions revolve around the modern idea of children's 'learning styles'.

The reasons for such concerns are as varied as children themselves. However, as it turns out, Miss Mason really did understand children's 'educational needs' - whatever label one might put upon those needs.

Upon further examination, one begins to realize that Miss Mason respected all children's abilities and all children's needs, and she knew how to guide each of them from wherever they were yesterday, bringing them bit by bit towards increasing ability, discipline, and joy all at the same time.

How did she do that? She gently and naturally moved all children towards the same disciplines in learning. One might say that she studied the thinking patterns of the most natural of students, and then devised the means to help less 'natural' students learn how to work more and more 'naturally' and effectively. Through the study of her writings, we can learn to do the same today.

Using those principles which Miss Mason championed as a guide to assess any educational approach, we can also determine what methods might move students' abilities beyond those achieved even by Miss Mason herself (such as the many valuable aspects of Nanci Bell's work - a modern day educator whose work builds powerfully upon just some of specific aspects of the lesson options found in Charlotte Mason's broader educational methods).


Let's look for a moment at the example of the process of learning to read - and the concept of using manipulatives in the teaching of reading.

Some children might learn to read quite readily and joyfully with nothing but a lovely book in the hands of their mother, while other children must needs employ something like magnet letters and/or word cards in order to learn to read.

Now, magnet letters and word cards are 'kinesthetic tools' and those tools have helped some children learn to read. Thus, the use of 'kinesthetic tools' have left some people with the impression that such students are 'kinesthetic learners.'

However, the point isn't 'kinesthetic learning' in Miss Mason's perspective.

What's the difference in her point of view, and why does that matter?

In the case of the child who learns to read with nothing but a book in hand, that child already has a natural capacity to 'attend' effectively without significant assistance. That is a blessing for his mother.

OTOH, a child whose 'attention' skills (e.g. - visual attention, visual discrimination, and visual memory) are not as keenly attuned to the task of reading can learn to *apply his will* to learn to attend (visually) with great care and to great affect.

With practice and with guidance, he learns how to see and remember what was seen more effectively than he did yesterday. (he doesn't really learn how to touch manipulatives better....... *grin*)

The process of helping a child to apply his will to attend visually to letters and words on a page might require more discipline and effort on the part of the mother of this second type of child. However, that is not something bad by any means. Rather, the 'strength of will' gleaned by such a child is a lesson which was built into his life by his Creator..... If both the child's mother and the child uses the opportunity to stretch his will bit by bit until he is able to 'attend' (visually) as much as he needs to in order to read well, then he will achieve all of the accomplishments he was called upon to achieve in his reading lessons - and his whole person will have grown. There will be direct benefits from having done so.

In the future, such children will be more practiced in *willing* themselves to attend to anything which is a challenge to them, academically or otherwise.

If, on the other hand, the teacher is simply relying on 'kinesthetic learning' to take place somehow on its own, there will be specific, predictable outcomes.

The teacher who is relying on 'kinesthetic learning' to 'teach' is less inclined to specifically guide the child to apply his will to see a word with enough specificity that it makes an impression upon the child's visual memory. In such a case, the child often does do so in the end. However, surprisingly often, he did so more by accident than by learning how to apply either his will or even his mind to *chose* to do so, therefore he is not as fully prepared to do so again in the future as he could have been. He did not develop the consciously applied, targeted 'habit of attention' which he could have developed. He cannot then apply that 'habit of attention ' to other words by choice, nor to other subject matter. He does not realize that by applying a 'growing habit of attention', he can continue to grow in his reading skills (and spelling skills for that matter) whenever he is introduced to words anywhere in his little world.

Such a student might actually be inadvertently or wcwn specifically taught to think that he might always struggle to learn unless he has a chance to learn 'hands on.' Rather than that, he can be taught the tools of effective attention.
Though some children who are 'taught kinesthetically' do finally break through and simply learn naturally, not all children do. Of those who do, many will struggle with spelling more than they need to. Those children who are less inclined to break through in learning to read via 'random attempts at learning kinesthetically' are predictably at risk.

Unless those children are specifically taught to (1) apply their will in order to (2) ramp up their *visual attention* effectively enough to (3) make *visual impressions* upon their *visual memory* solidly enough to be able to (4) apply that knowledge with automaticity, they will utterly miss the opportunity to grow naturally and with greater ease - threatening the degree of literacy they might achieve. Perhaps they will miss the opportunity to be literate in any sense of the word.

