I think everyone will agree that no two people have the same strengths and weaknesses. But because we cannot observe each student’s brain behavior, it’s easy to blindly assume that what helps us learn, will help others. In fact, you will often see teachers insist that their students study a certain way, because the teacher knows how much that methods helps themselves. So should teachers step out of their preferred ways of learning and accommodate the unique needs of their students?
What are Learning Styles?
Learning styles are an individual's unique approach to learning based on strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Over the past decade there has been a debate about whether teachers should accommodate learning styles in the classroom. Some even purport that learning styles don’t exist altogether. I have been working with children and adults as an educational therapist for over twenty years, and I can assure you that everyone has their own unique ways of processing information and we each have our own particular pattern of cognitive processing strengths and weaknesses that impact how we learn.
Learning Styles Have a Bad Rap
But accommodating "learning styles" is refuted by research. This is largely because past, popular assessments were inadequate and terribly limiting. In addition, many implied that “learning styles” are fixed and faulty inventories limited learning styles to sensory input. Furthermore, assessments have mistakenly forced participants, for example, to choose between visual or auditory modalities. Therefore, instruction has mistakenly focused on teaching to a specific way of learning. But it’s not "black or white." Instead, there is a vast, colorful continuum and each of us lies somewhere on that range of aptitude for each way of learning. But it is not static either. Rather, it's fluid, and the brain is forever changing. So instead, one might visualize a shifting abacus or virtual equalizer to represent each student’s ways of learning, because our brains offer an extremely complex, thoroughfare, of potential highways and byways that are continually under construction. The other thing to note is that each of us have comfortable ways of learning. One can think of it as a familiar path. But the true benefits lie in knowing and using multiple pathways to learning so that knowledge is comprehensive and fully encoded.
Do We Learn Specific Ways?
So as long as our senses or brains are not damaged, we are able to process in all ways. But remarkably, even those with "broken" sensory inputs or head injuries can compensate. Other senses and parts of the brain become more acute and we are now learning, for example, that even a blind person can utilize their visual cortex and sound to create mental imagery or a "map" of their surroundings.
Should we Dismiss Learning Styles?
So because we have not fully understood the complexities of learning styles, we shouldn’t simply dismiss the concept altogether. Instead, we should accommodate the many ways that we can process information by 1) sharing with students their infinite capacity and the plastic nature of the brain (this creates hope). 2) honoring each individual's comfortable ways of processing (this creates connection). 3) introducing students to other ways of processing so that they can learn to blaze new neural pathways in the brain (this creates resilience and flexibility).
Should Students Learn to Step Out of Their Comfortable Ways of Learning?
Many learners may like to hike the same, familiar learning path to the summit, but we, as teachers, can help open up avenues and new perspectives by introducing and demonstrating new routes. Although learning a new way can take time and lengthen the "hike," it ultimately teaches our students that they have options, they can grow, and we can help them to exercise portions of the brain that are under utilized.
What are the 12 Ways of Learning?
So instead of thinking about accommodating a fixed, “black or white” learning style, think about teaching students in kaleidoscopic ways, or using a multisensory approach to teaching that honors all 12 ways of processing information as outlined in the Eclectic Teaching Approach. This approach looks at:
- Visual Processing: incorporates pictures, drawings and even personal visualizations. This helps students learn through imagery.
- Auditory Processing: involves learning through listening. This helps students to learn how to focus on and determine the salient information from what they are hearing.
- Tactile Processing: consists of touching or feeling objects or artifacts. It also involves the encoding of information when taking notes or drawing things out.
- Kinesthetic Processing: encompasses learning while moving one’s body. For many students, movement can help enhance engagement in learning and memory of information.
- Sequential Processing: entails teaching students in a step by step format that sequences instruction by time, alphabetical order or a numerical series. This prepares students for outlines, timelines, completing long term assignments, and keeping materials organized.
- Simultaneous Processing: involves teaching children how to categorize materials. This prepares students for webbing information, conceptualizing main ideas, understanding flow charts and diagrams, as well as keeping materials organized.
- Verbal Processing: incorporates teaching children how to process ideas aloud. This helps students participate in class discussions and feel comfortable expressing ideas.
- Interactive Processing: consists of teaching children how to work with others. This trains learners to collaborate and work in groups.
- Logical/Reflective Processing: encompasses teaching children how to reflect upon or think about what they are learning. This prepares students to work independently and process ideas internally.
- Indirect Experience Processing: entails teaching children how to watch and learn from a demonstration. This helps students attend to and glean information from vicarious learning experiences.
- Direct Experience Processing: involves teaching children how to use their own environment to learn. This informs students that continuing education is ever present in our everyday surroundings and that there are fabulous learning experiences available through museums, aquariums, historic sites and other locales.
- Rhythmic Melodic Processing: consists of teaching children how to use melodies and rhythm to learn. This provides students the tools to utilize beats, songs, or melodies when trying to memorize novel information.
So do Learning Styles Exist?
Yes they do, but to make learning most effective we need to look upon them as a symphony of individual instruments that work best in concert.
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Cheers, Dr. Erica Warren
Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator, and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning. She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Learning Specialist Courses.
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