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THERE ARE VARIOUS WAYS of classifying differences in learning styles. Here's three of the most common:
  • activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists
  • left and right brain
  • auditory, visual and kinesthetic

Activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists
This scheme was developed by Honey and Mumford in the mid 80s. It identifies four types of learners (descriptions courtesy of Honey and Mumford):

These love novelty, and will 'try anything once'. Give them a task, and they will throw themselves wholeheartedly into it. They like to get on with things, so they are not interested in planning what they are about to do. They live very much in the present. They get bored with repetition and what they see as raking over the dead embers of the past. They are exciting, vital, open-minded and gregarious.

These like to 'look before they leap'. They like to collect information and sift it. They are cautious, thorough people. They prefer to observe rather than take the lead. They are slow to make up their minds, but when they do, their decisions are very soundly based - not only on their own knowledge and opinions, but also on what they have learned from watching and listening to others. Though they are often quiet in groups, this stems from their 'Olympian detachment' rather than from nervousness.

These live in a world of ideas. They have tidy, organised minds. They are not happy until they have got to the bottom of things and explained their observations in terms of basic principles. They want to know the logic of actions and observations. They dislike subjectivity, ambiguity, and those who take action that is not underpinned by a theoretical framework. When a teacher uses figures in support of an argument, it is the theorists who will ask questions about their statistical validity.

These are also keen on ideas, but want to try them out to see if they work. They are much less interested in actually developing the ideas - in fact, they will cheerfully beg, borrow or steal those they think will help them take action more effectively. They enjoy experimentation, but are not interested in the long dissection of the results that would appeal to the reflector. They take the view that if something works, that's fine, but if it doesn't, there is no point in wasting much time wondering why. The thing to do is to find something more promising and try that. They love solving problems.

Clearly, these basic types are extremes, and most people have some characteristics of all four. Honey and Mumford have devised a highly sophisticated self-perception inventory to help people find out which type (or types) dominate in their particular case.

Left and right brain
In the last 20 years, research has revealed that the two hemispheres of the brain perform different functions. According to Rose and Nicholl (1997): 'the left brain specialises in academic aspects of learning - language and mathematical processes, logical thoughts, sequences and analysis. The right brain is principally concerned with creative activities utilising rhyme, rhythm, music, visual impressions, colour and pictures. It's our metaphorical mind, looking for analogies and patterns.'

Although each hemisphere is dominant in certain activities, they are both involved in almost all thinking. However, there is a major implication for how we learn:

Left brain
Predominantly left-brained people prefer a slow step-by-step build up of information; they are sometimes called 'linear' learners.

Right brain
Predominantly right-brained people need to see the big picture, to have an overview; they are the 'global' type of learner.

Auditory, visual and kinesthetic
Research by neuro-linguistic programming experts Bandler, Grinder and Grinder has identified three distinct communications and learning styles:

Learning through seeing. We like to see pictures or diagrams. We like demonstrations, reading or watching video.

Learning through hearing. We like to listen to audiotapes, lectures, debates, discussions and verbal instructions.

Learning through phsyical activities and through direct involvement. We like to be hands-on, moving, touching, experiencing.

All of us utilise all three types of learning, but most people display a preference for one over the other two. In early life the split amongst the overall population is fairly even, but by adulthood the visual side has become dominant.

According to Grinder, 70% of learners will be able to cope however a lesson is presented, 10% will be unable to learn whatever method is employed (largely due to outside factors, but the remainder will only be able to learn in a visual, auditory or kinesthetic way.

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