What Are ‘Learning Styles’? And What Can They Tell Us About Children Who Struggle At School?

what are learning styles

Takeaway: ‘Learning styles’ refer to a range of theories trying to explain why people learn in different ways. They remind us that learning is a rich, textured process with many moving parts. So, if a child struggles at school, it’s not that she’s a poor student. Rather, it’s that we need to tweak the way we’re teaching.

What does it mean if your child is struggling at school?

Say, you’ve noticed her grades falling. Or maybe her behaviour has changed? Perhaps she gets distant, angry, or anxious when talking about school? It takes a while to notice a pattern, but when you do, what does it mean? It would certainly help to talk to her teachers or consult an educational psychologist for insight. But the question you’re trying to answer is: Why is she struggling? And what does that mean?

Is it that she’s a poor student? Or is it that we need to tweak the way we’re teaching?

When you get a new gadget, do you read the manual before using it? Or do you learn as you play around with it? When you think about what you did yesterday, do you think in pictures or words? When working in groups, do you like to jump in and contribute ideas, or sit back and listen? Each of these preferences changes the way you learn. And if you work better one way, but aren’t given that option, obviously you’d struggle too. It’s the same with your child. The question isn’t, ‘How can we make her a better student?’ The question is, ‘How can we become better teachers?’

‘Learning styles’ refer to a range of theories trying to explain why people learn in different ways.

In the 1960s, psychologists began to notice that learners fall into distinct groups — each of which prefers a different style of learning. So, these psychologists conducted experiments, gathered data, and began constructing theories to explain their findings. They all agreed that there are common learning styles, but disagreed on how to categorise and assess these styles.

One approach to learning is that it’s a multi-stage process, and each of us is better at some stages than others.

The psychologist and educational theorist David Kolb developed this idea in his Experiential Learning model. According to Kolb,

  • Learning is a four-stage cycle: (1) You have a concrete experience, (2) You observe and reflect on that experience, (3) You form conclusions (abstract concepts and generalisation ns) about what you observed, (4) You test these in new situations, which gives you more concrete experiences. This takes you back to Stage 1.
  • Each stage requires a certain skill. For example, Stage 4 needs us to experiment with our theories — i.e. to ‘do’ things. That’s in contrast to Stage 2 where we need to ‘watch’ in order to observe and reflect. And Stage 1 needs us to ‘feel’ in order to experience something. That’s in contrast to Stage 3 where we need to ‘think’ in order to form abstract concepts.
  • We each have combinations of these skills. And there are four possible combinations
    • Accommodators are hands-on people (e.g. physical therapists). They’re ‘do-ers’ and love experimenting with concrete experiences.
    • Convergers are hands-on, too, but with applying theories (e.g., engineers). They’re also ‘do-ers’ but experiment with abstract ideas rather than concrete experiences.
    • Divergers love concrete experiences that they can reflect on. (e.g. social workers). They have active imaginations and love discussion.
    • Assimilators love abstract ideas they can reflect on (e.g. philosophers). They love reasoning and creating theories.

(Learn more about Kolb’s Learning Styles)

Another approach to learning is that we’re each given a toolbox but prefer some tools over others.

This was an idea developed by Howard Gardner — a psychology professor at Harvard University. Till Gardner came along, people assumed that being ‘smart’ meant that you were good at words, numbers, or spatial reasoning, i.e. the things IQ tests measure. Gardner challenged this. He proposed that there are 8 different types of intelligences and each of us has a unique combination of them.

  1. Visual-spatial intelligence: The ability to visualise in thought and analyse images. Children with highly developed visual-spatial intelligence love visual aids, images, diagrams, and graphs.
  2. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: The ability to control your body movements or objects in your grasp. Children with this sort of intelligence love to learn by doing. They’re hands-on and love movement (e.g. sports and dance).
  3. Musical intelligence: The ability to understand and manipulate pitch, rhythm, and timbre. Children with this intelligence love music and rhythm. They might enjoy listening to music while they study.
  4. Linguistic intelligence: The ability to understand, read, and write words. This type of intelligence is rewarded in schools where it’s important to pay attention to words — what they mean, how they’re spoken, their rhythm, their metre, and so on.
  5. Logical-mathematical intelligence: The ability to think conceptually and solve abstract problems. Children with this intelligence love finding patterns, using logical reasoning, and categorising information. They like information that’s structured well.  
  6. Interpersonal intelligence: The ability to understand and care for the needs of others. Children with this intelligence love interacting with friends and are sensitive to their needs, moods, and feelings. They learn well in groups.
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence: The ability to analyse your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Children with this intelligence are self-aware and possibly introverted. They often learn best on their own, instead of with classmates.
  8. Naturalistic intelligence: The ability to recognise and care for plants and animals. Children with this intelligence love learning out in nature, rather than in a classroom.

What it comes down to is that learning is a rich, textured process with many moving parts.

The ‘learning styles’ theory has been heavily criticised by the scientific community. They point out that there’s no consistent proof that a child performs better at school just because you identify his learning style and teach him accordingly. Also, it’s not an ‘either/or’ game. Some of us like to watch videos while others like to listen to lectures. It doesn’t mean video lovers can’t benefit from listening to lectures and vice versa. What we can say, though, is that learning is a rich, textured process and there are often key teaching tools we haven’t yet thought to use.

The trick to making learning more exciting: Multisensory learning and other useful tools.

Our challenge is to provide children with as rich a learning experience as possible. One approach is multisensory learning. This is where we teach students by engaging two or more of their senses. With young children, for example — you could teach them the alphabet by writing it on a blackboard (seeing), or you could have them make the alphabets out of clay (seeing + touching). Multisensory teaching is effective because our brains evolved to help us survive in a multisensory environment. So, the more senses we engage, the more ‘real’ the experience for our brain, and the more likely it is to register the lesson. This is especially useful for children with learning differences like dyslexia. Here are examples of some multisensory experiences and other learning tools your child can explore:

  • Watching films and documentaries to add drama and emotion to what they’re reading about.
  • Listening to the audio version of a book while they read it
  • Following blogs about topics being studied and engaging with the writer and other readers through links and comments.
  • Doing audio and video assignments instead of only writing papers.
  • Singing songs about whatever they’re learning. Some teachers have their students sing mathematical equations!
  • Performing mini-plays about a topic
  • Using physical objects like cubes or shape-blocks to learn about maths.
  • Conducting experiments instead of being told how something will turn out

When you change the journey, you change the child.

The traditional approach to education is teacher-focussed. The teacher transfers knowledge to a student who passively absorbs facts. And if a student is struggling, there’s something wrong with her. What if, instead, we see the student as a willing, active learner on a journey? And the teacher is just the guide. With this paradigm, if a student is struggling, it’s not that he doesn’t want to learn. It’s that the journey hasn’t yet excited him.

Is your child struggling at school? Would you like to talk to someone about it?

The Ed Psych Practice (Harcourt Street, London) has experienced Educational Psychologists who can help in many ways.


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