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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

Using Learning Modalities to Celebrate Intelligence

Appreciation for the different ways of knowing can provide a wholeness now missing in schools, where reason alone is honored.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
The scene didn't look like a workshop in reasoning, but it was. The worktables were heaped with art media of all sorts: brushes, posterpaints, modeling clay, paper, glue-sticks, sequins, and countless other appealing materials. The participants had been given the assignment: Paint a portrait of cooperation. At first they looked bewildered, as they waited for what was surely yet to come. The workshop leader did little to reassure the anxious group. All he said was, “You may use any media you choose, but you may not use any words, letters, numbers, or conventional symbols.”
These were all practicing teachers whose responsibilities spanned K–12. None had done art in the presence of peers since their own school days. No one moved. Finally someone asked for a clarification. The leader replied, “With any media of your choice, paint a portrait of cooperation.” Another pause. Then a few teachers picked up crayons, pencils, or pens. They worked quietly at first. Soon frustrations were matched with encouragement, timidity with a healthy stridency. Gradually images began taking form, and a camaraderie emerged.
The variety of the finished images was remarkable, ranging from stick figures to seven-color paintings. Some of the teachers left the two-dimensional representation of flat drawings to create sculptures fashioned of paper loops and twisted feathers of acetate.
In the animated discussion that followed, the workshop leader asked the class to comment on how the images represented the original concept of cooperation, stipulating that the artist could not comment on his or her own work. The result was that each artist heard his or her works interpreted on a much grander, more sophisticated level than originally intended. The teachers developed a respect for the richness of their own artwork and, in turn, began to see far more in the offerings of others than they had at the beginning.
This activity was one of dozens that filled the next several days. As a final exercise, the teachers compiled a list of 10 to 20 assignments in disciplines of their choice at the grade level they taught. The assignments included movement and patterned sounds (including music) that accompanied the concepts they were exploring. This effort was, in effect, a pledge by the teachers to frame assignments in terms of different learning modalities when they returned to their classrooms.

Why Learning Modalities?

Something very different happens in the mind of a person when he or she is forced to process a tried-and-true, rationally biased, well-understood cognitive concept in a new way. First, different parts of the brain-mind system get involved (Bogen 1969, Samples 1987). Second, the arts-related ways of thinking initiate nonreductive ways of thinking. The brain-mind system tends to establish a metaphoric interrelatedness of concepts, rather than rationally separating concepts and skills into more discrete, concrete forms.
The basis for Learning Modalities was provided me by Jerome Bruner in the early 1960s, when I worked with him on the Elementary Science Study (ESS) and the Man: A Course of Study projects (MACOS). Bruner identified three major classes of knowing: iconic, enactive, and symbolic (Bruner et al. 1967).
Iconic was linked to the ways of knowing central to the visual and spatial arts. Enactive knowing framed the wisdom of movement, kinesthetic action, and dance. Symbolic—the realm of reason and reductive logic—was primarily carried out through coded symbols—letters, numbers, and abstract codes. Schooling was dominantly framed in the symbolic, and that intelligence as well as achievement was measured in this realm.
Although my training had been in the sciences, this path of exploration related to education was compelling. For nearly 30 years, I have pursued an understanding of the characteristics of these ways of knowing (Samples 1992, 1987). Here I want to discuss the Learning Modalities as they have emerged over time, as well as two psychological perspectives that support the use of the forms of thinking embedded in the modalities.

What Are Learning Modalities?

  1. Write a description of the water cycle.
  2. Draw a portrait of the water cycle.
  3. Create music that expresses the water cycle.
  4. Choreograph 15 students into performing a dance that expresses the water cycle.
Teachers have long known that students engage in ways of knowing other that which is 3Rs-based. Moreover, these ways of knowing are vital to the mental well-being of students. Unfortunately, they are sometimes considered “nonessentials” (like art, music, and drama) or relegated to the affective realm to be taken care of by counselors and vice principals. Often the places where the arts are used most actively in instruction are in remedial classes and in classes for the learning disabled. This practice, again, affirms the general perception that in “real” school, the arts are frills. As instructional methodology, the ways of knowing central to the arts—the Learning Modalities—are suspect.
Yet over the years, the thousands of teachers who have infused the Learning Modalities into their assignments by using the iconic (arts-based), enactive (movement-based), and sound- or music-based approaches have reported remarkable changes in the ecology of their classrooms. Reluctant learners become stars, and teachers report consistently improved test performance on the concepts students explore via these modalities.
To everyone's delight, students discover that they often have highly complex understanding of concepts that they previously could not put into words. Because so much of classroom success depends upon 3Rs-based approaches, many students consider themselves “dumb” if they do not perform well. Learning Modalities offer them a chance to demonstrate that they possess sophisticated knowledge and understanding that go beyond their skills of reading and writing. High-achieving students also benefit by becoming more flexible and diverse in their thinking. However, high achievers often take a bit of time getting started, since they already see themselves as “winners” and may resist any effort that seems in conflict with their performance reflexes.
Another benefit of the Learning Modalities approaches is that no new texts, instructional materials, or videos are needed. Learning Modalities can be incorporated into any instructional materials, with a minor increase in the costs of providing basic arts materials to more students.
In the literature of education, some confusion exists about the difference between Learning Modalities and references to “visual learners,” “kinesthetic learners,” and “auditory learners.” For me, these references are not the same as Learning Modalities. Traditionally, such assessments of learners are linked to sensory systems that facilitate learning the 3Rs. The purpose of assessing learners in this way is to use the sensory systems to increase their abilities to learn the skills of reading, writing, and ciphering. In contrast, Learning Modalities are derived from biologically designed sensory and processing systems and stand on their own as worthy domains of thought and reason in human experience. (See fig. 1 for a description of the Learning Modalities, including a subjective correlation with Bruner's modes of knowing and a short, nontechnical way of noting the modalities.)
[figure currently unavailable]

