Saturday, January 29, 2011

learning styles

In the blog, I have frequently talked about multiple intelligences theory, that we human beings are smart in a variety of ways beyond what are currently expressed in schooling. Learning styles also vary among individuals, and there are a variety of theories to describe the ways in which we learn. One of the most common theories of learning style breaks us down as being primarily "auditory, visual, or kinesthetic and tactile learners."

I was reminded of this subject by a comment from one of our teachers in the wood shop this last week when she informed our class, "I am a visual learner." In other words she feels she understands things most clearly when she sees something being done or visually demonstrated by another. For her, just listening is not enough. In theory, each of us is predominantly of one type or another, and it can be important for children to understand how they learn best in order to make their own learning needs known. I was interested in how things break down by percentage and this is what I found in Family Education website:
"Approximately 20 to 30 percent of the school-aged population remembers what is heard; 40 percent recalls well visually the things that are seen or read; many must write or use their fingers in some manipulative way to help them remember basic facts; other people cannot internalize information or skills unless they use them in real-life activities such as actually writing a letter to learn the correct format." --(Teaching Students to Read Through Their Individual Learning Styles, Marie Carbo, Rita Dunn, and Kenneth Dunn; Prentice-Hall, 1986, p.13.)
In other words, the lecture format is the least effective means to offer learning opportunities, and yet is the primary means through which secondary and University educations are presented. The interesting thing is that the wood shop actually presents the strengths of all three. You see, you hear AND you do. Hands-on learning encompasses all three predominant learning styles and it doesn't take extensive research to understand what you can test for yourself and observe in your own life.

John Grossbohlin sent this link to an article in the Wall Street Journal on the failure of colleges and universities to impart critical thinking skills. Doonesbury had a cartoon last week in which the professor explained to his university students how much they (or their parents) were paying for each to sit through his lecture while they were  distracted by twitter and checking Facebook on their hand-held digital devices instead of paying attention in class. Do you think that students would better develop critical thinking skills if they were actually doing something about real learning?

If only 20-30 percent of university students are auditory learners it seems like parents would want to ask for more than their money's worth from their children's educations. Knowing what schooling is, they might at least wonder what their children are doing there in the first place, or demand that real learning take place. Some children and parents will be saddled with massive debt for the time spent Facebooking and all a-twitter in lecture halls throughout the US.

What kind of learner are YOU? Answer the survey in the column at right. Make, fix create, and share a better understanding of hands-on learning with those in your life. The photo above shows the assembly of dovetails forming the corners of the maple Krenov inspired cabinet also shown at left.


  1. As is pointed out in the Wikipedia article you link to, the actual evidence for "learning styles" is thin. I like the quote attributed to Susan Greenfield: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain."

    I agree that learning by listening to lectures has severe limitations, but I don't think it's due to a "learning style" mismatch. Rather, it's utilizing only a fraction of the sensory/cognitive apparatus all humans are gifted with. That is, I agree with your conclusions (hands-on and other multi-sensory learning opportunities are vital) - I'm just much less sure about the validity of "learning styles" as an explanation.

  2. Larry, Multiple intelligences theory and learning styles theory have a lot in common in that they try to isolate cognitive components from an undifferentiated whole. The false notion that both present is that you can teach in a prescriptive manner, that is, let me add a bit of kinesthetic and everything will be okey dokey.

    In the the fakey atmosphere of a conventional classroom where everything is made up, it is hard to be real. I have told the story before of one of Pestalozzi's students who asked his teacher, "why show me a PICTURE of a ladder, when we could go look at the real one in the shed?" Pestalozzi noted that whenever possible students should learn from the real world and the rich multi-sensory depth it presents. And so, I will agree with you as to "learning styles" being questionable. Descriptions of things are never the real thing.

  3. Anonymous6:17 AM

    In 35 years of teaching, mostly in a setting where lecture was the only option, the most valuable lesson I learned was that it was up to the teacher to engage students by using whatever means necessary. If this meant being the teacher who students remembered as "weird," so be it.