The term “learning styles” is often associated with academic and educational applications. The traditional definition of “learning styles,” however, is a small and incomplete slice of the overall contextual understanding required for successful learning and teaching outcomes. It’s no wonder why there is sometimes controversy and confusion about “learning styles.”
My organization has been working in the field of practical neuroscience since 1992, building brain-based human development products for academic success, personal development and business applications. The purpose of this article is to expand the definition of “learning styles,” so learners and teachers alike can embrace and utilize this essential knowledge. The core principles apply to the totality of life, not just the classroom.
What are “Learning Styles?”
Each person has unique brain pathways preferences to take in and think about sensory information.
- Sensory Pathways: Visual (seeing), Auditory (listening) and Kinesthetic (hands-on)
- Cognitive PathWays: Sequential (logical), Global (big picture) and Integrated (cognitively balanced)
A person’s “learning style” is frequently described as their strongest or primary sensory pathway to learn (e.g. being “kinesthetic”). This is a very limited and incomplete way of viewing “learning styles.” The sequence of sensory preferences is important because it takes two or more sensory pathways to lock in received information. As examples, some people need to “see it and hear it,” others may want to “do it and see it,” and some may prefer to “hear it and do it.”
The various sensory sequences are: KVA, KAV, VKA, VAK, AKV and AVK. (K = Kinesthetic,V = Visual, A = Auditory) The lowest sensory score is what you pay least attention to and is called a “blind spot.” Most students are KVA and VKA. Think about the learning challenges of these students, who least prefer listening to the meaning of words, when trying to learn in a lecture setting, with a minimum of visual material and things to do.
The other half of the “learning styles” equation is how you prefer to process or think about sensory information. Some people favor learning and working in predictable, logical, orderly, and process-driven environments. Others require open-ended situations, moving from task to task, and using their imagination to learn and work optimally. The cognitive differences between Sequential and Global thinkers are often overlooked in both the classroom and workplace. It’s frequently the defining factor in achieving successful academic and career outcomes.
An expanded neuroscience definition of “learning styles” is a person’s sensory sequence to take in information and their cognitive preferences to process it. The combination of sensory and cognitive pathways is our representational system for life. It gives us the ability to learn, express, perform, think, solve problems and make decisions.
Who Should Know About “Learning Styles?”
The first and most important person to possess “learning style” knowledge is the “learner.” That’s why putting this information and data in the hands of teachers, alone, provides limited and sometimes disappointing outcomes.
Learning goes well beyond the classroom, self-study or online courses. Our brains are continually receiving sensory information, making choices, reaching conclusions, solving problems, and expressing. These processes constitute the flow and fabric of our lives. Therefore, everyone can benefit from knowing how their brains are wired and what makes them tick.
Reasons to share your “learning styles” information with others (e.g. teachers, spouse, co-workers and friends) include improving communications so they can transmit on your “wavelength.” It’s also helpful, in the workplace, to align work activities with brain strengths. Alignment improves morale, engagement and productivity.
What is the Role of Teachers?
I believe successful teachers are continuous learners, who are passionate about their careers. They learn from their students and exchange “best practices” with other teachers. Teachers know that students learn for their own reasons, not those of the teacher. Great teachers encourage their students to discover how their brains prefer to learn and think. They coach them to take responsibility for their own learning and leverage their brain strengths. Successful teachers establish safe and non-judgmental environments. They provide learning resources and encourage their students to teach one another; the highest form of learning is teaching.
The neuroscience meaning of “learning styles” is the foundation for accelerated learning, successful careers, better relationships and personal growth. Knowing how your brain prefers to learn and think is the key to a better and less stressful life. Everyone interested in improving their quality-of-life will benefit from this important knowledge.
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