Most students hate assigned seating. However, in Karen Hull's classroom at the Little River School in Kansas, the students requested it over and over. That's because Hull, a middle school language arts and social studies teacher, grouped her students by learning styles.
She grouped the extroverted students in the center of the room and the introverted students up front. How did she know who was who? Ask teachers and they will instinctively tell you what type of students they have in their class. But many districts are going even further, testing students to find out how they learn best. Some are even testing the teachers.
Each year Little River tests its students for these traits. A small district with only about 22 students per grade level, Hull says the students are interested to know how their personalities and learning styles affect their ability to perform in class.
"It tells them what to work on, whether it be listening more attentively or taking better notes,'' explains Hull.
She arranged her seating according to the results. At mid-year, thinking the students needed a change, she switched them. But they were miserable. Extroverted students seated next to introverted ones made the introverted students lose confidence. The students asked to be seated back with partners who were similar to them.
Hull herself took the test and discovered she was an extroverted, sensitive teacher and that helped her understand why sometimes she got frustrated with students who were the opposite.
The idea that students learn differently is not at all new. But experts say teachers, parents, and administrators often fail to take the different styles into account when assessing students.
Many students are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities, says Linda Leviton, director of the West Coast Office of the Denver-based Gifted Development Center.
"Most believe we learn only one way, so when students don't get it, the teachers look for another problem such as ADD, or oppositional behavior, or other types of learning disabilities, not that maybe there's another way to present the information to them,'' says Leviton.
And with more testing and rigid curriculum to meet NCLB's AYP, many schools, say experts, are losing sight of these very important differences in learning styles.
Style and Personality
There are three major forms of modality of learning styles: auditory, visual and tactile. Once students receive the information, there are also variations on how students process information, known as learning styles. The identification of learning styles has its roots in the work of Carl Jung and his research into personality types, and also, the subsequent development of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and daughter Isabell Briggs Meyers during World War II.
Harvey Silver, former teacher, education consultant and co-creator of Learning Styles Inventory, says teachers need to be mindful of four different learning styles.
Mastery Learners: These students learn sequentially and are focused on completing the task and getting it right. To meet their needs, teachers have to be clear and consistent.
Understanding-Intuitive Learners: These students ask many questions, and are motivated by curiosity as opposed to drills and practice. To challenge these types of learners, teachers should start lessons with questions and present data that tease.
Self-Expressive Learners: These students learn best by expressing themselves in creative ways and using their imagination. They are more interested in the question "what if" than how or why. Teachers should present information using metaphors, and giving students choices in how they want to present information they've learned.
Sensing-Feeling Learners: These students have a strong need for team work, collaboration and conversation. The curriculum needs to be made relevant to their current lives. These students thrive in less competitive environments.
Reaching Every Student
But should an administrator expect teachers to address all these different styles and modalities? Can a teacher possibly reach each and every student? "Teach to a student's style, teach with style in mind and teach students about learning styles,'' suggests Silver.
Most important, say experts, is to make students themselves aware of their differences in styles, vary the presentation of information, and provide many different choices for students on how they can show the teacher they understand.
"You don't have to give every single child everything,'' says Mariaemma Pellulo-Willis, an educator and consultant for The Learning Success Institute who co-developed a learning styles assessment system. "But you need to have some options in the classroom."
Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.