For me, it was shyness. For one of my best friends, it was dyslexia. Another was skilled his hands, great a building things, taking things apart, putting them back together, but couldn’t understand math to save his life. My brother, who is red and green colorblind, was habitually ridiculed by an art teacher who didn’t seem to understand why he made the trunks of trees green and their leaves red.
We were raised in an affluent, science-minded community in New Mexico—the community where the first atomic bomb was designed and built, where there is a national lab that is sort of like that town’s mine. Everyone’s parents, older siblings, and friends work there. Most of our parents were either scientists, engineers, or doctors, and success in school was expected, not just praised.
That was harder for some than it was for others, especially those whose skills lay outside of what could be measured with a standardized test or for whom participation in a large class discussion was exhausting and/or terrifying. Some teachers at this lower level seemed determined to ignore the fact that we were individuals and actually made it difficult for us to learn. My poor brother almost gave up art entirely because of teachers in the K-12 system who actively teased him for not being able to tell the difference between red, green, and brown. It wasn’t until we reached college that most of us realized that there were educators that genuinely cared about whether or not we as individuals were having a classroom experience that encouraged learning.
Social media gave me a glimpse into the life of those that still didn’t find those educators, however. Many still felt like they were being treated like a means to a paycheck, rather than as students who genuinely wanted to learn from someone who had the ability to teach them something. Of course, it would be absurd for a professor to craft twenty different versions of his lesson so that each of his twenty students could individually identify with it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to consider the different learning styles that each student brings to the table.
There were occasions on which my slow-moving brain took much longer to formulate a relevant comment than my neighbors. In some classes, a professor was more than happy to let me say something that related back to a previous point. In others, I was told to “keep up.” Which do you think actually encouraged me to participate in that class? And which response gave me leave to just switch of my brain and doodle in my notebook.
Not fostering different learning styles turns students into automatons who are more concerned with figuring out how to get an A than they are with actually learning something. College is quickly becoming a second high school, where people are learning not what they are passionate about learning, but how to perform well in an academic environment—which does not always translate to performing well in the workforce. Lots of people are finding the classes that they have to take just as boring and ultimately pointless as most of their high school classes. It may sound cliché to say that creativity is being crushed by traditional schooling, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Every time a professor looks at a student and calls him some form of “slow” or “stupid,” even if he does not use those exact words, that student shuts down and stops learning.
The classes in which I learned the most were the classes where I felt like I was being taught to as an individual, that my participation mattered, no matter how small, quiet, or flawed it was, and where if I made a mistake, I was not going to be ridiculed by my fellow students or by the professor. My italian professors were excellent at creating this environment. They knew that many of us would be afraid to even try to speak the language, especially in front of the whole class, so they found ways to help us practice speaking without forcing us to always talk in front of the entire class. They had a strict no-teasing policy. We could only help one another, if anyone ever ridiculed someone else for a mispronunciation, for using the wrong word, or for butchering the language’s grammar, that person was asked to leave the class.
These are the kinds of professors that we need more of—the ones that recognize that not all students are going to learn when they are preached at from the front of the class or forced to get up and spout information that they were supposed to have learned. They create an environment that nurtures learning and takes away the fear of making mistakes, which is extremely necessary, considering that making mistakes is how we learn, anyway.