Putting on the Style


Mark Edwards

It wasn’t until about six years ago that I discovered why I did so badly at school. It was because the teachers failed to recognise my ‘divergent’ learning style.

Now this is not an excuse. There may well have been other contributing factors - for example, doing very little work and a minimal amount of revision for exams - but I think the mismatch of teaching and learning styles explains it a bit.  Most teachers recognise that some children seem to learn better and more enthusiastically with a particular teacher; in the same class there will be some that don’t, but shine when another teacher takes them.

This is not just a matter of ‘relating’ well to a particular teacher on an emotional level. It is also about whether you are a ‘big picture’ thinker or a ‘detailer’.  It’s about whether you like ‘hands-on’ activities or whether you prefer the inner world of ideas. It also has a lot to do with whether you like working in a group or not.

There are a number of learning style theorists and gurus around, Rita Dunn and Kathleen Butler to name but two. Some of the theories are frighteningly complex and others are far too simplistic. There does seem to be a broad pattern of consensus, however, that there is a spectrum of styles ranging from what is often described as linear or analytic ‘step-by-step’ thinking, to holistic, global or ‘divergent’ thinking.  It corresponds roughly to the left-brain/right brain split identifed by Roger Sperry a number of years ago, but I do wish to emphasise the importance of not over-simplifying. While it is true that most people have a preferred way of thinking and learning, it can often depend on the context. The majority of people also exhibit more than one style. The pitfalls of over-simplifying learning styles can be witnessed in some aspects of ‘accelerated learning’;  a number of individuals and companies are enthusiastically  ‘marketing’ learning styles in a superficially attractive way - ‘now get your creative right-brain working by . . .’  Such an approach does not do the subject justice.

Dr Kathleen Butler, of The Learning Dimension (USA) predicted that this would happen  several years ago. She has spent her working life developing what I consider to be a definitive theory of learning styles in a way that acknowledges its complexity but is also very accessible to time-pressured teachers.  Like  others, she has devised a questionnaire to determine a preferred learning style, or rather, styles, because it is usual to have a combination of at least two or even three preferences. Once you have discovered your profile, it can explain why certain aspects of your teaching appeal to certain children and why others don’t. It will also inform a teacher where they may need to re-direct their focus in order to cater for all five styles in their teaching. 

Dr. Butler has identified five distinct styles - Realistic (Facts and Data), Analytic (Comparing Research/Theories), Pragmatic (Hands-0n), Personal (Relationships/Social) and Divergent (Creative and Innovative) - which broadly correspond to the spectrum described above. The problem that we have in the United Kingdom at the moment is that the whole education system is dominated by ‘left-brained’ linear (Realistic/Analytic) thinking (hence all the emphasis on step-by-step action planning, data analysis and highly prescriptive lessons) and this means that those teachers and children who don’t think in this way are going to feel for much of the time that they are on a different planet. Ofsted, the British Government’s educational watchdog, is a good example of linear thinking reigning supreme, although there are encouraging signs that things may be changing under a new style of leadership.  But while league tables based on SATS results continue to dominate the educational scene in the United Kingdom, it is not so easy for the style-conscious teacher to make changes. 

It appears that this may be a problem in the United States too. Rita Dunn has stated that ‘both global and analytic students can be gifted, but textbook’s and teacher’s styles tend to be analytic rather than global.’ 

So what’s to be done? Dr Butler suggests ‘starting grass fires.’ I am currently teaching English and Maths to years 6,7 and 8 and I routinely start each lesson with what I call a ‘brainwarmer.’  This dovetails nicely with the UK’s insistence on an oral ‘starter’ to each lesson, but I ensure that it is usually an open-ended activity, for example, ‘How many ways can you order a particular set of numbers?’  ‘How many words  can you make from a larger word?’  ‘List as many objects as you can that have a handle.’ Linear learners like to make lists, so this will appeal to them; the ideas and brainstorming will appeal to the holistics. (Interestingly, these sort of ideas are often to be found in material aimed at the very able, yet as Dunn says above, there is no evidence to show that holistic thinkers are likely to be more able than others.)

The main part of the lesson can be adapted to style- based rather than ability-based activities* with children being given an option to choose; or, if you prefer, whole-class lessons can be organised throughout the week to reflect each style. 

The organisational aspects of creating a style-based curriculum are truly awesome, and to work successfully would ideally need a whole-school approach. But it is possible to make a start and I would recommend that all educators investigate further if they have not begun to do so already.


*Sample ‘extended writing’ activity based on ‘My Shoe’ :

Realistic - List as many facts as you can about your shoe - colours, shapes, materials, size, where manufactured etc.

Analytical - how does it compare to other types of footwear? What are the similarities and differences?

Pragmatic - describe how your shoe is made.

Personal - write your shoe’s life story - what would it say if it could speak?

Divergent - in what ways might your shoe be used to save the world? What other unusual uses might your shoe have? Invent a new kind of shoe.

Further information on Learning Styles and Kathleen Butler’s work in particular can be obtained from Mark Edwards. He can also provide resources for creating style-based lessons. Mark is a teacher and writer and is currently training as an NLP psychotherapist. Mark4ed@aol.com