Respecting Children's Unique Learning Styles

My guest blogger is my daughter, Alissa Chung. Alissa is a lecturer at Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy. She is also a Clinical Child Psychologist with a private practice in Evanston, Illinois and the parent of three. 

What follows is an abridged version of her article. To read the complete article, please check out my April newsletter.

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there was no such thing as being left-handed.  True lefties were forced to switch to their right hand in school.  As a result, they could never write as quickly, neatly, or proficiently.  Then people realized that being left-handed was an actual phenomenon, that it was something people were born with, and that it could not be taught away.  Left-handed scissors and desks soon followed, and lefties were finally able to demonstrate their writing and drawing skills.

In today’s schools, left-handedness may be recognized, but it sure seems like learning differences are not.  With the increasing focus on standardized tests, an outgrowth seems to be standardized learning, teaching, and expectations.  Children are expected to be auditory learners and to take in most of their information by listening to the teacher at their desks.  Children are expected to learn how to read in kindergarten using phonetics or sometimes direct instruction methods.

When children are not able to learn within the expected timetable, it is assumed that the problem is the child rather than the teaching.  What is the prescription?  More of the same.  Summer school.  Retention.  Do it over and over again.  And if the child is still not learning, he just becomes discouraged, assumes he is stupid, and loses interest in school.  Sadly, even when children are referred for special education services, they often get the same basic reading strategies, just presented in a smaller group.

Schools have a difficult task to teach children of different abilities, backgrounds, and learning styles.  The number of children with neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD) and learning disorders continues to be on the rise.  No longer can general education teachers simply rely on the special education teachers to educate children with learning differences.

So what can we be doing better to reach more of our children and celebrate their unique gifts and abilities?  A multi-sensory approach to learning is one that can benefit all children.  Rather than just emphasize auditory learning (teacher talking/children listening at desks), this approach incorporates visual methods (charts, pictures…), hands-on learning, group work, and individualized learning programs.

No matter what we may be able to do with science, we cannot and should not standardize development.  There will always be people with different styles and abilities, and it is this diversity that really makes the world work.  In the adult world, there are an array of careers, hobbies, and personality styles to accommodate the differences that people bring to the table.  Schools need to recognize that one size never fits all, and we all lose out when children are left to fail and struggle rather than realize their full abilities.  After all, a school full of only right-handed children will be one that has a distinct minority of kids with unnecessarily sloppy handwriting; somewhere in the illegible mess might be the work of the next Pulitzer Prize winner that would never be recognized.

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