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1. Introduction:

I wish to share with you a teaching philosophy that I have developed over the years having observed the habits, practices and behaviors of both high and low achievers in society in general, and low student achievers in a university setting in particular. I have benchmarked my findings against my own behaviors during periods of high and low achievement and have found some interesting correlations between sensory modality and achievement. Called Modality-Inspired-Teaching (MIT), the approach borrows liberally from advances in neurolingustic programming (NLP) that was championed in the 1970s, and from its 1990s incarnation, neuro-associative conditioning by Tony Robbins. I have also added my own insights into the approach in an attempt to elevate teaching, and specifically the teaching of science, to the next level. The approach is quite general, and can be used in any situation where one is trying to communicate with an audience, such as, classroom instruction, and also when communicating on an individual basis, for example, mentoring graduate students and post docs.

2. Modality-Inspired Teaching:

The application of the MIT model to classroom science instruction begins with two model-independent axioms: (i) knowledge is a relationship between the known and the unknown, and (ii) all learning is the detection of an analogy.

A teacher-student relationship can be viewed as a conduit that facilitates the flow of a specific type of information, reflective information, from a region of higher information density (the teacher) to a region of lower information density (the student). This is a three component system composed of the teacher, the student, and the relationship between them, and all three have to function as a single unit for efficient information transfer to take place. A helpful analogy is the transmitter/receiver system (teacher/student) and the wire connecting the two (the relationship). Barriers to effective teaching or to the free flow of information between the teacher and student are, in my opinion, largely a transmitter (teacher) issue.

The present day teacher-student system appears to still be mired in an older, inefficient system having vestiges from the apprenticeship system of the gilded age, coupled with the ecclesiastic tradition of the teacher being viewed as ‘a sage on the stage’. A common student feedback (often given in private) is that their teachers are pompous, arrogant and often view them with covert disrespect. The climate of open enquiry and mutual respect that has been the hallmark of science, has unfortunately, not yet been able to affect a meaningful transformation in teacher-student relationships. The MIT approach offers a solution by focusing sharply on what makes a student not learn. Perhaps a side benefit would be for teachers to discover their own instructional blind spots and help them to elevate their teaching level.

The MIT approach focuses entirely on the teacher, and requires the teacher to possess sufficient sensory acuity to carry out the following: (i) to first identify the primary and secondary sensory modalities of student/audience, (ii) to alter his/her instructional style to roughly mirror this primary sensory modality, (iii) to then deliver the hard facts, or key concepts, in this primary sensory modality, and (iv) use an analogy in the student/audience's secondary sensory modality to anchor the message.

The approach leverages recent findings on the mental states and body posture of those who are quick learners and those who have challenges in this area. People learn best when more of their sense organs are involved in the process of learning. Of the five external senses, the three most commonly used in a classroom setting are: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

The primary modality is the main sensory pathway used by an individual, e.g., a person having a visual primary modality (VP) would think in pictures, and would pay more attention to phrases like ‘as you can see from the diagram’, or, ‘shed some light on this reaction’. Those having auditory primary modality (AP), think in sounds, or tones of sound, and would respond more favorably to phrases like, ‘this approach rings a bell’, or, ‘I don’t like the sound of that’. Those having kinesthetic primary modality (KP) think in feelings, and would respond eagerly to, ‘my gut feeling tells me that this should be true’, or, ‘I feel comfortable with the rearrangement’. The primary sensory modality is somewhat akin to the main door to the inner mental chamber, and in order to get the student to pay attention first, one must communicate in the this mode. However having gotten in, the situation changes quickly and the information is processed by the individual’s secondary sensory modality. For example, a person with visual primary VP, may look at a picture, say, an SEM image, and may then sub-vocalize about the image by an internal dialog, ‘that's a pretty image’. This sub-vocalization is an auditory process that constitutes the person’s secondary sensory modality, AS. So this person’s initial learning syntax is VP+AS. Most use tertiary or higher sensory modalities for anchoring the information, e.g., the above person may follow the sub-vocalization with a tertiary kinesthetic feeling, KT, ‘this feels good’. The person’s anchoring syntax would then be VP+AS+KT.

