Learning Styles Revisited

After my first post about learning styles appeared, I heard from a number of past students and their parents, who affirmed the good things our learning styles work had done for them. I’m so glad!

I also heard from Anne Powell, coauthor of the book that’s been my learning styles bible, How Your Child Is Smart. Annie said, “Write more!” and then filled me in on some of the ways the terminology has continued to evolve. For example, Dawna Markova’s approach to the subtleties of individual learning, what we called “learning styles” in my class, is now more commonly referred to as “Mind Patterns.”

I love that term, mind patterns. It evokes streams braiding together in a delta, or lines of music, or people dancing to weave the ribbons of a maypole–or the braiding together of different states of consciousness, in the way we do almost anything.

learning poster 1All the illustrations for this post come from my archival set of learning style posters. For each student, we brainstormed evidence in a class discussion, and I took notes (in apparently very variable handwriting) to help the class keep track of what had been said, and to create a recording of the discussion that could be given to the focus child.  For each poster, I’ve cropped off the name at the top, and also the letters representing students’ hypotheses about Mind Patterns that could fit the evidence.

All day long you cycle among different states of mind, with various kinds of alertness to your surroundings, or attention to your own internal processing.

  • Sometimes you’re fully conscious: alert, systematic, able to attend to the world’s detail and organize it, comfortable with the view from the front porch of your personality. (Just in the way I describe all this, I inadvertently manifest my own pattern, by talking about a view from a porch. For some people it’s more like hearing all the strands in the flow of a conversation, or grasping the physical processes in the workings of an engine, or…)
  • In the blink of an eye, though, you can switch to the state of mind Markova calls subconscious, where input and output are more balanced, where you question and process, perhaps continuing to pursue an interesting thought instead of listening to a musical performance, or distracted by something you see off on the edge of what you’re meant to be seeing, or continuing to think of ways to solve a challenge in building something. You mull things over. You are less efficient, less systematic, but more intuitive than in your conscious channel. Your processing has the motion, the flow between poles, that can lead to new insights, fresh approaches, good decisions.
  • You also cycle through moments when you are in a state Markova and Powell referred to as unconscious–although they didn’t mean asleep, or in a coma. They meant that loose place, that fuzzy place, where you are “in another world,” much less aware of detail and much more aware of essence; where you are your most intuitive, your most receptive–but in a way you can’t easily organize or control–so you’re also vulnerable.

These three states of mind, described much more fully in How Your Child Is Smart, have become increasingly associated with brain wave patterns, in the ways Mind Pattern people talk about them.

  • learning poster 6Beta waves predominate when you’re conscious, in your front channel.
  • Alpha waves characterize the middle channel, what Markova called the subconscious.
  • Theta waves, trance-like, characterize the back channel, the unconscious.

(I’m simplifying this considerably, to get where I want to go with it.)

The Mind Patterns schema also thinks about types of experience, both receptive and active.

  • Auditory experience involves both listening (passively) and speaking or singing (actively.)
  • Visual experience involves both seeing–landscapes or charts or people’s facial expressions–and also creating things to be seen: drawings, presentations, maps.
  • Kinesthetic experience involves both feeling, receiving sensation–and also building, moving, acting out a story, transforming things by changing their position or connections or condition.

Mind Patterns analysis says that these three states of mind (conscious, subconscious, and unconscious) and the three realms of experience (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic) tend to interact in interesting ways, triggering each other. Nothing’s absolute, but for each of us visual experience, for example, tends to trigger a particular state of mind. Also, given a new experience, each of us tends to process it in a relatively predictable pattern or sequence.

Those interactions and patterns affect, for example, not whether we see but with what kind of attention–not whether we speak, but within what kinds of safety–not whether we feel, but with what kind of access to our own feelings.

learning poster 3Another italics interruption, to marvel at these recordings of kids’ comments about each other. Some comments are pretty blunt, as in “sometimes brags”, to the left. (I’m surprised I wrote that down–it’s possible that the kid himself said it!) Overall, though, the comments are both astute and kind. Within our community, we regularly affirmed that none of us were perfect, that all of us were figuring out how to be both true to ourselves and respectful of others. Reading the posters, I’m struck again by the safety these kids created for each other.

