From learning styles to semiotic resources

Like many, I was introduced to several theories of learning styles in the 1990s.  Neuro-linguistic programming (Grinder, 1991) and experiential learning cycles (Kolb & Fry, 1975) were two that I remember. I never tested my students on what style worked best for them.  I didn’t even ask if they had a preference, even though Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2008) find that there is “ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences” (p 105). Instead, I used theories of learning styles to cycle through different ways of approaching and presenting educational content.  Cycling through various teaching approaches proved effective for the aims and objectives at the time.  I accept that these approaches are now out of date.

During the nineties, I also had an interest in cultural studies (what ever happened to that) with a focussed interest on semiotics (Barthes, 1967, 1957/1993; Chandler, 2002; Eco, 1980/1998, 1988/2001).  That was fun.

When I left teaching I was lucky enough to get a job working on the PISA project (I didn’t mention that before :-). As all the important people were busy, I found myself managing PISA’s first computer-based assessment which was a side project (OECD, 2010). Luckily, I was surrounded by competent people, mainly university students whose opinions hadn’t yet calcified, so the project went well.  It was in managing this project that a basic understanding of the visual (movies, animations and images), kinaesthetic (input devices) and auditory (sound) proved useful. As was a rudimentary understanding of semiotics.

Field operations for the PISA’s first computer-based assessment went well.  The project specified that countries cart standardised laptops to all sampled schools.  This meant that the assessment conditions were highly standardised and the data of good quality. However, national centres found lugging laptops too cumbersome, and as countries started to complain they began to call it the Koomen model.  Three countries persisted to a main trial, and when the data was analysed, that’s when the real problem began.

The data from the computer-based test made sense, but was quite distinct from the paper-based test. The movies, animations and other features suggested that the science assessed on the computer was different to science assessed using paper.  For example, boys did better on computer-based because the reading load was less.  The Koomen model didn’t work due to the heavy laptops, and because the data didn’t fit with the paper. So, I went to hide in the public service for a bit.

The mental models (Senge, 1992) I had at the time didn’t fit computer-based assessment. However, I have recently been contemplating Kress (2010, pp. 5-7) who argues that technology provides for greater ‘semiotic resources’ for meaning making. This is now becoming the key idea for me. Technology has afforded new ways of making meaning and education has not quite caught up. Education is still caught up in solid, but dated, forms of syntactic structures (Chomsky, 1957/2015), dated forms of learning styles (Grinder, 1991), and dated approaches to culture (Jameson, 1991). From my perspective, educational research could focus more on how the newly available ‘semiotic resources’ affect meaning making for students. It is these developments that are likely to underlie Schleicher’s admission that the new computer-based PISA results might not be comparable, and why ACARA is having trouble moving NAPLAN online.

Habermas (1979) argues that societies develop along cognitive-technical and moral-practical dimensions. I would also argue that societies develop along an aesthetic-expressive dimension. Habermas (1975/2005) also argues that developments along the cognitive-technical dimension can fracture normative structures and destroy barriers of participation and create dysfunction and regression.  This is the focus of my research in technology-based educational assessment.

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Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the Evolution of Society (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (2005). Legitimation crisis (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.  (Original work published 1975)

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Kolb, D. A., & Fry, R. (1975). Towards an applied theory of experiential learning. In C. L. Cooper (Ed.), Theories of group processes (pp. 33-57). London: John Wiley & Sons.

OECD. (2010). PISA Computer-Based Assessment of Student Skills in Science. Paris: OECD Publishing.  

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 3, 105-119.

Senge, P. M. (1992). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Milsons Point: Random House.

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