More on Learning Styles

Golgi stained pyramidal neuron in the hippocam...

Image via Wikipedia

The idea of a difference in kinds of intelligence based on whether a person is a “left-brain” or a “right-brain” person isn’t new.   The theory holds that if one side of your brain is stronger than the other, you are better at the things that side of the brain controls.  For instance, because the left side of the brain is responsible for logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective, a “left-brain” person excels at tasks that call for logical and analytic thinking.  On the other hand, the right brain is in charge of work that is intuitive, holistic, and subjective.

Recent brain research suggests that the brain is so interconnected that we don’t have to be limited to one strong learning style. This means parents can play both sides against the middle.  Help your child learn in the way that suits him best.  But, also take opportunities to strengthen his use of other learning styles.

Based on the theory that everyone perceives and processes information differently due to heredity, upbringing, and environment, some educators believe that students learn best in one particular style of learning—each student has a “learning style”.    The idea isn’t to pigeon-hole a person, and no one learning style is superior to any other.  Use learning-styles as a tool, but provide opportunities for your child to learn in other ways, too.

There are several ways to categorize learning styles.  One way to categorize learning styles is to divide learners into either concrete or abstract learners.  Concrete perceivers learn best through hands-on activities that engage all their senses.  Abstract perceivers, on the other hand, best learn through analysis, observation, and thinking.

Learning styles can also be categorized by which sense organ the student favors.  All our sense organs operate in concert with the nervous system to send data to the brain where it is processed.  The ear has nerve cells that convert stimuli to electrical energy and send it to the brain.  But, and nerve cell in the ear is different than a nerve cell in the eye.  They even look different.  Some experts believe that sometimes the brain’s working relationship with one particular sense organ (ear, eye, smell) can become stronger than the working relationship with other sense organs.  If that is the case, then a student who’s brain and ear have a strong relationship will learn best when they hear information as opposed to reading it or watching a demonstration.

You don’t have to administer a complicated test to determine your child’s learning style.  Close observation will tell you what you need to know.

If you notice your child looks up toward the ceiling when asked a question, he may be a spatial learner. You’ll have to be patient and don’t assume they aren’t paying attention.  They are working on a response; they are just doing it in their own way.  Spatial learners try to construct a mental picture before answering questions.  My husband is great at doing math problems in his head.  When he does, his eyes move around as if he’s writing the numbers with his eyes.  This tells me he is a spatial learner.

In a way, kinesthetic learners learn by osmosis.  They use the long muscles in the arms and legs to take in information.  They need freedom of movement.  You may notice that before beginning a task, your kinesthetic child gets up to get a drink of water or a different pen or pencil.  That is because by moving, he’s helping himself focus and think.  Of course, I didn’t know that first year of home school.   I was driven to despair by my son’s constant fidgeting and how he would move from chair to floor and back again, or curl up with the dog, or straighten all the paper clips in the paper-clip holder.   If I’d only known the signs of a kinesthetic learning style, think of the grief I could have avoided.

It’s not just fidgety kids who learn kinesthetically.  I worked with an attorney who did some serious pacing when preparing for a case.  A hallway ran all the way around the entire floor.  When he was about to begin a trial, I’d see him walking past my office over and over.  Sometimes, if he was developing  a particularly vigorous idea, his walking would show purpose—quick firm steps.  At other times, he meandered around the floor, exploring ideas or letting a new fact sink in.  One of his associates always accompanied him, reporting the latest research or summarizing a deposition or just discussing trial strategy.  I thought at the time this lawyer was eccentric, perhaps a little disturbed.  But, now I think he must be a kinesthetic learner.

Learning through our senses has two phases.  First, we take in stimuli from the outside world through our sense organs—eyes, ears, skin, tounge.  Categorizing learning styles by which sense organ a child prefers over others is a matter of sensation.  The second phase of learning is the part where the nerve cells carry the information to the brain, which processes the information.  This phase is a matter of perception.  Sensation is bottom-up—taking information in from outside and sending to the brain.  Perception is top-down—processing information in the brain and sending out orders to different parts of the body so that we can respond appropriately.  Not every student processes information the same way.    An active processor makes immediate use of new information in order to make sense of it.  They want to try it out and see how it works.  Reflective processors reflect and thinking about what they’ve learned in order to make sense of it.

