Learning styles

We all learn differently. It’s self-evident when we look at babies and toddlers: some are eager to explore the world, others prefer to sit and observe. Some learn to crawl before they are six months old, some are nearer nine or ten months old, some never crawl and shuffle around on their bottoms instead. Speech development is even more varied. I knew a child who had 100 clear words at a year old, and another who had only about five distinct words when he was two-and-a-half.

Many years ago a Reception class teacher in a UK school told me that in several years of teaching she had never come across two children who learned to read in exactly the same way. She adjusted her style, and the books used, to each individual within her class. Unfortunately, with increased regulations and testing in schools, this is less likely to happen, and is another positive reason for home education, where each child’s needs and learning styles can be taken into account.

What are learning styles?

There are several schools of thought. The best-known is probably that which divides the population very broadly into three groups: visual learners, auditory learners, and kinaesthetic learners.

Visual learners tend to need books, diagrams or pictures to learn, and understand speaking better if they can also observe body language. They may find graphical internet sites or television a good way to learn rapidly, and may be artistically inclined. Auditory learners are much more attuned to the sense of hearing. They tend to learn well from lectures, or audio tapes, and remember better things they have heard rather than things they have seen. They need verbal explanations in preference to diagrams or maps, and may be musically inclined. Kinaesthetic learners are those who learn best by doing something. They require a hands-on approach to anything new and will gain much more from carrying out an experiment than by reading about it or watching someone else do it. They may well be good at sports or other physical activities.

However it seems generally accepted now that visual learning has two distinct sub-sets: verbal and non-verbal. There are many people who learn well from images and diagrams, but not from reading. There are, equally, many who learn primarily from books and content-based web-sites, but who don’t find diagrams or pictures much use at all. There’s a useful page here which explains these four learning styles, what they mean, and what the best learning strategies are for each.

Strongest learning styles

Of course we can all use all four styles at times, but one or two are likely to stand out well above the others.

A different school of thought considers learning styles related to the Myers-Briggs personality type theory. A brief outline of how this works is on my personality types page. Myers-Briggs theory proposes that we are all born with sets of preferences, which we develop gradually as we grow up. If allowed to exercise our preferences, and respected for who we are, we will eventually develop skill in those we don’t prefer. It has obvious relevance to learning: for instance an Extraverted child will feel energised and interested when in a group, discussing new ideas, while an Introverted child may learn best on his or her own. The Felder-Silverman model of learning styles is based on Myers-Briggs terminology; the site is quite academic and detailed, but has a useful questionnaire to help determine likely styles in this system.

The third main school of thought about learning styles is that of multiple intelligences, which is explained on a separate page. This takes the original three styles and divides into further categories such as musical or intra-personal.

Learning styles in home education

If your image of education is something formal, sitting at desks and absorbing facts, you might find it difficult to change your viewpoint. You might even think your child is being disobedient if he will not stop fidgeting, or seems uninterested in reading. You might feel in despair if your first child completed workbooks easily and confidently, whereas your second child moans, groans, and then takes two hours to complete one page.

At the other extreme, you might have planned an active, hands-on type of education, with plenty of field trips and practical science experiments and craft activities. You might expect your child to join local swimming and soccer teams and to mix easily with others at home educators’ gatherings – and yet find he would rather be curled up in his room reading a book.

Taking learning styles into account

We need to take our children’s styles and learning preferences into account. As home educators, it’s most effective – and also most pleasant for all involved – if we are aware of the way our children learn best. If parent and child share a primary learning style, it’s unlikely to cause a problem. But if they are different, things could be difficult. The parent may assume the child will like to use workbooks, and to read extensively. No matter how relaxed and friendly the parent is, this will not help a child who finds it difficult to sit still and needs hands-on experiences.

Whereas a school might try and force a kinaesthetic child to conform, perhaps even recommending drugs, a wise home educating parent will encourage frequent breaks for exercise, and not worry about fidgeting. A kinaesthetic child might find it easier to learn facts (if facts must be learned) while doing something – perhaps juggling, or turning somersaults, or baking cakes – than by sitting still.

It might seem even more puzzling if your style is to educate autonomously with plenty of kinaesthetic activity, and your child prefers to read or listen to the radio. It might totally confuse you if your child requests a curriculum or workbooks, when you thought you were freeing them from such bondage by choosing to educate them at home! But all styles are valid, all preferences are important.

UK education law says that parents must cause their children to be educated according to their age, aptitude and ability, and any special needs. If your child’s special need is to run around the garden every half hour, it’s unlikely that a school would provide such an opportunity. As home educators, we can tune in to our children’s needs and styles, and ensure them a truly efficient and personalised education.

Further reading on this site:

Multiple Intelligences
Temperament theory
Introvert or Extravert?
Personality types
Gifted children and home education
ADD or highly spirited?
Parenting theories
Are all teenagers horrible?

Further reading on other sites:

VARK learning styles
Keirsey’s site
Temperament theory