Homeschoolers have the same challenge as any teacher; how to best teach children according to the ways they best learn. One popular approach to helping children grasp educational material most effectively and retain that information is through understanding the child’s learning style, or approach to learning. Learning styles have been the basis for best-practice teaching within the public school arena for many years, and are featured in the most popular homeschooling literature, including Cathy Duffy’s 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, Mary Pride’s Complete Guide to Getting Started in Homeschooling, and many others. There are a number of different learning styles, but the three most prominent are:
- Visual – Learn through seeing.Tend to think in terms of pictures, and use visual cues to organize and retain information.
- Auditory – Learn by hearing. Need to talk through things and hear things verbally to process information.
- Kinesthetic – Learn by moving, doing, and touching. Use experience and activity to understand and remember information.
With such widespread popularity and strong support for teaching according to a child’s style of learning, shouldn’t homeschoolers jump on the learning styles bandwagon and ride all the way to academic success? Despite popular belief, the answer to that question is not an unequivocal "yes", and recent research has muddied the waters of what was previously thought to be a clear-cut "win" in educational approaches. A study from December 2009 in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that virtually all of research which claims that students learn best according to specific learning styles fails to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. In other words, after examining all of the major studies related to learning styles, researchers found that science has yet to demonstrate that students learn better when taught according to their own learning style. So what does this mean? Should homeschoolers ditch the idea of teaching according to a child’s learning style all together?
Although this research is impacting the world of public education, as the community (validly) questions whether funding and support should continue to be given to learning-style based assessments whose efficacy are not backed by scientific evidence, homeschoolers have little to lose from identifying their child’s learning style and incorporating elements into their teaching which support that learning style for the following reasons:
- The main problem the December 2009 study found with the learning styles research was with its methodology, namely that the studies did not have experimental research designs with a crossover interaction between learning style and method of teaching, that would demonstrate internal validity. More simply, the research design did not show a cause and effect relationship between using a learning styles approach and improved learning by students. The issue was not primarily that the outcome of the learning styles research did not show any positive outcomes (although there were some studies that did not show positive outcomes), but that any positive outcomes could not be accurately attributed to the intervention itself (in other words, the improved learning could have come from other factors than the learning style approach). Future studies that use a better experimental design may demonstrate the efficacy of the learning styles hypothesis.
- The bulk of the research investigated applied learning styles to a classroom environment. The application of learning styles in a homeschool setting, with an individual child, is completely different from the broad-scale integration of a classroom learning style methodology, and would need to be the subject of future research before definitive conclusions can be reached about the effectiveness of the learning styles hypothesis with homeschoolers.
- Identifying your child’s learning style is quick and easy, it costs no money, and it takes very little time to incorporate simple steps into your teaching that support your child’s preference for learning. At worst, teaching with your child’s learning style in mind will simply present the material in a format that is more palatable and more enjoyable to your child – building the relationship between you and reinforcing the idea that learning is a positive experience.
This most recent research simply supports a principle that homeschoolers know well: There is no "magic pill" of education that will help all kids be successful. The good news is that homeschoolers are masters at flexibility and creativity; forging individualized approaches that work for their particular child, rather than following any educational trends or packaged method. And while learning styles are clearly not a blueprint for educational success, they can be a useful tool in the homeschooler’s toolbox to support schooling efforts personalized for each learner. This research serves as a helpful reminder to all homeschoolers that it is not the method which produces well-educated children. At the end of the day, with even the best of approaches, curriculum, and techniques, we must acknowledge that ultimately our children’s development is not up to us, but up to the grace of God. By doing so, we relinquish the need to find "the right way" or "the best approach", and with humility ask for guidance daily as we release our children into the hands of the One who created them with with their own unique way of learning in the first place.
©2010 Rebecca Capuano
Rebecca Capuano is a stay-at-home Mom who homeschools her two children. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from East Carolina University, and has worked in a variety of capacities (including group homes, day treatment centers, and public schools) with at-risk children and staff, including developing a therapeutic and educational day treatment center for delinquent youth in Wilmington, North Carolina. Currently, she writes for Examiner.com as the Roanoke Homeschooling Examiner, and serves as a Copy Writer for Home Educators Association of Virginia (HEAV). She also does periodic training and consulting with school systems to help staff work effectively with at-risk youth. Rebecca believes that family is created by God as the most fundamental institution in society, and she is dedicated to helping families nurture their children to become responsible persons of character and integrity.