Learning Styles: 3 Critical Truths

Ah, learning styles! In the 80’s and 90’s, you couldn’t open an educational journal without finding multiple references to research on learning styles. We discovered some important things about how children and adults process and remember information. We experimented with ways to make the most of these individual strengths in our classrooms. Much of today’s learning theory grew out of what we learned in the 80’s and 90’s. Before we look at three especially important concepts about learning styles, let’s put learning styles into practical terms for parents and those wishing a review. Then we’ll look those three concepts as we consider children with disabilities of all types.
Kindergarten teachers are masters at putting learning style research into action. Consider how they incorporate four learning styles into one activity, learning the letters of the alphabet. The teacher points to the illustrated letters on the wall (visual) as students chant along (auditory) and trace the letters with their fingers in the air (kinesthetic) or on their buddies’ backs (tactile). Four different styles come together in one activity. Surely one style will resonate with a child.
The teacher supports letter mastery throughout the year with dozens of additional activities that expand each learning style. She draws on auditory learning as children listen to alliterative stories and recite theme-letter poems and songs. She provides visual input with student art that emphasizes the letter of the week. The teacher sets up tactile activities with bins of plastic letters to touch and unusual writing tools for students to draw out the letters. She offers kinesthetic learning with variations of beanbag toss and hopscotch games that build on letter knowledge. Each learning style is revisited over and over during the course of the year. Why? What three key truths about learning styles does this teacher know…and why are they so critical to our learners with disabilities?
1) Learning is easiest when we engage our strongest learning style.
When we want kids to catch onto ideas quickly, we need to appeal to their strengths. Students don’t have to work as hard when information is given to them in a form that matches their strongest style. The information naturally makes sense and they can focus on the content of the idea. If we present through a style in which they are weak, they may focus instead on making sense of the presentation rather than the content.
Quick learning has big benefits. It starts the ball rolling for deeper understanding; after all, you have to start somewhere! It builds self-confidence. It gives the teacher immediate feedback as to whether or not a child has grasped an idea, giving her a chance to intervene early on.
If we limit the styles in which we offer information, we might bypass a child’s strength. We might be creating a situation where she is working harder than she needs to. When that happens day after day, children become discouraged and may shut down.

Do your children have opportunities every day to learn in the style that is most comfortable for them?
2) Learning is deepest (therefore most likely to be remembered) when we engage in a variety of styles.
When we want learners to develop deep connections and memories about an idea, we need to give them opportunities to process that information in many modes. If children are going to remember a concept, they must build understanding across many neural connections. Asking them to stretch their learning of the concept through styles that are not their strength will develop those connections. This will give them fuller, richer understanding of the idea and the ability to call it up in a wider variety of situations. A child who can recall math facts auditorily or visually will have an easier time progressing to harder math concepts than the child who must calculate the answer kinesthetically on his fingers.
If we settle on just one style for presenting and practicing information, we deprive children of the opportunity to develop deep understanding. Their knowledge will continue to be superficial. Surface knowledge is quickly forgotten. We need to provide kids with chances to build rich networks that support memory.

Do your children have opportunities to strengthen their learning each day, pushing outside their preferred learning style?

3) We cannot make assumptions about learning styles based on disabilities.

A child's disabilities do not excuse us from providing learning experiences across all styles. We cannot assume that because a physical skill is underdeveloped that the brain does not crave the learning input it provides. We are responsible to offer the full variety of learning style opportunities regardless of disability. This way all children can benefit both from the ease of learning by their strengths and from the rich learning developed when they must explore an idea across all styles.
Let me share some examples:
  • A child who does not walk may still learn kinesthetically. He may learn counting order best to the rhythm of the swing in the physical therapist’s office. He may need assistance tossing a lower-case “t” beanbag at a capital “T” target, but all the letter-learning surrounding that toss may become focused in his mind as his body engages in the physical activity.
Side note:  I strongly suspect that the cadence in music mimics kinesthetic input for children with gross motor issues. Let’s use music to our advantage in teaching. It may actually support two learning styles:  auditory (of course) and kinesthetic.
  • Another example I can offer comes from my own daughter. As an infant and early toddler, she still had the ability to use her hands to explore the world. She did this all day long, scritching unique bumpy textures, rubbing smooth ones, burying her hands deep into soft fur. She was clearly a highly tactile learner! Fast forward a year and her hand use had deteriorated completely. She no longer has voluntary use of her hands. Does this mean she is no longer skilled at processing tactile information? No, it only means she cannot command her hands to perform; her feedback from her hands is unchanged. She continues to deserve the opportunity to learn information in tactile ways.
  • Students with learning disabilities benefit tremendously from learning through a wide variety of learning styles. It is not at all unusual for a subject to "click" when a traditionally visual or auditory subject (such as reading) is taught though tactile or kinesthetic activities. Once the basic understanding develops, then students can expand their learning through more traditional teaching modes.
Sometimes we can figure out a way to work around a physical issue, such as providing music with a strong beat to support kinesthetic input or giving deaf students the chance to feel--physically--the throb of a deep base drum. We can provide hands-on or equipment-supported physical assistance for kinesthetic or tactile input.
Sometimes students present challenges in teaching through a specific style that may be difficult to overcome. We can offer tactile alternatives to blind students, for example, but this does not address their visual learning. It may be that there are no visual alternatives we can offer. Instead of becoming discouraged, we need to think creatively and to insure that we are providing an abundance of opportunities in the remaining learning styles.
We do this because we want to insure that at some point every day, the child has a chance to learn easily through their strengths. We want our children to feel self-confident, regardless of disabilities. We must provide multiple styles of practice every day so kids can develop deep connections and lasting memory of an idea. Teaching across a wide variety of learning styles helps to level the playing field for our students.
Do your children have opportunities to learn through all styles regardless of physical or learning disabilities? If not, how can you expand those opportunitites?

I'd love to hear what you do in your home or classroom to support your child's learning style needs.

No comments: