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!

“That Thing with the Letters”: Working with Perceptual Thinking Patterns

Kids who’d heard rumors from older brothers or sisters often sidled up to me in the first days of school, to ask, “You know that thing with the letters–which one am I?”

How your child is smart“That thing with the letters” referred to Perceptual Thinking Patterns, PTP’s, a system for thinking about the diverse ways people receive the world and respond to it. The PTP schema was first developed by Dawna Markova, and interpreted by Anne Powell, particularly for parents and teachers, in a book called How Your Child Is Smart. (Conari, 2011.)

In class, we usually referred to the patterns as learning styles. The terms “learning styles” and “diverse learning approaches” are occasionally used in writing about education as  euphemisms for different levels of ability. That’s not what PTP’s are about. They’re also not about what activities you like best. nate with tube and vortexInstead, Markova and Powell ask people to think about their uses of various modes of perception–visual, auditory, kinesthetic–and then think about how those modes are linked with the states of consciousness they trigger or require for each person.

Alhambra new luke and deanThey ask, “What mode brings you to your most alert awareness? Within which mode are you less efficient, less in control, but perhaps more intuitive? What are you comfortable doing for an audience, and what will you need support to do in front of an audience? What would you rather do unobserved, in more freedom? Where are you most active? Most receptive?”

The PTP schema offers subtler ways of thinking about learning approach than the conventional shorthand, which says things like, “I’m a visual learner.” That’s crazy! We’re all visual learners! But–exploring just one dimension–some of us become more alert when asked to draw something with detail. Others paint in bold color with wild freedom. Still others scrutinize and create maps to ask questions and sort out possibilities, to hold a kind of conversation. We all use visual perception and visual thinking, but in different ways. StefanIn fact, we all use all the modes of perception, one way or another. If we think carefully, though–about when, and how, with what support, and to what effect–our answers to those questions will vary considerably.

At my school, we were introduced to PTP’s by a Touchstone parent, Peter Senge, who had written an introduction to How Your Child Is Smart. Anne Powell visited the school to do workshops with staff and parents, and spent additional time in my classroom, videotaping me as I worked with students, and helping me interpret what I saw when I watched the video. She also did detailed PTP analyses for some of my students.

Farm School 2012 mine black lambMarkova’s and Powell’s insights clicked for me, so much that I drove my family a little crazy, applying PTP’s to family interactions, conversations overheard in restaurants, even political campaigns. Markova and Powell spoke to my own convictions about the very diverse ways people learn and make sense–a diversity which had fascinated me since childhood. Years later I continue to be most excited by what I see as Markova’s and Powell’s fundamental message: We experience the world in very different ways, and the world needs all those ways. 

We are lucky to be so diverse in our approaches to learning and thinking and doing, lucky for the sake of our survival as a species, and lucky in the resultant richness of our culture.

Learning style diversity may be a wonderful thing in the world, but it can also be a deal-breaking challenge in a regimented, industrialized classroom, with too many students for any teacher to know each of them well, and all of it warped by constant testing and grading.

river group recording some editsConsider something as fundamental as taking notes. If you are taught just one approach to note-taking, and graded on your use of that method, it’s chancy whether the outcome will show the learning you could have experienced, if you’d been given an opportunity to choose between several methods, or invent a variation that works for you. One size does NOT fit all.

On the other hand, does this mean that a teacher has to hand-tailor completely individualized assignments? Or six assignments, one for each of the six basic Perceptual Thinking Patterns?

Heaven forbid, as my grandmother would say. Life is too short. (And there are too many variations on each of the patterns.) projects marble chutes editIf we want to honor individual learning styles, do we have to forgo the enormous benefits of kids learning in groups, and send them all back to their corners to learn in individualized autonomy?

I can’t describe here all the ways we found to make room for individual learning approaches within a busily collaborative classroom. (That may be the most important preoccupation of this whole blog.) Many of our methods came down to this: handing both power and responsibility to each child. We encouraged children to observe themselves and each other, in order to come to tentative understandings of their patterns. We modeled–and let them model for each other–many ways of approaching new material, and many ways of making it their own and sharing it. We gave them realms of choice within which they could try approaches and methods, and see what worked. We consulted with them, asking them to describe their processes and assess their results.

Above all, we said that being active in their own behalf, being “their own best teachers,” was part of their job. And it worked. transportation projects hauling sand editSometimes, after I refused to answer the “Which one am I?” question, the sidling-up child would ask, “And what are you?”

Me? I’m a VAK, although I wouldn’t say that for a ways down the road, knowing that I make a pretty good guinea pig for kids who are learning about this stuff.

Hooray for all the connections that led from Dawna Markova to a child who had struggled all his student life, who arranged his portfolio according to the perceptual thinking pattern with which he’d come to identify.

Hooray for the difference it’s made in my own life, to understand my VAK-ness. I’ll explain what that means, and tell more about the ways we worked with learning styles in class, and how students responded, in my next post.