Am I a visual learner?

It was when I was reviewing curriculum and teaching methods for Sunday School, around ten years ago, that I first came across the theory of multiple intelligences. It made perfect sense to me based on both my own experiences as a student and the difficulties I had as a teacher.

I had long recognized that I was very visually oriented. I don’t have a photographic memory, but people sometimes think I must, based on my ability to recall material I have seen. In contrast, I have often been frustrated by my inability to make sense of what is being spoken out loud.

I hated the language lab in high school French class – I could understand the words perfectly on paper, but in the headphones they were a jumble of sounds that rarely fit together into recognizable words. (When I studied Spanish in college, I was pleasantly surprised to find I had no such difficulty. Of course, that could be in part because Spanish is such a nice phonetically spelled language, with very few silent letters.)

When one of my sons asks for help with a homework problem and starts reading it to me, I have to ask him to let me read it for myself. I simply can’t make sense of it from hearing it, but I quickly grasp the idea when I read it. I also find in recent years that I frequently mishear what someone says. (I got my hearing checked and they found nothing wrong – though I realize that it may be only certain kinds of sounds or pitches rather than the overall volume that is the issue.)

Sometimes my family is amused by my (mis)interpretations, but my younger son especially gets very frustrated when I don’t understand him. He’s not so great at listening comprehension himself, apparently – his scores on the ITBS this year were all high except for that one area, where he scored quite low. He also needs instructions broken down into simple tasks, and repeated – though this may be related to his autism.

At perhaps the opposite extreme, I had a student, the first year I taught, who consistently flunked written tests but excelled at tests given orally. In his case, though, I’m not sure how much the problem was with understanding the question, as in producing the answer in written format.

The boys in my Sunday School class (and the regular attenders were nearly all boys) did not seem to respond well to teaching either in visual or spoken format. They were active boys who found it difficult to sit at a table doing anything quiet (typical of many boys in that regard). Acting out Bible stories or playing charades (though I had trouble getting them to stick to words related to the lesson) worked much better.

Besides my own experiences, I have known a number of good teachers who subscribe to the multiple intelligences theory (including some not inclined to jump on the latest pedagogical fad). So I was quite surprised, this morning, when reading a book review in the Wall Street Journal, to learn that research does not support the theory. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, says that the evidence shows that, despite minor differences, people pretty much learn the same way.

Initially inclined to disagree, I nevertheless checked out Willingham’s own website, where I found links to more of what he has written on the subject. (I checked our public library’s online catalog for the book reviewed in the WSJ, but none of the area libraries have anything by Willingham.) In one of these, he explains why the idea of students having different learning styles is so attractive and so well accepted by the educational establishment.

First, it is clear that some differences do exist among students. Some people do pick up accents more easily than others. My older son is very musically gifted, and can identify whether a song is being sung in the right key. (I’m a pretty decent singer in a choral group, but without others singing the same part I easily shift keys – and don’t always even realize I’ve done so.) And I know I have a better visual memory than many other people.

Naturally there are times when such differences help one person learn something easily while another struggles. Willingham points out that those incidents are what stick in teachers’ minds, and having been taught that multiple intelligences explains the theory, naturally they see this as confirmation of it. They are far less likely to notice that times when students do not learn better when material is presented in their preferred learning style.

Secondly, there are clearly subjects that need to be taught using a particular style. So it does matter whether material is presented visually or orally – but Willingham says that it is the subject matter that should determine the style, not the student. Perhaps most people would have difficulty understanding my sons’ homework problems from only hearing them and not being able to read them. And certainly most kids – but especially boys – benefit from active forms of learning rather than just sitting in a chair.

What is usually best – and I have heard this for decades – is to use multiple teaching/learning methods that reinforce one another. I particularly like the Rotation model for teaching Sunday School because it repeats a Bible story at least four weeks in a row, each time with a slightly different emphasis and a different learning style. The Rotation site includes information on multiple intelligences – but perhaps it succeeds not so much because each child has some parts of the lessons oriented to his particular learning style, but because every child benefits from the repetition, the creative approaches, and the higher degree of student involvement than is typical in many Sunday School classes.

So maybe I’m not a visual learner after all. Or maybe I am a visual learner, and so is just about everyone else. Willingham’s book looks to be worth reading – I’ll have to find out how to request our library to get a copy.

4 Responses to Am I a visual learner?

  1. Margaret Packard says:

    My guess would be that when all the students are motivated by some sort of reward, they will tend to learn well whether the material is presented visually or orally. But when their motivation is lower, they will pay more attention to material presented in their preferred learning style, and do more daydreaming when the material is presented in a different style. What do you think?

  2. Pauline says:

    Most of the classes where I have spent time daydreaming (or doodling, or writing letters, or whatever) were no doubt lectures. But was it because they were lectures, or because they were boring lectures? After all, the majority of classroom instruction from high school on (which is most of what I can remember) is done by lecture. So naturally I got bored during lectures. I also found other lectures very interesting.

    I can’t think of hardly any classes where material was presented visually without also being presented orally at the same time. So was it more interesting because it was visual, or because it was presented in two different ways at the same time?

    I much prefer learning from a book or computer program. But how much of that is because it is visual, and how much because it is self-paced? And because I am more active in the process since it is a teach-yourself kind of learning?

    No answers, just more questions. 🙂

  3. Margaret Packard says:

    Well, I know there is some difference in personal style preferences. When my husband and I were first married, we enjoyed reading books together. I would read out loud and he would listen. I said, why don’t you sometimes read the book out loud. Because you are a better reader than I. Finally I realized that my husband, who pursued a career in radio, would much prefer to listen to a book (or sermon), while I would prefer to read the same book or other material in print.

  4. Pauline says:

    Willingham recognizes that style preferences exist. The question is whether they result in learning differences. If you had to listen to the book, or if he had to read it, would less learning take place than if it was done in the preferred mode?

    Since you’re not in school, naturally you’re simply less likely to take the time for the book at all if you don’t enjoy the mode of accessing it. But in the context of school, would you learn less if you listened to the book being read? Would he learn less if he had to read the book?

    If giving students the option of reading/listening is practical, then they might as well choose their preference. But when material needs to be presented to a group of students with mixed preferences, Willingham’s point is to choose the mode that best fits the subject matter.

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