Having a label for the way your child learns isn’t very helpful.  It’s more important to observe how they deal with new information.  Does he like to try something out to understand it, or prefers to think things through first.  Does he focus on details, or does he better thing about the “big picture?”  When learning something new, does he like to talk about it or think about it?  Does he prefer facts or ideas?  Does he gravitate toward books with pictures, diagrams, or maps or does he prefer reading text?  Does he easily participate in group activities, or does he fade into the back and listen?  Does he excel at recalling facts, or is his thinking more abstract.  Does he work through math problems step-by-step or can he see an answer right off the bat but have a hard time finding the steps to get the answer?  Answering these questions will help you understand why your child does well at some things and not so well at others.  You will be able to help him translate school tasks into his language of learning.  Bring out the blocks or Legos when he comes home with pages of math problems so that he can build the answers with his own two hands.

Test Prep Blues

We’re getting ready to take the PSAT next week.  As homeschoolers, we avoided the test-mania that has dominated the public school scene the last few years.  That’s both a blessing and a curse.  My son isn’t used to sitting in a room with a bunch of other kids for hours on end while dumping everything he knows into tiny pencil bubbles.  On the other hand, we’ve not wasted countless hours going over material that will be on the test.  Instead, we’ve taken off on tangents or delved into deeper studies whenever the opportunity arose.  I wouldn’t trade that for anything.  Still, the PSAT has me scared in the way that only a standardized test can frighten.  I’m the only teacher my son has had for the last 8 years.  If he tanks, who will be to blame?

Learning Styles

da Vinci'sdrawing of the Brain

The idea of a difference in kinds of intelligence based on whether a person is a “left-brain” or a “right-brain” person isn’t new.   The theory holds that if one side of your brain is stronger than the other, you are better at the things that side of the brain controls.  For instance, because the left side of the brain is responsible for logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective, a “left-brain” person excels at tasks that call for logical and analytic thinking.  On the other hand, the right brain is in charge of work that is intuitive, holistic, and subjective.

Recent brain research suggests that the brain is so interconnected that we don’t have to be limited to one strong learning style  This means parents can play both sides against the middle.  Help your child learn in the way that suits him best.  But, also take opportunities to strengthen his use of other learning styles.

Based on the theory that everyone perceives and processes information differently due to heredity, upbringing, and environment, some educators believe that students learn best in one particular style of learning—each student has a “learning style”.    The idea isn’t to pigeon-hole a person, and no one learning style is superior to any other.  Use learning-styles as a tool, but provide opportunities for your child to learn in other ways, too.

There are several ways to categorize learning styles.  One way to categorize learning styles is to divide learners into either concrete or abstract learners.  Concrete perceivers learn best through hands-on activities that engage all their senses.  Abstract perceivers, on the other hand, best learn through analysis, observation, and thinking.

Learning styles can also be categorized by which sense organ the student favors.  All our sense organs operate in concert with the nervous system to send data to the brain where it is processed.  The ear has nerve cells that convert stimuli to electrical energy and send it to the brain.  But, and nerve cell in the ear is different than a nerve cell in the eye.  They even look different.  Some experts believe that sometimes the brain’s working relationship with one particular sense organ (ear, eye, smell) can become stronger than the working relationship with other sense organs.  If that is the case, then a student who’s brain and ear have a strong relationship will learn best when they hear information as opposed to reading it or watching a demonstration.

Read about how to identify your child’s learning style in our text post.