Without an understanding of the syntax of learning, most teachers use only their own primary modality to communicate in a classroom setting. Since most audiences are split 1:1:1 in their primary sensory modality, the teacher can, at best, get through effectively to only a third of the audience. Learning how to use these modalities as a teacher, and experimenting on the fly to see if the message across, makes teaching an exciting exercise in creative thinking that can be fun to all parties. For example, a subtle change in voice inflection can heighten awareness of an AP, and the slightest of hand gestures can capture the attention of an otherwise bored KP.

It is not sufficient to just get the message across; the message has to also be firmly anchored in the audience’s mind. I have found a link between subject-matter anchoring and a discussion of conceptual analogies in a different sensory modality, preferably, in the student’s secondary modality. This works probably because the information gathered through the primary modality is stored in temporary memory which soon fills up unless it is downloaded to a more permanent database. I believe this downloading is the essence of the anchoring process, which the teacher can facilitate by using analogies. The absence of this anchoring process could explain the low attention span and blank stares, where students just seem to zone out and wait for the class period to end and/or suspend active learning in the classroom and fall back on last-minute exam-driven learning. I have found that when at times I have been fortunate to witness active classroom learning that is coupled with healthy anchoring, students are more active, more alive at the end of the period, with many waiting for more information (alas, this does not happen often!).

I have noticed that students who perform poorly in classroom settings have a combination of the following: (i) their primary sensory modality is closed in a confined classroom setting (they respond very well outdoors), (ii) they alternate between two primary sensory modalities, using the ‘other’ as an excuse to put off learning something new, and (iii) they do not use their secondary modality to anchor new information, especially information in the form of facts and figures. I have also found two instances where the student processed information primarily through taste and smell (!), i.e., they had highly developed gustatory and olfactory channels. They both responded well to unusual phrases like ‘that mechanism stinks’, or ‘that nucleophile leaves a bad taste in the mouth’. They were not poor students, as I had been led to believe, but students who just processed information differently.

A revolution in teaching is long overdue. I believe this could be because teachers today have not benefited from advances made in the last two decades in the area of sales and sales craft. Teaching is primarily a sales job, and the product being sold is information. The business community and those active in public service have placed a premium in understanding customer (or constituent) needs and frequently sculpt their behavior and approach on an ongoing basis to deliver against these needs. Their livelihood depends on their ability to quickly understand the needs of the audience (often volatile) and to tailor their message accordingly. Many attend seminars and conferences to keep abreast of the latest advances in sales. Most teachers have had no sales experience and those actively pursuing research have to contend with lack of incentives to sharpen their teaching skills. I believe that modality-inspired teaching approach actively side-steps the need for expensive sales training for teachers. For example, it could inspire the teacher-student couple to continually improve even after their formal relationship has ended, for example, at the end of the course, or when the student graduates. That is because, frequently, it is the teacher who is the real beneficiary and feels indebted to the student. By providing valuable feedback on their own individual learning channels the student helps expose the teacher’s intellectual blind spots and completes the circle of interdependency that is essential to a vigorous and healthy teaching program.

3. Summary:

We live in a technologically complex world sculpted by the scientific method, and yet scientific illiteracy in the US is at an unbelievable 95%. This epidemic of ignorance about science and the scientific method is bound to have disastrous consequences for scientists. Many believe science to be nothing more than a method to make ‘things’, and look to other avenues to nourish their hearts and souls. I believe science itself is at a crisis that can be linked to the inability of scientists to communicate to the lay person, (i) what science is, how it miraculously took root, (ii) what it can do for us materially, (iii) how it can irrigate our hearts and souls, and most importantly, (iv) how counter intuitive the scientific method really is and why it took so long to flourish. This brings us back full circle, since the ability to communicate scientific principles requires a fundamental understanding of how humans learn, and importantly, how humans un-learn. To once again light the flame of scientific inquiry in the hearts and mind of people, scientists must first internalize the powerful adage, ‘Science is People’.

The I6 approach

Copyright © 2005 Sanjeev Manohar

Copyright © 2005 Sanjeev Manohar