Back to Bruner

To embrace the proposition that these extended ways of knowing are important to include in instruction, we may look again to Bruner (1967). His once “heretical” claim that “any subject can be taught at any grade level with some degree of intellectual honesty” is far more contemporary than we may choose to admit. When Bruner made this claim, his critics were locked into proofs that were derived and expressed through the symbolic processes of speech and writing.
Jean Piaget, who provided guidance for the first great wave of American curricular reform, was a devotee of logic and reductive reasoning. Nearly all of Piaget's conclusions about reasoning and the structure of logic were based on the responses his subjects gave via speech and writing. More than once, Piaget was quoted as saying that he “was not interested in the obscure workings of the subconscious mind.” Although he probably never meant to do so, Piaget created a tacit bias against nonverbal evidence.
At that time, Bruner had few allies who supported his insights. Visual-spatial reasoning, musical thought, movement, and dance all possess highly comprehensive and sophisticated ways of understanding experience. But to get disclosure of that wisdom, we must pose questions in a compatible medium. A personal example of Bruner's wisdom comes to mind.
I once asked a class of 6th graders in the Bedford-Stuyvesant borough of New York to “move in such a way as to demonstrate what freedom means.” After some hesitation, a tall student stood and walked heavily forward to the front of the room. I heard the audible reaction of the other students and saw the look of dismay on the teacher's face. The student stopped, stood straight, and announced that he was about to demonstrate Freedom! He began to take a long stride across the room. Halfway through the stride he came to a shattering stop. A look of panic crossed his face, and, for all purposes, his right foot was riveted to the floor. His body lurched forward, then backward, but his right foot stayed locked to the floor. He jerked and lunged, but the foot wouldn't budge. He tried to pry the foot loose with a nearby chair—he commandeered a broomstick, which also failed to move the foot.
We were all transfixed by the performance. Then his entire body relaxed. He smiled widely at us all, bent over, and deftly slipped his right foot out of its shoe and walked away with a lilt—leaving the “anchored” shoe behind. The class broke into applause, the teacher relaxed, and the student took several bows and returned to his seat. I asked if he could tell us what his movements told us about what freedom means. He said, “Sometimes you have to give up something that matters to you so that you can have it [freedom].”
This student's statement and insight were clearly beyond any of our expectations about his capability. When he was invited to use an instrument of expression in which he had confidence—his body—he amazed those around him. His teacher later confided in me that this student was the problem student of the school and that he virtually held the class hostage for his whims. The teacher also said this was the first assignment he had voluntarily engaged in since school had started. For this student, a path had been opened that promised sophisticated communication.
When Bruner said “any subject at any level,” he was willing to “listen” to the enactive—that realm of movement that I had witnessed in the classroom. I suggest, as we begin to honor the wisdom of iconic and enactive knowing, that we will find further verification of Bruner's insight.

The Maps and Territory of Gregory Bateson

A second perspective that supports the use of the modes of thinking embedded in the Learning Modalities comes from Gregory Bateson, a philosopher/psychologist who saw the human mind as an inherent extension of the processes that formed and govern the natural world (Bateson 1979, Bateson and Bateson 1987). He also held that we, as a species, have spent much of our time on this planet attempting to develop ways of separating mind from nature. He saw schooling and other institutions as nurturing ways of knowing that facilitate this separation.
For educators, one of Bateson's most important distinctions was his differentiation between the map and the territory. For Bateson, the territory is the natural world, and in it are self-regulating patterns of relationships that allow the living and nonliving world to interact as they have for millennia. Many of these relationships are tacit and are expressed by dynamic patterns that connect all things—including humans—to the natural realm.
Maps are the abstractions we derive from the world. For example, if we look at any part of the natural world—perhaps the Brazilian rain forest—it is clear that the forest itself is a very different entity than a book I might give you about the forest. It is certainly more inclusive than any map of the forest. Similarly a student—a living breathing being—is a much more complex expression of nature and culture than is found in the cumulative record folder that describes the student to the school.
Maps are collections of what is known through reason about territories, and they are always incomplete. In schools, we see a bias toward the map as opposed to the territory. Similarly, we see a bias toward the ways of knowing that are best suited for reading maps: the 3Rs and processing what we read through reductive reasoning modes. The map is an abstraction that takes the form of words, numbers, text, charts, data, and, yes, even maps. All of these maps are inevitably the result of a symbolic winnowing of the experiences gained in the territory. Funneled through the logic of the mapmakers' craft, they may become art forms in themselves, but they are art forms now separated from the territory.
Bateson also held a provocative perspective of aesthetics. He felt that the great thinkers of the day were on a fool's errand in pursuing understanding solely through reason. A more useful pursuit, he believed, would be directed toward aesthetics. Bateson's definition of aesthetics is quite different from the classic definitions derived from the history of art and the philosophical underpinnings of beauty. Bateson saw aesthetics as “the pattern which connects” (Bateson and Bateson 1987). Reason, for him, was “that which is connected”— the discrete, provable, factual stuff of maps. Aesthetics, in his view, offered a wholly different dimension because it is the inherent expression of nature's plan. By approaching the connectedness of aesthetics, Bateson felt that one could sense the unity of nature and the human mind. He proposed that we should try to learn to read the cues that illuminated the aesthetic with at least the same passion with which we pursue reason, which for centuries has tried to make knowledge and experience more separate and discrete. His conclusions about the Newtonian paradigm, the ways of thinking that nurtured such separatism, were reflected by many others (Capra 1982, Roszak 1978, Samples 1981).

