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Why I hate learning styles and why you should too

Photo courtesy of Flickr user skpy

If you were a student or teacher in the past 30 years, you’ve likely heard about learning styles. In case you haven’t, here’s the basic theory:

Every brain has different strengths and weaknesses in how it encodes new information. If we map these strengths and weaknesses, we can detect that brain’s bias and learn that person’s particular learning style, the way that his/her brain prefers to learn. Learners can take advantage of knowing their own biases by changing how they study. Because everyone has a different learning style, teachers should present material in diverse ways appealing to many different learning styles to best serve all their students. 

The whole idea that we can somehow learn better by understanding our brain better is appealing, and the concept of learning styles seems so intuitively correct, that many people have made it a central tenant of their teaching philosophies without any further research. That further research suggests that learning styles are a myth. What’s more, we need to be cautious of the unintended consequences the learning style myth. Continue reading ‘Why I hate learning styles and why you should too’


Thinking caps, contemplative pedagogy, and getting started writing

Fifth and sixth graders can’t go directly from running around and playing outside to writing quietly. That should have been obvious to anyone, but nevertheless, I tried and failed at it when teaching my summer creative writing class for the first time. However, that experience taught me a lot about the value of carefully scripting the time right before starting to write.

“Getting started” usually comes pretty high on students’ lists of writing struggles. Many of them say they’re fine once they get into the middle of the paper, but they struggle with getting to that stage. I’m sure a good share of these difficulties have to do with content issues–students often try to write before they have a real idea of the complexity of their topic–but my experiences teaching in the summer make me think there’s something more than just a lack of knowledge that drives this issue for most.

I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to teach a class for the past five summers for Johns Hopkins CTY. It’s a great teaching gig with phenomenal, enthusiastic students in small classes, but during the first week of classes in my first summer, my students seemed to struggle to get anything down on the page. Content shouldn’t have been a real issue because most of the prompts asked students to write about something in their own lives that they should know well. Fifteen minutes into many of the writing exercises though, I’d see more than a few students with only one or two lines. Those that had gotten to writing immediately had by that time exhausted their resources and felt as if they had nothing more to say.

Given that these were gifted students, some of the trouble surely had to do with fear of judgment. The camp situation throws students who have always been the smartest kid in their class in with a bunch of other students who are also the smartest students. That potential threat to pre-teen egos cannot have been too pleasant for them to deal with.

These are the situations where most teachers are inclined to try and fix the students instead of changing the structure and situation to allow students to fix themselves. I fell into that trap here. My first approach was to give students the typical advice given to writers: turn off your internal editors, just write down whatever words come into your mind, even if they are completely unrelated, get the pen moving and don’t let it stop. That is good advice in general, and it had some effect, but some of my students still seemed paralyzed. Something else was missing. Continue reading ‘Thinking caps, contemplative pedagogy, and getting started writing’


Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming

Photo credit: Flickr user KatieTT

Having written about brainstorming and group work in three of the more recent posts here, you can imagine I was alarmed to see the blurb, “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work,” promoting Jonah Lehrer’s article Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth. After reading the article, I see there’s a lot to learn in thinking through setting up effective collaborations.

The blurb in question focuses on a very specific type of brainstorming that has been proven empirically to provide less creative ideas. When groups are told to throw out ideas without criticism, they tend to come up with a lot of ideas, but those ideas are more predictable, less varied, and ultimately less successful than groups that are free to criticize each other’s ideas. The criticism leads to a reconsideration of ideas, which ultimately makes them better.

Lehrer’s asssertion that this type brainstorming doesn’t work does not mean that groups cannot be creative. In fact, he introduces several studies that show that they can be more creative than individuals under the right conditions. The most compelling parts of the article are those that consider what those right conditions look like. Continue reading ‘Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming’


The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review

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It takes a bit of hubris to write a history of good ideas. Good ideas are those which separate themselves above those that come before, so to attempt to provide insight into a wide swath of those ideas means you must fancy yourself fairly insightful. That generally yields books like Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds, which crafts a complicated kabbalistic schema to organize brief biographies of one hundred great minds from the history of literature. The results read like a well-crafted reference book that leaves the reader with a sense of awe for these authors. What we don’t get is much insight into where these good ideas came from, which I should add Bloom never really promises. He’s just fine with us being in awe.

The difficulty inherent in choosing to write about good ideas is partly what makes Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation such a darn clever book. Instead of focusing on the good ideas themselves, which out of context leave us with a sense of awe, Johnson focuses on the places where good ideas come from, finds patterns in the conditions that foster creativity, and suggests ways we can create those spaces in our own creative endeavors. The results are both insightful, inspiring, and extraordinarily useful for anyone interested in coming up with good ideas themselves. Continue reading ‘The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review’


Workshopping peer workshops

I was at a conference last year where the idea of using writing workshops in class came up in conversation. A teacher from an education department commented, “I used to do workshops, but both my students and I thought they were a waste of time.” I brought up the fact that several studies support the idea that peer workshops work to produce better writers, and she shrugged her shoulders unconvinced. That experience made it pretty clear to me: workshops need a better PR department. They’ve become one of the most maligned forms of writing instruction, which is sad because they also have the potential to be the among the most productive.

