One of the most important and fundamental ideologies for effectively and successfully educating ourselves and our children is the concept of learning styles. Over the years there have been many models of learning styles postulated. All have parallels to one another, but they all describe and categorize the internal and external stimuli that affect one’s ability to assimilate and synthesize information.
When my colleague Mike Elliott, and I decided to pursue Academic Certificates in Educational Facilities Planning through a distance learning program at San Diego State University, our very first class took us all the way back to that concept of learning styles. The particular learning style models on which we focused were asserted by Drs. Rita and Kenneth Dunn and by Dr. Rita Dunn and Susan Rundle. These particular models describe more than 20 different perceptual, emotional, physiological, environmental, sociological and psychological stimuli that impact learning process.
The topic resonated more personally with me as I began paying closer attention to my kids’ personal learning styles. For example, Mallory, my 13-year-old has difficulty focusing and is often distracted by things going on around her. In order to improve her learning, Mallory needs background music (environmental stimuli) and something to snack on (physiological stimuli) while working. She also prefers an environment with soft seating to a table and chair or desk (again, environmental). Conall, my 10-year-old, prefers to work at a table or desk (environmental) and finds that he benefits from hearing the words he is reading spoken to him while he is reading them (perceptual visual/aural stimuli). Joslyn, my 16-year-old, finds that one of her most effective study techniques is making her own flash cards on the material she is learning. This method combines the perceptual fine motor, or tactile stimuli (when she makes the flash cards) with visual stimuli (when she uses the flash cards). I’ve also noticed that she is more impulsive (psychological stimuli) than introspective. This means she tends to prefer a trial and error approach to problem-solving rather than waiting for direction or following a strict set of instructions.
It is critical for both designers and educators to understand learning styles and how they influence students’ ability to absorb and process information. Even a subtle change in the learning environment or the way in which content is delivered can produce dramatic results for individual students. With my daughter Mallory, for example, we worked with her teacher to allow her to bring her iPod and earbuds into class. She was allowed to use them, along with a soft seating area to do some of her work. The result? Better focus on her task and more work completed in less time. How fortunate we were to work with a teacher who understood the importance of learning styles, and how wonderful that Mallory’s classroom environment offered the option of soft seating in addition to the traditional desks. If educators and designers can make a difference for every student as profound as our success with Mallory, such improvements could lead to school-wide test score improvements and higher-performing student bodies.