All posts by Mike Deutsch

Learning styles: movement becomes parody

I overheard a passing comment in class this week about learning styles, and it was a record needle scratch moment for me.

Learning styles are a hot topic in the education world–they’re the notion that a person may have a specific mode (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, says one model) through which they like to learn or are best at learning. In class we were talking about orchestrating classroom discussions, and most of the conversation was about how to encourage participation and keep students talking.

One classmate of mine added that when she leads a discussion she likes to keep in mind her students’ individual learning styles, and she structures so that she can reach each student effectively. Something along these lines: Sally is an auditory learner, so ask her to speak up; James is a kinesthetic learner, so throw in a physical activity; etc.

This was validated with a round of sage nods and enthusastic comments by the teacher and several other classmates–they all seemed to think this was smart, just good teaching. But something about her comment rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like I had read somewhere that learning styles were pop psychology, not borne out by research. But I didn’t push back. I waited til I was home and could look it up. And yup, researchers are now saying that learning styles (as people usually think of them) are bogus.

But unfortunately, the publishing industry piled in some time ago, and isn’t likely to be dissuaded from pushing learning styles as a way to differentiate their products. If you’re a parent, there are a dozen different ways to teach your baby—or kindergartner, or middle schooler, or college-bound teenager—that thing you want them to learn right now, each one perfectly tuned to their ideal learning style.

WIRED posted a super clear debunking and distillation: All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes.

The short version: people often express a favorite mode of learning or activity, but (so far, let’s say) the evidence has simply not borne out that there is any actual personal effect between mode and learning. In other words, setting aside what feels good according to personal preference, individual people doesn’t seem to actually learn more when they learn something in their favorite mode than in other modes.

If I’m grasping it correctly, the idea is that the personal sensation of the activity we’re doing while we’re learning feels to us like it’s directly coupled with the learning itself. Research has so far not established an effect between the two. We need to de-couple them in our personal model of learning, and in our model of teaching.

What have been found, though, are effects between the mode of learning, on the one hand, and the material being learned and the stage of learning on the other.

… although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught

Beginners in a given domain may learn best one way (say, through looking at completed sample problems), and experts another way (say, through solving new problems themselves). That picture may look different in another domain. There also seems to be an overall positive effect when learning through mixed modes, and this may in fact apply to every learner, in every domain.

Here’s another good article, this one citing more academic research: The Myth of Learning Styles. The author makes an interesting observation about why the myth is so attractive and persistent: we’re just not very good at assessing what’s happening in our own thinking.

… a growing body of psychological research on metacognition demonstrates that our beliefs about how we process information and how we learn can actually be quite wrong,

Coming back to my seminar mate, the teacher: it may be that a certain lesson she teaches will be better absorbed through motion, or through visual diagrams, or some other mode. But it will be because the content of the lesson is well matched to the affordances of the mode she chooses, not because of any individuals’ learning styles. And she should be encouraged that hitting on a productive teaching mode will help all of her students learn the material, not just the students who think they like the mode she chooses.

So, tonight’s seminar is done and I can’t get back that opportunity to debunk the theory among my classmates. But now I’m armed with research the next time it comes up. Hopefully this will happen less in the future — at least among educators I meet.

So meta

The Education seminar I’m enrolled in right now is a lot of fun, but is occasionally mind-bendingly self-referential.

It’s easy enough at the surface level: we (a mix of MA and PhD students) are learning what makes teachers effective. The trick is that we’re working on this practice NOT in order to teach K-12 students, but in order to teach teachers.

self reflection photo
Photo by arripay

We’re training to be teacher-educators, in other words. In business terms I’m in a three-month long Train-the-Trainer course—which, given my corporate business simulation and teacher-education roots feels like home—but where the ultimate end topics are K-12 math, science,  and humanities. Continue reading So meta

Male-female imbalance in STEM comes down to economics?

To know why fewer women choose math and science, you need to know the principle of occupational choice.

Source: Male-female imbalance in STEM comes down to economics | University Affairs

Here’s a fascinating take on the STEM imbalance from University Affairs: the major dynamic may not be sexism or any other institutional intent, but the accumulation of simple economic choices at the individual level. And the solution may be more background than foreground.  Intriguing, no? Continue reading Male-female imbalance in STEM comes down to economics?

Another kind of tech underrepresentation

A summer program in Baltimore has black middle-schoolers coding, designing apps and altogether hooked on engineering.

Source: Coding Camp to Baltimore Schools: Bring Us Your Bored! : NPR Ed : NPR

The conversations I tend to be involved in about underrepresentation in the technology world are about the gender divide. At Kids Code Jeunesse we’re very conscientious about designing our activities and honing our pitch so we include girls. And in my own reading and thinking (probably colored by who my 2 oldest kids are) I pay particular attention to the ways we can make technology and “computational thinking” accessible to girls.

