Cognitive Styles and Classroom Learning
reviewed by Thomas Hatch - 1999
Individual differences are everywhere. The question that Harry Morgan addresses in Cognitive Styles and Classroom Learning is which ones matter. In particular, which individual differences can make a difference for students and teachers in the classroom. Morgan answers this question by selecting "the most commonly known cognitive styles that have been studied by psychologists and educators" and describing how a knowledge of these styles can "enable classroom teachers to expand the number of ways in which children can experience teaching and learning." (p. 2). He grounds his work in a wide range of philosophies and theories with some special attention to the contributions of phenomenology and a consideration of the concept of self among black scholars. He focuses particularly on the implications of research on cognitive styles for "critical pedagogy," problem-based learning, and related educational approaches.
In the process, rather than justifying the importance of basing educational practices on a particular version of cognitive styles, Morgan implies that a number of different versions of cognitive styles can coexist. In fact, early in the book, Morgan describes the movie Rashomon which tells a number of different versions of a story involving a Japanese nobleman, his wife, and a roving bandit. Morgan refers to the movie because it gives credibility to each version of the story rather than seeking to provide audiences with a single objective truth. Similarly, Morgan seeks to encourage educators to be receptive to various ways in which children process information not just those "authorized" in his book. He concludes: "All educators with the time and inclination have the potential to become their own authority on being able to recognize the personalized variations employed by pupils in their processing of information." (p. 2)
By describing relevant research on such cognitive styles as field dependence and field independence, and reflectivity and impulsivity Morgan provides some of the information that may help teachers become their own authorities. In that effort, however, a number of critical question are left open. First, there is not sufficient time in a year or two of pre-service education or in the few days of professional development available to teachers to learn about all versions of cognitive styles or all approaches to individual differences. Therefore, the question of which versions of cognitive styles are most likely to benefit educators needs to be addressed. But Morgan only implicitly answers this question. He focuses on a handful of cognitive styles, and he justifies their selection on the basis that these styles are well-known. But what criteria should teachers use in order to decide which cognitive styles and which research are most likely to be useful and relevant for them? Second, how are teachers to create educational experiences that respond to individual differences and still meet the needs of the entire group? Even with information about cognitive styles and criteria by which to judge their usefulness, we still have to face the fact that the constraints of human capacity as well as the conditions in many schools make it is extremely difficult to respond directly and specifically to the needs of each individual.
This second problem is related to a broader issue with which we all have to grapple: It is inefficient and impractical to gather all the relevant information about a person, situation, or event before we act. At the same time, if we make assumptions about a person, situation, or event based on general information we run the risk of acting on the basis of misguided stereotypes or worse. Even Morgan himself faces this problem in the writing of this book. For example, in building his case for the importance of taking into account whether children have "field dependent" or a "field independent" cognitive styles, he reports on studies that suggest that children of Hispanic descent and children raised in orthodox Jewish homes are more likely to be "field dependent" than other children. Similarly, he refers to studies which suggest that "field independent" students should be encouraged to progress at their own pace while "field dependent" learners should have their course work structured in formal teaching segments. In other words, in order to champion the need to pay attention to individual differences, Morgan reports on broad generalizations that, if applied indiscriminately, could lead to the kinds of stereotyping Morgan decries.
For Morgan, such semantic issues are of critical importance. In his conclusion, he argues that "the most common limits placed upon the voices of teachers and students in matters that are essential, is achieved through the framing of discourse by those in control," and he suggest that "the act of framing [discussions] leads to a priori characterizations of phenomena and ultimately controls how issues and events are investigated, acted upon, and recorded." This is as true in research and writing on cognitive styles and individual differences as anywhere else. Thus, in many ways, one can read the literature on cognitive styles and individual differences as a struggle over who will define those differences and which labels will be used. But those labels can have both positive and negative effects. For many educators, learning about cognitive styles or other views of individual differences like Howard Gardners multiple intelligences can be empowering. As Kornhaber and Krechevsky (1995) report, it can give them a language to describe and discuss differences among students that they have recognized for some time. At the same time, rigid application of the labels of MI -- or the labels and language of any other views of individual differences -- can lead to stereotyping or to the de-valuing of other ways of understanding students (Gardner, 1995; Hatch, 1997)
In the end, information about different versions of cognitive styles is just one bit of the information needed by anyone who wants to be an "authority." People need to be able to develop a sensitivity to individual differences that is supported by the language and insights of research without being limited by its labels.
Gardner, H. (1995). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan 77(3), 200-203, 206-209.
Hatch, T. (1997). Getting specific about multiple intelligences. Educational Leadership 54 (6), 26-29.
Kornhaber, M. & Krechevsky, M. (1995). Expanding definitions of teaching and learning: Notes from the MI underground. In P. Cookson and B. Schneider (Eds.). Transforming schools. New York: Garland.
Morgan, H. (1997). Cognitive styles and classroom learning. Westport: Praeger.