Saturday, March 19, 2016

Are Your Students Olfactory Learners?

I recently read this piece: Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum. It's a compelling piece of journalism! (It is from The Onion, so take it for what it is, okay?) :-)

This has me thinking about learning styles again. The basic idea: because every student is unique, they all have unique learning styles, and if teachers tailor their teaching to use students strongest styles, in theory, they should learn more.

Image by eltpics [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Is nasal learning a thing? Should we strive to make our classrooms a space welcoming to olfactory learners? For students who are strongly in tune with the odorous cues in the classroom, shouldn't we capitalize on these strengths? What are the repercussions of not teaching a child through his or her strongest learning style? Would such a child be able to learn anything at all in the classroom??

Okay, I hope that you are catching the hyperbole here--I am being facetious, of course.

Olfactory learning sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? The idea that you have to smell things in order to learn best?


Could we ask the same thing about visual learners, who need to see things to learn best?

How about auditory learners, who need to hear things or talk about things to learn best?

Or perhaps kinesthetic learners, who need to do things to learn best?

Now this gets me thinking, because the idea that different students have different strengths and weaknesses does hold water for me. Some kids do seem to do better listening, and some kids do seem to do better by being actively involved in learning the material by doing something.

But to suggest that everything should be taught according to a particular style? I am less convinced today that this is necessarily a good idea.*

For example, what if olfactory learning is a thing? How will you teach the geography of Canada olfactorily? How will you teach Spanish pronunciation olfactorily? How will you teach geometric constructions olfactorily?

I am finding myself a bit disenchanted with the idea of teaching to different learning styles for the sake of teaching to different learning styles. While I am going to try and use a variety of approaches--and a variety of senses, for that matter!--in my classroom, I am going to choose approaches that make sense for the content.

Teaching the geography of Canada is probably going to be best taught visually, right? Students will benefit greatly from visually inspecting maps. Will they talk about them? Sure. Will they do activities as they learn? Very likely. Will they sniff the maps? (Okay, olfactory learning is seeming less and less like a thing, isn't it?)

You could make a similar argument for teaching Spanish pronunciation (you have to hear it!) or geometric constructions (you have to do it!) or any other content that you teach. Students might have relative strengths or weaknesses, but often times the demands of the content are going to drive the pedagogy. Or at least, I will argue, they should drive the pedagogy.

Here's an example from my days as a middle school science teacher: what's the best way to teach frog dissection? I'm going out on a limb to suggest that a kinesthetic approach is going to be supremely helpful here. Actually participating in doing the dissection provides a kind of learning that cannot be easily conveyed in other ways. Does that mean students won't benefit from looking at diagrams or watching a video to learn visually? No! Does that mean students won't benefit from oral instructions from the teacher and ongoing discussion with a partner to learn aurally? Of course not. Does that mean student won't forever associate the odor of the experience with the learning? (Hey, maybe olfactory learning is a thing!) Certainly other senses are involved, and can be valuable as parts of the learning process, but to learn through the frog dissection, the best way to learn it is going to be to do it.

So, do learning styles exist? I am still thinking about this...but my tentative answer is a cautious "yes." But as I say that, I am also thinking that learning styles do not matter nearly as much as I used to think that they do.

I am going to continue to think on this, and I would love to hear your feedback or pushback.


* Several years ago, I came across this video from Dr. Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia, who argues that Learning Styles Don't Exist. If you watch the video, however, he seems to acknowledge that there are different ways to learn...but that they do not matter for the way we teach students. It's an interesting argument, and it started me thinking down this road...

No comments:

Post a Comment