Fidgety Kids

回形针(paper clip)

Image via Wikipedia

 

If you notice your child looks up toward the ceiling when asked a question, he may be a spatial learner. You’ll have to be patient and don’t assume they aren’t paying attention.  They are working on a response; they are just doing it in their own way.  Spatial learners try to construct a mental picture before answering questions.  (Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: A theory of multiple intelligences.)  My husband is great at doing math problems in his head.  When he does, his eyes move around as if he’s writing the numbers with his eyes.  This tells me he is a spatial learner.

In a way, kinesthetic learners learn by osmosis.  They use the long muscles in the arms and legs to take in information.  They need freedom of movement.  You may notice that before beginning a task, your kinesthetic child gets up to get a drink of water or a different pen or pencil.  That is because by moving, he’s helping himself focus and think.  Of course, I didn’t know that first year of home school.   I was driven to despair by my son’s constant fidgeting and how he would move from chair to floor and back again, or curl up with the dog, or straight all the paper clips in the paper-clip holder.   If I’d only known the signs of a kinesthetic learning style, think of the grief I could have avoided.

It’s not just fidgety kids who learn kinesthetically.  I worked with an attorney who did some serious pacing when preparing for a case.  A hallway ran all the way around the entire floor.  When he was about to begin a trial, I’d see him walking past my office over and over.  Sometimes, if he was developing  a particularly vigorous idea, his walking would show purpose—quick firm steps.  At other times, he meandered around the floor, exploring ideas or letting a new fact sink in.  One of his associates always accompanied him, reporting the latest research or summarizing a deposition or just discussing trial strategy.  I thought at the time this lawyer was eccentric, perhaps a little disturbed.  But, now I think he was a kinesthetic learner.

Show Them What You Know

Parents and children were made for each other.  In the best of worlds we are each other’s biggest fan.  At the very least, we are gargantuan influences upon each other’s lives.   In fact, you do have a profound influence on your child’s ability to learn.  One way in which you do this, is through modeling.

Children learn as much, if not more, from observing their parents as they do from direct instruction.  You don’t have to drag in a chalkboard and stand before them with a pointer.  You don’t have to be a teacher to teach.  Your child learns by observing what you do.  Most of the milestones in a kid’s life are learned by imitation:  how to brush their teeth, what words go with what objects, potty training.

That’s great for things that can be seen.  You don’t even really have to say anything with you demonstrate how to brush teeth.  But, the ability to think critically isn’t something that can be seen.  It’s an internal process.  We need to enable our kids to “see” what’s going on inside our heads when we solve problems.  The high-fallutin term for this is “modeling.”  By modeling your thought processes, your child can observe how you solve problems.

I might as well warn you up front.  It can feel a bit weird and contrived to narrate what’s going on in your head.  But, it’s easier for our kids to learn how to think by “seeing” thinking in action.  So, pony up and start thinking out loud.

Here is an example of modeling thinking skills for your kids.

  • You’re having a dinner party and need to adapt a recipe for four-servings to one that will feed 12.  “Wow, this recipe won’t make enough spaghetti for all the guests we’ll have Saturday night.  I’d better recalculate the recipe.  This recipe serves four.  It needs to serve twelve people.  I’d have to make three batches of this recipe to feed twelve.  Or, I could do the math and make a bigger recipe just once.  All I have to do is multiply everything times three.  This calls for 2 cans of pureed tomatoes.  Two times three is six, so I’ll write down six.  It calls for a pound of meat.  One pound of meat times three is three.  So, I need three pounds of meat.  The recipe calls for ½ teaspoon of salt.  Fractions can be a little hard.  One half times three is three halves.  To make it easier for me, I’ll reduce three-halves to one and one-half teaspoons.  Great.  Now I just have to get the ingredients and I can make one batch of spaghetti that will serve all my guests.”  This demonstrates problem solving skills as well as basic math.  You identified the problem and proposed a couple of options to solve the problem.  You chose the option that made the most sense, and then used math to increase the recipe to serve all your guests.
  • Come up with some examples of your own and send them to me.  Your ideas might wind up on my blog!

Review of The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitze

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

Artist Mary Cassatte evokes strong images of motherhood

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to  men’s neckties. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.

