Learning Styles

Data driven decision-making is a hot topic these days.

Teachers can:

  • View historical information about their students.
    Look at predictors to see how they will do on standardized tests.
    Disaggregate data by race, gender, language, special needs, and poverty.
    Analyze the results of formative assessments as the school year progresses.
    Drill down into the data to find the learning standards, performance indicators and specific skills that need more work.

The question is, now that all this data is available, what is the best way for a teacher to use it?

Most educators talk about using information to break their classes into smaller subgroups based on the learning needs that are identified in the data reports. Once students are placed in these smaller groups the teacher then creates lessons and activities that differentiate according to their learning needs. This seems to be an improvement over teaching to the middle of the class, or teaching a specific skill on a schedule irregardless of whether the students are ready for it or not.

Perhaps the best of all worlds would be to create an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or every student. But for stressed out secondary teachers that see more than a hundred students per day, this may be impractical. Perhaps differentiating instruction using data this way, is as close to individualized instruction as we can get in a large public school environment.

Grouping students by academic needs, although an improvement, may not deliver the results we think they should.

Why not?

Grouping students this way doesn’t take into account their learning styles. For example, I may be a student who is a hands-on learner. Grouping me with students with similar academic needs may not improve my performance if the mode of instruction continues to be lecture or worksheet. Similarly, a student in my group who learns best by rote practice may not do well with a hands-on activity.

Would we make more of an impact if we understood our students learning styles, as well as our own teaching styles; and created learning groups that were assigned lessons and activities matching their learning style preferences?

I remember long ago when I was in the English classroom one of the most successful students asking me regularly,

“Mr. Reilly, how many words does this essay have to be?”

I would smile and respond,

“However many words it takes you to say what you have to say.”

She would look at me in frustration. I didn’t understand at the time that her learning style was very concrete and my teaching style wasn’t. Some kids loved it. Kids like her were very frustrated. I was oblivious to the many different learning styles of my students.

When we discuss data driven decisions, I believe the laser focus on the skills we teach does our students a disservice if we don’t pay attention to the way we choose to teach…

…and the ways our students learn best.



7 thoughts on “Learning Styles

  1. Hey Pete
    I agree that just because we KNOW what kids need to learn doesn’t mean we know HOW to get them to learn it best. I completely agree that learning styles, teaching styles, peer issues and a whole slew of other factors impact the actual learning process. While I try to differentiate and adjust for individual learning styles in my lessons, it is just very very difficult to do this (esp as a high school teacher) with every class, every day. Why? The reality of very little planning time for most teachers. I think everyone agrees that teachers would be better teaching if they had more time to collaborate and plan, and fewer students in each classroom to actually teach. But that would mean we would need at least double current prep times and more teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes. Which means a lot more money to the schools (and I am not even suggesting higher salaries for us teachers). So what can we do?? How can we actually make this a reality? I would love your thoughts….

  2. Hey Pete,

    Just for the record, there is a solid body of literature out there that indicates that learning styles really doesn’t amount to much.

    Truthfully, most kids who say they’re a particular style exert less cognitive effort when taught in that style. It’s interesting, and quite salient.

    I’m only commenting on this portion of your post, not the rest, for simplicity’s sake and because I’m not sure how to address the rest of the issues.


  3. Chris,
    Point me to one or two of the resources that discount learning styles. I’d like to understand why this is so.

    I know it is not so for me personally. I have particular ways that I learn best and can be bored to tears when forced into traditional learning situations.

    When you say that kids who are allowed to learn in the style that works for them, exert less cognitive effort…is that your experience speaking or one of the resources to which you refer?

    Thanks for the comments.


  4. As a former high school teacher, using the data to separate kids is unrealistic. What I should do as a good teacher is absorb the data as information to help me reach the students, just like the information I get from them on their hobbies, their favorite bands, etc. If I know this student failed TAKS and is low on reading skills, I help that student with that. Any data I receive on students gives me more pieces to the puzzle to help the students be successful.

  5. Angie,
    Numbers never give us the whole picture. As you point out, being open and present to the students; actually knowing them as individuals, gives us an idea of where and how to move with them effectively.

  6. Hi Pete,

    Sorry I let you down in this regard. I let this slip off my plate and should not have.

    There was a great article in American Educator in 1999 that deals with this topic. I’d be happy to send it to you. Email me and I will reply back with it attached. I can’t link to it because it’s not really available anywhere public.



  7. Dear Peter:

    You know this is a topic close to my heart. With all the educational acronyms in our lives, we must have a way to keep close track of our students achievement and create realistic definitions for AYP. No way to do that without the data. In the end, ours is a human business. Would love for you to attend an IST meeting in which we discuss, on a weekly basis, cases that are causing concerns for my classroom teachers. Great sharing and balancing of data, human concern, and searching for the best RTI models…


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