Even though there is about a month left in our summer vacation, it’s not too soon to start preparing for the coming school year. Unless you loop (the practice of having students more than one year), you probably won’t know much about your incoming students. However, it is possible to consider the general characteristics of learners and begin preparing for your students’ various differences.
I have found it helpful to break down learners into four general characteristics. This typology is not based in any specific research; rather, it’s based on my experiences with people and what I know about how we learn. Every person is a composite of all four types, though many favor one or two types when learning or interacting with the world. Some will be able to shift from one type to another when necessary to complete a task. When students struggle in your classroom, consider the following possible reasons:
- They don’t work well in the way information was delivered.
- They find it hard to shift from one type to the other when the experience requires it.
- They clash with the teacher’s preferred method of instruction.
- They can’t recognize what type of learner they are or need to be.
- When in groups, they are mismatched with other types.
Here are the four types.
Type I: Paper Clip
A paper clip learner is one who likes order, sequence, and timelines. These learners prefer to know what is coming and precisely what’s expected of them. They like neat surroundings that are organized and efficient. They may be uncomfortable with random conversations, inaccurate information, sudden schedule changes, and too much flexibility. Paper clips enjoy keeping time, creating and checking off the “to do list,” and maintaining order. These are your “get it done” type learners. The slinky can be a paper clip’s nemesis.
Type II: Teddy Bear
A teddy bear is your emotional learner. These learners recognize and pay attention to their own and other’s feelings and behaviors. They like to make others feel comfortable, are interested in the other person’s affect, and have a deep need for an affirmative environment. Teddy bears are also considered contextual learners—they learn in context (meaning through the wholeness of an experience). This type of learner may find it difficult to debate, watch others struggle, see the factual side of highly charged events (such as the Holocaust or acts of aggression), or be critical. Teddy bears prefer to set group tone and mood, encourage others, or participate in service learning projects. These are your “positive”-type learners—always seeing the best in others. The magnifying glass can be a teddy bear’s opposite.
Type III: Magnifying Glass
A magnifying glass is very much like a detective. These learners like to look closely at issues and often find more problems this way. Magnifying glasses are critical and sometimes emotionless in their pursuits (hence the difficulty with teddy bears). They can be argumentative—your “Yes, but . . .” students. Very much like paper clips, magnifying glasses like a logical order to information. They may find it difficult to use empathy in the decision-making process, or listen with their heart when trying to understand differing points of view. These learners love the debate, finding problems, critically analyzing tough issues, and forming individual opinions. They are your “straightforward” thinkers. They may find it difficult to work with and deal with teddy bears.
Type IV: Slinky
The slinky is your creative, abstract, random student. These learners know where they want to go, but they may take multiple pathways to get there. They enjoy “coloring outside the lines,” coming up with new ideas and ways to do things, and doing projects their own way. These are true “out of the box” thinkers and doers. Slinkys have a difficult time with too much structure and order and get restless when their creative muscle is not flexed. This is why the paper clip can annoy the slinky.
Another way to think about the four types is based on how our brain is organized. The left hemisphere of our brain is considered the logical-sequential side (the paper clip and magnifying glass types), whereas the right hemisphere is considered the abstract-contextual side (the teddy bears and slinkys). When these two sides work in harmony, we are more likely to accomplish complex tasks efficiently and with greater success.
It’s always a good idea to assist students in identifying their areas of strength and limitations. This includes the way they prefer to learn. Ask your students to identify the one or two types of learning they prefer, as well as the one or two types where they struggle. Then encourage them to work through their limitations and understand those who are strong in those areas. I always found it helpful to assign students to partner up with an oppositional type of learner so they could support each other when it came time to do tasks that required specific types of strengths.
As you plan for your upcoming school year, keep in mind these four types and what will make their school year more enjoyable.
Paper clips need:
- Posted schedules
- Notification when schedules change
- Timelines and due dates
- Linear instruction that follows an outline
- An organized classroom environment
Teddy bears need:
- Connectivity with others
- Contextualized experiences or service learning projects
- Study topics that have emotional connections
- Inclusion of the arts in the classroom
Magnifying glasses need:
- Time to investigate complex issues
- Opportunities to debate and discuss ideas
- Chances to problem-find and -solve
- Experiences that require making decisions
- Logical order to units of study
- Open-ended questions and activities
- Chances to think, act, and be outside the box
- Time to express themselves
- Ample opportunities to move
- Space, opportunities, and materials to be creative
How do you use learning styles or personality types to prepare for teaching?
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally. The research-based strategies and techniques he offers are proven to increase student achievement. His greatest passion is helping teachers recognize the various talents all children possess and create engaging learning experiences to encourage those talents to flourish. His most recent book is Differentiation for Gifted Learners, coauthored with Diane Heacox, Ed.D. He is also author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.
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I think this is an essential resource to have as a window to help students learn. Is there an inventory available that students could use to self-assess?
Hi Jerrita, and thank you for your comment! Dr. Cash expands on these ideas, and includes multiple self-assessment tools varying by age, in his book Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn. Let me know if you have further questions.
thank you so much
This was a useful way to look at learners and easy for teachers to understand and use in the classroom. I think it would work well with “Multiple Intelligence” ideas on meeting the needs of all learners.
I’m glad you found this post helpful. Consider using this idea as a “four corners” activity at the beginning of the year to help kids learn about themselves and other. In each of the four corners of the room post a picture of one of the four types. Keep the paper clip and magnifying glass on one side and the teddy bear and slinky on the other side to help kids understand how our brain processes information (left hemisphere/right hemisphere). Teach them that their opposing corner is their support system. Enjoy
Thanks so much for the activity idea. I work mostly with teachers, but I think it would be helpful for them to do the activity so that they can understand how the students would feel doing it.