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Education: Special Needs


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hands-on learning

Learning Styles? Or Learning Skills?

by Jack Taulbee, Ed.M., M.A.

April 29, 2013—For many years, educators have taught that children have specific learning styles that affect how they relate to presented information. It’s true that the brain can acquire bits of information through different modalities, and it’s also true that we may each start with some personal ideas about which we prefer. But as neuroscience learns more and more about how the brain works and how it changes, it is becoming clear that some of education’s favored concepts need updating. Fortunately, there is a great deal of research available about how children learn best, and also of how the brain overcomes limitations. Knowing these concepts can help you work with your child through the interference of learning disorders.

Perhaps the most fundamental new understanding is that children learn best in an environment where they feel safe and accepted, and where they have teachers and parents who connect with their feelings and respond to them with empathy. This is true of all children, but especially those with learning disorders. The brain cannot absorb new information by any style whatsoever if it is stressed, because under stress the brain’s learning systems shut down. When the adults in their life are alert and attuned to their emotional responses, however, children feel safe rather than stressed and the stage is set for learning.

Another important finding is how important it is for us to “integrate” our brain, both top to bottom and left to right. A good book to help parents and teachers understand this concept is The Whole Brain Child, by UCLA researcher Daniel Siegel. In a sense, the old Chinese proverb is being verified: You know, the one that says: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." There is a natural progression from the first to the last.

This proverb is essentially referring to the three basic learning styles, which are:

A third key piece of information from neuroscience is that the brain retains plasticity—the ability to change and improve integration —our whole lives. Because an integrated brain is a healthier brain, it’s to our advantage to train ourselves and our children to use all three learning styles, especially if there are learning disabilities. Fortunately many activities help us do this without our realizing it.

A friend of mine, for example, once told me that he tended to be an auditory learner. This was not surprising—as a sound engineer, this was a skill he had practiced well. But he noticed some trouble with visual learning when he started attending an aerobics class to lose weight. At first he had some positioned himself at the front of the class, watched carefully how the instructor modeled the moves, and then worked hard every night mimicking what he was observing.

Unfortunately, about the second week into it he realized that he could not keep up with the class at all. Then one night he arrived late and had to stand at the back of a full class. He could not see the instructor and began to panic. After all, if he could not manage to learn the steps while being at the front of the class, how was he ever going to make it in the back with no clear sight of the instructor?

He thought for a moment and decided that he would close his eyes and just listen to the directions. Immediately, his well-practiced skill kicked in and he began to make the moves he had previously struggled with. He continued to stay at the back of the class for the next few weeks and the moves began to flow. He that he was able to master any new move the instructor made almost instantly, as long as he did a quick observation and also listened to instructions.

This is a good example of “listening” as an entryway into “seeing” and “doing.” A dance class is, in fact, an excellent activity for helping coordinate or integrate these three learning skills within the brain.

Help your child find ways to integrate all three learning styles into her academic work. One style alone will not make the same impact as all three, and these are skills that will serve children the rest of their lives.

Note one other example. I had one of my students take an automotive class while still attending high school so I could help him with his work. He struggled through the first part of the class, which consisted of lectures and reading assignments from manuals (hearing and seeing), but I reassured him that the bookwork would make more sense to him once he got into the shop and began to apply it. It was true, when he was able to perform the work with his hands, everything he had read made perfect sense to him.  His success in class depended on the use of all three learning skills applied together to his advantage.

Of course, no child will successfully integrate these learning skills in the absence of secure, nurturing relationships, which prime the brain for growth. When parents and teachers begin by building a foundation of acceptance and encouragement, any child can become a more confident and successful learner.


April 29, 2013

Jack Taulbee is the author of Understanding Children of Special Needs: What Every Parent Needs to Know.  To contact Jack or order his book, see his Web site.

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