Horizons of Wholeness

In both Bruner's and Bateson's contributions is a growing rationale for nurturing and supporting a wider array of ways of knowing than is currently common school practice. Consider the story of the preschool child who pestered her mother to teach her to read. After many refusals, the mother consented. The weary mother sat down with the child, who quickly opened a book and with a puzzled expression asked, “Which do I read—the black or the white?”
We have a responsibility to educationally support the readers who see pattern as well as those who see reason. What is important to emphasize is that all of these modes of knowing are vital for the future of humankind and perhaps life itself. We must re-honor the iconic and enactive ways of knowing for the powerful precedents they are to innovation, creativity, and true wisdom.
Our reflex in schooling is to emphasize those things that can be expressed through reason and logic—and moreover are able to be demonstrated through standard accountability. In Bateson's words, the stuff of maps. I am convinced that we are not only biologically but socially incomplete if we emphasize only reason and logic. When we employ instruction using the Learning Modalities—visual-spatial, kinesthetic, and auditory—we are engaging in ways of knowing that are design features of the human being.
When these ways of knowing are restored to the commonplace pursuit of all the disciplines, it will be as normal to see students create posters celebrating the law of gravity, the quadratic equation, and the emancipation proclamation as it is to see paintings announcing a bake sale, a school play, and the coming of spring. It will be as common to see students use the iconic and enactive modes to express a concept as it is now to use the symbolic modes.
Yet all is not safe for the modalities. In many schools, art, music, and dance have been turned into courses of study complete with 400-page texts, a syllabus, and a standardized test at the end. Reading about art is vastly different from doing art. All the modes of knowing are vital throughout life and should be given equal weight—so I not only support art as a subject in the schools but encourage that those ways of knowing be infused throughout the curriculum.

Breadth Expressed

We live in a time when nearly all reform efforts and criticisms of the schools are framed by reducing our options and narrowing our vision. We must move away from practices that sacrifice wholeness and integrity for the narrowness of standardized accountability.
Bruner spoke to wholeness when he formulated the three modes of knowing. Bateson urged us to differentiate between the real and the vicarious—and to keep the perspective of those differences in the forefront of the student's experience of schooling. Dozens of voices in the educational community are now urging more breadth in the school experience. Bernice McCarthy and learning styles (1984), Howard Gardner through multiple intelligences (1983), Art Costa with his humane versions of critical thinking (1991), Elliot Eisner and his defense of wider knowing (1988) are but a few examples. Yet these voices are sounded with an admirable courage in the ecology of narrowness being urged by lesser dreams.
If education is to give a gift to the future, then that gift must be one of wholeness—wholeness that is inherent in our design and our experience on this planet.
References

Bateson, G. (1979). Mind And Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton.

Bateson, G., and M. C. Bateson. (1987). Angels Fear: Toward An Epistemology of the Sacred. New York,: Macmillan.

Bogen, J. E. (July 1969). “The Other Side of the Brain: An Appositional Mind.” Bulletin of the Los Angeles Neurological Sciences 34.

Bruner, J. S., et al. (1967). Studies in Cognitive Growth. New York: Wiley.

Capra, F. (1982). The Turning Point. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Costa, A., ed. Rev. ed. (1991). Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Eisner, E. (March 1988). Personal communication.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

McCarthy, B. (1984). The 4MAT System. Barrington, Ill.: Excel.

Roszak, T. (1978). Person Planet. New York: Doubleday.

Samples, B. (1981). Mind of Our Mother. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley.

Samples, B. (1987). Openmind/Wholemind: Parenting and Teaching Tomorrow's Children Today. Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.: Jalmar Press.

Samples, B. (1992). The Metaphoric Mind: A Celebration of Creative Consciousness. 2nd ed. Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.: Jalmar Press.

Bob Samples has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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