Many styles, one goal: Using learning style theory to achieve academic success in the middle grades

Most teachers, and parents, will agree that the only thing more intimidating than a middle schooler is a bored middle schooler. Economic concepts can be difficult enough for teachers to convey without having to rein in a roomful of students who are disruptive because the lesson does not engage them. But every kid is different, and each one has his or her own way of interacting with the world and in the classroom. How do you design your lessons so that all your students will retain the information that you present?

From a strictly pedagogical point of view, the task of defining the term learning style is not easy. There are many different theories and studies about this very complex concept. (See, for example, "Learning styles: An overview of theories, models, and measures ," a paper that appeared in a 2004 issue of Educational Psychology.) A 2008 study in Psychological Science in the Public Interest even disputes the validity of the research into the relationship between learning style and learning success ("Learning styles: Concepts and evidence").

Taking a more practical perspective, however, most teachers know that students approach learning in their own unique ways, and they clearly learn better when they are taught in a way that fits their own style.

Generally speaking, these teachers believe that students show a preference for one of three basic learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. (Some educators and researchers include reading and writing as a separate component in this array.) Most people use a combination of styles but may have a clear preference for one.

Visual learners process new information by looking at graphics or watching a demonstration. Children with this learning style can grasp information presented in a chart or graph, but they may grow impatient listening to an explanation.

Auditory learners prefer listening to explanations over reading them and may like to study by reciting information aloud. This type of learner may want to have background music while studying, or they may be distracted by noises and need a quiet space to study.

Kinesthetic learners learn by doing and touching. They may have trouble sitting still while studying. They may be better able to understand information by writing it down or doing hands-on activities.

Some research has shown that adults show clearer preferences for learning styles than do children—see, for example, "One size does not fit all: Learning style, play, and online interactives "—but even middle schoolers show distinct preferences.

So how do middle school teachers incorporate learning styles into their lessons?

Applications in the classroom
Amy Lighthill, a middle school teacher at the Friends School of Atlanta, a private K-8 school in Decatur, Georgia, has found over the years that by presenting information in a variety of ways to her middle schoolers, she can help them absorb information better. "Teaching to various learning styles, whether it's VARK [visual-audio-reading/writing-kinesthetic], Myers-Briggs personality preferences, or the Enneagram—I don't think any one of these is the be-all and end-all of teaching," she said. "But I do think kids have different learning styles, and I do think it's important to address them."

When Amy gives a research or reading assignment to her middle schoolers, she usually allows them to choose their method of presenting the information to their classmates. "Some kids, those who are more kinesthetic, will write skits and act out what they've read in their books," she said. The visual learners make mobiles or some other sort of graphic presentation. In one assignment she gave to her sixth graders last year, she asked the kids to present a "lesson" in a way that addressed the learning styles of their classmates. Many of the kids combined a PowerPoint presentation (visual) with a lecture (audio). Some students added a kinesthetic component when they handed out manipulatives to reinforce the lesson.

Alexandra Zinnes, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher also at the Atlanta Friends School, offers her students the freedom to choose how they learn a concept. For example, after she addressed the concept of supply and demand in a classroom lecture on Latin American exports—a lesson that included her bringing bananas to class—she broke the class into groups. She instructed the groups to come up with their own examples of supply and demand that they would then present to their classmates in a variety of ways. "I try to give kids choices, so different kids can choose their own ways," she explained. "And we do tons of interactive stuff."

One group, for example, chose mp3 products to center their discussion of supply and demand around. "That was a natural for middle schoolers, who are so tuned into their music," said Alexandra. When the kids in this group made their presentation, they used their iPods and mp3s in the discussion. By incorporating music and movement into their lesson, they showed their own preference for auditory and kinesthetic learning styles while illustrating to their classmates how a tech company, when it first releases a new product, limits the number of items to the market, thereby driving up demand and charging a premium price for the product. When it rolls out the next version of the product, demand for the initial product drops, and so does the price.

While devising a variety of methods or taking the time to allow students to present in different ways seems time-consuming and labor-intensive, assessing and targeting students' learning styles can ultimately result in a more effective and satisfying experience, for teachers as well as students.

October 11, 2011