Learning Styles


When I was in Grade 3, my new teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, was lecturing us in geography or history about the Seminole people of southern Florida. I was staring out the window, contemplating the lives of birds. She noticed my apparent inattention and called on me to discuss what she had been talking about – which I did without hesitation, having read the material the night before and having paid sufficient attention to know where to pick up the lesson.

She never bothered me again. Other kids – less assiduous in reading their homework or less able to focus on two things at one time – were not so lucky. Today they would have been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder (ADD).

I prefer the old language – not paying attention. ADD implies there is something wrong with the student – something that needs to be fixed, perhaps with medication. The old language is different – it implies a transaction.

Look at the structure. Johnny is not paying attention to me. Or, Johnny is not paying money to me. In this construction, there is a transaction. The teacher is offering something; if Johnny thinks it is worthwhile, he pays for it with his attention. If it is worthless – uninteresting, unengaging, unimportant – he uses the limited currency that he has to pay attention to something else.

Now what needs fixing is not Johnny but the transaction between teacher and student. What needs fixing is the education system.

There was a number of articles recently that argued that learning styles are not real – everyone absorbs information and knowledge through the same process of memory formation. While this maybe true – based on current neuroscience evidence or rather lack of such evidence – it is also true that the brain can only attend to so much at one time. It is part of developmental psychology – again supported by neuroscience – that as we age, our ability to attend to multiple things increases, though there is a definite limit. This is one of the reasons we are able to do more complex things (like driving a car on a busy highway) at age 18 that we couldn’t do at age 12.

So, while the way people learn may be identical at the amygdala and hippocampus level, getting people to pay enough attention to learn anything may differ quite a lot. For example, some people need to write things down as the teacher is talking to help them focus on the lesson being taught. For me, I have to put my pencil down and really listen. If I start writing notes, I am apt to start writing fiction. Not very helpful when it comes to recalling the facts.

The real problem is we simply don’t know enough yet to say for sure what aspects of the brain need to engage for effective learning to take place. Those who say all students are the same either have never tried to teach any or are trying to justify their own way of learning things – usually linear-sequential – as the only real way of learning.

Like most things, what we don’t know about the brain and learning is greater than what we do. While there is no evidence that different learning styles exist, there are still dozens of research avenues where the details need to be filled in. We have a lot to learn about learning.

And that’s ten minutes.


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