Some of us are visual learners, and some of us are auditory learners, right? It seems like an accepted part of education: we each learn best when information is presented a preferred way. But current thinking in many scholarly circles says this assumption may be false.
Many experts and classroom teachers agree it is less important to be taught in a particular style than to receive information in a variety of ways, or modalities. And the modalities used—such as visual, auditory or kinesthetic—should fit the content being taught. For instance, an “auditory learner” will still likely learn about geography best by looking at maps, and a “visual learner” will need to hear foreign language sounds to pronounce them. Furthermore, we all seem to learn better when material is presented multiple times and in a variety of contexts.
UT Austin Professor Dr. Anthony Petrosino is concerned that students may limit their learning potential by adopting a label. Petrosino is an associate professor at UT’s School of Education and co-founder of the UTeach Program. Visual thinking tools help everyone, he says. And just because a person prefers a particular learning style doesn’t mean he actually learns best that way.
“It’s probably best to have your child learn through multiple modalities,” Petrosino says. We learn through all our senses; the more of these used, the better our comprehension, recall and retrieval will be, he adds. Deeper learning comes from using a variety of methods, like having students read or write about a subject, do related activities, respond to questions, debate one another or make presentations.
This view is echoed by Dr. Robert Duke, an expert on music and human learning and a professor in UT’s Butler School of Music. “The more different ways an individual interacts with some idea or some skill, the more likely he or she is to remember it and be able to use it in the future,” he says.
Children need to learn to deal with confusion productively, Duke adds. “Most jobs require you to think more creatively and be able to solve problems that are unusual,” he says.
The idea that we should pay attention to learning style preferences continues to have its advocates. One such supporter is Dr. Richard Felder, a professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, who helped develop the popular Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model.
But even those backers agree that the goal is not to pigeonhole students nor burden teachers. Rather, the knowledge can become one more tool to enhance the education process. “The point is not to match teaching style to learning style but rather to achieve balance, making sure that each style preference is addressed to a reasonable extent during instruction,” Felder wrote in 2010.
Regardless of the teaching methods your child may encounter, she may certainly benefit from a deeper understanding of how she likes to interact with information. One kid-friendly place to find diagnostics and other resources is at kids.lovetoknow.com. Your child may discover ways to reinforce classroom instruction, both in school and at home.
Here are some other ways you can help:
- Support your child’s teacher in using tools and methods. Ask how the teacher incorporates different modalities and encourage him or her to use a variety. If the school lacks resources, parents or the PTA may be able to purchase maps, flash cards, CDs, DVDs or portable A-V equipment.
- Teach your child to ask for support. Encourage your child to ask for explanations or resources that use additional modalities. For example, if a teacher tends to present math concepts verbally, your child might ask for pictures, charts or YouTube videos.
- Set your child up for success at home. Offer study aids or encourage her to create her own. She could make flash cards to practice multiplication tables or write a poem about how plants reproduce. Drawing pictures or singing songs about a story may help her remember its plot. Your child may form creative and self-supportive study habits that will pay off later in upper grades and college.
- Don’t be in too big a hurry to help. Allowing your child to struggle with a certain amount of confusion may help him learn to solve problems on his own. In addition, it teaches the value of persistence and encourages your child to acquire new strategies—regardless of the style or form in which material is presented— with more competence and confidence as he matures.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom who covers public affairs, public health and the well-being of children.