Monday, March 27, 2017

Rethinking Learning Styles

Rethinking Learning Styles
Learning styles are quite the fashion among modern educational experts.

Parent-educators like to chat about which of their children prefer which style of learning, and how to tailor materials to the learning style of each of their children.

Public schools sometimes require their teachers to identify the learning style of each student as early as kindergarten, and demonstrate how pedagogical materials will be custom-fit to each child.

I take a different approach to learning styles, and here's why:

Imagine that at the beginning of preschool, we identified whether each student was right handed or left handed. Then we tailored all mechanical tasks to the preferred hand, and tied the non-preferred hand behind the student's back.

What would happen? The non-preferred hand would atrophy, and would not advance in skill at all. The preferred hand would also suffer, because we didn't allow it the assistance of the weaker hand.

When we tailor all of  a child's learning experiences to their strongest learning style, we also allow their other learning faculties to atrophy. And, the student will also learn less effectively than if they use several learning styles in cooperation with each other.

There are times in adult life when only one teaching method is available to us. Suppose you're at a restaurant in a foreign country where the waiter speaks no English, but the menu is bilingual. You probably don't want to say, "Sorry, I'm an auditory learner. I guess I'll starve now." If you're reading the subway map in a strange city, likewise, you don't want to say, "My visual-spatial skills aren't so good" - especially if you're in a dicey neighborhood. Your first day on the job, when you find out that your boss gives all her directions verbally, it's probably not the best time to announce, "Well, sorry, I just can't remember a THING unless you write it down for me!" When our children become adults, they will be greatly benefited if they are strong in several styles of learning.

To the best of my knowledge, not very much research has been done on learning styles. We don't know the answer to important questions like, "Are learning styles fixed at birth, or can one person have one learning style as a child, and a different learning style as an adult?" 

In life, we need to learn to strengthen the weak parts of our brains. 

The point of education, especially early education, is less the mastery of a huge body of facts than it is a time of building skills, strengthening brains, and learning to learn.

I first began to mull over how malleable the human brain was when I read Gifted Hands by Dr. Ben Carson, and he explained how as a brain surgeon, he witnessed children's brains growing and compensating for a traumatic loss of function in one of the brain's regions. 

The good news is that we can change our brains, as discussed in this TED talk:

If we exercise our learning muscles in ALL the learning styles, we can grow our learning muscles!

Here's a great article on teaching our kids to learn in areas that they don't easily master. 

Please take a minute to read it - it is SO worth your time! : )

The Difference Between Bad & Good Math Students

If a child listens to a lecture, takes notes, draws diagrams,  and reads along in the book, they're automatically using - and exercising -  several learning styles at once without even noticing.

Similarly, if a student watches a video of a learning song and sings along, and makes motions, while reading a the lyrics, they're automatically using several skills at once.

In both of the above instances, several skills of the brain are being strengthened at once - by working together.

But, when those assignments come up that aren't tailor-made to our learning styles, we need to "slog through" and master the materials - exercise our brains in thinking outside their comfort zones.

Where necessary, children need to be gradually taught to compensate for any persistent weaknesses (rather than having an adult do it for them) - they might learn to think of their own picture mnemonics, write their own songs, draw their own diagrams, or take notes on that audio lecture.

We can learn from studying learning styles and how they might enhance our teaching, but we can also greatly benefit from using the centuries-old, tried and true methods of education.

The good news is that we don't have to pick and choose - we can benefit from it all!

Edited April 2018:
This article may also be of interest, if you enjoy this topic. 

Edited October 2019:
More research is coming out on this topic. If you'd like more in-depth information, here are a couple of sources (I have not read them thoroughly, and neither endorse not reject their content, so caveat emptor

Blog post on the research behind learning styles
Professional Journal Article about Supporting Research

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  1. Yay! I love this post! I've said for years that the whole "learning style" thing is good to consider when planning lessons (I was in the classroom before), but that they should be thought of more as tools in the toolbox for everyone. Just as different math strategies can be helpful to different students at different times, the same goes for these learning styles. Besides, it's often when we try to use different learning styles that we come up with lessons that are unique and fun!

  2. I love this approach to learning styles! I never would have thought of it that way. Thanks for opening my eyes. :)

  3. Love this! Thanks for sharing with us at Love to Learn. Pinned.

  4. I am more of a linguistic learner. I have to read and take notes to learn. I can't follow lectures to well, and have to take notes and then re-read to learn from them. We all really do have our own unique learning styles. Thanks for joining us again at the #LMMLinkup this past week.

  5. So true! I learn best with a little mix of all types of learning.


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