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Ways of Making Meaning –An Overview of Learning Styles

May, 2007
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Further to my first discussion on ways we learn, this topic will continue to investigate learning styles and identify characteristic behaviors of types of learners. I think one of the notable facts that come out of learning styles is how gender impacts on learning; however this is a topic in itself and will be the focus of discussion in the next issue. Suffice at this point to acknowledge that the physiological and cultural differences of gender, impacts on how information is perceived and processed.

  Interestingly, one of the major distinctions in behavior patterns to emerge from the research of classroom learning, is the notion that the average student unconsciously develops the ability to adapt to his or her educator’s teaching styles, moreover boys are very good at “learning teachers”. So the question begs: How does our dominant learning style impact on our learning?

  Bernice McCarthy takes the multiple intelligence models (as discussed last issue) and produces a four-quadrant profile of learning styles. Of course we must be mindful with any theory of learning that we do not become prescriptive in our application of ideas and therefore we should acknowledge that students are able to move in and out of learning styles. The point I seek to emphasize here, is the notion of “dominant” style. Certainly in my experience as an educator, some students present as standout exemplars of certain learning styles but that does not impede their ability to dip in and out of other ways of thinking and doing.

  In discussing McCarthy’s fine-tuning of the multiple intelligence models, I will work through her four-quadrant profile of learners, beginning with the quadrant one learner. These are the learners who need to actively have the experience and then sit and reflect on it. These people are information gatherers. They begin with what they see. They are the learners who pay particular attention to the relevance of the material. The driving question in the classroom, which punctuates all their learning, is “Why do I have to learn this?” After being given reasons that offer personal relevance these students can then undertake the learning. These students need to be involved personally and usually function through synergy in their learning. In Gardner’s labeling of intelligence these students are often the kinesthetic learners. For the classroom teacher this is the student who walks to the bin a lot, sharpens pencils and visits the toilet frequently. One of my students, a very bright young lad, whom I would label as gifted, often stands for periods of time, when listening to my classroom instruction. Traditional schools were not made for this group of people as they assimilate knowledge best through practical and experiential learning.

  The second quadrant is formed by those who perceive information abstractly and then process it reflectively. This group can be seen as the people who are motivated by the question “what” in their learning situations. They seek facts and learn by thinking through the ideas. They are the analytical learners who are capable of learning in “chalk and talk” situations. They enjoy independent research and analysis of data. These students rely heavily on their intellectual ability and the traditional classroom and schools are designed for these learners. Sitting in lectures, taking notes, reading books and following direction is the preferred learning environment for these people.

  The third quadrant is the student who gathers information abstractly and then endeavours to process this information actively. These people are often viewed as the experimenters. They are essentially interested in “how” things work. They also have a keen sense of kinetic involvement, using their bodily senses to learn (much like the quadrant one learner). These learners respond well to hands-on experiences and often unconsciously frame the question “how does it work?” They are often seen as the “common-sense” learners and concrete experiential learning activities work best for this group. As a teacher these students also find it hard to sit and listen, particularly if they know there is no hope of trying it out. These people often excel in music, art, sports, drama and technology.

  The fourth quadrant is the learner who perceives information concretely and processes information actively. These people are always seeking hidden possibilities and De Bono (using his Thinking Hats Model) would see these people as the Green Hat learners. These people ask questions such as, “What new ideas are possible?” These learners need to know the “what if” when approaching their learning. This people learn best when they are given freedom to learn and they are particularly good with open-ended tasks. The nature of these people is to push the boundaries of possibilities. These people generate, produce and create in the classroom environment. These are the students who after being given instruction in the classroom on how to do something, will ask, “but what about if I do it this way?” This is not defiance; learning for them is not what you are teaching, but what can be done with the learning. Many geniuses of our time were of this learning style and many did not deal well with being stymied in their pursuit of self- directed discovery. Independent learning for these students works best.

IMG_2674  Traditional classroom instructional technique can clearly be seen as satisfying the “what” learner’s style, particularly the quadrant two learner. The teacher delivers the curriculum (with a strong emphasis on linear sequential processing), and the student collects the information and analyses the facts. The needs of the analytical learner best suits a traditional pedagogy. Fortunately international education tends not to homogenise learning, which means that learning styles once identified can be addressed in the curriculum. I think what needs to be remembered in all discussion on learning styles is, that we all have preferred ways of learning, but that does not mean that we cannot function effectively using other modes of learning. Indeed research has shown that the student who is best able to adapt, moving from mode of learning to another is the student who learns best.

By Laraine Reason

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