INDIVIDUAL LEARNING DIFFERENCES
“Where did the thunder go? In back of the world?”
– 4 year old
If the stages of a child’s development are the framework for this temple, this house of faith we’re building, then Learning Strengths are the wiring. Learning Strengths are factors that motivate a person to learn.
God has wired each person differently. Just as each person has favorite foods, each person also has favorite ways to learn, although she might not be conscious of it. These Learning Strengths make it easy for her to learn. They enable, energize, or even motivate her. She is comfortable on these paths of learning. Other paths, which may be preferred by another person, may be full of roadblocks for her.
Many researchers have studied the factors that affect the way we learn. The following information is a simplified overview of some of those models.
Dr. Rita Dunn and Dr. Kenneth Dunn are educators who have done extensive research on learning styles. They found that people perceive information best when it comes to them through the sense they prefer: auditory, visual, or tactile/kinesthetic.
All preschoolers are tactile/kinesthetic. They learn best when they are moving and active. But many older children learn best this way, too. Among all people over ten years old, 40% learn best by moving and doing.
Some children six through nine years old show a preference for visual learning. They learn best by seeing. Among all people over ten years old, 40% learn best by seeing.
Around ten years old, some children start showing a preference for auditory learning. They learn best by hearing. Among all people over ten years old, 20% learn best by hearing.
What does this have to do with our teaching? We tend to teach the way we learn best. That means if we learn best by hearing, we tend to do most of our teaching by talking. We expect children to learn by just listening. If we learn best by seeing, we tend to use a lot of visuals. If we learn best by touching and doing, we tend to use lots of active learning.
Do you like to see charts, diagrams and maps? Do you like to watch a skill demonstrated before you try it? If your answer is yes, you are probably a visual learner and teacher.
Do you learn best by listening to teachers? Do you learn better if you hear yourself repeat the information? Do you like to learn by discussing issues with others? If your answer is yes, you are probably an auditory learner and teacher.
Do you learn best by trying things yourself? Do you like hands-on learning? Are you good at activities that require movement? If your answer is yes, you are probably a tactile/kinesthetic learner and teacher.
Think about how you learn best. Think about how you teach. Ask yourself if you need to move out of your comfort zone when you teach so you can communicate better to those children who learn differently than you do. If you are a visual learner and teacher, you would be wise to add auditory and tactile/kinesthetic activities to your lessons. If you are an auditory learner and teacher, you’d be wise to branch out into more visual and tactile/kinesthetic methods.
Physical and Environmental Strengths
Dunn and Dunn also discovered several environmental elements that affect learning.
Physical position. Some people learn best when they are lying flat on their stomachs. Some learn best when they are sprawled on a soft couch. Some concentrate best when they are sitting straight up.
Movement. Some people learn best when they are moving. In a traditional classroom setting, these people are constantly swinging a leg back and forth, or wiggling a foot, or drumming their fingers. I am a wiggler. When I have to concentrate, it helps if I pace the floor. I have learned to keep a pad of paper and pencil handy when I exercise, because when I begin moving, I get all kinds of ideas. Somehow when my body is moving, my mind is free to think.
Eating or chewing. What do these kids chew on in traditional classrooms where they can’t have gum or snacks? They chew on their pencils and erasers, or even on scraps of paper. It helps them think.
Sound helps some people. Silence helps others. My sister used to come home from school and go into her room to do her homework. Then she would turn on loud rock music. I never believed that she was studying, because I prefer a quiet environment. But now I know my sister really was studying. She just does it differently than I do.
Light. Some people learn best in bright light. Some learn best in dim light. Most people learn best in natural daylight. My son’s fourth grade teacher knew this. She talked her school into buying full spectrum light bulbs for her classroom. It gave the room the look of being lit by natural daylight. She said she could tell the difference in her students. They were more alert and learned more easily.
Temperature. Some people learn best when the temperature is cooler. Some learn best when it’s warmer.
Time of day. Some people are morning people. Some are night people. Most elementary children learn best between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M.
Design of the room. Some people learn best when they’re in a formal setting with desks and chairs. But many learn best when they’re in an informal setting. One interesting fact: It’s easier for a person who prefers the formal setting to adapt to the informal setting than the other way around.
Strengths in Style
Bernice McCarthy studied learning and found that there are four styles of learning.
The Imaginative learner approaches what he must learn by asking the question, “Why?” He wants to know why the lesson is important. He learns best when he sees that it has meaning for his life. He also likes to work with people.
The Analytic learner asks, “What?” He wants to know facts. He likes things organized. He likes to solve problems and find answers. He’s a thinker.
The Common Sense learner asks, “How?” He likes to test the theories and try ideas. He enjoys hands-on projects.
The Dynamic learner asks, “What can become of this?” He likes to brainstorm and try new things. He is creative and thinks toward the future.
