When it came time to do homework or study for a test, Kim Francis would insist her daughter Taylor sit at the desk in her room, where she could work quietly, with no interruptions. Taylor, however, preferred to curl up on the living couch to study, with the stereo and TV blaring. “After several weeks of fighting with her, and homework that should have taken minutes taking several hours, I relented,” Francis says, “and let her do her homework where she wanted,” but not without misgivings. After all, what kind of study habits can a child develop sprawled on the couch amidst a racket? Most parents would wholeheartedly agree: Optimal learning requires quiet concentration. The more distracting the environment, the more distracted the mind. Many learning experts, however, would beg to differ. They say it all depends on how your child’s brain is “pre-wired”, and that some kids — like Taylor — do their best work in a relaxed setting, surrounded by movement and sound.
How a child is pre-wired affects how he learns “When we think about the domains of functioning of the brain and the regions of the brain that are involved in these domains, we think about taking in information,” says learning specialist Susan Schwartz, clinical coordinator of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the NYU Child Study Center. “You learn by looking at things; you learn by listening, and you learn by interacting with your environment.” Learning specialists categorize learning styles — also referred to as preferences or modalities — in a variety of ways, typically encompassing psychological, social, sensory, environmental and emotional parameters. One psychological parameter is global versus analytical processing. It’s one way of looking at how the brain processes information — how we think, Schwartz says. Analytical children “learn in an organized and sequential way,” taking information in one step at a time, until they understand the whole. Global children, on the other hand, “see the big picture first, then break it down into its parts.” Some children do all of these things, while some do only a couple of these things, Schwartz adds. Dr. Rita Dunn, director of the Learning-Styles Network at the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles at St. John's University in Jamaica, Queens, concurs, pointing to decades of research that shows each of us — adults as well as children — absorbs information in different ways. “At St. John’s University, we have identified 21 different variables that immediately impact on how people learn,” Dr. Dunn says. Some people, for example, need to persist with a task until it’s done. “They just don’t feel comfortable leaving something up in the air,” while others need breaks while they’re working. None of these preferences is better than another, Dr. Dunn stresses. Anyone can learn, but each learns optimally in his or her own way. Some children are extremely artistic, some very social, some are musical, and they each learn best when taught to their strengths, Schwartz says. For example, w hen teaching a musical child about the days of the week, rather than simply reciting them, “I can sing a little song about the days of the week, and won’t that child learn that in a much different way?” While some of our cognitive abilities are environmentally driven, others are biologically imposed, experts say. Simply, we’re born that way. “Research has shown that in nine out of 10 families, mothers and fathers have opposite learning styles,” Dr. Dunn says. “The first-born child will reflect the learning style of one parent — not the other. Your second-born child will not learn like your first, but will reflect the other parent’s style,” and the third won’t reflect the learning style of either parent.
Match between learning and teaching styles essential Kim Francis concedes that while she disagreed early on, Taylor’s at-home study habits appear to be in sync with her learning style. She has studied her preferred way for three years now and has a high ‘A’ average and received a 4.0 on her first-quarter sixth grade report card. Many learning issues surface in the classroom, however, as teaching styles vary. And while every method is right for certain children, it’s not right for other children, based on their learning styles. “Some youngsters need a very structured style of learning,” says Florence Rubinson, Ph.D., professor at the School of Education at Brooklyn College. “They need things to be linear, they need sequence, and they need frequent feedback,” which they won’t get from a laissez faire, unstructured teacher. Such a child in that class will probably not learn as optimally that year as he could have with a more structured teacher, Dr. Rubinson adds. “It has nothing to do with intelligence or cognitive ability. It just has to do with the match.” Regardless of a child’s preference, learning specialists can identify it and show the learner his strengths. At the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles, “We don’t even talk about weaknesses” Dr. Dunn notes. The focus is on the strengths, and on determining the approach and material that best suits a particular learning style. “There’s no such thing as a good or a bad style. But the point is that if you don’t do it in the way that you can do it well, you start to achieve poorly,” she adds. “For example, when I was a kid, some people used to say, ‘I’m good at English, but I’m not good a math.’ That doesn’t make any sense. If you’re good at anything, you can be good at everything.”
Multi-modal teaching approach most effective While a child might favor a particular modality, learning preferences aren’t necessarily exclusive. For example, while auditory learners demonstrate strong listening and verbal aptitude, they can also benefit from the visual element as well. The best teachers are those who teach with a multi-modal approach, experts say. “A teacher can take any lesson and think about how to present it so that different children are getting it in a different way,” Schwartz says. For example, “You can present a social studies lesson about the Declaration of Independence, and you can read it to the class — kids are listening. You can have the children follow along and read with you, so they’re looking and listening at the same time.” You can also get a replica of the Declaration of Independence and pass it around the room, so children can touch it, Schwartz explains. “If you do this, the kids who learn sequentially are going to get it; the kids who learn by feeling, tasting, touching are going to get, and the kids who learn by listening are going to get it.” Dr. Rubinson concurs. “All the research shows that if you engage all of your learning modalities, you learn more. It’s like the difference between watching a cooking show, watching somebody bake a pie, and then actually baking a pie with somebody.” But not all teachers teach this way, which can be problematic. It’s also important to recognize that at some point, “everybody hits a wall,” says Janine Bempechat, Ed. D., senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University, and the author of three books about motivation and achievement, including Getting Our Kids Back on Track: Educating Children for the Future. “It’s a question of when they hit it. And a lot of kids tend to hit bumps in the road at predictable times.” In the fourth grade, for example, there’s a big transition in reading; you go from reading for pronunciation to reading for understanding. “For all kids this is a transition; some kids find it much more difficult than others,” Dr. Bempechat says. There’s also a big transition in math when algebra is introduced. “It’s a completely different domain, so you can have very strong math students suddenly struggling.” These transitional periods are opportune times to evaluate a child’s learning preferences, experts say. In most cases, the struggle is directly related to the transition; in other cases it can indicate a previously undetected learning disability.
