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Part of my responsibilities at my first teaching assignment (36 years ago!!) was to be in charge of the “High School Bowl” quiz team.  The team was made up of four students who competed against two other teams, answering various questions about the sciences, history, English, math and the arts.  I remember being quite intimidated at first with the visual art questions.  Various pictures would be presented to the team members from famous artists, and the students were supposed to recognize them.  This seemed like a daunting task at first, but as we began to look at paintings from the various artists, many were recognizable because of the “style” of the artist … the particular way the artist painted or drew his/her pictures or the subjects of interest that were painted often gave the artist away.  Even though I wasn’t an artist, I began to recognize paintings by Rembrandt, Monet, and of course, Picasso, just by the “style” that the artist used.


Using this same principle, teachers can become much better teachers simply by observing their students and recognizing their learning “style.”  Most new teachers entering the field are quick to mention the three major learning “styles” most often discussed:  visual, auditory, and/or tactile/kinesthetic.  These are sometimes referred to as the perceiving or input styles … they essentially describe how the learner gets information from the world into the brain, which is obviously important in the learning process. 


Applying this to teaching seems relatively straight forward.  If a person tends towards visual learning, then a lesson that includes diagrams, graphs, and pictures will tend to engage that student more than a "picture-less" lecture.  If you are giving directions to a visual learner, writing it on the board may be much better than just giving them orally.  For the kinesthetic learner, a hands-on lab or a role play in class might give much more meaning and clarity to a concept than watching a movie or sharing notes.  An auditory learner, like one of my daughters, might need to record notes or study aids before a test and listen to them rather than look at written notes from a lecture or reading a review sheet. 


Sounds simple enough.  Just match the presentation of concepts to the style of the learner and “presto” … instant learning!  Of course we all realize it isn’t quite that simple.  As my long-time mentor and learning styles guru, Dr. Marlin Languis (Ohio State University) taught me, these three perceptual styles are only part of the story.  There are also many combinations of “cognitive” styles … differences in the way the brain acts and processes the information once it is put into the brain! 


Two of the more obvious styles reflect brains that process things step by step vs. a holistic approach.  Some students move from parts to the whole.  They need to learn things in a step-by-step approach, where each step leads to the next until they finally understand the concept.  These folks are often great at sequential learning or activities like programming which rely on paying attention to details or sequences of statements. 


Others process things more holistically … they move from whole to parts.  They easily see the big idea.  Don’t confuse them with the details.  Just give them the main idea and let them run with it!  These students are great at discovering the main ideas from lectures or labs and are able to organize their studying for tests around the most important ideas, yet may often miss a crucial step in a lab because they didn’t want to bother with a detail. 


Of course, there are many more cognitive issues than these two.  There are students who need to use concrete examples for learning, while others want to think about it in abstract ways.  Some students have to jump right into the learning, while others want to think and reflect on things before trying them.  And so on …


And of course this isn’t the whole story either.  Anyone who has read Howard Gardner knows that everyone brings certain “intelligences” to the table as well.  Some students can learn best or demonstrate what they know best in the context of music or art.  Some need to demonstrate learning in an interpersonal way or can use language in unique ways to communicate thoughts and ideas.


All of which certainly leads to the following question?  If there are thirty kids in your class, and they all bring different combinations of learning styles to the table, how in the world can a teacher match or fit all the lessons to every student?


The answer is quite simple.  You can’t and you shouldn’t!


What?  Come on Fred … are you saying we shouldn’t try to make learning match our learners?  That’s right … that’s what I’m saying.  We shouldn’t, at least not all of the time.


First of all, we are talking about learning styles, not learning absolutes.  Just because a learner prefers visual input of data does not mean he/she can only learn from visual cues.   It is just a preferred style.  We typically migrate towards what is easiest and most enjoyable for us, so we tend to try to learn new things in the style we prefer.  But obviously we won’t always be able to have a teacher, boss, or business that will match our learning style, so it is important that every student learns to improve those styles in which they aren’t as comfortable.  We need to help holistic students learn to deal with details, and we need to help sequential students get better at finding the big ideas … to see the forest without getting lost in the trees!  


And this needs to be intentional. When was the last time you sat down and designed lessons to help students become better at styles in which they aren’t very comfortable.  For that matter, do you even know your students’ learning styles?  If we are in the business of helping students learn, isn’t it ironic that most teachers do NOT know how their individual students learn?  How about it?  Do you? 


Fortunately in this age of available technology, there are several ways you can quickly check so that you at least have an idea of where your students are at in terms of learning styles or their personalities that determine how they learn.  Felder’s assessments, as well as the Learning Style Inventory based on Kolb's research, or a Meyers/Briggs type assessment can be administered in a period or less to kids and can give a teacher at least a snapshot of how they learn.  I try to find this information about my students the first week I have them, and I also share it with them, so that they can be more in charge of their learning.  My goal as a teacher in each class is to try to help a student know their strengths in learning so they can help others who are weak in the same area.  And I want them to work on at least one area of “weakness” to help them become more comfortable in that learning arena.


But just because I don’t think we should always match styles to students does not mean I think we should never do so.  One of the most interesting educational phenomenon in the last 15 years that has really found traction is giving students “choice” in their learning.  You can hardly participate in a Twitter backchannel or a PD in education without being exposed to or encouraged to provide student choice in the classroom.  Certainly part of the reason this works is because students and their parents perceive having choice as a “right” that they should have in order to help them learn better.  Everyone knows that kids rights are important in today’s classrooms.  We should also remember that they also have a right to improve areas in which they are uncomfortable, and we need to help kids and parents realize that working on all styles is part of the learning equation.


I would suggest that class "choice" works not just because a kid gets his/her “way” in the classroom.  I submit that choice gives kids new ways to learn based on lessons that take advantage of differing learning styles.  For scores of years, kids had little or no choice on how they input/processed lessons.  Teachers tended to teach the same way they learned, and students had no choice but to learn in that type of style or fail.  Teachers that actually give differing assignments that use different styles allow students to work in methods that engage and/or teach them in ways that work!  What kids perceive as a “right” is really just a way of allowing them to learn in a way that matches their style, without us having to design an individual way to do that for each kid! 


Really great teachers often give rubrics of choices in each unit, where students must pick at least one assignment or topic from several columns, so that they can work in their style, as well as having to do an assignment that isn’t so comfortable for them.  When a teacher gives choice, they can design those choices so that kids learning styles are both matched and enhanced!


So how about you?  Are you willing to make a commitment to discover how your students individually learn a little better, and then help them work on their strengths and weaknesses?  Will you be one of those great teachers who teach “with style?”



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Comment by SharLee Marie Retzlaff on June 26, 2012 at 11:12pm
I also a special educator teaching a small group of special need students, I make a point to get to know each of my students, strengths/styles and help them also be aware of their styles. You're absolutely accurate when
You say that you can't always teach to all students' strengths but giving them choices allows them to choose to their strongest styles and also strengthen areas where they are weak ...I totally agree with this strategy...I use it often creating grids of nine activity options where students choose three in a row blending the types of strategies and styles the students will experience. This enhances my very diverse group of special Ed students learning.


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