Strengths in Intelligence
In his book 7 Kinds of Smart, Thomas Armstrong explains Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner found that everyone has seven areas of intelligence. People usually operate well in two or three of the seven areas, although they can grow in the other areas as well.
Linguistic. People who are intelligent in the area of linguistics enjoy playing with sounds and words. They learn best by saying, hearing and seeing words. Writing, reading, and listening are activities they enjoy.
Logical-Mathematical. People who operate well in the logical-mathematical area of intelligence enjoy exploring patterns and experimenting. Reasoning out problems is fun for them. They enjoy science kits, brain teasers, computers, and things they can collect and categorize.
Spatial. Spatial people think in pictures. They are basically visual learners who enjoy films, videos, maps, cameras, building supplies and art materials.
Musical. Musical people like humming, singing, and playing instruments. They enjoy listening to music and are sensitive to rhythm and melody and all the sounds around them. Singing helps them memorize, and they often learn well when music is playing in the background.
Bodily-Kinesthetic. People who operate well in the bodily-kinesthetic area of intelligence like to learn through their senses. They enjoy anything physical. When they can touch and move, they learn more easily. They like role play, creative movement, and hands-on activities.
Interpersonal. These people like to organize and communicate. They enjoy other people and have lots of friends. Interacting with others helps them learn.
Intrapersonal. Intrapersonal people like to work alone. They are self-motivated and have deep thoughts, ideas and dreams.
A recent book by educator Richard Lavoie entitled The Motivational Breakthrough describes in great detail the problems of unmotivated children and suggests specific ways teachers and parents can motivate them. Lavoie found that each person is inspired by a combination of more or less of each of the following forces.
Gregariousness. Motivated by belonging. Gregarious kids tend to be verbal, popular, and positive. They love being in groups.
Autonomy. Motivated by independence. Autonomy-driven kids are also usually verbal. They are curious, self-motivated, and enjoy working alone.
Status. Motivated by being important. Status-seekers tend to be self-critical and need reassurance. While they like to be in the spotlight, they don’t want to fail and are sensitive to criticism. So they tend to comply.
Inquisitiveness. Motivated by knowing. Inquisitive kids like to problem-solve, experiment, read, and ask questions.
Aggression. Motivated by asserting themselves. Aggressive kids like responsibility. They speak out and may question authority or express strong opinions and complaints.
Power. Motivated by control. Power-charged kids can be leaders, competitive, courageous, persistent, and self-confident.
Recognition. Motivated by acknowledgment. Recognition-loving kids respond well to goals and performance. They’re competitive, but also sensitive.
Affiliation. Motivated by associating. Affiliators like role models and adult attention. They are afraid of rejection, but they are usually helpful and often volunteer.
Making it Practical
You may be sighing and rolling your eyes by now. How does all this information apply to my class? How in the world can we make our classrooms appeal to all these different kinds of learners?
First, know that you are not expected to be able to list all these styles and motivators. Nor is it necessary for you to know exactly which fits each child. In fact, it would not be wise to try to label each of your students to fit each of them into some sort of box. The point is to realize how unique each child is and know that we should provide our students VARIETY and FLEXIBILITY. We should include some activities to see, some to hear, and some to touch and do. We use music and puzzles, videos and role play. We try to be sensitive to children who like to work in groups and sensitive to children who enjoy working alone. Children are usually willing and able to do activities that don’t match their specific learning preference, if they know that sooner or later they’ll get to do something that appeals to them.
Here’s how this information became practical to me. When my class had group time, we sat on a rug. A few children always preferred to lie on their stomachs or lean back. Since I knew that not all children learn best sitting up straight, I allowed them to sit any way they wanted as long as they did not disturb anyone else.
Sometimes I lowered the light level by telling the Bible story with the ceiling lights off, using flashlights or flickering fake candles. We often had a cooking activity and talked about the story or theme while the children ate. We sometimes played a tape softly as background music. We mixed active times with quiet times. I tried to be flexible and flow with what I perceived the students’ needs to be, and I tried to include everyone by using variety. Now that I write curricula, I pay attention to making sure I provide plenty of variety and flexibility for other classrooms as well.
One mother told me that her older son was very strong in the linguistic and logical-mathematical area. He made very good grades in school. Her younger son was not strong in those same areas and did not make good grades. But he was very strong in the tactile-kinesthetic area. He could catch and throw any kind of ball. Fortunately, this mother had learned about the theory of multiple intelligence. She would not allow her son to buy into the typical belief that the linguistic son was smarter than the kinesthetic son. She insisted that they see each other as smart, each with a strength in a different area. Accepting the fact that each child in our household or classroom is unique helps us respect and encourage every child.
Every child is smart. Every child can learn. It is we who must communicate in ways that help them understand. As Richard Lavoie wrote, “Basically, if the child cannot learn in the way we teach, we must teach in the way he learns.”
–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 12
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.