From the moment they’re born, children absorb the world around them with everything they have. At first it’s obvious when a child is using a particular sense to learn something but as they get older the process gets more subtle. Fortunately, it’s rare to see a preschooler taste a strange object to try to understand it. By that age, their information processing is far more subtle but no less fascinating and understanding their individual strengths and preferences may help them to get the best out of their brains.
Intelligence, as traditionally measured by IQ (Intelligence Quotient), is a tricky subject. Although IQ scores can give you a general idea of a child’s capabilities, they are less adept at showing the different ways they think and learn. It takes a certain kind of brainpower to be able to read a defensive line and pass a football at just the right moment, likewise to be able to pull an engine apart and put it together again or play a piece of music after listening to it. In recent years, theories have been developed which try to make sense of the different abilities our brains have and how to best make use of them.
Learning Style Theories
Modern learning style theory evolved mostly in the 80s when information from magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) showed different parts of the brain being active in different people during information processing. This, in conjunction with existing psychology theories led to the myriad of learning styles theories that are in use today. There are currently more than 70 theories but the basic premise is the same: due to differences in our brains, we all tend to upload information in different ways. The ‘meshing’ hypothesis then suggests that best results are obtained when the appropriate teaching style is matched to each child’s favoured learning style.
One of the styles that is often used for primary aged children in Australia is known as the VAK, or visual, auditory (listening), kinaesthetic (touching) approach. Similarly, the theory of Multiple Intelligences developed by Howard Gardner identifies eight different ‘intelligences’ including visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, kinaesthetic/body, musical, naturalistic and inter- and intra-personal, through which the brain learns and processes.
Online quizzes can’t substitute for specialised testing but here are some very simple tests to give you a general idea of your preferences.
Types of learning styles
Visual learners or kids with an aptitude for visual-spatial intelligence are said to favour information that is presented in picture or graph form and their mental processes will often be represented by images, colours and shapes, rather than words. They are also thought to understand the big picture first before they can comprehend the details, which is why they may sometimes struggle with sequential problems like long division. Some people believe that visual learning has become much more prevalent with each successive generation through our constant exposure to television and computer images.
Although fields like art, architecture and design might draw visual learners, there’s no reason why they can’t excel in any field. In fact the majority of children are thought to have a visual preference, followed by auditory and then kinaesthetic.
Consider this quote from Albert Einstein to try to understand the mind of a visual thinker.
“The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The ...elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined. .... This ... seems to be the essential feature in productive thought before there is any connection with ... words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others”.
Fellow Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, by contrast, was famously obsessed with tinkering with homemade radios as a child – a strong kinaesthetic trait. There’s probably more than a little kinaesthetic learner in all children. Kids love to learn by doing and getting hands-on with subjects like science can really help to bring them alive, especially for the less book-inclined. A child whose eyes glaze over at a science textbook may love brewing fiendish potions and making crazy inventions from bits of scrap.
Neither Einstein nor Feynman spoke until they were three years old. Although that’s enough to make a modern parent stress, their future Nobel prizes indicate that, rather than a lack of brain power, they could have just had an early inclination away from auditory learning.
Auditory learners tend to absorb verbal instructions much better than written ones and be able to relay their knowledge much more effectively out loud than on paper. Although their strengths may not always be apparent with written testing, auditory learners can be quick witted and silver tongued. Often good at music, they may also be adept at discerning the hidden meanings behind speech, so watch what you say! British leader Winston Churchill, who was notoriously bad at his written studies yet is known as one of the greatest speakers of modern times, may well be their patron saint.
The idea that all children have different strengths and weaknesses and different ways of absorbing information appeals to us on an intuitive level. In this context, to try to pigeonhole everyone into the same method of acquiring knowledge and skills seems like the days when left-handers were beaten until they complied with the right handed paradigm. To many, memories of vainly trying to make sense of page after page of dryly written textbooks or recited lessons are powerful indicators of how education can often fail to engage us. And don’t we all know somebody who is a genius of a kind but failed their way through school?
In fact research certainly shows that most people have a preference for information being presented to them in a certain way. It has also been clearly shown that different people have aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and information processing.
It would seem to make sense then that having an education technique specifically tailored to our preferences would give better results. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been borne out by trials which have generally found no difference in results between a targeted learning styles approach and control groups. Whilst practitioners have evolved many methods of classifying children into different learning styles, they have been unable to show that using a child’s preferred style will give a better result.
This isn’t to say that the meshing hypothesis has been disproved, merely that its value in giving improved education results has yet to be shown. What could explain this apparent disconnect between the research findings and the popularity of these systems? There are several possible reasons.
Firstly, it’s important to note that learning styles are independent of learning ability. There does not appear to be any learning style that is better than another or more prevalent in gifted children. This is actually one of the aspects of the theory that is appealing to people, because it classifies us as being different to each other rather than better or worse but it also means that identifying a child’s learning style will not necessarily give you an idea of their overall capabilities.
Also, it’s probable that most children will never fit neatly into one category or another but will be a confounding mix of variables. Some academics believe that categorising children into V, A, and K is distilling a complex process to an extent that renders it essentially useless. For instance, whilst there may be an overall preference, kids can use different strategies depending on the type of information being learnt so it may not be correct to simply call someone a ‘visual learner’ and assume that it is universally true.
Even the environment in which information is presented may affect a child’s preference. Look at these comments from children who, when given standard tests, claimed to find difficulties with auditory learning styles. When asked then about why they found information difficult to assimilate that way they said the following:
Colin: Listening because people on my table talk to each other, and I can’t hear the teacher talk.
June: For me it would have to be the listening because the boys, they don’t let you learn… they’re just so noisy and that’s why I don’t hear that much...
Is this a case of children who are poor auditory learners or simply an environment that isn’t conducive to auditory learning?
It may also be that, while people often have a preference for being given information in a certain way, some learning is inherently better suited to certain styles. Think about how we learn to swing a golf club. Does it make sense for an ‘auditory’ learner to attempt to learn through verbal instruction rather than a focus on demonstration (visual) and practice (kinaesthetic)?
The Bottom Line
One of the key facets of learning is motivation. The value of the learning styles method may be in part due to the fact that it encourages a closer interaction between teacher and student and encourages the student to believe that they are being treated as an individual. Experienced teachers tend to understand that learning styles, while helpful, are not a magic bullet and will attempt to cater to and encourage all different types of learning.
It is certainly important to know ourselves and our strengths but we should also take care to avoid labels. Many beliefs about the abilities and weaknesses of different learning styles should be taken with a grain of salt as the research is still in a relatively early stage. There is nothing to say that a preference is carved in stone or that we can’t get better at non-preferred styles through patience and practice.
Tips for Parents
- Make sure young kids are exposed to different styles of learning. TV and computers can be useful educators but reading aloud every day, singing and hands-on learning toys like Lego, for example, are important as well.
- Being good at one style doesn’t mean a child should avoid other styles. Be flexible and ready to adapt as needed but remember the value of teaching persistence.
- An environment free from distraction that encourages natural curiosity is at least as important as the style the information is presented in.