In class with my students, when I got to that point, having explained the three kinds of consciousness and the three realms of experience as seen within this schema, and having gotten the kids to help me list examples within the categories, I wanted to help them see how it all comes together, and sometimes I began with myself.

learning poster 4By the time we were doing this–never at the very beginning of the year, in spite of public demand–the kids knew me pretty well. They knew that my ability to see what was happening in the entire room could be kind of spooky. They knew that I wanted to see their faces while I read aloud, so I had learned to grab big chunks of print in quick looks down at the page. They knew that my particular kind of visual attention let me do that back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between the print and their faces, almost any time–unless I was too tired or too emotional about the book.

They knew that I tended to process anything unresolved by talking or writing about it; or getting them to talk or write. They knew that I depended on hearing every voice in the class–which meant side conversations within a group meeting could throw me off. I wanted to hear everything, but I couldn’t sort and organize what I heard as quickly or comfortably as with visual information.

They knew that active kinesthetic experience was exciting for me–bicycling! canoeing! building things!–but often a little out-of-control. Almost everyone talks with their hands. I talk with my entire arms, and bystanders have been known to look for helmets. I’m trying to sketch, in the air, the thing I’m talking about, to make it visible, and that can get messy.

My students had also experienced me as a person with very strong feelings, sometimes surprising to myself, revealed to me, often, only by the intercession of language.

learning poster 5None of this is about what I like most or least, or what I do more or less well. It’s about relationships between states of mind and kinds of experience.

Most of the time, I tend to use the VAK pattern (visual consciously / auditory subconsciously / kinesthetic unconsciously.)

Like each of the six patterns, VAK has many variations, and it has its ups and downs. VAKs drink in the visual world, and love to create things to be seen. We tend to be eager and compliant students, for whom the traditional classroom setup actually works pretty well. In an active classroom, we can easily become overwhelmed by kinesthetic experiences and demands–but they are really helpful for us, long-term, if we’re given support from our friends.

Reading the advice for parents of a VAK child, in How Your Child Is Smart, and reaching a part about helping your VAK child understand “how long it takes her to do anything,” I burst into tears. “Oh,” I thought, “if only they could have!” They were doing their best, like most parents. Still, if they’d known how to help me understand my slowness, I might have avoided years of considering myself useless for anything practical, that really mattered.

Here’s the fundamental fact: no one of us can be everyone.

learning poster 7So we put up big pieces of paper on the walls of the classroom, and brainstormed what we had noticed about each student’s patterns–with the focus child getting to put in his or her own two cents, with huge competition for who would be next, with gradually increasing clarity about the whole business. It was fun–

–and it was also an indispensable part of what our school called “the social and emotional curriculum.” As we explored these ideas together, kids could discover and experience for themselves, in a very direct way, Markova’s and Powell’s central insight: there are many ways to experience the world and join in its creation.

In the previous post about our learning styles work, I wrote about the ways my understanding shaped my teaching, my sense of individual needs, and my sense of appropriate (and sustainable) ways to respond. (Short version: I invited them in, to be “their own best teachers.”)

The learning-styles work was never about alibis, giving kids reasons to try less hard when faced with challenges. All of us can grow and become more balanced versions of ourselves, more receptive to the insights that aren’t native to us, more active in ways that take greater effort or practice.

Still, none of us should be made to give constant attention to what is challenging for us. We need to encourage each other–in schools, in our families, in our workplaces, in our communities–to live in the happy momentum of our strengths, to give with joy whatever is ours to give.

Vive la difference!

Finding the right game

My father, 93 this year, barely speaks now. During the three days my sisters and I recently spent with him, he said little more than yes or no. Even for that he mostly nodded or shook his head.

The exceptions touched us deeply. When our father’s wife asked me to play their small organ, and we three daughters sang together, our father joined in for parts of “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” smiling broadly.

Before every meal, as we held hands around the table, our stepmother prompted our father to say grace. Sometimes he used words we’d heard throughout our childhood (until he and our mom separated and then divorced, and we saw him much less often.) Sometimes he used different words to request the same blessings, ‟living kindly in each others’ lives,” where the original grace asked that we be kept ‟mindful of the needs of others.”

Mostly, though, he listened to us. Sometimes he raised his head at a name, or to watch when one of us grew animated telling a story.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThrough our childhood, and for many years after, our father was the most powerful talker we knew. A church deacon who sometimes filled in for the minister on Sunday, he helped to broker peace in a fractured congregation more than once. He sat on the school board in our town, helped build support for a new school, became a leader in his professional organization.

Later on, farm boy turned Green Revolution advocate and diplomat, he spoke persuasively to ministers of agriculture and heads of state all over the world.

