The Learning-Styles Debate: Missing the Point?

Today’s guest post is from Sean O’Reilly, a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages.

As teachers, we’ve probably all heard someone say “I’m a visual learner.” But many of us have also become aware in recent years of the persuasive research showing that so-called “learning styles” describe students’ learning preferences rather than any actual limitations on their learning capacity.  Even self-identified visual or auditory learners do not appear to retain information any better when teachers cater to their putative needs by, say, filling PowerPoints with lush visual effects (or audio).  But before we rejoice at being let off the hook and return en masse to the days of black-type-on-solid-white presentations, let me suggest that there’s a difference between audio-visual embroidery and the in-class use of genuine audio-visual sources.

The learning-styles debate has rightly put focus on how, and how effectively, we’re using multimedia in the classroom, but its emphasis on knowledge retention often leaves aside another, equally important, reason for using multimedia in the classroom. The real goal of including audiovisual elements in history classes is not necessarily knowledge retention, but rather to challenge students’ concepts of what history is. As teachers we are attempting to do more than simply prepare our students for the final exam by filling their  minds with facts. In my own experience as a historian, students in history classes tend to have a very narrow definition of what constitutes “real” historical sources: letters, official documents, and the like.  That, say, woodblock prints, political cartoons or even feature films can also be serious objects of inquiry never fails to surprise some students, perhaps partly due to less-than-ideal instruction in high school.

One student recently described as “amazing” the experience—the realization—of seeing (in both senses) a clip from a historical film not only as a representation of history, but as an historical object in its own right. All this came from a simple in-class exercise in which we applied Hayden White’s theory of historiophoty (to evaluate film based on medium-specific criteria, not the same old standards one uses to evaluate written sources) and read the film symptomatically (to see what it could show us of wartime-era beliefs and perspectives on society).  It was then and only then that the student was able to step back and see the film as history. If we can show students, simply by varying the media of our sources, that our subject, our discipline, consists of more than just documents in musty archives, then I will be fully content, even if their factual retention remains unchanged. After all, we seek to teach students not what to think, but how.

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