Educators come in all forms. Professional educators can be classroom teachers, school administrators, and corporate trainers who work outside of the classroom. Regardless of the industry or environment, educators should consider how students learn to maximize a lesson’s effectiveness.
According to Robert Sternberg in Perspectives on Psychological Science, “In teaching, we need to take into account students’ styles of thinking if we hope to reach them. This means differentiating instruction in a way that helps students capitalize, at least some of the time, on their stylistic preferences. Students need to learn both how to capitalize on strengths and to correct or compensate for weaknesses.”
A thinking or learning style is not an ability, Sternberg says in Educational Leadership. Rather, it is a preferred way of using one’s abilities.
There are dozens of different learning styles that may explain and determine how well a student grasps material. Educators can use these ideas to develop lessons and more effective communication skills that will reach students.
Interest in learning styles can be traced back to the 1920s when Carl Jung proposed the theory of psychological types. By the mid-1970s, research on learning styles in education was underway. Learning styles remain a major topic of discussion, and according to American Psychologist, research on learning styles is still being used in assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory.
Learning styles are guided by three primary motivations.
- Providing a link between cognition and personality.
- Understanding, predicting and improving educational achievement.
- Improving vocational selection, guidance and possibly placement.
The educational implications of learning styles are still being debated. A report from Psychological Science in the Public Interest asserts that evidence for the effectiveness of learning style assessments is lacking. Despite this, learning styles are widely accepted among educators and the public.
A Look at Different Learning Styles
There are a variety of learning styles. They have inspired thousands of articles and dozens of books. The Learning & Skills Research Centre in London examined 71 different learning styles and schemes, with no claim that its list was exhaustive.
One way to look at these learning styles is through ability-based and personality-based styles. In Perspectives on Psychological Science, Sternberg offers some theories about how individual learning styles develop.
Ability-Based Learning Styles: The Successful Intelligence Theory
The Successful Intelligence Theory suggests that students fail to achieve their full potential because teaching and assessment are too narrow in conceptualization and too rigid in implementation. In other words, teachers do not always teach in the same way that students learn. Teachers typically focus on a small number of students with certain ability-based styles and almost never focus on a large number of potentially successful students with ability-based styles matching patterns of learning and thinking valued by the schools.
The Successful Intelligence Theory says that individuals need an integrated set of abilities to attain success in life. This can vary for each person within his or her sociocultural context. People are “successfully intelligent” when they are able to recognize their strengths and make the most of them, while recognizing their weaknesses and finding ways to correct or compensate for them.
People typically balance three kinds of abilities — creative thinking to generate ideas, analytical thinking to determine whether they are good ideas and practical thinking to implement the ideas and convince others of the value of those ideas. Teaching and assessment should be balanced in terms of the ability-based styles. When providing instruction, teachers should educate and assess achievement in ways that enable students to analyze, create, and apply knowledge.
- Teaching analytically means encouraging students to analyze, critique, judge, compare, contrast, evaluate, and assess.
- Teaching creatively means encouraging students to create, invent, discover, imagine, suppose and predict.
- Teaching practically means encouraging students to apply, use, put into practice, implement, employ and render what they know.
Personality-Based Learning Styles: The Mental Self-Government Theory
Personality-based styles define how a person likes to use his or her abilities. They are preferences. For instance, there is a difference between how creative a student is (ability-based learning style) and how much the student likes to be creative (personality-based learning style). Personality-based styles can vary for different tasks and situations; can vary in strength and flexibility; are socialized and learned through interactions with the environment; can vary across the life span and based on specific situations; and are modifiable.
The theory of mental self-government uses constructs from the organizations of nations to understand personality-based styles. The kinds of government present in the world are not incidental; they are external reflections of ways that people organize themselves. Personality-based styles can be understood in terms of the functions, forms, levels, scopes and leanings of government.
- Functions include legislative, executive and judicial. Legislative is a preference for situations that require creation, formulation, planning of ideas, strategies and products. Executive is a preference for situations that provide structure, procedures or rules to work with and that can serve as guidelines to measure progress. Judicial is a preference for situations that require evaluation, analysis, comparison and contrast, as well as judgment of existing ideas, strategies, and projects.
- Forms include monarchic, hierarchic, oligarchic and anarchic. Monarchic is a preference for situations that allow complete focus on one thing or aspect at a time until it is complete. Hierarchic is a preference for situations that allow creation of a hierarchy of goals to fulfill. Oligarchic is a preference for situations that allow working with competing approaches or with multiple aspects or goals that are equally important. Anarchic is a preference for situations that lend themselves to a great flexibility of approaches and to trying anything when, where and how an individual pleases.
- Levels include local and global. Local is a preference for situations that require engagement with specific, concrete details. Global is a preference for situations that require engagement with large, abstract ideas.
- Scope includes internal and external. Internal is a preference for situations that require activities that allow one to work independently of others. External is a preference for situations that allow working with others in a group or interacting with others at different stages of progress.
- Leanings include liberal and conservative. Liberal is a preference for situations that involve unfamiliarity, going beyond existing rules or procedures, and maximization of change. Conservative is a preference for situations that require adherence to existing rules and procedures.
The theory of mental self-government suggests that style-differentiated instruction is a more effective way to teach students at any level. Some instruction and assessment should match students’ styles of learning and thinking. However, a perfect match all the time is not the goal, as students need to develop flexibility in the way they do things.
Reaching Students Who Learn Differently
Learning styles can be an effective way for educators to assess, engage, instruct and communicate with students. Educators who differentiate their approach to tasks can target students’ strengths and help them overcome their weaknesses.