We were immensely proud of him, and lucky ever to get a word in edgewise. In fact, the last five years we’ve been glad to have him dominate the conversation less, glad to have him listen more effectively and more appreciatively.

napkin foldingNear total silence felt different, awkward, heart-breaking. That talented, challenging, proud man sat at his dining table, folding a paper napkin along the diagonal and then throwing it into the waste basket. Then he started with another, and folded that one in half the other way, midpoint to midpoint, and then half again. He lined up his knife with the pattern of the tablecloth. He adjusted the position of a box of tissues, making it align precisely with the table’s corner. Looking at a stack of photographs, he positioned a smaller photo under the lower border of a larger one. Then he picked up another napkin and used it to measure the place mat, putting down a pointed finger to hold his place. All in silence.

Without meaning to, I watched my father through a math teacher’s eyes. I thought, ‟He’s practicing spatial reasoning.” Practicing, doing the same thing again and again, to do it well.

I thought back. Our father’s professional and community roles depended heavily on his verbal persuasiveness, but strong kinesthetic and spatial intelligence has also shaped his life. Before I was born, he played basketball, and sometimes refereed. (Years later, reading John McPhee helped me appreciate the way a really good basketball player knows where every other player is, and where the ball is, moment by moment.) All of us had watched our father build boats, plan and create gardens, play pool, dance.

As I watched him now, adjusting objects edge to edge, experimenting with fit, I thought about pattern blocks, math manipulatives beloved by many of my students, which they used occasionally in math, and often during rainy-day recess.

pattern blocks and kidsWhere could we get some? On an errand at a nearby mall, my sisters and I saw a toy store. No pattern blocks, but we found something called Imaginets, from MindWare. Small flat wooden shapes painted in five brilliant colors, with magnets on the back, filled a wooden suitcase lined with shiny white magnetic surfaces.


The set offered cards with designs to reproduce. By unanimous consent, we hid those right away, sensing in them an invitation to fail. That afternoon we just took out the box, and opened it on the table where the four of us sat together. After some fuss opening the plastic packages of shapes, one daughter set a purple rectangle in the middle of the white space. Another added to that shape a blue semicircle, lining them up the way our father had been lining up place mats. The third daughter added a green shape that became one of my favorites, an irregular pentagon.

We all held our breath. Would our wordless father join in?

With the exquisite care of a ferry pilot approaching a dock, he steered the piece he’d chosen into the position he had chosen for it. When we oooohed and ahhhhed with appreciation, he beamed.

imaginets and rGradually, as we kept playing, our father joined in with increasing confidence. He had his own sense of fit and appropriateness, in this completely non-competitive, non-verbal, intuitive game we were all inventing together. Until recently, we realized, he might not have been able to do anything this loose, this unconcerned with winning. Here he is, to the right, with one of our completed designs, which fulfilled our goal of using every piece in the set.

When we started letting the curved shapes be tangent instead of fitting closely, he went along for the ride. We grew more and more relaxed about taking turns, particularly after our father added seven shapes one after another, in a run of brilliant yellow, and looked up, pleased with his own sophistication.

I turned away, not wanting him to see tears. Transcending everything that made it hard for us to communicate, we were having a kind of conversation. A man in hand-to-hand combat with dementia, losing one capacity after another, our father was learning.

I wrote the first draft of this post riding north again on the train (a happy little link to the previous post about riding trains with my students.) As I watched the eastern seaboard slide by, creek by creek and cove by cove, I kept mulling it over. My daughter, by phone, suggested the string of words I might use for an online search about spatial / kinesthetic / sensory experience for the elderly. (And I’d welcome leads from any of my readers.)

R using imaginetsAlready, I can say this much. Unlike the students I observed and fell in love with and learned to support both verbally and non-verbally, my father does not have years of growing and learning ahead. He’s in his last chapter, no matter what right games we find. But he, too, needs and can savor the experience of learning. He is still one of us, a human, seriously playing.

In today’s email, I found a photograph our stepmother had taken, shown above, in which our father builds designs with the Imaginets on his own.

hands and imaginetsThis photograph, taken by one of my sisters, captures the image in my heart. I wanted to focus this post on my father, but I come to the end of it needing to thank not only my father but also my funny, creative, wise sisters, and my brave and patient stepmother–all the hands in this photograph. Also our mother, blessing this visit from her distance, and our families, giving whatever they can to the dispersed village we are together.

I think also of my students, from whom I learned so much that is still with me, about all the ways to be alive and aware–and learning–in this world.