Near the beginning of every Latin I class, for just about twenty years, I’ve had students form pairs or small groups and do a “sort and classify” activity. The stated goal is to recognize different forms of the same word, then group similarly-formed words together. But the unstated goals are more important. To what extent does each learner look closely and observe carefully? Given a new task, do they expect a recipe, or are they eager to figure things out themselves? What will the group dynamics look like, and what equitable ways will they find to involve everyone in a seemingly-simple task? Who is focused on the task, and who is more focused on the learning? And what kinds of products will they generate?
I used to get frustrated when the activity stretched, as it inevitably did, to “longer than I’d planned for.” But then I realized that by sorting and classifying the little noun or verb cards, my students were also helping me sort, classify, and subdivide them in helpful ways. Does A gravitate more toward the kinesthetic or the visual aspects of this task? Is B a big-picture thinker, seeing all kinds of possibilities for classification, or does B need some guidance? Did C just ask ¨What do you want me to do?” in that plaintive way that very task-driven, linear-thinking, “good little students” do? And what about D, who has withdrawn completely from the activity, either hoping I didn’t notice or, perhaps, hoping I did?
Sorting, classifying, and subdividing are quintessentially human endeavors. But if you’re not careful, you can start believing the categories you created are more real than the actual people you categorized. From there it’s easy, but deadly, to fall into the trap of assuming one category per person.
Richard Elmore’s new edX course, “Leaders of Learning,” is built around a four-quadrant matrix of learning theories. Picture a sheet of graph paper, the kind you used in That Math Course That Time. Imagine a vertical axis labeled Individual at the top, Collective at the bottom. Picture a horizontal axis labeled Hierarchical at the left, Distributed at the right. You end up with four quadrants, each representing what Elmore calls a “theory of learning” that (usually unconsciously) governs your expectations and desires for learning experiences and environments … but each person’s “theory of learning” draws from multiple quadrants, and our “theories of learning” change over time, especially when we become aware of them.
I’ve started seeing all kinds of implications and applications of these four learning theories. Schools As They Are draw primarily from the Hierarchical Individual quadrant (the top left one if you draw the matrix as Elmore does), where learning is seen as an ordered, sequential process, directed by experts and objectively measurable, and the learner’s job is to conform to the process and produce the measurable results. Given a description of the four, Ms. X and Mr. Y would point to the Hierarchical Individual quadrant and say “Yes, this! This, of course! What’s wrong with those crazy other people?” But without that description, Ms. X and Mr. Y probably assume that “those crazy other people” really believe the same thing they do but are just being perverse … or “bad and lazy,” or worse.
Meanwhile, many “progressive” educators and advocates would point decisively at the Hierarchical Collective quadrant, the bottom left in Elmore’s matrix. “This, this, this!” they’d exclaim. “Learning is socially constructed, and it’s the learner’s job to adapt to society’s norms, to work smoothly together with other, different types of people in our diverse society! What’s wrong with those crazy other people?” But again, without the matrix, Teacher Z and Activist A likely assume that “those crazy other people” really believe the same thing they do but are just being perverse … or perhaps got coopted by Those Powerful, Evil Forces Over There.
Fill in the blank with the Powerful, Evil Forces of your choice. There are plenty of candidates.
And if your learning theory tends more toward the distributed, you’ll regard folks who favor hierarchical models with deep suspicion. “What’s wrong with them? You can’t transmit knowledge unless the learners are really interested in it! What’s wrong with those crazy other people?”
When you bring the perspectives forward, everything can change in an instant. I made that discovery almost accidentally, quite a few years ago, when I had six intriguingly “bad and lazy” students in the same class. I’d just discovered the Gregorc model of thinking styles (in Gayle Gregory’s beautiful adaptation) in a course I was taking, so I “just happened” to share it with them and ask them to identify their primary thinking styles. It turned out that Mr. Abstract Sequential “Microscope” (me) was struggling to connect with three Concrete Random “Beach Balls” and three Abstract Random “Puppies.”
Sorting, classifying, and subdividing changed everything for me … and for them. Instead of trying to force them into One Right Mold, I could appreciate their complementary strengths and work with, not for them to plan activities that would build on those strengths and build up their weaknesses.
The “bad, lazy ones” turned into one of my favorite-ever upper-level classes … and they all stayed in the Latin Family “for the duration,” until they graduated or exhausted the sequence. Why? Because we understood and valued each other, and the sorting, classifying, and subdividing helped us get there.
What lessons are there for me, with my primarily Distributed and Collective learning theory, as schools in These Parts grow ever more Hierarchical and Individual in response to the fear and panic of Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Various Powers That Be? What are the next steps on all of our journeys, and will those journeys be together or separate? And how will these new tools for sorting, classifying, and subdividing help us all today?