October 8, 2007

Learning Styles

Last week, a home school Mom wrote to me and asked if I thought it was necessary to know about learning styles when teaching your children at home. This was my response to her email.

Dear Homeschool Mom,

This is our 4th year home schooling and the second year I have tried to tailor my son's curriculum to his particular learning style (visual spatial). Do I think it is necessary to teach to a particular learning style? Hmmm....good question! I think many parents do a fine job teaching and never know a thing about their children's preferred learning style. Understanding how our children learn can help us customize curriculum and make sure that we address any weaknesses they may have. It can also boost their enjoyment of learning when we give them tools that align with their style (for example, using media-rich content to enhance a visual learner's experience). I think, however, it can have a reverse affect when we teach only to one learning mode. This is something that many parents do, usually out of exasperation and desperation. They have tried every type of curriculum and Johnny still cannot read. They find something that works and instead of using it to solve a particular weakness, they use it exclusively. Or, Johnny decides he cannot read so Mom decides that since he is a visual learner and prefers watching Videos, she will only make him watch video content. I know it sounds odd, but I have read many emails from parents who have done this very thing. A Ha, Johnny is auditory so every thing is 'read aloud' to him. Johnny never learns the patience or diligence needed to be able to read silently to himself.

Most educational psychologists would agree that a liberal approach, one that teaches using all three learning modalities (visual, auditory and kinesthetic or tactile) is best. By taking a more moderate approach, the student will strengthen their weak areas and better develop their already well-developed areas. Additionally, they will be better suited for success in a traditional learning situation, say college classroom, for example. Moreover, most educational psychologists' would agree that children are kinesthetic when they are young and that auditory and visual processing develops as the child ages. By the time they are ready for school, children (those without any learning disabilities) should be able to use each learning mode equally well. It is true that most children prefer one mode over the others initially and that they will naturally gravitate towards that particular style, especially when struggling with a difficult concept or subject. It is not true, however, that a child cannot learn using all three modes. One mode will always be stronger, but all three are necessary for integrated learning success. In my opinion, the best course of action is to teach right down the middle and to give the child every opportunity to use their hands, their ears, and their eyes when learning new material.

There are a couple reasons why I think it is helpful to know a little about learning styles. First, if your child happens to have a learning disability, knowledge of learning styles can be very helpful when diagnosing their strengths and weaknesses. If a disorder is suspected, often a parent can teach material with more ease when aligning the method to the child's strength. The entire learning process will be easier for both teacher and student. It will also allow the parent to focus on their child's weakness and give them time to work specifically to address each concern. Nothing is more frustrating then to try and teach the child using a method that clearly works against their natural style. By doing so, stress and frustration become a regular visitor during the school day.

Another reason I think it is helpful to understand learning styles is to understand that the majority of traditional classroom curriculum is designed towards one learning modality, namely, auditory-sequential learners (shall we say the public school teacher's best student?) The majority of public and private school teachers rely on teaching to auditory learners. For years, teachers are taught to stand in front of the class and to speak directly to a classroom. While many teachers do employ visual aids and often encourage hands-on exploration, the typical classroom is 70% auditory, 15% visual and 15% kinesthetic. Curriculum publishers also understand that their materials need to be 'presented' and as such create their programs around this modern method. So unless the teacher is coming up through Montessori or another non-traditional teaching system, students are going to be expected to learn primarily through their ears (audition). If your student is a visual spatial learner and struggles with audition, then listening to a teacher lecture or present to the class will be difficult to process. Thankfully, home school parents have myriads of options when it comes to teaching their children. There is no reason for a home schooled child to be forced to listen to a parent lecture like a public or private school teacher. The parent is free to use any number of methods to help their child learn the material. And, if their goal is content mastery versus subject mastery, they can use other methods of evaluation to see how well their child is grasping the material (quizzes and tests are useful, but they only give one small part of the overall learning picture.)

Thirdly, if your child happens to be LD or Gifted or a combo (twice-exceptional), then you will find that the more you know about learning styles, the more options you have when it comes to choosing curriculum for your child. In short, it is like taking a short cut through the buffet and starting with dessert. It is just "easier" to zero in on what will work best and it will save you a lot of time, a lot of frustration, and a lot of expense.

