The Tyranny of Taxonomy

11 Feb

Learning styles have gone through the entire cycle of being seen as aberrations from the norm, being recognized, being organized, becoming a theory and are now a discredited theory.  Learning styles theory basically says that different learners learn in different ways – predominantly visual, auditory and kinesthetic – and that teaching styles must adapt to include all learning styles. The theory was widely accepted in school systems influencing how classes were arranged and taught. The curriculum was adjusted to incorporate all three modes of learning and some lesson plans even had columns embedded in them to enforce teaching in all three ways.

A lot of that is being rolled back as there is more proof that teaching to such a classification does not affect results significantly. And yet, as teachers in a classroom we have always known that the theory is both right and wrong – to be applied when helpful, to be taken with a pinch of salt otherwise. In any case, the insight was always useful, especially when exasperated with a challenging learner in the classroom. A helpful taxonomy, that helps teachers work better soon became a rule to be followed – the conversion to a rigid process robbing it of its utility.

There are other taxonomies that have us in thrall that may not be relevant anymore. For example, a classification that is sanctified by tradition is the chronological division of learning. Systems are divided by grade; sorted into primary, secondary and higher learning based on age regardless of ability. The intrinsic abilities or previous learning have little to do with the education that a student will be provided in the standard set up. A template has been created, based on a classification of learning objectives and it is part of the rulebooks. Based on research and experience, just as the learning styles theories were, it is still an artificial construct designed to efficiently streamline mass teaching systems.

While taxonomies have their uses in creating scaled and organized systems, they are a blunt instrument for designing means for maximizing potential at the margin. If we want to develop each learner to their full potential, then solutions should be constructed by ability level not age.  All pupils are not ready to learn standardized materials at the prescribed time, and, seeking to impose that merely forces them to learn by rote. Again, everybody does not learn things at the same pace. Standardized taxonomies that delivered curricula mapped to age are expected to deliver pedagogies for all ranges put into a classroom.

One cannot deny the efficiency argument. This is the only way to create scaled learning systems, especially for those whose talents have not shown themselves (which would be most in their youth) or those whose interests have not matured. Yet, does learning have to be sequential? Conventional systems allow for sequential learning and force-fit different skills and abilities to compete in the same learning space.

But it does not necessarily have to be that way. A comprehensive revamp of the design of education processes supported by technology can move the locus away from age or grade learning to a more open process centered around abilities, qualities and skills. Essential qualities for learning include curiosity, ability to question, challenge own beliefs among others. School systems that foster these will prepare their students for the future better than those that seek only traditional systems. The need is to create taxonomy of these qualities that will allow more flexible systems to be built.

This was published in the Times of India blogs on February 8, 2012

Organise learning by ability, not age. bit.ly/zpptqi My blog.

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