Teaching to meet the needs of different learners is one of the greatest challenges language professionals face. Are teachers prepared to understand and assume different types of learning? In this practical article, Janet Val Triboullier discusses what learning styles are and how we can adapt topics and methodology to reach different pupils.
Janet Val Triboullier
How we teach is as important as what we teach. A lot of work has been done in the last two decades on the various ways that culture may affect children’s orientation to learning or to different learning styles.
A learning style is an individual preference to certain ways of learning. For example, some children learn best if they have a holistic view first of what is going to be learned and how it links to their lives and their general knowledge or understanding of the world. Others are more systematic and need to go step by step assembling pieces to gradually form a whole. Some children learn best in a collaborative way, by given them a wide range of possibilities to talk to peers or teachers about what they are learning. Some others need time for silence and internalise learning so they can concentrate on a task first and then carry on with different tasks. Some children are comfortable with computer based learning while others need a lively, active learning environments.
There are as many learning styles as children and ways of thinking, all unique and effective, especially if we consider all the possible combinations between them. According to Susan Greenfield “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.”
And, what about physical or musical learning skills? Or social skills, as parallel learning?
These ways of learning are all equally effective. The question is if teachers include a wide variety of learning styles in their teaching strategies. Are teachers prepared to understand and assume different types of learning? Is there a possibility that teachers may assume that students are not keeping up with a lesson just because it is a mismatch between their teaching style and the students’ ways of learning?
While it is important to be aware of individual learning styles, it is equally important not to expect that all students come from a certain background or that they all prefer to learn in a particular way. It would not only be difficult to always teach a child according to his or her learning style preferences; it would also be undesirable because students need to become more flexible learners, adapting their learning strategies to different tasks and contexts. It is important to include a variety of instructional techniques in schools so that everyone can expand their ability to learn in different ways. This knowledge will help learners build self-confidence and learn to manage their own learning.
Here are a few ideas that can be effective in class:
- Give students opportunities to use art forms from their own culture or from others. Include contemporary art as a resource where visual arts are not always a main goal. There are innumerable art forms that do not only use paper or canvas as a means of expression. Take note that art always includes exploration through different areas like science, maths, music or physical movement. Also keep in mind that language will join these different areas together. Participating in hands on, physical activities, for example, provides an excellent chance for social integration and language development.
- Most children have been exposed to only a narrow sample of world music. Learning to read and phonetics have to do with beats, rhythms etc. They strengthen a range of auditory skills. Recent studies suggest that these benefits extend all through life. This video explains more (link to video: http://www.communication.northwestern.edu/videos/kraus.html)
Expose children from an early age to many kinds of music, Chinese operas, Ragas from South Asia, Islamic prayers, rock music, etc. Music is universal, but its forms are not. For example, African music emphasises rhythm more than melody.
- Include many opportunities for different kinds of oral performance. Drama programmes can be more inclusive by exploiting storytelling, choral recitation and poetry reading or through inventing new words or creating funny crazy nonsense poems. Drama productions also provide an important and enjoyable way for school to demonstrate school talent.
To sum up, learning can be fun! Teachers can challenge students to learn in different ways and to develop their own way of doing things. Through appealing to different means of expression we also help develop self-expression and self esteem.