Personalized learning sounds great. The idea that you have one preferred way to learn best is appealing. But where you go wrong is assuming this preference should actually be applied to how you are taught, in all circumstances. Take this classroom scenario as an example of how people approach the idea of learning styles. You are in a class where the teacher always talks. The teacher does not provide any hand-on activities or visuals to go along with the lecture.
You put up a big fuss because you have taken an learning styles inventory and KNOW that you learn BEST when you see something written down. You NEED the teacher to yield to your preference or you will shut down and become incapable of doing well in the class.
Okay, so maybe you are not that irrational. Still, stop and consider two questions that address this way of thinking:
1.) Is your teacher using best practices for teaching and learning? Well, maybe not. It is problematic to simply talk at students. Students need a variety of teaching methods. If the teacher doesn’t ask questions or engage students in any way OTHER than “just talking” then I fully agree — this is probably not a class where students are learning. But maybe the teacher is an excellent story teller, engaging in narration full of vivid imagery and clever anecdotes relating the material to every day life. In this case, students only hearing a lecture may come away with a lot of knowledge.
2.) Should material be presented only the way you like? Maybe you do learn better with pictures. But that isn’t the end of the story. Everyone learns better when they have many ways to remember. If I’m teaching you about types of apples, I’ll have much better luck showing you pictures of the apples I’m describing than only telling you about them. You would have an even better chance learning about these applies if you could taste them. Better still, just like my son’s kindergarten class pictured below, you will learn SO MUCH about apples if we go out to an apple orchard to pick, gather, wash, talk about and eat apples. HE WON’T STOP TALKING ABOUT APPLES!
Seriously though, don’t you wish you could feel that way about the Physics class you took in high school or while learning Statistics in college?
Preferences will only get you so far. There is a dual relationship in teaching and learning. I am fully on board with being the most effective teacher I can be BUT I also want to equip students with best practices to learn in any circumstance. You can do that with what I am calling the LEARN Method.
L: LISTEN. Before you can learn anything you have to be tuned in. Forget doing two things at once. Make sure if you are reading, you can actually pay attention to the book. If you are watching a documentary, don’t also browse the internet. If you are in the classroom, really BE IN THE CLASSROOM. Turn off all distractions unless they are required for your learning. Learning does not occur through absorption — you really have to be paying 100% attention to learn!
E: ELABORATE. Explain and describe what you are learning using many details. Back to the apple orchard. The children learned so much about apples because their knowledge was elaborated on with pictures, tastes, smells, sounds, and stories. Whether it be chemical elements in high school or types of animals in biology class, you need to make multiple connections with new information. Think of your mother who might ask you a lot of questions about a date with a significant other: where did you go? what did you do? what did you wear? what happened? All kidding aside, when we describe and explain with a lot of APPROPRIATE details, we are more likely to learn.
A: ASSOCIATE. Connect new information with things you already know. The best teachers know this well. They make information relevant to learner experiences. If a teacher makes learning about numbers related to performance on a fantasy football team, people may be more likely to pay attention and learn complicated statistical formulas…if they are interested in sports. Analogies and associations take very complex or obscure information and tie it into what a person already knows. We are motivated by what is familiar and what we like.
R: RE-TELL: Teach someone the new information you have learned. The best way to reinforce your learning is to be held accountable to teaching it to someone else. When you learn something new, have a debate about it with a roommate or spouse. Try to teach them by way of simplification. This will also work with children — although they may not be great listeners. I’ve found that having children has made me a better teacher. Explaining almost anything to a small child requires not only simplifying it but using language appropriate for them. Re-telling also requires processing thoughts outside your mind. Many learners develop a false sense of knowing because they have never had to explain a concept to someone else.
N: NIGHT. Make night time and achieving a full-night’s sleep sacred. Okay, I’m a work in progress with this one. In our culture we sometimes see people getting a full 8 hours sleep as lazy or week. We place a high value on productivity. Sleep is required for information to become well-learned though. Neuroscientists have found that something called consolidation occurs when we sleep. Consolidation happens as neurons and memory systems of the brain re-work with newly learned information to stabilize it. When your father encouraged you to get a good night sleep before a big test, he wasn’t kidding. Much of the consolidation process happens when we sleep. Less sleep, impaired or low-quality sleep and we are less likely to cement new memories so they can be remembered long after.
Never mind Learning Styles, remember the LEARN METHOD: LISTEN, ELABORATE, ASSOCIATE, RE-TELL, NIGHT and you’ll have more success learning.