The term “learning styles” speaks to the understanding that every student learns differently. Technically, an individual’s learning style refers to the preferential way in which the student absorbs, processes, comprehends and retains information.
There is a vast amount of current, sometimes contradictory, literature on learning styles. Some distinguish between visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic learners. Others distinguish between visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, and solitary learning styles. Honey and Mumford (1982) distinguish between activists, reflectors, theorists or pragmatists, while Gordon Pask (1988) describes a learning style called serialist versus holist.
Each person has a preferred learning style. We call a person a visual learner if he remembers best the things that he sees, an auditory learner if he remembers best the things that he hears, and a kinesthetic learner if he remembers best by doing.
It goes without saying that a visual learner profits most by learning from books, because his memory retains the printed words, sentences and paragraphs. He may remember without much effort that the paragraph about the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini was printed on an upper left-hand page of his history book. If he goes to a cinema, he will remember actions and incidents that he saw on the screen, while the spoken word becomes hazy and fades away.
In contrast, the auditory learner profits more by lectures than books, since his memory retains what he picks up through the ears. He may be able to repeat a conversation almost verbatim and at the same time have difficulty describing what the person with whom he conducted this conversation looked like. If he attends a cinema, the sound of words and music will stay with him, while the actions are very soon forgotten. Among the people who are preponderantly auditory, musicians are foremost, especially those who are able to repeat a composition which they have heard but whose score they have never seen.
Tactile/kinesthetic learners learn best by a hands-on approach. Tactile refers to touch and kinesthetic to movement, two learning modalities that are closely related. Kinesthetic learners often do well as performers: athletes, actors, or dancers.
In the same way, to use the scheme of Honey and Mumford:
- Activists learn best from activities in which there are new experiences and challenges;
- Reflectors learn best from activities where they are allowed or encouraged to watch, think, and ponder;
- Theorists learn best from activities where what is offered is part of a system, model, concept or theory, and
- Pragmatists learn best from activities if there is an obvious link between the subject matter and a “real life” problem...
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To use Gordon Pask’s scheme, when confronted with an unfamiliar area:
- The serialist will tackle the subject step by step, building from the known to the unknown with the simplest possible connections between the items of knowledge.
- The holist, on the other hand, will seek an overall framework and then explore areas within it in a more or less haphazard way, until he has filled in the whole.
While it is generally accepted that a teacher or lecturer should try to accommodate the students’ different learning styles, some say yielding to learning styles is doing students a disservice. “The students will benefit more from adapting and becoming versatile, more able to respond both to formal teaching and learning from experience, than they will from having everything made as easy as possible for them,” James Atherton writes in an article entitled Learning styles don’t matter.
In the real world, and real time, learning styles theory is often an academic luxury, says Atherton. Imagine a class of forty students where there is a serialist pragmatist kinesthetic learner, sitting next to a holist reflector primarily visual learner, sitting next to a holist activist auditory learner, sitting next to a. . . “Can you even imagine how you might adapt your teaching to suit each of this bunch?” asks Atherton. “How many times might you have to re-cast a point to make sure it connected with all these minds? And how many of them would switch off each time you repeated it?”
One could also imagine these students going off to the workplace, where as employees they might have nobody to coach them according to their preferred learning styles, yet their ability to learn has a significant impact on their employment, promotion prospects and overall income or business success.
A viable approach to learning styles
Generally speaking, if a teacher has the luxury of working with a small group of learners, there is no reason why she may not tailor her teaching style to address their particular preferences. However, we should not overlook that a child must be prepared for the real world and real time. Therefore it is essential to teach a child a versatile learning approach from a young age, which means that he will be able to use multiple senses and cognitive skills when learning. We must not improve only his strengths, but also his weaknesses.
There is no doubt that a person’s weaker senses can be improved. A blind person, being deprived of sight, usually develops all the other senses to a remarkable degree. To learn to read Braille, for instance, his tactile sense must be developed to a remarkable degree. This fact is important because it shows without the help of complicated tests that every sense can be developed and improved.
By learning to use all his senses, the learner’s ear will eventually come to the aid of his eye, and his hand to the aid of his ear, thereby opening three channels to his mind instead of only one. In the same way, cognitive skills can be developed and strengthened, so that learning can be made easier.