Learning Styles is an umbrella term that covers a highly diverse and controversial body of educational theories and practices. The term represents a generally accepted belief among the majority of educators that students differ widely in their ways of learning, demonstrating preferences in the way they process classroom experiences, and that pedagogical practices should be designed with an awareness of marked differences among students in how they learn. The term first surfaced widely in educational literature during the 1960s when it was strongly linked to a widespread interest in experiential learning. While that link is still prevalent in the literature and classroom practices of the 21st century, Learning Styles has recently assumed new importance since U.S. schools are increasingly dealing with reconciling differences in how students learn with the intellectual rigors and emotional pressures of repeated, high-stakes, standardized student testing.
Keywords Constructivism; Instructional Design; Learning-Style Inventory; Multiple Intelligences; Myers-Briggs Type Indicator; Psychological Types; Stylistic Flexibility; Tacit Knowledge; Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic (VAK)
Educational Theory: Learning Styles
While the term "learning styles" has only gained popularity in educational circles during the past half-century, it is an ancient concern. Evidence of an interest in learning styles can be found in the centuries-old scripture and interpretative theological texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. For example, during the Jewish holiday of Passover, parents are instructed to educate their children about the holiday's meaning by assuming one line of questioning for the children they perceive as intellectually mature and another for children with less intellectual sophistication. The Letters of Paul in the New Testament and the message of Muhammad in the Koran both emphasize the need to tailor the essential spiritual message to vastly different learners. Buddhist scripture suggests that the transmission of spiritual knowledge must take into account the emotional intelligence as well as the intellectual intelligence of individuals and often suggests using paradoxical, oxymoronic verbal narratives as a way to appeal to the emotional and tacit knowledge of people who might think of themselves as purely intellectual, book-centered learners.
The term learning styles represents a generally accepted belief among the majority of educators that students differ widely in their ways of learning, demonstrating preferences in the way they process classroom experiences, and that pedagogical practices should be designed with an awareness of marked differences among students in how they learn. Who knows exactly what kind of learning experience catalyzes change in a learner? What types of environments and teaching strategies are most potent for what kinds of intelligences? Do classrooms contain learners with a myriad of diverse learning styles - or hold a myriad of diverse personalities who learn differently because of deep-seated personality differences?
Influence of Modern Psychology
Contemporary interest among educators in learning styles developed at the same time as the genesis of theories of psychology in the late 19th century in Europe and the U.S. If the mysterious and often invisible mechanisms of human learning could be successfully researched so that the mechanisms of learning could be clearly visible, early psychologists believed, then teaching could become a science. Teachers would no longer have to guess how best to instruct a child if that child's personality or mental capacities, as measured by a standardized IQ test, could become transparent to the teacher. However, this dream of a perfect marriage between psychological knowledge and best pedagogical practice has never actualized. Part of the difficulty in the late 19th century, and a problem in the 21st century, is the absence of any one widely accepted theory of human psychology that comprehensively accounts for learning. While psychologists practicing behaviorism might see learning style only in terms of a student's visible behaviors, psychologists practicing Jungian psychology might view learning styles in terms of multiple invisible forces impacting a learner's personality.
Advances in Neurological Science
Recent advances in medical imaging and understanding of the neurological biochemistry of the human brain finds the interface between psychological theories and teaching more complex. Since medical science currently possesses the technological tools (CAT scans, for example) needed to view some of the brain's neural processes bio-chemically as learning tasks are given to experimental subjects, more knowledge has been secured about how different areas of the brain in different individuals engage with various learning tasks. This research is still in the early stages so few definitive findings are established that can be practically used by educators. Inaccurate simplifications of the differences between the brain hemispheres reported in the popular Media have led some ill-informed educators into thinking their students are either "left-brained" or "right-brained." The cover of a best-selling book for parents with children diagnosed with ADD, Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child by Jeffrey Freed and Laura Parsons features a blurb that reads: "You can win over teachers and principals to the right-brained approach the ADD approach thrives on" (Freed & Parsons, 1998).
Perhaps the single greatest impact of any theory about learning styles in the 20th century comes from Harvard educator Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. First encapsulated in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), this theory argues that there are eight kinds of intelligence, and individuals learn best by using their strengths in one or more of them:
• Intrapersonal, and
Gardner theorized that learners can excel or need remediation in these eight categories of intelligence. This promotes the study and use of a variety of classroom practices by teachers to meet a rich variety of different learning styles, which run counter to the "one size fits all" type of teacher lesson plan based on the assumption that all learners are cognitively alike and possess an identical learning style.
The virtues of Gardner's theory in making teaching a stimulating intellectual adventure in pedagogical experimentation can also be also a practical shortcoming in actual daily classroom practice. It is a daunting enough challenge to teach a standardized curriculum to thirty different students at once. If a teacher is face-to-face with thirty different students with thirty different learning styles, it can invite despair over the impossibility of ever reaching all students successfully. Yet another challenge involves the assessment of student work. Should a student who shows evidence of above average linguistic intelligence and below-average mathematical intelligence be tested and graded in the same fashion as a student manifesting the opposite balance of talents?
One practical way to apply a facet of Gardner's theory that many teachers have found attractive involves engaging whatever sensory channels are most available in their students. While the overwhelming majority of students in the U.S. depend primarily upon their sense of sight for learning, a significant minority learn primarily through hearing, and a small minority by touch, or taste. This has led some educators to design curricula emphasizing a blending of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (VAK) stimuli for students. Particularly in the elementary school grades, various teaching strategies have evolved in language arts curricula to accommodate different student learning styles to accommodate a range of learning styles marked by different sensory priorities.
Sternberg's Triarchic Theory
A theory similar to Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences was developed by the psychologist Robert Sternberg. Sternberg divides the eight types of intelligence identified by Gardner into three types: analytic intelligence, creative intelligence, and practical or successful intelligence. In place of the phrase Gardner and other educators favor, "learning styles," Sternberg refers to "thinking styles," but the terms have been used interchangeably by many educators and psychologists since no learning of any style occurs without prior thinking. Like Gardner, Sternberg believes that students demonstrate different styles of learning in ways that bypass the assumptions about learning held by most U.S. school administrators. Sternberg is particularly critical of standardized testing as a method to test anything more than a limited number of memory-related and problem-solving skills. Of particular interest to Sternberg is how students can obtain "street smarts" as opposed to "school smarts," his re-framing of the theory of tacit knowledge found in The Tacit Dimension (1966) by Michael Polanyi. Polanyi believes that humans know more than they tell of what they know since we often learn through informal experiences we rarely see as actual lessons. Since it is a...
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