Learning Styles in the Classroom


June 14, 2012 by k. liz

Do you use Google Docs? I do, and for some reason my Google Docs have been whacked out recently, mixing up my documents and showing me things I haven’t seen in years. But, that’s okay, because it refreshed some articles that I had read in my University Education courses. I re-read one of them this morning, and I found the topic interesting and decided to share with you all today.

The article is entitled “Content’s Best Modality” and was written by Daniel Willingham in 2006 on the website Reading Rockets. I have looked around a bit, and it seems that this article is no longer available, maybe due in part to the fact that Willingham has since written a similar article entitled “Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?” (For the record, I believe the second article is a much better explanation of Willingham’s beliefs regarding learning modalities.)

Now, let me just lay this out here, in case you’re new here, I often have a hard time completely agreeing with anything, or completely dismissing everything. Maybe it’s my newness in the field, maybe it’s because I feel young and inadequate to say whether or not another teacher/researcher is right or wrong. Perhaps it’s because I have come to the point where I respect other teachers and I realize that ideas do not often just come from somewhere that is completely wrong – more often than not, the ideas start from really good thoughts, but as they are overused or abused, they become inadquate for our field. So, all of that to say, there are things that I really liked about this article, and there are things that I think aren’t completely right. Here’s an overview:

Willingham’s main premise is that learning modality has become such a buzz word over the last several decades. Teachers are leaning on the concept and using it to explain why certain students excel or don’t excel in certain areas. Willingham agrees that some students are stronger in different memory systems than others (be it auditory, visual, or kinesthetic) but he believes that perhaps teachers have used learning modalities as a bit of a panacea in the classroom to answer their problems. Willingham’s response is that we should not always teach to what we believe the students’ best modalities are, but rather what the content’s best modality is. He gives examples of different topics and subjects that are taught better using different modalities. For example, if you want to teach what Mayan ruins look like, you’d better show a picture, you cannot have the students listen or feel to find out what the ruins look like. (I hope that in teaching this is a bit obvious!) Willingham pushes teachers to find out what is the best way to teach the content, and that in the end whatever modality that is, it will be best for the students. Here is a quote from his article:

“Experiences in different modalities simply for the sake of including different modalities should not be the goal. Material should be presented auditorily or visually because the information that the teacher wants students to understand is best conveyed in that modality.”

Now, my response. I understand where Willingham is coming from, but in reality, I would hope that we as teachers do not need it to be broken down so far for us. Perhaps it is a necessity, I haven’t really been in American schools enough to see how the modalities theory is being played out in the classroom. But, if you ask me, a good teacher will know that you need to use visuals for some subjects and not for others. And Willingham touches on this in his article, but where the modalities theory really comes into play is for the teacher to step back and realize that all of her students are not the same, they are not going to learn the same, and they certainly are not all going to approach the subject in the same way that the teacher does. As a teacher, what modality theory means to me is that I am constantly looking for ways to make my material relevant to every student. I do not break students up according to what I think their preferred modality is. Rather, I incorporate all kinds of learning into one lesson so that hopefully, at least one of the ways will resonate with my students and they will be able to remember the material better.

I have to say that on this topic, I can see where Willingham is coming from, and I agree with his premises, but I also realize that different students do learn differently. Teachers have the opportunity to give students tools for learning, and ways to help them study so that students can capitalize on the ways that they learn best. When I was in school and studying for tests, I often made up songs or drew pictures to help me remember the different facts. As teachers, we can help students find what method helps them remember best and show them ways to utilize that for their own success. Modalities theory has great benefits both for the learners’ best modalities, and the content’s best modality. The key to both is having a teacher that is willing to find balance and is willing to work a little harder to make both modalities a reality and a success.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you practice modalities theory in your classroom? How? Why? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


One thought on “Learning Styles in the Classroom

  1. Like U I never totally agree/disagree. Yes some content – anatomy with cadavers – do require particular presentations. Growing all those bean plants on shelves seemed more obvious than a lecture from moi. LOL Age of learner is also a factor. When I taught Grade 1 (pre-reading) the fact of show&tell more obvious. Sometimes I wonder how many research scholars ever taught Grade 1? Thanks for the post. I agree that part of the teacher’s work is to help students find/discover their learning style and then receive training so they can use for a lifetime.

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