My Mum’s Perspective on Card Sorts

Tonight on Twitter, Tessa Matthews, of the incisive blog Tabula Rasa Education wrote:

Now, given that learning styles have been ‘debunked’ I sympathise with the viewpoint. There’s simply no evidence that students only learn while moving, singing, running, jumping, etc. HOWEVER! I, unlike most teachers, was not raised in a house full of people who loved learning. My mum is distinctly anti-learning (and she won’t mind me saying that). Not only did she fail to turn up to a single one of her exams at school (in fact, she told me to say that bit) but I have known her over the years to purposely NOT learn – indeed  to REFUSE to learn – on training courses/workshops, etc, she’s attended.

She does, however, occasionally get won over to learn. The common theme is when she is involved either verbally or with moving things around. For her I can imagine that a card sort might work if the subject was akin to it. Tessa was rightly sceptical as cognitive science suggests people aren’t so shallow with their learning. But cognitive scientists generally don’t have my mum – or some of the other kids I have taught – up in their face and refusing to learn.

Tessa asked: “What do you think explains your mum’s preference for this kind of activity?”I didn’t have a clue. So I rang her. And here’s what she said (and was very happy for me to write):

I just hate being talked to when I’m supposed to be learning. I hate it. I pretend I’m listening but I’m not. I just look out the window instead or daydream.

Why? Well, either because I think, “this person isn’t interested in me and what I’ve got to say”, and their voice is doing my head in, and so I just think that I’d rather daydream about other stuff. Or it’s because I get lost with what they’re saying – and I don’t understand it – and I think there’s no way of asking questions because they’re busy listening to their own voice, so I just stop listening and start daydreaming. But either way they’ve lost me.

I then asked her if it matters that there’s a consequence for not listening (thinking about exams, or getting in trouble because you can’t do work):

No. You can show them my schoool certificate if you want. A in everything. For Absent! It gets EVEN WORSE if people start shouting at me. Then I think I’m really not going to listen now.

I asked her what does help with learning:

I want to know the person is interested in what I have to say, and also that I am following what they are saying. Like, I like activities where I can do things and get feedback. Next week I have to go for training about chairing meetings, but if when I get there they talk to me for an hour then I’ll switch off. But if they get me involved, maybe practice a meeting, then I’d like that because they could tell me what I’m doing wrong – or I could tell for myself.

But I can’t bear it if they just talk at me. I always think, “just give me the stuff to read and if I don’t understand it I can just ask questions”.

I then asked about a card sort, and whether she thought that sounded useful:

I’d like it because I could see if it was right. Because at the end I’d know if the bits matched right. And I’d also like to be able to talk to other people around me to see what they got. I like doing things because it makes me feel involved, and not like it’s just the other person going on about things.

Finally she told me something she’s said a lot:

Of course, if you were up there talking about people and their lives, then I’ll listen. Or if you’re funny, or if you tell a story. Then I’ll remember it.

At this point I suggested that what she was describing sounded more like entertainment rather than learning:

Well, yeah. I like to be entertained. But that’s because learning’s harder isn’t it? And if it’s hard and I don’t know if I understand it, and no-one cares if I’m listening or not, then I might as well just look at the window.

And that was pretty much it. In essence: unless she feels like she’s involved she will just pretend to listen but tune out as an act of defiance. The problem of science is that it often forgets about such acts of free will.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Tessa should do a card sort. There are many reasons – practical and pedagogical – why it could be an inefficient or pointless exercise. But do I believe that for some students it helps? Definitely. My mum may not love learning, but she is honest to a fault.

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