Two years ago I talked about using Learning Styles in the Classroom. Since then, I have worked with many teachers who agree that teaching to varied styles is critical but wonder how to do it well when they don’t have many resources, administrators don’t think it is important, they worry the class will get out of control, and they have so many students they can’t meet all their different needs. These are legitimate concerns that, if left unanswered, might prevent some teachers from promoting this critical component of classroom support.
Here are my thoughts:
1. You don’t have to meet every style need. For younger students, try out different strategies and decide which ones seem most helpful. For older students,
a) assess their style preferences with them,
b) talk about what they think are the most important ones to improve their focus and performance, and
c) then let them help decide how to meet the identified needs. If a student needs a cooler room or less light to read by, suggest he or she wear lighter clothing or sit in a darker section of the room when reading. (One student at NEARI became much more productive as long as she could wear sunglasses in class.)
You may also find that “style needs” change. As students work with a particular strategy and watch other students work with theirs, they might identify something different that could help them more, e.g., one student I know discovered that it wasn’t so much that he wanted to work independently as that he preferred the teacher not hover over him, but still be ready to help him if he asked.
2. Every student may not need to use a strategy based on a style difference. Some students who have fewer sensory, social, psychological, or neurological needs are self-starters; they can transition from activity to activity and function smoothly throughout the class day no matter how the lesson is presented. They are the lucky ones. But this flexible capacity is not true for many students. The brain-based premise here is that students come to school (in any grade) with different learning readiness capacities. Our task is to make it possible for them to grow and learn. Using learning styles helps optimize their chances.
3. You don’t have to create elaborate materials for every lesson, like multi-modal games, whole-body immersion activities, homemade visual and large print worksheets, or complicated art projects. One picture, one object to work with, one task that involves whole-body movement at some point in the lesson can be enough.
4. To educate administrators, other teachers and parents, you can make a list of websites and blogs that promote different approaches for different kinds of students, and provide resources on how to address these differences, beginning with accepted professional associations (ASCD, CEC) and the research of individual experts. Hundreds of books have been written on brain-compatible and brain-based teaching, differentiated instruction, student-centered and whole-person learning, accelerated learning, teaching to different styles and temperaments, and individualized instruction, etc., to name a few areas.
On the other hand, it is also perfectly fine to both assess and work with learning styles under the cover of darkness, so to speak. Most learning style preferences just promote good teaching. They include: multi-modal instruction, varied ways and places within the class to study, mini-breaks to reflect on what is learned, active motivation “hooks” or engagement strategies, instruction based on student input and strengths, scaffolding, letting some students work independently while others work nearer the teacher or with peers, etc. As students get older, classroom environments can become more traditional, with desks and chairs in straight rows along with the expectation that all students will be able to keep up with the instructor’s pace and mode of teaching. To counteract this you can talk with students about one or two things they (or you) could add or change that might help them succeed more easily or suggest to parents that, even though all style needs can’t be addressed in class, students should be supported to accommodate their styles at home when completing homework.
5. Although I would begin with researched areas, you and your class can add your own learning styles questions to your assessment tool. You may find that the current tools available need combining, or leave out valuable suggestions for ways to make learning easier. The strengths-based education movement is overlapping with learning styles and provides new sets of preferred skills and traits that can help decide how to individualize the learning experience for students. For example, one tool suggests a style area I had not seen before where students think about how they are most comfortable writing about what they know by doing a simple research review paper, keeping a structured journal, creating a PowerPoint or blog, making lists, even writing poetry, etc.
6. Last, your use of learning style preferences with students should help lessen acting out, not increase it. Further, learning styles need to be used within the context of an already well-developed behavior management system. It does not replace one. Routines, rules, reward and consequence systems, and rituals come first, then learning styles. And if at any point accommodating a learning style creates less focus and productivity, then that strategy needs to be ended in favor of an alternative that enhances both.
As the New Year begins, I hope you can make a commitment to introducing learning styles to engage reluctant students (and educate other staff and administrators too!) no matter the resistance you find. I wish you all the best in your efforts.