Teaching as if Learning Styles Mattered

If we use only one way to teach, children may never have an opportunity to discover, let alone develop their strengths.
- Jenifer Fox, Your Child’s Strengths


students in art classLearning is reflected in the way we respond to environmental, social, emotional and physical stimuli, in order to understand and process new information. Learning style is defined as the specific way we process that information. As an article, Learning Styles, on the University of Illinois extension site reports, most children in secondary school show a preference for one of the following basic learning styles:

  • Visual – These learners learn by watching. They call up images from the past when trying to remember something. They visualize the way things look in their heads. An estimated forty percent of secondary students fall into this category.
  • Auditory – Auditory learners respond well to aural stimuli in the learning process. They tend to spell phonetically. They can sometimes have trouble reading, because they don’t visualize well. These students learn by listening and remember facts when they are presented in the form of a poem, song or melody.
  • Kinesthetic / manipulative – Kinesthetic learners learn best through movement and manipulation. They like to find out how things work and are often successful in the practical in the arts, such as carpentry or design. These students make up 50 percent of secondary students and have difficulty learning in a traditional classroom setting.

bored in lectureThe word lecture dates from 14th century and is derived from the Latin lectus, “to read.” Its subsequent meaning as “a discourse on a given subject before an audience for purposes of instruction” is from the 16th century. Interestingly while only about 10 percent of children learn aurally, nearly 80 percent of instruction is delivered by lecture – an auditory format. A mismatch between learning and teaching styles can leads kids to become disinterested in material or cause misunderstandings with teachers and parents.

Just as learners have a preferred learning style, teachers will generally develop a preferred teaching style based on their beliefs about what constitutes good teaching, personal preferences, their abilities, and the norms of their particular discipline. One taxonomy of teaching styles, uses a spectrum of styles going from teacher as authority to teacher as helper:

One of the challenges facing teachers who understand the differences in the learning styles of their students is how best to accommodate those differences. The other challenge is for teachers to overcome the natural tendency to revert to their own preferred teaching style – i.e. stay in their comfort zone.

teacher and students with computersPerhaps two factors may help overcome these two difficulties. First, computer technology offers the promise of being able to deliver visual, auditory and written material to students, as well as provide the opportunity for them to interact with and manipulate that material. Second, teaching may become more of a team effort. Leveraging the strengths of teachers is just as important as understanding the strengths and talents of the students they teach. Teaching teams could bring together a mix of strengths that could energize students of all learning styles. Collaborative teaching models are experimental and have their challenges, but could offer a more productive way to teach

  1. Sherri Fisher Reply

    Hi, Jenifer–

    This is a great topic and one in which teacher training programs need to invest more time and attention. Learning styles, and to an even greater extent, processing styles, help determine a great deal of what students do or do not learn in school. All the teachers out there have their unique learning and processing styles, too. My personal bias is that anyone who teaches needs to know a whole lot about learning, even as much as the content they teach.

    If teachers were more accepting of and more aware of the uniqueness of each learner, rather than the extent to which students measure up to an often arbitrary standard, I bet teachers would be happier (using one’s strengths in new ways led to lasting happiness in one positive psychology study) and students would be happier, too. Another meta-study has shown that happiness leads to success, not the other way around.

    Some kids are “environmentally disabled” or even “teaching style” disabled. Take them out of one setting and put them in another and they flourish. But federal law requires that at least for public school, we identify–and label–kids if we want them to have any different approaches than what the general classroom offers. (And this can vary widely from classroom to classroom, across the country.)While IDEA makes it possible to get a more individualized education, this comes at the cost of assuming that there is a true normal. Is there? The great thing about the strengths movement is that there are many kinds of normal.

    In the world of NCLB, classrooms are places for learning state frameworks-mandated content, not how to learn by applying skills to many types of content. Given that so many of the things students will need to learn have not even been discovered or written about yet, we need to be teaching how to be both adding to and crtically thinking about what we know.

    We must be careful that strengths language does not become a new way of labeling, with some strengths more valued than others, just as language and math are presently more important than the arts. What would it take to move from needing labels before beginning to provide “services” for children to instead offering the kind of teaching a child needs without complex legal formulas and meeting timelines?

    Albert Bandura says, “It is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted. People who have a high sense of efficacy are likely to view their state of affective arousal as an energizing facilitator of performance, whereas those who are beset by self- doubts regard their arousal as a debilitator.” Knowing how to use one’s strengths, therefore, is a key component of self-efficacy.

    You are brave to attempt an overhaul of education. Please know that you are not alone in this and that many, many people believe the strengths approach is our best hope.

    Hope to see you on your book tour to Boston—
    :-) Sherri

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