The whole field of learning styles has been around for 50-60 years. There have been many new discoveries in that time and the public school system has tried to implement change in the classroom and across the nation. However, walk into any high school classroom in the nation and I bet you will still find a large number of teachers standing in front of the blackboard lecturing. Audition is the primary teaching method for college professors and since Universities determine how to teach each generation of teachers, change is slow coming.

If you are really interested in learning style theory, then check out your library holdings on learning styles (even consider inter-library loan). There are a number fairly new books out (I will try and get a list together), but you can just browse through the education stacks and are sure to find one or two that will give you a good overview. Keep in mind that there are as many different views on how children learn as there are stars in the sky. Since the early 1950's and 60's, psychologists have been fascinated with how children learn and have developed theories in order to create better instructional materials, discover new ways to address learning disabilities and find solutions to help children succeed.

The one theory that most lay people are familiar with is states that there are three primary modes of learning (VAK or Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic). This theory suggests that we use these three modes for processing new information and for learning, in general. Some people do prefer learning through their their eyes (V), while others prefer using their hands (K) or their ears (A), but it is generally believed that all people are V plus A or A plus K, etc. Rarely is someone all V or all A.

Additionally, studies suggest that children prefer to learn via their kinesthetic mode until they reach the age of 5 or 6. As children begin school, they will be given more and more opportunities to learn using their ears or through audition. Audition is not new and for centuries, children have learned using their ears (in the 7th century B.C., Homer wrote his epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, to be recited orally). Modern teachers need children to listen well, to pay attention in class, to observe the study, and to discover new information. Audition, therefore, still plays a key role in the teaching of a group of children. The problem is, however, that some children will continue to rely on one mode of learning, almost to the exclusion of the others. Often these children are either gifted or they have a combination of learning or processing disorders. In a classroom setting for example, where the normal teaching method is audition, the visual or kinesthetic learner will find it difficult to follow along or to process the information because it is being presented in a way contrary to their preferred learning mode. Some children learn how to get by and figure out how to pay attention and listen, enough to pass their classes. But, some children cannot seem to do this at all and usually end up falling behind or dropping out of school all together. They never seem to be able to achieve using standard teaching methods and will continue to struggle just to keep up with their peers.

[Just an aside: You can Google on the Internet for VAK learning profile tests -- there are hundreds of them. You can take the test yourself or put in answers that reflect your child's learning style. These are not true assessments, but they do give a glimpse into the generalities of VAK learning modes.]

Since the 1980's there has been significant developments in the field of educational psychology. Many psychologists now believe that the VAK learning identifiers are not specific enough and that they generalize the learning modality of the "normal" population only. About 20 years ago, some psychologists started to notice that gifted and twice-exceptional students (gifted and LD) tended to learn on the fringe of these accepted VAK modes. Dr. Linda Silverman was one of the few psychologists to study and theorize that there were subtle variations of the VAK style and that VAK didn't fit every child. Her work centered on the belief that within the visual spectrum there are multiple levels of learning. In her research she discovered that students who are visual AND spatial tend to struggle with abstract concepts and with traditional classroom instruction. Subjects such as math, grammar, spelling, for example, were consistently difficult for the visual-spatial learner. Furthermore, she discovered that VSLs tend to do very poorly in an auditory learning environment (the typical classroom). As she began working with gifted students she put together a system for identifying visual-spatial learning and then formulated ways to help students succeed in the public or private school classroom.

[Side note: You can read more about her work on her website: http://www.visual-spatial.org. Her book "Upside Down Brillance" is excellent, though very heady to read. I read it because I am one of the special kinds of visual-spatial learners she describes in her book -- the ones who tend to do things backwards or upside down (ex. I start at the end of a problem or project and work backwards to find the quickest and best route for success or solving.) If you happen to have a VSL and are struggling to understand how they learn, consider reading this book. It is eye-opening and well worth the price and time needed to wade through it.]

