“How do you learn best?”

I wrote this post as a guest blog for Shady Side Academy’s faculty blog. Check it out on their website! — PMK

The Class of 2018 piled into Memorial Hall one snowy day in January, munching bagels and fruit as Form III Dean Michele Greene called them to attention for their monthly class meeting. A few minutes later, I mounted the stage and asked a simple question. “How do you learn best?” Some students shifted uncomfortably in their seats, some stared blankly like I’d just sprouted a third arm, and others looked thoughtful. “How do you learn best?” I asked again.

“You mean,” one student asked, “what’s our learning style?”

I smiled. “Not exactly,” I replied. “But I’m glad you brought that up.”

I’m new to Shady Side Academy this year, but I’m not new to this conversation. Previously, I served as Academic Support Director at Convent of the Sacred Heart High School, the girls’ high school campus of the K-12 community of Schools of the Sacred Heart, San Francisco. At Convent and at the Academy, I work with all students in general academic support, and I specifically support those students with diagnosed learning differences like dyslexia and ADHD. One of the big things I talk about with students is how they learn. Specifically, I want students I work with to be able to answer three questions before they graduate: what am I good at? What’s hard for me? How can people help?

As students progress through high school, they gain both content knowledge (What’s a sonnet? What’s the Pythagorean Theorem?) and skills (How do I plan my writing for an essay? How do I study effectively for a math test?). The first years of high school offer strong cross-training in both. Often, the freshman year is as much about learning content as it is about learning skills—specifically, the skills of how to be a high school student.

For many students, studying in high school is different. This is mainly because the kinds of assessments you face in high school get increasingly complex. You can think about this as a difference between testing the “what” and the “why”: in simple terms, middle school-level tests tend to focus more on kids repeating what they learned in class (“Who was the sixteenth president?”) while high school-level tests tend to focus more on why those things are important (“Why was Lincoln a pivotal figure in American history?”). The high school-level tests take for granted that you’ve got a handle on the “what,” and they also demand further skills for finding evidence and providing analysis.

For some students, memorizing facts and retaining information from class is easy. Some people have great strategies in place for this: sometimes because they’re just naturally capable at this task, but more often because they’ve thought hard about what works best for them. Some people learn best when they read. Others learn best when they talk things out with a teacher or a classmate. Others find their best insights come when they can map out their thoughts, drawing connections between different ideas and understanding how they relate. Still others might want to make up mnemonics or songs to memorize certain kinds of information.

As they get older, most students will discover that they have a variety of strengths to call upon when they do their schoolwork. The challenge is discovering how to leverage those strengths most effectively and most efficiently as they read, write, and study.

For some students—and some adults—I’ve heard these relative strengths described as “learning styles.” I’ve heard students say “I’m a visual learner” or “I’m a verbal learner.” I’ve heard teachers discuss how different elements of their classes will suit students’ different “learning styles,” and, when pressed, they’ll talk about how certain things will better suit visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners.

For many, this terminology has been an outgrowth of Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, a theory that suggests that the traditional measure of “intelligence” (the IQ test) was too limited to adequately describe human intellect. Dr. Gardner described these intelligences as a “human intellectual toolkit,” and he claims that there might be as many as seven “intelligences,” among them linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

Dr. Gardner has repeatedly cautioned people against conflating the idea of these “intelligences” with “learning styles,” because, truly, they’re not the same thing. (You can read more about the theory in an FAQ document on Dr. Gardner’s website and in a 2013 op-ed in the Washington Post. The latter article is the most important: it’s important for kids and parents to know that these descriptions of being a “visual learner” or an “auditory learner” don’t really capture the whole picture of how learning works. Dr. Gardner wrote further on this in his op-ed:

“Sometimes people speak about a “visual” learner or an “auditory” learner. The implication is that some people learn through their eyes, others through their ears. This notion is incoherent. Both spatial information and reading occur with the eyes, but they make use of entirely different cognitive faculties. Similarly, both music and speaking activate the ears, but again these are entirely different cognitive faculties. Recognizing this fact, the concept of intelligences does not focus on how linguistic or spatial information reaches the brain—via eyes, ears, hands, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the power of the mental computer, the intelligence, that acts upon that sensory information, once picked up.”

Most students are fortunate to have all of their sensory and physical faculties intact: most kids can hear, listen, write, and speak, and they can draw upon these faculties at will when they’re in the classroom. This is good news: it means that kids can draw upon a variety of skills to support their learning in many situations, and they can leverage their strengths when they have lots of options for how to tackle a particular problem or to learn something new. In general, talking about learning styles isn’t as helpful as talking about multiple intelligences—and it’s most helpful for students, parents, and teachers to understand that they have certain relative strengths they can leverage to access and engage with the curriculum in all of their classes. In general, it’s very unlikely that a student is only a “visual learner” or an “auditory learner.” We use our sensory systems to take in information; it’s up to our individual minds to strategically make sense and make meaning of what we take in.

So back in the freshman class meeting, the students took a multiple intelligences quiz from Edutopia (http://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-assessment), George Lucas’s national nonprofit that works to spread great ideas in education. They scanned QR codes I passed around the room and took the quiz on their own devices. We then discussed our results.

It was striking to see how the quizzes turned out. Some results were expected: some outgoing, leadership-minded students predictably scored high on interpersonal intelligence, while some students who excelled in band scored high on musical intelligence. Other results were more surprising, as one student discovered that her interest in solving puzzles suggested she had more logical-mathematical capability than she expected. For others, it was empowering to think that their affection for nature could be valued and recognized alongside more traditionally “academic” capabilities like linguistic intelligences. I got some great feedback as the facilitator, but I was most pleased with the conversations this exercise spurred among the students. The whole idea is to challenge what it means to be “smart,” since, truly, intelligence isn’t just one thing.

So students, I ask you: how do you learn? Parents: how does your daughter or son learn? Fellow teachers: how do the students in your classes learn? In my role here at the Senior School, my goal is to promote these growth-oriented, thoughtful conversations about learning. Every child can learn; our responsibility as educators is to help them discover their strengths, articulate their needs, and grow in knowledge and wisdom along the way.

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