How Does My Child Learn?

mom helping kids with homework
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Not long ago, our 3-year-old, Micah, was sitting at the kitchen table, drawing large, swirly shapes on a sheet of printer paper. As he worked, his little feet swung underneath him, heels banging into the storage bench that he was sitting on. It made quite a racket, and  throughout the house the sound was less like a kid drawing a picture and more like the drums of some ancient war.

"Micah, please stop kicking the bench," I heard my wife, Marcia, say.

"It makes da pencil go," Micah responded, not missing a stroke (or a kick).

"He's probably a kinesthetic learner," I joked from the living room, referring to the theory about how individuals learn differently and should, whenever possible, absorb knowledge through their dominant style. "His brain needs his body to be moving."

"Or maybe he's just a boy," Marcia said.

Worlds of differences

It’s not the first time we’ve talked about learning styles in our home. At various times, while dealing with the evening homework battles with our two oldest daughters, I've wondered if they were auditory learners, visual learners or kinesthetic learners. Were they analytic or global? Linear or holistic? Should I read Mikayla a paragraph out loud (to match her auditory preference) or let her wrestle through the reading herself (to strengthen her ability to visually process text)? Once, I suggested that Isabelle, our third-grader, was a "caloric learner," because of her seemingly hard-wired need to have munchies or treats nearby while plodding through math worksheets.

But do children really have a specific, hard-wired style that learning should be tailored to? In recent years, education experts have begun to refine their theories of learning styles. Their research suggests that while students may have clear preferences about how they learn, they will absorb information just as well whether or not it is presented in their preferred style. Kids are still very different, of course, but the effectiveness of a lesson usually depends on other factors—natural aptitude, current ability, background knowledge, interest in the topic (or learning in general), personal distractions, etc. "Focusing too much on differences in learning styles often comes at the cost of attention to these other important dimensions," write cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and co-author Cedar Riener in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learner.

Brain researcher Annie Murphy Paul stresses that none of this means information should be presented in only one venue. "All learners benefit when information is put forth in diverse ways that engage a multitude of the senses," she writes. Pictures, real-world demonstrations, documentaries, historic radio broadcasts, hands-on activities—teachers and parents should absolutely embrace a rich variety of ways to present information.

Paul points to a recent study at a San Francisco elementary school that found students' math scores, when studying the concept of fractions, showed significant improvement when teachers incorporated basic music principles into the curriculum. Students found it easier to understand what 1/8 and 1/4 meant after they'd just learned to hear and play eighth notes and quarter notes on a recorder or tap them out on their desktops.

In other words, the focus should be less on how different activities might benefit individual learning styles, and more on whether those activities are just a good fit for the lesson itself. "The value of the video or audio will be determined by how it suits the content that we are asking students to learn and the background knowledge, interests and abilities that [students] bring to it," Willingham and Riener note.

How your children learn

What do these educational trends mean for parents who recognize that there are clear differences in how their kids approach their home-school study or evening schoolwork?

Acknowledge the differences. Differences between kids are absolutely real, but keep in mind that those differences are not so much about labeled learning styles, but instead concern a child's unique interests, personality, abilities and background knowledge. 

As we help our kids with schoolwork, we need to balance the need to get things done with a workflow and environment that considers these differences. So we help them create their own homework space and help them decide on a consistent time to do the work. We minimize distractions and provide encouragement at the levels the child needs.

Sometimes we get a little creative. In our home, I recognize that the little habit we've gotten in with Isabelle, to have a few M&Ms nearby while she churns through her math homework, is just a little perk to help her survive what is often an unpleasant experience. It's a trick that fits her personality—and it gets her to focus on practicing her math, just as skipping around on the trampoline got her to recite her spelling words when she was in second grade.

"Every child is going to be different," says Cynthia Tobias, author of The Way They Learn. "Don't underestimate the importance of finding the right environment — even if it includes some elements that would make you uncomfortable if you were studying." She continues, "The most important question to ask yourself is: 'What's the point?’ If the point is to get the homework done, let your child propose how he or she wants to do it, and simply require proof that it works."

Embrace variety. Kids learn better when encountering information in multiple forms, and their "interest is kept alive by novelty and variety," Annie Murphy Paul writes. Every child benefits from pictures and videos and props, if those pictures and videos and props are a good fit for an assignment. Most kids benefit from hands-on activities, such as music and motion, if they help children understand an abstract principle.

The point is to constantly look for appropriate ways to present a new angle to an old topic. Flashcards could have both text and pictures or graphics. History might include museum trips, cooking lessons and listening to audio dramas. Math might include music or art. 

Remember the goal. We need to keep in mind the long-term goal of education: to prepare our kids for life as an adult. Early on, my daughter Mikayla preferred to have text read out loud to her, but one goal of education is to teach children to process text for themselves. So in those early months, when she'd not yet become the reader she is today, we'd alternate reading pages. Daddy reads a page; Mikayla reads a page.

A child's personality and learning preferences must be balanced with the reality that some skills simply take practice and may not be all that enjoyable. It can be detrimental to our kids' overall growth if we respond to struggles in an educational area by downshifting to a different mode of learning. Yes, kids benefit from being read to, but that ongoing activity should never come at the expense of a healthy amount of reading time on their own. Kids also need to do their own work. We can make suggestions, review directions and brainstorm a few ideas, but kids won't be able to learn if they don't dive in, wrestle with the material and make a bunch of mistakes along the way.

Indeed, in classrooms around the nation, the concept of learning from mistakes and failure is back in style. Tom Hoerr, principal of the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, has begun to steer his staff toward the "grit" principle, the goal of which is to create a classroom culture that values struggle, risk-taking and learning from failure. When kids struggle to answer a question, teachers are encouraged to resist coming alongside with hints. Instead, they let students wrestle a bit through that awkward silence. The goal is to get kids comfortable with struggle, so they see it as a regular, necessary part of learning.

"If our kids have graduated from here with nothing but success, then we have failed them, because they haven't learned how to respond to frustration and failure," Hoerr said in an interview with NPR. He admits that his school hasn't always had this focus, but he contends that catering to children's learning preferences doesn't really help them in the long run.

Now, he's encouraging teachers and parents to pull kids out of their comfort zones intentionally. "Life isn't always easy," he says. "No matter how talented kids are, they hit the wall so they can learn to pick themselves up, hit the wall again and pick themselves up again — and ultimately persevere and succeed."

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