Learning Styles in the Classroom

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by Tom Tuohy

Dr. Mina Eaves presenting at the seminar in Bangkok
Dr. Mina Eaves presenting at the seminar in Bangkok

With technology making ever bigger inroads into the classroom, research being carried out to offer cultural and psychological insights, and theories of creativity and learning abounding, more and more is being discovered about the best way to educate students.

The old days

In my school days, teaching was a rudimentary thing – the classroom equipment amounted to a piece of chalk and a blackboard. The only technology I ever saw in a classroom in the 1970s was a TV on which we watched The Grand National, as if it was some kind of cultural lesson on how to be English. Nowadays, of course, it is common for students to have mobile phones, iPods, PDAs, and handheld games machines. Classrooms are kitted-out with projectors, video screens, and Internet access, which are all increasingly being used as part of the mode of educational delivery.

Despite all this, in the UK alone there is discouraging data suggesting that the quality of education in the country has declined rapidly since the 1950s. There are many who believe that the educational philosophies and models of teaching are just completely out of date. Others suggest that part of the problem lies not in the use of technology (or lack of it) but in the way we educate our young and how we overlook the individual styles of learning that all students have.

Like others, I have long felt that there is far too much emphasis on what has been called a “Teach-for-the-Test” or “Teach, Test, Teach” (TTT) approach where there is increasing pressure put on teachers to produce results. When you focus on results alone, you move the emphasis away from learning, away from the individual creative talents that students bring to the classroom, and also away from the quality of the education and indeed pedagogical instruments themselves.

Current theories – learning styles

In order to find out more about the research into different learning styles, I recently attended an informal seminar in Bangkok. Here I saw a presentation by Dr. Mina Eaves, an expert on classroom learning styles. Dr. Eaves wrote a paper entitled “Learning styles technology and supporting overseas learners”.

This paper analyses the differences between the learning styles of Thai students in England and local students in England and Thailand. Dr. Eaves also discusses key issues such as how to understand learning styles in multicultural and international education. She suggests that much greater care needs to be applied when teachers evaluate how students learn most effectively as there is a real paucity of research in this area.

The three main types of learner are kinesthetic or tactile learners, visual learners, and auditory learners (see my previous article on Brain Based Learning for a fuller definition of these). I asked Dr. Eaves whether she thinks these distinctions of kinesthetic, visual and auditory learning styles are still relevant today.

“No, because they have failed to demonstrate validity in studies, and this approach oversimplifies the way that the brain works. I believe it is far more useful to use multi-sensory teaching styles in a given session to stimulate interest and concentration rather than giving different students a single sensory type of learning experience based on the output of questionnaires with serious doubts over their reliability and validity.”

Dr. Eaves suggests that what is needed is a new approach that doesn’t distinguish between students who learn better by, for example, looking at something on a whiteboard (visual learners), or another that learns best by hearing the teacher explain a problem or process (auditory learners). What is needed is a teaching process that encompasses all the different learning styles as well as the cultural and psychological aspects that make up a typical modern classroom.

Case study - Thailand

The UK is one of the top three locations for students wishing to study overseas (the two others being Australia and the US). Every year, thousands of Thai students choose to study in the UK, with the most popular subjects being the English language, MA and PhD courses. While the 1997 economic crisis inevitably had a major impact on the number of Thais studying in the UK, these figures have turned around, and the figure for students who travelled to the UK in 2007-8 has now increased to 7,000.

Not surprisingly, with so many Thai students entering the UK in recent years, Dr. Eaves’ research is not the only one to emerge. Dr. Singhanat Nomnian (Kenny, for short) also conducted research entitled “Positioning in Multilingual Classrooms: a Case Study of Thai Students in British University”. He focuses, for example, on the way Thais (and by extension all students) “position” themselves in a new classroom and how that impacts on their learning and, most importantly how an awareness of this by the teacher is of paramount importance in getting the most from that student.

“Based on positioning theory (Davies and Harré, 1990; van Langenhove and Harré, 1999), the data analysis uncovers four key factors affecting Thai students’ positioning in the pre-sessional classroom. These factors include tutors’ teaching styles and methods, as well as their implicit expectations about student participation which significantly impact on Thai students’ involvement in class and group activities.”

Therefore, what we need to be aware of as teachers is that different students have different needs, whether they be creative, cultural, psychological, academic, or linguistic, and that students themselves need to be understood in terms of what they bring to the classroom based on the way they position themselves in it.

Continuing an analysis of Asian students in western classrooms, Kenny says,

“Turner (2006) develops the archetypes of Chinese and British students: Chinese students are perceived to be passive-receptive learners who listen to the teacher and do not question accepted norms and ideas in the classroom; whereas their British counterparts are active learners who ask lots of questions, participate vocally in class, and take a critical stance on knowledge and learning.”

Kenny is not the first to recognize this positioning and its impact on Thai educational achievement. Before his recent departure from the post of acting director of the Thai Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (Onesqa), Prof. Emeritus Somwung Pitiyanuwat, PhD, had this to say:

“[…] We have to build our strengths on research in all areas of education, for example, research into Thai students' learning styles, how they are different from those of Western students, and the pros and cons of the various styles, so that we can design appropriate teaching and learning pedagogies.”

Are we failing our children?

For me, the most interesting view on ways of learning and students’ ability to express themselves in the classroom comes from an unlikely source. Many people may have seen the amazing presentation by creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson in his TED presentation (see the link at the end of the article). Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

One example he gives is that of a mother who believed there was something wrong with her daughter as she couldn’t stay still. She took her to see a doctor who examined the girl but couldn’t find anything wrong. When the doctor told the girl he wanted to talk privately with her mother, both adults got up and left.

“As they went out of the room, he [the doctor] turned on the radio sitting on his desk. When they got out of the room, he said to her mother, ‘Just stand and watch her.’ The minute they left, she was on her feet, moving to the music. They watched for a few minutes, and he turned to her mother and said, ‘You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick. She's a dancer. Take her to a dance school.’ I [Ken Robinson] asked, ‘What happened?’ and Gillian said, ‘She did. I can't tell you how wonderful it was. We walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who had to move to think.’ ‘Who had to move to think.’”

Sir Ken goes on to say how she went on to enjoy a hugely successful career at the Royal Ballet, founded her own company, met Andrew Lloyd Webber, created some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, and is probably a multimillionaire. “Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”

This is one small example among many of the way education styles do not match students’ needs and therefore need to be re-evaluated: TED



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