Are labels necessary to achieve Mastery?

When we talk about learning, we are
talking about the process of discovery as well as the mastery of what we
discover during this process.  All
children naturally seek to create a picture of the world in which they live
and, with the assistance of the adults in their lives use that picture to
predict, explain, and find alternatives which will help them to then create
their own designs.

The interaction children have with these
“expert adults” we call “guided discovery”.
It doesn’t matter if the children grow up in a village in rural Mexico
or in a metropolis such as Rome, Italy these children will mimic what they
see.  One will discover the making of
tortillas and speaking Spanish while the other will discover pasta-making and
speaking Italian.  They will do this by
watching, communicating and practising.
They will receive effective feedback from their expert adult until they
become proficient.  Do these adults worry
about the child’s learning style when they hand them a ball of dough?  Do they trouble themselves to find out which
of their “Multiple Intelligences”(Gardiner) they should tap into in order to
produce the best results?  Do they
question whether they should call in the “right brain” or the “left
brain”?  Or, do they focus on whether the
child should be taught through their visual, auditory or tactile pathways? No,
for the most part the expert adults involved in a child’s early learning
intuitively gear their instruction toward the parts of the child’s learning
that is not easily becoming mastered.  
In the case of guided learning, children are expected to solve the
problems they encounter as they go and use their own methods to resolve the complications
they stumble upon during their voyage of discovery.

What happens then when these same children
enter into formal education? Is it the need to introduce mastery that alters
the perception of learning?  Certainly
the child’s surroundings change.  The
“expert adults” are now truly experts.
They are called teachers.
Learning becomes subject specific, language specific, even room
specific.  While previously the learning
of making pasta included numbers, language, observation, creation, these skills
were implicit.  Now these very same
skills are called Mathematics, Language, Science, Art.  They are catagorised and divided into
“subjects”.   The idea of mastery is
accompanied with rules, practice and routines.

What used to be fun has suddenly become
repetitive and mundane.  Children become
classified.  Their brains become
hemispherically oriented.  They can be
“right-brained” and have a tendency to be more creative.  On the other hand, they can be “left-brained”
and be more procedural.  Children can
also have “Multiple Intelligences”.
According to Howard Gardiner there are eight distinct intelligences –
Visual-Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal,
Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical and naturalist – and each child should be
taught in a number of different ways.
Perhaps in an attempt to simplify Gardner’s models in order to adapt
them to classroom teaching, student learning patterns have also been classified
as Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic “learning styles”.  Yet the skills we are expected to acquire in
school cannot be considered as skills that one can learn “naturally” such as
running, swimming, or even playing an instrument.  Academic skills such as reading and writing
are unnatural.   They do not belong to
the natural word of childhood.  They
cannot be simply discovered by the child; they must be taught if they are to be
mastered.  And, they are necessary.  

Learning in school, therefore, has been
made habitual.  Practice is essential for
mastery.  We attend school five days a
week, 6 to 8 hours a day, and at least ten months a year.  Every day we practice what we are taught,
over and over.  This unchanging routine
is not the objective of learning, but rather it is the means of making basic
skills automatic.  When skills such as
spelling, grammar, multiplication tables become automatic, higher level
learning and mastery can then be achieved.
As the well-known adage states, “practice makes perfect”, so must
students practice in order to achieve excellence.  Pianists practice scales; dancers, “pliés”
and arabesques; football players, headers and strategies.  

Unfortunately, students often must
practice things that they see as meaningless.
For musicians, dancers and football players practice is a means to the
end: mastery and success in something they love.  Many students, however, never see the meaning
to reading Jane Austin or George Elliot, learning about Pythagoras, or the
purpose of meanders and v-shaped valleys.  
They do not understand that mastery in these areas will give them
“life-skills” such as knowledge, strategies, and creativity in areas in which
they can excel as adults. Success in these areas will allow them to choose what
they want to do later in life.  Can they
not be taught in a way that makes learning fun? Learning that takes into
account how each child naturally learns.
Need children adjust to the expert adult?  Must they have a label? Can mastery in unnatural
academic skills not be taught naturally?