That predictable outcome should be avoided, and it can be, by understanding 'educational law' and how it helps us both interpret a child's needs in regards to the child's alleged 'learning styles' and how to plan and/or adjust a lesson for a specific child's needs in order to: help the child learn more and more how to think via the most effective and efficient means available to him, and help him apply his will to do just that, through gentle guidance.

If, thanks to a teacher who is knowledgeable in regards to educational law, the student knows the specific goals of a lesson and how to achieve those goals, he is in a better position from which to apply his will more directly in achieving those goals. In the case of a Charlotte Mason styled 'Visual Impression Reading of Spelling Lesson' (aka: a CM styled reading-or-spelling-lesson - my terminology, not Miss Mason's), the child learns how to apply his will to take in a specific visual image for two specific functional purposes (a) to know the 'face' of that word in any 'crowd of words' in order to know the 'idea' of that word at sight, *&* (b) to know the parts of that word for the purposes of spelling, with the ability to recall the whole made up of those parts from the visual memory.

Though the ability to recognize the 'face' of the word might come a little while before the ability to recall the parts of that 'face' with enough clarity to spell readily while writing whole sentences, in a lesson developing the student's abilities in line with 'educational law', the skills required for the one goal are directly related to the skills required for the other goal - thus spelling skills build up comprehension skills, and comprehension skills build up spelling skills. It is an entirely efficient use of the mind from all aspects of both developing specific skills and applying those skills which have been learned.

If children do not apply their will in this way, it is quite predictable that some of them will weary from the effort of 'simply going through the material again and again and again' wondering when, how, and if they will finally take in certain words. Rather than learning to value the power of reading, they merely learn as many reading skills as they feel they absolutely must to in order to get through their immediate future, if they learn any at all. - - -

If instead, by following CM principles, the child is brought to understand how to specifically target his attention upon what he knows will work, he becomes more empowered, and if he is challenged in small ways, then a little bit bigger of ways, and then a little bigger ways than that, he experiences the benefits of setting and achieving very specific goals.

More importantly, he gradually feels the strength of the power of 'the will to do what is right' rising up inside of himself.
Thus we observe the 'predictable outcomes' suggested by Charlotte Mason's understanding of 'educational law': Not only does the child learn specific knowledge and specific skills, he grows as a person.

We see, then, that there is a stark contrast which develops between those children who will struggle in spite of kinesthetic tools vs. children who are successful because their education is specifically guided, one little step at a time, by CM principles and methods.

Okay, before we wrap this up, let's look one more time at the idea of 'kinesthetic learning':

The child who learns words using tactile objects does not learn to read because he was 'touching' letters or word cards.

The child, while touching tactile objects, somehow managed to apply HIS ATTENTION enough to really SEE letters and groupings of letters to the point that he remembers what he has SEEN.

Ultimately, the child has only learned when his will has helped him ATTEND TO WHAT HE SEES. Touching things might have helped him APPLY HIS WILL TO ATTEND MORE FULLY TO WHAT HE IS SEEING, but he didn't learn by touching.

*****Rather, he learned by finally seeing more and more clearly what was right before him in the first place.*****

That is not 'kinesthetic learning' - not really. That is bringing the attention more and more towards 'visual learning'.

That is both more powerful, and more capable of helping the whole child grow as a person. That power and capability is a possible and predictable outcome when one understands and applies educational law.

Furthermore, that knowledge can guide the teacher in his attempts to help the student know when and if it is appropriate for him to move away from reliance upon manipulative tools and thoughtfully and intentionally move towards increasingly effective attempts to 'will to attend' by more naturally effective, and efficient means of attending (visually or via other appropriate means, depending on the skill at hand). [That it not to say that manipulatives are never useful in quickly conveying information, one person to another. The use of manipulatives can also be invaluable in the course of high minded discussions. However, in spite of the long term, adult-level benefits of manipulatives, the ability to visualize ideas, words, etc. without the use of manipulatives is an especially empowering capability which can be intentionally nurtured with valuable benefits.]

With that said, I hope it makes sense to you that I truly believe that Miss Mason would think of the term 'kinesthetic learning' as a misnomer.


Both the example of using 'manipulatives' to learn to read, and the example of Miss Mason's use of pennies and dimes to learn basics in decimals, as well as many other examples suggested by Miss Mason, help to express a different point of view, and a more powerful one, than the idea of 'learning styles.'

Miss Mason worked towards helping students develop *the will to attend* - and then *the habit of attending* as an outgrowth of applying the will to attend.

As we more and more specifically
help our children to 'apply their will to attend', and once we begin to understand the power of 'the habit of attention', and once we understand what disciplines the child should employ 'to attend' to each specific task in the learning process, we are free to help guide them around OR through any struggles, and ultimately beyond them towards a joy of learning.

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