The First Days of School: Discover What You Already Know

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Chinese Proverb

The Intrepid Explorer

The most important tool a child needs is the ability to think and learn purposefully. With this skill, they can master any subject.  A student embarking on a study of biology, algebra, or American history feels slightly off balance on the first day of class. But no matter how confusing that first day feels, purposeful learners regain their balance quickly because they know that every subject is just an organized system of information.

Suppose you are an intrepid explorer about to set out to explore the deepest part of the ocean where no one has been before.  You don’t just grab a swimsuit and towel, slip on your Crocs, and dash out the door.  First, you would learn all you could about the ocean and this part of the ocean in particular.  What will it take to reach this place?  How will you know when you get there?  How will you document your exploration?  What do you think you’re going to find?  Do any of those possibilities require you to bring anything special?  How will you remain under water long enough?  You’d certainly need to go to the Exploration-R-Us store and buy the tools you need to take with you.

Learning a body of knowledge is exactly the same as being a successful explorer. Both use focus, organization, expertise, and a deliberate kind of thinking.

As an intrepid explorer, you have a system you use to prepare for expeditions to make sure you don’t forget anything important.  Maybe you delegate these things to your assistants.  One deals with food and supplies, one researches the site, one deals with funding for the project, and another makes travel arrangements.  That is how you organize every expedition because otherwise, you’d have to reinvent the wheel over and over.  The details would overwhelm you and you’d be sure to forget something vital.  You are a successful explorer because you have learned from experience how to conduct your expeditions from beginning to the end.

Over your career, you’ve climbed Mt. Fuji, explored the polar ice caps and crossed the Sahara with nothing but a compass, a canteen, and a camel named Joe.  To plan your ocean expedition, you bring all of that experience to bear.

That Sahara fiasco was your first expedition, back when you thought you knew everything but you didn’t.  When Joe lumbered into the caravansary you were barely hanging on to his neck.  Fortunately, Indy Jones spotted you, pulled you off the camel and took you to a smoky cafe where he sat you down in front of a stiff restorative drink and gave you the benefit of all his wisdom as well as a few nifty tricks with a bullwhip.

The polar ice cap adventure went more smoothly because you followed Indy’s advice.  You had the gear for the freezing weather.  You had enough food and remembered to take a first aid kit.  But you were totally taken by surprise by how hard it was to spot polar bears on that sea of white.  When a family of bears surprised your team one morning you had no choice but to fend them off by throwing everything you were carrying at them, including all your special cold-weather video equipment.  As a result, you had nothing to sell to National Geographic and, financially, the expedition was a wash.

So, before beginning the climb up Mt. Fuji, you were more creative about trying to anticipate all the things that could go wrong. That expedition was a smashing success and established you as one of the top intrepid explorers of your time.  The smartest thing you did, though, was the Expedition Checklist you typed up to use on all your future ventures. Since Fuji, every time you plan an expedition you bring not just your expertise, but your handy dandy checklist.  You think of it as your ticket to success.

But, what does an intrepid explorer have to do with a student on the first day of class?  Well, the student is planning an exploration of sorts.  He is planning to explore physics, or geometry, or how to write a research paper.  He knows from the learning he’s already done, his confusion will subside once he gets organized.  Geometry, after all, is just another kind of math.  He already knows how numbers behave; he learned all that in elementary school when he learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide.  That’s the great thing about math—the numbers behave the same way in geometry as they do in algebra.  The new part, the student knows, is recognizing the kinds of problems that can be solved with geometry.  He knows he’ll have to memorize a few theorems and formulas and learn some new terminology.  So, our student settles into his new class just like the intrepid explorer settled into planning the expedition.  They both realize their jobs will be much easier if they start by figuring out how their task needs to be organized.

