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Learning By Hunches

Emphasizing learning styles based on hunches
by Elaine McEwan-Adkins, Ed.D

The notion of teaching to a child's learning styles or multiple intelligences seems like a very sound, commonsensical approach. Teachers gobble up the idea, buy books, go to expensive workshops, and supposedly implement it in their classrooms. There is even a very popular program on the market that assesses students' reading styles and then prescribes what kind of instruction will work best to teach them to read. The major problem with all the hullabaloo over this latest innovation du jour is that finding out what children's learning styles are or which intelligences they have and then matching instructional methods has absolutely no effect on their learning. That's not Elaine McEwan-Adkins' opinion; that's the opinion of a very eminent reading researcher, Steven Stahl, who reviewed all of the current research. Of course, it's important to recognize a child's strengths and weaknesses, but to categorize children and then prescribe something for them based on this categorization is very dangerous, especially when a child is a low-performing child.

The big question is: do you play to a child's strengths or to a child's weaknesses. For example, you have a preschool child who is tactile and kinesthetic (i.e. they like to touch things and move around a lot). Sounds like most preschoolers I know, but that's one of the learning styles. So, when it comes time to teach them the sound-spelling correspondences so they can decode words, do you ignore the fact that they need to hear the sounds and see the letters in order to learn to read? Of course not. I wish somebody along the way in my academic career had ignored my strong verbal skills with which I needed very little help and had worked a little more on my bodily kinesthetic abilities. Maybe I'd be more coordinated and could even learn to play golf.

Psychologist George Miller summarized the scientific consensus regarding the multiple intelligences theory and his conclusion also applies to learning styles:

"Since none of the work has been done that would have to be done before a single-value assessment of intelligence could be replaced by a seven-value assessment, the discussion is all hunch and opinion. It is true that, if such profiles were available, an educator might be better able to match the materials and modes of instruction to an individual student. But since nobody knows whether the educator should play to the student's strengths or bolster the student's weaknesses (or both), the new psychometrics does not seem to advance practical matters much beyond present psychometrics."

If the teachers in a school are doing anything differently from any other school (which they probably aren't), it's not producing more learning from their students than any other school. But, it's a very seductive notion to parents that their children will receive a program especially designed for their unique abilities and talents. There's only one school I know of that is able to accomplish that goal: a home school. If you want your child to have a unique program that caters to their learning styles, keep them at home and you can do exactly that. If your child learns best with music playing, you can play music. If your child likes quiet, the room can be quiet. If your child prefers to do his assignments sprawled on the floor in front of the TV and can concentrate on two things at once, go for it. But what of the poor teacher who has twenty students each with a different learning style or intelligence or preference. She'll discover like most teachers who have been around the block, that the energy it takes to do all of this could better be spent on designing lessons in which every child gets a chance to build on strengths and remediate weaknesses.

In my experience, most teachers who attend a learning styles or multiple intelligences workshop get all fired up in the beginning about the wonderful changes they'll make in their classroom and soon discover it's not practical. They soon file the handouts away and get real!


Elaine is a former teacher, principal, and district administrator. She has written several books on educating children and dealing with the public school system. You are invited to visit her web site.

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