Many children stumble and fall in their
attempt to master these basic skills.
Teachers find that they cannot reach students who did not respond to
traditional methods of teaching.  The
natural process of discovery is not being applied to their learning.  As a result, many of these students
fail.  Alternative teaching must take
place in modern schools.  The world is
changing and children embrace these changes sooner and better than any adult.  The staid methods of the 3-R’s of yesteryear
are no longer appropriate in our 21st century classrooms.  

Labeling children is not the
alternative.  Gardner’s “Multiple
Intelligences” has come to be synonymous with “Learning styles”.  Discussions of whether a child is right-
brained or left-brained has become commonplace in staff-rooms worldwide.  Recently, however, the effectiveness of these
labels is being questioned, and while no solid evidence or study has actually
proven the opposite is true, neither has research shown the validity of
these.  Gardner defends his theory as
based on the individual having a “reflective style” rather than a particular
learning style, and that his concept of multiple intelligences does not focus
on sensory information the reaches the brain whereas the range of
“intelligences” each person possesses.

However, at the end of the day, is not the
idea of a learning style, brain-sidedness, or specific intelligence as
inconsequential as labelling a child’s learning variation?  Do we all not have learning variations?  While most children cope beautifully as
infant learners only some cope better once placed in an academic setting.  Is it not more important to establish a
flexible, non-threatening and individually-based classroom for all
children?  Instead of “one size fits all”
it is important that a teacher learn all she can about her students in order to
create a classroom which is non-threatening, in which each student can feel
confident and which offers all kinds of learning possibilities.  

In my 20 years of experience, during which
I have taught, assessed and guided students out of difficult academic
situations, many times already dealing with failure, into positions of success
and confidence, I have found that learning variations can indeed apply to
different students at one time or another.
Every student brings with him a tabloid of issues that can affect his
development both positively and adversely.
These issues result from a combination of academic, social, familial and
psychological factors which contribute to creating the person he is at the time
I meet him.  It is my job to untangle
these in order to determine his strengths and weaknesses.  This in turn will give me a framework in
which I can then create a learning profile and teaching program.   Intelligence obviously is an important
factor in this process as it will let me know whether a student can cope with
his curriculum; however, things like learning style – global or procedural –
have also influenced me as have strengths or weaknesses in areas of visual or
auditory learning.  The question is, “Why
should these influence me when they have all but been debunked from teaching as
“neuralmyths?”

Just as people have different coloured hair
and eyes so do they vary in their learning patterns.  Sometimes students remember better what they
see than what they hear – I am one of those – while others only remember what
they hear.  Other students only see the
big picture but cannot create the steps that make up this picture.  The opposite is also true.  By the time we reach adulthood, most of us
have resolved these issues naturally, creating a pot-pourri of learning
approaches that work for us; however there are those who never do.  Is it then not more important to try and
understand each student’s learning make-up, albeit strong visual or right-
brained, or weak inhibitory control or working memory instead of worrying
whether visual, auditory pathways actually exist or which brain hemisphere is
stronger than the other? If apparently in a particular student certain learning
adjustments work, then why not apply them? In the end, these strategies
frequently take students back to their natural learning environment where
mastery is achieved through the application of their personality
strengths.  Is it not mastery that we are
trying to achieve?  

Mastery through learning that is acquired
naturally, just as when the child learns to intuitively roll out his ball of
dough for either a tortilla or some pasta, is knowledge that that attaches
itself to our brains.  Only when this
kind of mastery is reached, can we as “expert” adults be satisfied that
balanced learning has taken place and that our “student” will carry this
learning with him throughout his life.
We should, therefore, teach each child in harmony with the natural
strengths he brings to the classroom, and our classrooms should be ready to
teach him in the manner in which he best responds.  Arguing about what labels to apply is an
absurdity which only leads to the further muddying of our already murky
educational waters.

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