But, one day in between expeditions you, the intrepid explorer, are walking your dog in the park when you witness a rude jogger shove an elderly gentleman off the path.  The elderly man falls and you run over to help.  You always take a medic on your expeditions, and you’ve watched her work enough times that you can see right away that the man’s leg is broken.  You speak calmly to the man because when you broke your arm in the Outback, your medic did the same thing to keep you calm, and it helped.  You ask the man a question and he answers in what sounds like Urdu.  You don’t speak the language fluently, but your world travels exposed you to many languages and you are able to communicate well enough to convince the man to stay still and that help is on the way.  You are, however, deep in the midst of the park and it will take time for an ambulance to arrive.  You don’t like the pallor of the old man’s skin.  One of your assistants went into shock once and you hope that’s not about to happen to the old man.

Suddenly, you spot the Channel Two Eye in the Sky copter overhead.  You quickly take off your mirrored sunglasses and signal for help in Morse code – which your father taught you as a child and you can’t believe you still remember.  The copter lands and the grateful old man is flown away to the hospital.

That was the first time you’ve ever had to administer first aid to an elderly stranger in the middle of a park, but you managed well enough.  You called on all your accumulated expertise, and did what had to be done.  You went way back and pulled up something you learned as a child.  That’s why they call you “intrepid.”

Your heroic effort wasn’t just that you remembered helpful things.  The amazing part was that you pulled those pieces together and combined them in a way that allowed you to create a new plan in an unfamiliar situation.

Our student, likewise, uses what he’s learned in other classes to help him understand this new kind of math.  Because he’s a good learner and knows how math is organized, he is able to sort things out in a way that makes learning a new skill easier.

You are a modest sort, as explorers go, and you say to the adulatory crowd, “Hey, it was nothing.  It’s not like it was brain surgery.”  All humility aside, what you did was a little like brain surgery.  There wasn’t any slicing or dicing, but you did change your brain.  You see, while you’ve been off exploring, neuroscientists have been increasing what we know about the brain by leaps and bounds.  One of the most interesting things we have learned about the brain is that when given new information, the brain changes to accommodate it.  Read more articles on this website to learn how your brain works.

From Home School to College

Travis and his bees

As a home school teacher of a high school junior I’m channeling the school guidance counselor this fall and trying to educate myself and my son about colleges and how to get in them. The first hurdle was getting him interested.  Last year, he refused to contemplate college because he felt it was premature.  He had three years of high school yet.  After all,  to a teen-ager, three years is a lifetime.  Okay, that’s fine, I said.

Over the summer I geared back up but he resisted because it was summer and he didn’t want to think about anything school-related during  the summer.  Since I knew (though he didn’t) that this past summer was probably his last Tom Sawyer-esque summer, I accepted that as well.

Now, we’ve begun his junior year, and I have dared to introduced him to the College Board Website.  We have a date certain for the SAT.  I began compiling a list of colleges I thought suited him.  He vaguely mumbled some kind of acknowledgement that was less than enthusiastic.  Then, yesterday, he came upstairs and sat down with me and said that he had found a college he thought was a perfect fit.  I remembered when he lost his first tooth, I turned over my chair when I jumped up from the dinner table and screamed like a little girl.  I tried not to react that way to his first drop of interest in choosing a college.

Great, I said.  What college is it?  He said it was a place called Oxford.  Mississippi?  I asked.  No, England, he said.  Uh-huh, I said.  I’ve heard of it.  What do you want to do at Oxford, I asked.   Religion and orientalism, he said.  He would study Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism and would dabble in history and linguistics.  Doesn’t that sound like me? He said.  Sure does, I said.  What do you have to do to get in?  I asked.  Just get three As, he said.  Huh?  He showed me the page on the website that explained how, in the English system of education, one must have straight As on their forms to qualify for Oxford.  I showed him the “International Students” page on the website where it showed that a potential American student would need about 2700 on the SAT.  That’s what I have to shoot for, he said.  My son, the Oxford scholar.   Then he took off for Aikido class in his growling pick up truck.  After saying my please-keep-him-safe-while-he’s-driving prayer, I went on-line and ordered two sets of flashcards and a SAT study guide book from Amazon.