A typical elementary classroom in the United States consists of anywhere between 20 and 30 students of varying abilities and learning styles with the teacher responsible for providing educational opportunities for students in all major subject areas. This is problematic for many teachers who also face national, state, and local demands for increased student performance on various mandated tests. The research reported here grew out of one author's 15 years of elementary teaching experience, as she struggled to comply with numerous school district mandates and accommodate varying students by utilizing several different instructional strategies. Her goal was to help all students develop a love of learning, especially mathematics; yet each attempt to introduce multiple teaching strategies resulted in increased planning, more focus on organizational aspects of the classroom, and less time spent in actual student intellectual / academic growth. The major problem with overtly attending to different learning styles was an over emphasis and dependency on the teacher's responsibility for organizing and instructing, accentuating her capabilities rather than those of the students.
Specifically focusing on mathematics education, some scholars and practitioners argue that an alternative exists in a problem centered approach where, during a typical day:
the children first attempt ... to solve the educational activities in pairs or, occasionally, groups of three. The teacher move[s] ... from group to group, observing and interacting with the children as they engage... in mathematical activity. The teacher... [might then] call-the class together and orchestrate ... a discussion of the children's solutions. During this phase of the lesson the teacher [does] ... not explicitly evaluate the children's solutions or attempt to steer them to an official solution that she has] ... in mind. Instead, she ask[s] ... questions to clarify an explanation or to help a child reconstruct his or her solution. If, as frequently happen[s] .... the children ma[ke] ... conflicting interpretations or propose ... conflicting answers, she frame[s] ... this as a problem for the children and guide[s] ... their attempts to resolve the conflict. In general, one of her primary responsibilities [is] ... to facilitate mathematical dialogue among children. (Cobb, Wood, Yackel, 1991, p. 26)
Kathleen, the second-grade teacher whose mathematics class is our study's focus, heartily endorses problem-centered education, intuitively asserting:
There have been many gimmicks to try to engage children in mathematical activities, but they do not allow for the child to construct knowledge nor do they encourage sense making. I think if the child finds the importance of their thinking and they are constructing knowledge from within, then learning will take place.
Thus, throughout the 1999-2000 school year, we examined Kathleen's mathematical lessons to determine whether her students grasped the concepts without directly addressing their individual learning styles.
The concept of learning styles has its roots in Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1983, 1997), which challenges educators to broaden their conception of children's capabilities and how they might be stimulated. Dealing specifically with how youngsters learn, Dunn (1999), further identifies five categories of learning styles: reaction to classroom environment, children's own emotionality, sociological, preferences for learning, physiological characteristics, and global versus analytical processing. Each category contains several subcategories while assessment exercises and instruments exist to identify individual students' particular style. Flexible scheduling and rotation of classes is necessary to allow for subjects to be taught during individual students' peak energy levels. Research further shows that educators tend to teach in their own learning styles; therefore students should be matched with teachers who have similar learning styles because when educators force children to re ceive information in a style which is not their own, stress, frustration, loss of motivation, and lowered performance results (Dunn, 1999; Dunn & Griggs, 1989). …