Learning styles difference versus learning disability “A learning disability can be identified at any stage along the continuum of education,” Schwartz says. There are some things we don’t know about children when they get to middle school, for example. A child might have done OK when he had just one teacher, but now he has six, “and things are breaking down.” It could be a transition issue, or it could be something else. Testing can reveal whether it’s a learning disability rather than simply a learning style difference, facilitating appropriate intervention, Schwartz explains. “If a child has been tested and you find there is not a learning disability, you have still delineated a profile of strengths and weaknesses, and you can make determinations about how that child learns, so it’s not a mystery.” Learning styles assessment can also prevent misdiagnosis of a learning disability. Take, for example, a child diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), says Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, author of more than a dozen books, including The Way They Learn. A number of environmental factors could contribute to the child’s inability to pay attention, Tobias says. Perhaps her legs are too short to reach the ground when she sits at her desk, and she develops pins and needles in her feet. She starts to squirm because she’s uncomfortable. Adjusting the environment — such as simply placing a box beneath her feet — can reduce her discomfort, enabling her to focus more on learning. “If we start teaching children as early as possible about their learning style, it shifts the responsibility to the learner,” Tobias says.
Parents play a vital role Learning experts agree that parents need to take a proactive stance in ensuring their children are taught in ways that optimize their learning. Schwartz suggests involvement on three levels:
Global level: Lobby for your school district to implement a “learning styles committee made up of parents, teachers and the superintendent,” delivering the message that since “all kids learn in different ways, the material can’t be presented year after year in the same old way, because every child doesn’t get it,” Schwartz says.
Local level: Meet with your child’s current teacher to understand their methods, as well as ensure that he or she considers your child’s particular learning style when making recommendations for next year’s placement. “You can say, ‘My kid learns best by…’ and delineate what those strengths and weaknesses are,” Schwartz advises. Hopefully the teacher will have noticed these same strengths and weaknesses and contemplate which teacher — or core of teachers in older grades — will be an appropriate match for your child.
Personal level: Share your observations with your children, Schwartz says. “Tell them what you notice about how they learn best, and ask them what they notice about themselves and how they learn best.”
Dr. Dunn concurs, and urges parents to also do some reading on their own and “not just listen to what other people say.” There is a great deal of information available about how differently every child learns. But unfortunately, many school administrators don’t know, Dr. Dunn says. “And many of the teachers don’t know.” But if parents do their homework, they can have a powerful voice. If they really understood the scope of learning styles, “parents would demand this in the schools.”
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LEARNING STYLES? Parents and/or PTA groups can contact: —Learning-Styles Network at the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles, St. John’s University, www.learningstyles.net, (718) 990-6335/6.
—Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement, at New York University Child Study Center, www.aboutourkids.org, (212) 263-6622.
Recommended Reading: • The Way They Learn, by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, (Focus on the Family Pub., 1998)
• Discover Your Child’s Learning Style, by Mariaemma Willis, (Prima Lifestyles, 1999)
• So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences, by Harvey F. Silver, (Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development; 2000)
• Learning Styles, by Barbara K. Given, (Learning Forum; Rev. edition (2000)
WHAT ‘STYLE’ IS YOUR CHILD? Tobias’ book discusses five learning style models: Mind Styles, Environmental Preferences, Modalities, Analytic/Global Information Processing and Multiple Intelligences. Tobias explains that an auditory child learns not just by hearing, but completes the cycle by hearing herself talk about what she has recently learned. The auditory child is a firecracker who talks nonstop, interrupts constantly and asks a million questions, exhausting her parents in the process. The visual child immediately starts putting a picture together in his head about information he is taking in, which could be completely different from what you see in your mind. The kinesthetic child is one who is born to move. He or she gets into trouble in school often and learning is interrupted because of his or her inability to stay seated at a desk for any length of time. Teaching this type of child at home is a challenge because you’re constantly having to say, “Sit still, don’t touch that, listen to me when I talk to you.” The solution is to combine learning and motion together. Let the kinesthetic child sit in a rocking chair while she listens to you, and allow her to satisfy her desire for movement by keeping her lessons on a clipboard, and work for short periods of time. Tobias says that these simple modalities make a tremendous difference in how a child remembers what it is he or she is supposed to learn.