Getting Inside Your Skull

Cover of "Color Me Beautiful"

Cover of Color Me Beautiful

Last week I shared an experience that I had with the obviously intelligent man who fixed my garage door opener. He assessed his own strengths as a learner (“I can take anything apart and put it back together”) and his weaknesses (“I have trouble with reading comprehension.”) honestly and, I suspect, accurately. To use the prissy parlance currently in educational vogue, he’s a kinesthetic learner.

The learning styles paradigm reminds me a little of the 80’s fad of having your colors done., a process in which you visited a purported expert in determining your “season” who then assigned you a set of fabric swatches. If you wanted to look your best, you wore only those colors. (I’m a winter who’s become even winter-ier with age, so I can only wear clear, bright colors. I will cop to a bit of autumn envy.)

While this method did make shopping easier, and probably saved me from a few unfortunate purchases, I sometimes wondered if the whole thing wasn’t a bit dogmatic and restrictive. What if I found something I liked that didn’t match one of the magic swatches? Did that mean I shouldn’t wear it? Surely there were some border territories between colors that one could safely explore.

For a while, educators seemed to apply learning style labels with the same rigidity. Clearly, it’s ridiculous to think that if you’re a visual learner, then lecture is a waste of time. Auditory learners can benefit from texts, charts and illustrations. Some research has suggested that student self-assesment of learning styles is frequently invalid, misleading students as they choose learning strategies. In my classes, I use the same “try-it-you’ll-like-it” strategy that I recommended for patients who were picky eaters. Students are often surprised by how much they learn by using a style other than the one they prefer.

Here’s an example: The illustration of the skull in our text, Pearson’s Human Anatomy and Physiology, Ninth Edition (Marieb and Hoehn) looks like this:


Very nice, and certainly instructive.  Also decidedly two-dimensional, and, as I constantly remind my students, people aren’t paper dolls.  So we look at a model of the skull, like this:


Much better.  When students hold and handle this, they have a much clearer idea of the skull’s structure.  When they touch this model, different neurons in their cerebral cortex are activated, creating clearer, stronger memories. Montessori teachers know this; college teachers are, sadly, sometimes unaware.  But we can take it a step further:


This skull is also a plastic model, but the different bones of the skull…22 in all…are distinguished by color. When I pulled it out of the cupboard for this photo, the labels that students had applied during study group were still affixed. They seem to have liked this model. The really nifty thing about this baby, however, is that it can be taken apart and reassembled:


Confession is good for the soul, so here’s mine. When I began teaching, I was pretty sure that I had the skull down pat—good grade in gross anatomy, years of looking at X-rays, and, of course, careful attention to the text noted above. So I pulled the skull apart “just for fun.” As Scooby Doo would say, “Ruh roh.” Several anxious and humbling minutes later, I finally managed to get the thing back together. I learned that some of those odd little bones, like the ethmoid bone and the vomer pictured below, look absolutely weird when viewed in isolation. Very instructive.


Since then, I relate the incident to every class and encourage them to give it a try. Their efforts always result in laughs and learning.

So here’s my first question: Do you think my garage door pal would have learned more from the textbook illustration, the standard plastic model, or the take-apart skull? ….Thought so.

Learning by Doing

Learning by Doing (Photo credit: BrianCSmith)

Next question: Anatomy obviously offers plenty of opportunities for kinesthetic learners. Math offers many options as well. In fact, if you google “manipulatives,” you’ll find math links almost exclusively. What do other disciplines have to offer?

We’d love to hear ideas from other educators for hands-on activities. When we search the web, it seems that this learning modality is only for K-8, K-12 if we stretch it. Do students really cease to learn by doing and touching when they enter college? I don’t believe so, and I’m hoping to find some other teachers who agree.

2 comments on “Getting Inside Your Skull

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