What are Learning Styles?
What are learning styles? And does your child have one?
Think back to the last time you had to learn something new. Maybe you needed directions to a new place. Or you had to put together a piece of furniture, or make a new recipe. Did you just listen to (or read) what was said, nod your head, and go do it? Did you ask to have a map drawn for you, look at step by step pictures, watch someone else actually doing it? Or did you just want to jump in there and go through the motions of doing it yourself?
As a student, would you want a teacher to give a lecture? Would you want to see pictures? Videos? Would you want to see a map of places that come up in the discussion? Would graphs and diagrams help?
Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic?
According to the learning styles hypothesis, people learn new things in different ways. Visual learners want to see pictures, diagrams, maps, or videos. Auditory learners prefer audiobooks, discussions, and verbal explanations. Kinesthetic (tactile or physical) learners want hands on experiences and interactive demos.
Some researchers break out a fourth learning style – reading/writing. This is an interesting one, since reading and writing are acquired skills. As humans, we’re hardwired to have verbal, auditory, and kinesthetic abilities. Babies have them, as do people who were never taught to read or write. However, formal schooling does depend on being able to read and write well!
One example of a questionnaire for learning styles is the VARK. VARK stands for Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. You can take it and see results for free, though they’ll try to sell you “personalized results”.
Are Learning Styles Real?
Learning styles were a hot fad when I was in graduate school for education. Many published curricula include suggestions for incorporating visual or kinesthetic strategies. The problem is, research suggests that learning styles don’t exist.
From the Atlantic article:
Another study published last year in the British Journal of Psychology found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures.
Read the full article, if you have time – it’s very illuminating!
People do have real preferences. A person who thinks of herself as a “visual learner” does like images and video. But honoring those preferences while learning or studying doesn’t seem to help.
Like many fads in education, learning styles just won’t go away. Which means that they’re serving some purpose, even if it’s not the one we think.
Why Are Learning Styles So Attractive?
If “honoring” learning styles in educational settings doesn’t make a difference, why are so many people invested in using them?
Here are several reasons:
- Educational settings can feel impersonal and unresponsive to people’s needs. Trying to cater to someone’s “learning style” makes it feel more personal and responsive.
- There is very little choice in many traditional educational settings. Having preferences and choices feels empowering.
- Students don’t get much movement in some environments. Sitting and listening is draining, even for people who enjoy listening. Hands on activities are more exciting! Doing group activities, experiments, or projects allows for more movement (as well as more social talking). Students focus better, and learn more, when they are actively involved.
The way that reading is taught might be part of the problem:
- Reading is often taught piecemeal, with important components like phonics not emphasized or left out entirely. People who don’t feel confident with reading might say they are “visual learners” as a way of downplaying the importance of reading well. However, these same people might enjoy listening to the radio or to audiobooks, which take the visual component away from reading!
- Students with disabilities often struggle with reading and writing, which call greatly on verbal ability. Adding in visual and hands on activities allows them to access the material. Multi-sensory presentation and practice of reading skills has been shown to be highly effective for students with dyslexia and other disabilities.
Instead of looking at students, we need to question assumptions about school and teaching methods.
Teaching the Whole Child
Here are some practical suggestions for ensuring that your child will learn in every modality – as well as enjoy his or her preferences.
“Multisensory” means that you are recruiting as many of your child’s senses as possible when practicing a skill. Young children naturally add movement to everything they do, so go with it! For example, when your child is sounding out a word, she can clap or tap her fingers as she goes letter by letter, or syllable by syllable. As he writes spelling words, have your child say the sounds out loud, so that he is writing, listening to the sound, and seeing the printed letters at the same time.
Hands-On Projects and Experiments
Projects naturally involve multiple senses, especially touch. Most kids enjoy physically handling materials, building, and presenting a finished product. Engaging in a process without a finished product is also great!
Science experiments will help your child to visualize concepts, as well as practice acting and thinking like a scientist.
Avoid Visual Overstimulation
Children in today’s modern world may love visuals because they’re everywhere, and of much higher quality than in the past. So they may well gravitate to images and video, or any rapidly changing, highly stimulating visual. Look at the addictive quality of video games and apps!
Don’t get me wrong – video, apps, documentaries, etc. can be great tools. But kids who are constantly consuming this type of media may find it more difficult to appreciate discussions and other non-visual modalities. Video games provide constant feedback and have been programmed to maximize time within them – in other words, to be addictive. (And it’s not just games – it’s social media as well.)
Back in the early 80s, in my childhood, computers weren’t even in color – and the first games were text based! (Zork, anyone?) Kids like me were tempted by TV and the first VCRs, but we didn’t have to tune out visual stimulation the way that kids today do. The presence of screens everywhere, in public and at home, means there are so many opportunities to get sucked in. So are we all visual learners now, or are we taxed with having to filter out too many visual distractions?
Raising a child in today’s environment of touch screens and Netflix-and-chill, I’m very conscious of how much screen time he’s getting. For more on screen time, check out this post.
Most importantly, be responsive to your child!
Giving choices and honoring you child’s rhythms will make learning in any modality easier. Your child will learn to enjoy all the different ways of gathering information if the activities are developmentally appropriate and fun!
A note about planning…
Are you looking for an easy format for planning out your child’s learning? Download my planner template for free!