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Experts Urge Teachers To Adapt to Students' Learning Styles

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New Orleans--Some children learn better alone. Others progress best in a group. But in any given group, there will be children who remember every word they hear and forget most of what they read. And there will be children who remember what they read, while lectures seem to go in one ear and out the other.

These are just a few examples of the widely differing "learning styles" displayed by students. The theory and implications of such differences were the focus last week of the first national conference on the rapidly expanding and sometimes controversial subjects of "learning styles and brain behavior."

Public and Private Schools

The conference, sponsored jointly by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (nassp) and St. John's University in New York, drew 400 educators here from public and private schools and universities around the country.

They heard from theorists who have pioneered the new field's ideas, practitioners who are trying the ideas out in their schools, and several scholars who cautioned their col-leagues not to take the ideas too far too fast.

The concept of "learning style" is based on a simple premise: Each student brings to the classroom characteristics of mind and personality that affect, to varying degrees, his or her ability to learn. Similarly, teachers also have definite styles to which students respond differently, according to James W. Keefe, director of research for the principals' organization.

As a field of research, learning styles began to gain attention in the mid-1970's, although the concept first appeared in the educational research literature as early as 1892, Mr. Keefe said.

The field holds great promise for education, but it is also potentially problematic, according to several speakers.

"We can underestimate the hidden assumptions of the present system,'' said Anthony F. Gregorc, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, who outlined some of the pitfalls. "If a fundamental fact that underlies public schools is the 'average child' concept, in which children are regarded as a relatively homogeneous group, this will affect educators' attitudes toward individual evaluation," he said.

"The system will not be easily modified," Mr. Gregorc said. "We're not messing around with something small."

But, added Rita Dunn of St. John's University, one of the first scholars to examine the learning-style concept, "There's a very strong research base for learning styles," she said. "We've got to start working with them."

Learning-Style Techniques

Mr. Gregorc and others suggested, however, that the application of learning-style techniques is best carried out systematically and on a small scale at first.

The variations in students' learning styles include a wide array of characteristics, which are evaluated with different measurement "instruments" designed to identify the circumstances under which a student learns best, Mr. Keefe said, adding that there are at least 27 such instruments.

For example, Ms. Dunn said, a student may learn most effectively through reading, a style that earns him the label of "visual learner." Or he may learn best when he hears material spoken, which identifies him as an "auditory learner." Some students--"tactile learners"--may learn most effectively if they can use models and other materials that they can handle. Collectively, these factors are known as "modalities." A student's best "modality" for learning may be visual, auditory, or tactile, according to the speakers.

Other factors that are less directly related to the teaching process also affect students' success in learning. The temperature of the classroom, the level of noise, and the amount of light all may affect a person's ability to learn, according to research findings described by Ms. Dunn.

Learning Style Inventory

One of the most frequently used "yardsticks" is the Learning Style Inventory (lsi), developed by Ms. Dunn, Kenneth Dunn, superintendent of the Hewitt-Woodmere Public Schools in Hewitt, N.Y., and Gary E. Price, associate professor in the department of counseling at the University of Kansas. This provides a "student profile" based on 24 factors, including a student's preference for structured or unstructured learning, classroom design, motivation, and others.

Mr. Price estimated that since last January, the lsi has been administered to some 150,000 students from 600 schools or school
districts. The Transaction Ability Inventory, developed by Mr. Gregorc and colleagues, is also widely used. This method evaluates a person's style from a different point of view, by identifying those who think "sequentially," "randomly," "abstractly," "concretely," or with some combination of those characteristics.

"When we teach through learning styles, we can see evidence of increased academic achievement, improved attitude, and a decrease in discipline problems," Ms. Dunn said.

Ms. Dunn cited a 1977 study that demonstrated that "learning disabled" students who were taught through their strongest "modality" showed dramatic improvement in the number of words they were able to learn each week--from 3.5 to 17 each week. Ms. Dunn and other speakers suggested that some students may not be learning-disabled as much as they are "curriculum-disabled"--they have not been taught in a style that is compatible with their style.

Normal students also benefit from changes that coincide with their style, according to Ms. Dunn and others. For example, Ms. Dunn cited a study that assessed the reading skills and reaction to noise of sixth-grade students. The results showed that the students who "needed" noise achieved more in a noisy environment, and did significantly worse in a quiet environment.

Many school officials who have taken the learning-style concept to the classroom have reported considerable success, according to several administrators who described their experiences at the conference. In 1978, David P. Cavanaugh, superintendent of the Deer Park Community Schools in Cincinnati, began working with 42 teachers who volunteered to participate in a learning-styles experiment at Worthington High School, where Mr. Cavanaugh was then principal.

Using the Learning Style Inventory, the teachers tested not only their students, but also themselves. Some teachers made more modifications in their teaching methods than others, but all discussed the results with their students so that they would become aware of the circumstances under which they learned best.

Both teachers and students responded enthusiastically; the result, Mr. Cavanaugh said, was improved academic performance and attitude, and a decline in truancy and discipline problems.

At Edison Elementary School in Elmhurst, Ill., Principal Milton F. Honel has also been applying the learning-style concept. Although he and his colleagues have used the Learning Styles Inventory, Mr. Honel said, they do not test students regularly, but rely more on the judgment of the teachers.

For example, he said, a student who responded best to a structured classroom environment would be assigned to a teacher who favored a formal approach to learning. The student who learned best in a more relaxed environment, in contrast, would be placed with the more relaxed teacher.

But, other speakers were quick to point out, the question of "matching" teachers and students by style is still somewhat controversial. Most agreed that it is unwise to match all the time, since students may come to expect everything to be done their way.

Jerre Levy, a neuropsychologist from the University of Chicago, also pointed out that the relationship between research on the two-sidedness of the brain and learning theory has been misunderstood. Some researchers have argued that the schools' emphasis on verbal and analytic skills neglects the development of important nonverbal abilities and, in effect, "starves" the right half of the brain.

"I think there's been a misapprehension that the content of the curriculum determines which side of the brain you're teaching," Ms. Levy said, adding that this is not so.

She cautioned participants to be skeptical of popularized accounts of research on how the brain works.

Another danger educators should be alert to, Mr. Gregorc warned, is the sales pitch of poorly qualified consultants--"snake-oil peddlers"--who will use learning styles to make a fast dollar.

In fact, said Mr. Gregorc, regarding learning styles as the definitive solution to education's problems is inimical to the concept behind the approach, and is one way educators could "lose the ball."

"We can say we have the answer," he said. "But this contradicts the fundamental idea of learning styles: There is no one answer."

For more information on learning styles, write to Learning Styles Network, c/o Professor Rita Dunn, School of Education and Human Services, St. John's University, Grand Central and Utopia Parkways, Jamaica, N.Y. 11439.

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