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Getting Started Part 2 ~ Determining Learning and Teaching Styles

by Steve & Carol Ryerson

We begin with a primer on learning. Have you thought much about how you or anyone learns? Each of us learns things each day. It’s such a normal part of life that few of us give it much thought. However, when you begin home schooling, you think about many things in a fresh way. You realize that the responsibility you formerly put off on someone else’s plate is now on yours. You start thinking about things you haven’t thought about for a long time, such as how do kids learn to read? ...or how can I teach someone to work with fractions when I barely know how to myself? The list goes on. Relax, there is plenty of help available, and you can take things step-by-step.

A simple way to describe the learning process is as follows: A person is exposed to something he doesn’t know. He combines it with or relates it to something he does know. The previous understanding helps him to make the leap into the new territory, and now the set of things he knows is expanded.

When a person is explaining to someone else how a food tastes, he can say things like bitter, sweet, sour, or tart. Those terms only go so far, and most people find something common with which to compare the item in question. Is this new flavor, for example, sour like vinegar, or is it sour like spoiled milk? We look for something familiar to compare the unknown with so we will have a new known. Usually we end up saying to the person, “You’ll have to try it yourself.”

That is the essence of most learning: get an explanation from someone else, then try it yourself. Is there anything we can say that we truly know before we have tried it ourselves?

Our Master Teacher, Jesus, taught about the Kingdom, demonstrated the dynamics of the Kingdom, then He began to send his disciples out to “try it out” for themselves. We do the same thing today.

The questions we are asking now are how can the explanation phase go smoother, and how can the person learn the concept, information, or task best?

So we come to learning styles. Right now stop reading this article and go to You will come to a page of explanation from North Carolina State University about a questionnaire that Professors Felder and Silverman have developed. Then click on the link entitled ILS Questionnaire. This takes you to an online exercise you should be able to do in ten to fifteen minutes that will give you some interesting insight as to your own learning style. It’s actually quite enjoyable.

Tick...tick...tick...It’s now fifteen minutes later and you have completed your exercise in looking into your own learning style. I hope it was fun. Let me help you to understand what you just did.

Learning styles can be thought of in a variety of ways. This questionnaire describes them along four scales. The first one compares active learners with reflective ones. A strongly active learner has to discuss, apply, or explain the concept to others before he can really understand it. The strongly reflective learner must think about something quietly by himself...letting it sink in before feeling ready to do anything with the concept. The active learner finds it difficult to settle down and read the directions. The reflective learner may get frustrated with people who do not read directions.

The second scale balances sensing against intuition. Sensory learners like to learn facts. They vacuum up details as your Hoover sucks in dust. Intuitive learners prefer to discover possibilities and relationships. Intuitors like innovation and they dislike repetition. Surprises along the way frustrate the sensory learner because they interfere with his logic. But surprises excite the intuitive learner because they help him to work faster and skip some of the steps.

The third scale compares visual and verbal learners. Visual learners do best with pictures, diagrams, time lines, and similar aids. Verbal learners get most out of written and spoken directions. If a person is strongly reflective AND verbal, he may enjoy the directions so much that he’ll never get around to the task itself (see above if you forgot what reflective means...which if you did, you are probably an active/visual type of learner).

The final scale on this questionnaire compares sequential and global learners. Sequentials learn best with logical steps. They want to see how each detail leads to the next one. Global learners learn in big jumps when they pull things together from various parts. Often the global learner will be puzzled for a time, then suddenly “get it” and not know exactly why he “got it”. Global learners work on seeing the big picture before they focus on small steps. The sequential learner wants to get started at the beginning of the task and proceed because he is excited to see how the first step leads to the second and to the third and so on. The global learner wants to look at a little here, a little there, and a little at the end because he is excited about being able to see what the whole process means.

A key point to remember as we relate these concepts to real life is that no one is exclusively on one side or the other on these scales. We all have tendencies, and we all have certain situations which might make us go against the tendency. That’s part of the fun of working with people—we’re all different. Most people learn better if information is presented in more than one fashion i.e., if it is both seen and heard, for example. Keep that in mind as you continue.

How can we start applying these learning styles to our children? Notice the way your children play. Any parent who has more than one child can attest to the differences among his children. Most of us have humorous stories about those differences. If you have one child who is strongly active and one who is more reflective, you’ll have some conflict between the two of them as the active learner becomes frustrated with the reflective one. If the verbal one tries to give long explanations to the visual one, you’ll see the visual one lose interest.

Consider your toddler who gets a new toy. How does he go about the process of playing with it. Does he take time to look at before he does anything with it? (More or less reflective) Does he try to do things with it that it wasn’t designed for? (More or less intuitive...the sensory child would tend to gather facts about what it can do.)

When you give a book to the child who knows how to read, does he look at all the pictures before reading it...or possibly never get around to reading it at all? (Possibly more visual than verbal.) When he does start to read it, does he pay close attention to the details of the story (facts), or is he more attracted to the main ideas? (Possibly more sensory than intuitive)

The answers to these questions do relate to our teaching. If you have a visual/sequential child, for example, and you are sitting down together to read a new book together, you may want to just look at the pictures first. Then have him tell you what he thinks the book is about just from looking at those pictures. Watch for and encourage his efforts to put those pictures in order to tell a story.

If you have an active/intuitive/verbal child, you may have an excellent story teller in the making. Encourage him to read and tell stories to his younger brothers and sisters. If he is the younger child, have him act out the stories that his older brothers and sisters tell him. Or, have him tell you those same stories.

You can learn much about your children by listening and watching their behavior. As you apply these things to their educational experience, the Lord will show you more about yourself and how you can be a blessing to your children.


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