I’m sympathetic to those teachers and students who deplore workshops. When I started teaching writing, I’d get student evaluations that said they found the process unhelpful in fixing their papers, and after reading their drafts, I could see the truth in those statements. Only later did I realize that we were both missing the point of workshops. A closer look at the structure of workshops shows us that focusing the goals of a workshop on the quality of papers produced invites these feelings of failure. Workshops can show us a lot of the weak points in our own papers and a lot of points that we need to work hard to fix, but they can’t solve those problems. Only the original writer can. But workshops do create better writers when they are assessed over time. Even though that’s cold comfort to someone wanting immediate improvement, a dedicated approach to workshops will help your writers improve, and there are several things we can do to help us tweak our approach to workshops that can allow that to happen. Continue reading ‘Workshopping peer workshops’


Top 50 Creative Writing Professors on Twitter

I  found out earlier in the week that put me on a list of the top 50 creative writing professors on Twitter. I’d never even consider myself in the same stratosphere as some of the other names on that list, so I’m extremely humbled. Given that and the mention on BoingBoing last month, I’m feeling like a real blogger. By which I mean, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt about not writing more.


The Mythbuster Philosophy of Education: Failure is always an option.

Pop culture does teachers few favors. Most teachers on television are either boring busybodies who lecture ad nauseum (think Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) or energetic zealots who inspire students to learn through sheer force of charisma (Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.) Perhaps I’m naive, but I think a lot of new teachers go through a stage where they feel like developing their own teaching style consists of finding a way to lecture without putting students to sleep and inspire without telling students to ritually sacrifice the introductions of their text books. I say this because in the beginning of my teaching career, I felt like I was navigating this dilemma: how do I deliver content while still being interesting?

The longer I teach, the more I realize that neither of these models is anything to emulate. Lecturing as the sole means for delivering content is a bit like trying to build a sandcastle by tossing mud at a pile of dirt at twenty paces: some of it sticks, some misses the target, but most washes away in the next tide. Charisma is nice to have and can certainly be a tool, but it only gets you so far; without a solid structure to the lesson being taught, you’re not maximizing your assets.

That’s why the best teachers on television are on the show Mythbusters, and if you’re looking for a philosophy of education to emulate, they offer a lot.

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Continue reading ‘The Mythbuster Philosophy of Education: Failure is always an option.’


Welcome to new readers and my greatest hits list

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had my blog mentioned on the internet king of all miscellanea, BoingBoing, last week when they published an email I wrote to one of the co-founders. That single mention has brought more readers on the blog, which is always a good thing in my book.

If you’re new or just finding this for the first time, here’s a greatest hits list of some of the most popular posts and among the posts that I am most proud of:

Since one of my jobs is helping students transition from the widely taught five-paragraph essay into a more fluid format, I also constructed a series of posts called “The Five-paragraph Fix.” Here are some of the better posts in that series:

I should also take this time to mention that I’m eager to talk to readers and to develop a community here where others have a voice. If you have specific topics you’d like to seen written about or you have topics that you want to write about, please comment or drop me a line.


A sense of an ending: writing conclusions

Photo Source: Flickr user bennylin0724

If all’s well that ends well, then something’s seriously rotten in the state of essay writing. Even the some experienced writers seem to struggle with conclusions.

Suspect conclusions come in one of three varieties, all of which leave something to be desired. The worst of these is simply leaving the ending off. Others write the thesis again and then say the same things they said in the introduction. (I’ve even seen some papers where the conclusion is literally a copy and pasted version of the introductory paragraph. Please don’t do this.) The third strategy, summarizing the points of the paper in one paragraph, is only slightly better than the other two strategies. Continue reading ‘A sense of an ending: writing conclusions’


Writing is like magic: only not in the way you expect

A few months ago, I overheard one of our peer consultant, Chris, speaking excitedly about the end stages of a paper. “I just love that moment when it all comes together,” he said. “It’s like magic.”

I agreed that those end stages of a paper can feel magical. When connections between

Image Source: Flicker user Christophe Verdier

different ideas appear and the work you put into research and writing starts to pay off, it can feel exhilarating. I recall Seamus Heaney noting these feelings at a reading some years ago. An audience member asked Heaney what his favorite part of writing a poem was and Heaney said that it was when the poem could get up on its own two legs, move around, and surprise him, showing him ideas or meanings he hadn’t thought of before.

When I tell that Heaney story to classes, some students struggle with the idea that any piece of writing could surprise them. For these writers, that magical moment seems impossible. The end stages of a paper seem at best a relief of stress and frustration. At worst, they confirm the writer’s feelings of self doubt and failure. In these cases, the idea that there is a magic to writing can have a negative effect. If writing is magic, then those writers who don’t feel that mystical exhilaration may give up too soon, imagining that they just can’t cut it.

For all, writing can be like magic, but it won’t be the kind of magic that appears in fairy tales. The magic in writing shares much more in common with the magic you might see on stage at a Vegas nightclub. It may look slick, as if it defies the laws of physics, but it’s all a well practiced illusion. As writers, understanding the basis of these illusions provides us with a lot that we can steal to improve on our own texts. Continue reading ‘Writing is like magic: only not in the way you expect’

Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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