So how does all of this play out in a home school setting? I think most children who are home schooled are automatically given a much better chance to learn using all three modes of VAK. This is because in a home setting, the parent has already considered individualized instruction (usually the first suggestion made for students in a classroom). The caring parent at home has tried a variety of curriculum and has already narrowed down her choices to those that seem to work best for her children. If something doesn't work, she stops using it and tries something new. The student also gets a break because Mom is there to help as soon as she needs it. If she doesn't understand something, then Mom is there to explain it differently. Moreover, Mom often gives her children a wide variety of learning experiences. She allows them to learn through play, cooperative studies, unit studies, multi-age lessons, and hands on activities. The student is able to use all three modes of learning in the home setting whereas a student in a classroom might get more computer time or might get some pullout instruction, but generally will be expected to sit and listen to a lecture (audition) or be forced to sit and read silently (difficult for some visual-spatial students).

In answer to your question, I would say that having a general knowledge of learning styles can enhance your teaching ability. If you are using Charlotte Mason's educational method, then you really do not need to worry much about this unless your child happens to have reading problems. In a CM-education, children are taught through all three modes even though the primary emphasis is on visual learning (reading). CM was the first to suggest using VAK, though this is not what she called it. In her method, children are encouraged to read good books (V), to listen to good books being read aloud (A), and to explore and observe the world around them (K). A CM-educated student will be given wide exposure to learning through all three modalities.

If the student is well-rounded and learns well through all three modes, then this method will work well. If, however, your student happens to be visual-spatial and cannot not process information through audition, then they will find it difficult to learn using this method. Some VSL's are avid and excellent readers (some will teach themselves to read at a very young age) while some struggle with learning how to read and with reading comprehension. Some VSLs are sight readers and will not really learn to read well until age 9, 10 or 11. The gifted spatial learner will find a classical or literature-based curriculum dry and boring, simply because the emphasis is on reading visually plain books (your typical classical book is 5 1/2 x 8 with white or off-white pages and very small black print.)

This is really why I got interested in VSL's and why I have worked to customize my son's curriculum. If he were simply a gifted student and able to learn using VAK, then nearly all the home school curriculum would work for him. He is not, and as such, I have had to find the best curriculum that will fit his preferred learning style. For us, this means that I need to give him a mix of curriculum and use several different teaching methods. I do place the emphasis on visual presentation and use this as my guide when choosing books, DVDs or other teaching programs.

This year, he is using A Beka DVDs. The visual learning aspect has been right on target and he finds that he is learning and retaining an amazing amount of information in all subject areas (the proof is in his test scores -- consistently in the 97-100% range on reading comprehension and on comprehensive tests). Compared to last year with our literature-based curriculum, his tests scores were in the 50-60% range. Overall, the change from visual (reading) to visual-spatial (computer-based) has greatly improved his retention. This improvement has been seen across the board in all subject areas. In his weakest areas, math and English grammar/composition, his retention of facts has nearly tripled. This improvement it is so dynamic and impressive that I believe it will have long-term impact. The downside of using these specific DVDs is the boredom factor. Since these DVDs mimic classroom situations (teacher in front, students in desks), he finds the overall pacing to be too slow and the repetition, unneccessary. So the perfect solution is to find a visual teaching aid that offers high-quality visual instruction, but doesn't simply substitute record a high school classroom.

A Beka textbooks work well for him too. These are highly visual books and are very sequential in their presentation. Since my son struggles to follow details or to be able to order events having a textbook that already does this for him is very helpful. He likes to read these texts because they have lots of colorful pictures, charts and diagrams to look at. All of these things appeal to his visual-spatial learning mode and help him process details and put the information in it's proper context. The downside of using a textbook curriculum is that they don't really challenge the mind to think 'outside the box,' which is something that VSL's naturally do and enjoy.

Therefore, after nearly four years of trying to figure this "curriculum thing" out, I think I have finally discovered that the best approach is to not rely on one single teaching method (Classical or Charlotte Mason or traditional) and instead use a variety of methods for each subject area. Next year, my plan is to alter my son's curriculum so that he has equal thirds: one-third literature-based; one-third computer-aided; and one-third hands-on/observation study. In general, my plan is to teach using VAK, but to tailor it more towards his visual-spatial preference, all the while giving him plenty of opportunity to learn through his weaker auditory and kinesthetic modes. My goal is to enable him to learn and retain the new material using all three learning modalities.

In closing, I definitely believe that there is value in learning more about your child's learning style. In doing so, it will help you become a better teacher and it will help you better understand how to best to teach your child. Home schooling is a wonderful way to get to know your child and watching them learn is half the fun of it. By taking the time to understand their individual needs, you will be providing a higher quality learning experience for them.

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