Cognitive Styles and Dispositions (page 3)
Students with the same intelligence levels often approach classroom tasks and think about classroom topics differently. Some of these individual differences are cognitive styles, over which students don’t necessarily have much conscious control. Others are dispositions, which students intentionally bring to bear on their efforts to master school subject matter. I urge you not to agonize over the distinction between the two concepts, because in my mind their meanings overlap considerably. Both involve not only specific cognitive tendencies but also personality characteristics (Messick, 1994b; Zhang & Sternberg, 2006). Dispositions have a motivational component—an I-want-to-do-it-this-way quality—as well (Kuhn, 2001a; Perkins & Ritchhart, 2004; Stanovich, 1999).
Over the years psychologists and educators have examined a wide variety of cognitive styles (some have used the term learning styles) and dispositions. The traits they’ve identified and the instruments they’ve developed to assess these traits don’t always hold up under the scrutiny of other researchers (Irvine & York, 1995; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Messick, 1994b). And matching students’ self-reported styles to particular learning environments doesn’t necessarily make a difference in academic achievement (Curry, 1990; Snider, 1990)
Nonetheless, some cognitive styles and dispositions do seem to influence how and what students learn. For instance, at least two dimensions of cognitive style appear to have an impact:
- Analytic versus holistic processing: Some students tend to break new stimuli and tasks into their subordinate parts (an analytic approach), whereas others tend to perceive them primarily as integrated, indivisible wholes (a holistic approach) (A. Miller, 1987; Riding & Cheema, 1991). Overall, an analytic approach appears to be more beneficial in school learning, although research is not entirely consistent on this point (e.g., Bagley & Mallick, 1998; Irvine & York, 1995; Jonassen & Grabowski, 1993; Shipman & Shipman, 1985). Most students become increasingly analytical as they grow older (Shipman & Shipman, 1985).
- Verbal versus visual learning: Some students seem to learn better when information is presented through words (verbal learners), whereas others seem to learn better when it’s presented through pictures (visual learners) (Mayer & Massa, 2003; Riding & Cheema, 1991). There isn’t necessarily a good or bad style here. Rather, learning success probably depends on which modality is used more extensively in classroom activities and instructional materials. Using both verbal and visual material to present important ideas is one easy way to accommodate these differing styles.
Although psychologists have often been reluctant to identify some cognitive styles as being more adaptive than others, certain kinds of dispositions are clearly beneficial in the classroom. The following are productive dispositions that researchers have identified:
- Stimulation seeking: Eagerly interacting with one’s physical and social environment
- Need for cognition: Regularly seeking and engaging in challenging cognitive tasks
- Critical thinking: Consistently evaluating information or arguments in terms of their accuracy, logic, and credibility, rather than accepting them at face value (more on critical thinking in Chapter 8)
- Open-mindedness: Being willing to consider alternative perspectives and multiple sources of evidence and to suspend judgment rather than leap to an immediate conclusion (Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996; Halpern, 1997a; Kardash & Scholes, 1996; P. M. King & Kitchener, 2002; Raine, Reynolds, & Venables, 2002; Southerland & Sinatra, 2003; Stanovich, 1999)
Such dispositions are often positively correlated with students’ learning and achievement, and many theorists have suggested that they play a causal role in what and how much students learn. In fact, dispositions sometimes overrule intelligence in their influence on long-term achievement (Dai & Sternberg, 2004; Kuhn & Franklin, 2006; Perkins & Ritchhart, 2004). For instance, children who, as preschoolers, eagerly seek out physical and social stimulation are, at age 11, better readers and earn higher grades in school (Raine et al., 2002). Students with a high need for cognition learn more from what they read and are more likely to base conclusions on sound evidence and logical reasoning (Cacioppo et al., 1996; Dai, 2002). And students who critically evaluate new evidence and are receptive to and open-minded about diverse perspectives show more advanced reasoning capabilities and achieve at higher levels (Matthews, Zeidner, & Roberts, 2006; Stanovich, 1999).
Researchers do not yet have a good understanding of where various cognitive styles and dispositions come from. Perhaps inherited characteristics play a role; for example, a student may have an energetic, inquisitive temperament or a biologically based strength in visual processing. Perhaps parents or cultural groups encourage certain ways of looking at and dealing with the world (Irvine & York, 1995; Kuhn, Daniels, & Krishnan, 2003). For instance, if oral histories have been a significant part of students’ cultural heritage, students might be accustomed to learning from information presented auditorily rather than visually (Kirk, 1972; Trawick-Smith, 2003). And quite possibly, teachers’ actions in the classroom make a difference—for instance whether teachers encourage exploration, risk taking, and critical thinking relative to classroom topics (Flum & Kaplan, 2006; Kuhn, 2001b, 2006). In the following classroom interaction, the teacher actually seems to discourage any disposition to think analytically and critically about classroom material:
Teacher: Write this on your paper . . . it’s simply memorizing this pattern. We have meters, centimeters, and millimeters. Let’s say . . . write millimeters, centimeters, and meters. We want to make sure that our metric measurement is the same. If I gave you this decimal, let’s say .234 m (yes, write that). In order to come up with .234 m in centimeters, the only thing that is necessary is that you move the decimal. How do we move the decimal? You move it to the right two places. (Jason, sit up please.) If I move it to the right two places, what should .234 m look like, Daniel, in centimeters? What does it look like, Ashley?
Ashley: 23.4 cm.
Teacher: Twenty-three point four. Simple stuff. In order to find [millimeters], we’re still moving that decimal to the right, but this time, boys and girls, we’re only going to move it one place. So, if I move this decimal one place, what is my answer for millimeters? (J. C. Turner, Meyer, et al., 1998, p. 741)
Undoubtedly this teacher means well: She wants her students to understand how to convert one unit of measurement to another. But notice the attitude she engenders by suggesting that the task is “simply memorizing this pattern.”
Although researchers have not yet determined how best to promote productive styles and dispositions, we can reasonably assume that modeling and encouraging effective ways of thinking about classroom subject matter will get students off to a good start. For instance, as teachers, we should consistently demonstrate open-mindedness about diverse perspectives, and we might regularly ask students to evaluate the quality of scientific evidence (Halpern, 1998; Kuhn, 2001b; Messer, 1976; Perkins & Ritchhart, 2004). The Into the Classroom feature “Promoting Productive Styles and Dispositions” presents other examples of what we might do.
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