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The Most Important "Learning Style"

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Throughout my teaching career– homeschooling, classroom teaching, and being an administrator– I’ve often been faced with questions about learning styles.

Many books have been written about it, because it's tough to teach a classroom of very different kids. The idea is that each person learns best in a particular way–by hearing, seeing, touching, or with movement–and that teachers should adjust the way they teach to the different styles of their students. Customized teaching! Who wouldn't want that for their kids?

Many schools have adopted some form of this approach, but is it really making a difference? Are we seeing great improvement in school performance? It's hard to say, since nobody has really evaluated it based on this one thing, but in general, there hasn't been anything in the area of academic performance that has made folks sit up and take notice.

How did people learn in past generations? It's doubtful anyone considered learning styles much before about 1980. So how is it that even as recently as the 1970’s the level of academic achievement was higher–before laptops, smart boards, and the discovery of learning styles? The fact is that while knowing more about how kids learn can be helpful to a teacher, it really isn't vital to the learning process. In fact, it may actually be more of a hindrance than a help. Let me explain.

First of all, this approach makes the teacher do something different for each student, which adds hours to her preparation and divides her attention during class. It can quickly turn a teacher into a kind of activity director. The students would be better off with a well-rested teacher, eager and excited about the content of the lesson. The job of the student is to pay attention, even if the presentation isn't entertaining or exciting.

Second, this emphasis learning styles makes it too easy for parents to dismiss poor performance and blame the teacher for not doing enough make the learning fit the child-- Joey didn’t understand the lesson? Well, he’s a kinesthetic learner–he should have had something hands-on to reinforce the lesson. Sadie didn’t write down the instructions? Well, she’s a visual learner–she needed the teacher to write them, in a certain location, in manuscript (not cursive). JJ didn’t pass the test? Well, he’s not good at written tests–he’s an aural learner; the teacher should let him to take his tests orally.

Step back a minute and look at this from a different perspective. Remember, people for centuries have been learning pretty well without knowing about learning styles, because until about 40 or 50 years ago people agreed on some basic things about children and learning.

Here is what they understood:

1) Children are childish. They are born with a bent toward foolishness, and don’t know what’s best for themselves. They need responsible grown-ups to lead them through childhood to adulthood.

2) The parents’ job is to correct and teach their children, gently and firmly, to listen and obey.

3) The job of a student is to pay attention to the teacher. Before a child goes to school, his parents have to teach him how (see #2, above).

Attentiveness is the most important "learning style" of all. Sadly, most teachers don't often see it in students. The ability to pay attention for a period of time, without any kind of entertainment from the teacher, is the single most important component in the learning process. There is no substitute for it.

I challenge you, parents–don't worry about learning styles, focus on teaching your child to pay attention to you, and to all adults.

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