There’s lots of interesting stuff to think about there: which applications of tech are likely to appeal to girls (and yeah, they are different than for boys); how to teach in a way that resonates with the expressive side of a kid, rather than the purely rational side; and more.

Other divides

But of course there are other divides too, and here’s a great story out of Baltimore about a year-round code camp directly targeted at minority boys: the Minority Male Makers Program (via It’s being rolled out at a handful of Historically Black Colleges in the American south that have engineering schools: Morgan State U., North Carolina A&T State U., Jackson State U. and Kentucky State U. as of summer 2015. Guided by undergrad students at those schools, these kids get to design, engineer, 3-d print, and code their own ideas and products.

This is not the only program of its kind–see the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and AmeriCorps teaming up with CS First, and others. And they’re doing a few key things right:

They’re reaching kids at middle school age. They rightly point out that this is their last shot at reaching kids before their path toward adulthood (and higher education and professional life–if any) starts to solidify and accelerate. Influence them here, show them it’s possible to be creative and use their brains for good, hard things, and you stand a good chance of influencing their choices in next few years. And then they’ll be on a good, productive path.

They’re letting the kids make real things starting right now. With programming, modelling software, and 3d printers in the classroom, this is tinkering with real stuff. Look at the press release and see that these kids are walking out of the classroom with the objects they’ve made. There is no 4-year lecture-driven book learning period, no extended apprenticeship standing between their adolescent selves and being real-world-productive.

Graduates of the Minority Male Makers program
Graduates of the Minority Male Makers program (

They’re looking specifically for kids who show signs of being disengaged and bored in class. They know that disengagement isn’t a sign of being stupid; it’s a sign of needing a more active, hands-on learning method than the school is set up to deliver.

And the NPR article suggests that, rather than opening it up for open registration, they are asking school principals and counselors to bring them students. This is a great way to (1) encourage administrators who are engaged with their students and know them well, and (2) sidestep the self-selection that attracts self-motivated geeky boys to code camps. We have plenty of those already. 🙂

Bootstrapping the talent pool

I love seeing programs like this, and the overall philosophy is what attracted me to the Kids Code Jeunesse team. All programs of this kind are trying to bootstrap the tech talent pool in a very conscious way. Malcolm Gladwell might say these are ways to solve our talent selection problem, our “quarterback problem.”

If we want to change the complexion of the tech industry and what it produces, it will have to be through initiatives like this: initiatives that intentionally reach everyone, or that intentionally reach underrepresented groups.

If we can keep those going, the tech industry will not only look different in its makeup and its atmosphere; it will start producing output that’s better and that speaks to a wider range of people.


More on pedagogical content knowledge

There’s more to it than just “knowing the tricks of the trade.”

Formulated by Lee Shulman:

PCK is (1) knowing how to organize and present the curriculum for students, (2) being aware of misconceptions, prior knowledge, and particular problems students may have when learning new subject matter, and (3) having specific methods or strategies for the classroom situation or environment.

This is what i want to establish & advance: PCK in K-12 Computing education.

Have you ever noticed it’s better to use a visual representation for introductions and conclusions when teaching 5-paragraph essays, but it’s better to use an audio file to introduce rhyme and meter in your poetry unit? Or, have you seen better test scores when you teach electricity before fluid mechanics in Physics? Or, the circulatory […]Source: Pedagogical Content Knowledge – Learning Bird

Introducing Mike’s axioms

finger point photo
Photo by jetheriot

Introducing…. Mike’s Axioms for Computing Instruction.

As I do more and more teaching and lesson writing, I’ve started collecting the gemmiest of my design principles.

Little by little I’ll record them here in the blog with some examples and the reasoning behind them, and hopefully they’ll be a useful reference for me and others. As I deepen my formal knowledge and gain more hours of practical experience, I’ll come back and elaborate or revisit.

Continue reading Introducing Mike’s axioms

CS Capture the Flag 2015

Following the recent topic of cryptography for high schoolers, here’s a cool event that popped up on the radar this week: HSCTF, a US-wide high school “capture the flag” style programming competition.

The week of May 17-24, 2015, students from across the US are invited to play a (everyone outside the US too, but they’re not eligible for prizes). Challenges include cryptography, reverse-engineering, and reconnaissance. Continue reading CS Capture the Flag 2015

Crypto for high schoolers

At one of our recent Kids Code Jeunesse meetings, my friend, high school programming teacher Stuart Spence (see his site and his YouTube channel) was telling us about what his students are into.

One of the things they get most excited about–especially, he says, the girls–is cryptography. They think it’s really cool that they can use their just-beginning programming skills to reverse-engineer passwords and crack codes and stuff like that.
Continue reading Crypto for high schoolers