Teach the Way They Learn

By Susan Winebrenner, author of Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom

Winebrenner_FSP Author“If they are not learning the way we are teaching them, we must teach them the way they learn!”

This quote from Kenneth Dunn, a leader in the study of how kids learn, was a life changer for me. One thing I had trouble understanding as a classroom teacher was why kids kept demonstrating the same learning problems from year to year. Sometimes they struggled in spite of carefully constructed special education interventions. Sometimes they struggled in spite of coming from an upper-middle-class area where most families had stay-at-home moms, and where parents were extremely supportive of their kids’ success in education. And sometimes they struggled even though their families had other children who were extremely successful in school. What was the explanation?

Math instruciton public domain by USD DoD wikimedia commonsI believe it has to do with the way we are teaching them. A huge percentage of struggling students have visual and tactile-kinesthetic (T-K) preferred learning modalities. All babies are born this way. However, in order to “do school” successfully, a child’s brain must transition to comprehending learning tasks that are presented aurally. Traditional learning practices greatly rely on students being able to discriminate between isolated sounds (phonemic awareness and phonics), and success in those areas is much easier to attain by auditory learners.

Students whose lifelong preferences continue to be visual and T-K are also likely to struggle for another reason. Most formal school lessons appeal to the brain that thinks comfortably logically, analytically, and sequentially. Those thinking practices are much more intuitive for auditory learners. Therefore, students who can learn by listening—and who love teachers who talk and explain a lot—become successful in academic areas. Those who would be much better able to learn by way of experiences that incorporate lots of visuals—and that encourage students to move and “learn by doing”—tend to struggle.

Inquiry-based_learning_wikimedia creative commons by AmerasiaLike all students, advanced or gifted learners also have preferred learning modalities, though it might not always be obvious since many are competent learning through all types of learning experiences. Even so, they—just like all students—can be much more productive and cooperative if their styles are honored.

What almost all advanced learners prefer are learning opportunities that include these components:

  • Pre-assessment options that allow them to demonstrate the areas of the upcoming content they have already mastered
  • Very short instructional lessons and attention to the fact that they often learn new material after a brief introduction
  • Frequent opportunities to work independently—perhaps even most of the time—OR frequent opportunities to work with partners or groups of like-minded advanced learners
  • No extra-credit or busy work just because they finish ahead of others
  • In-school time to work on topics connected to their own personal and passionate ongoing interests

Whether or not you are using Common Core, it is relatively easy to structure independent study time for students to connect their areas of interest to the required standards. All these guidelines have one thing in common: they involve changing the way we teach to accommodate the way our students learn.

TeachingGiftedKidsinTodaysClassroomNOCDSusan Winebrenner is a full-time consultant in staff development. She presents workshops and seminars nationally and internationally, helping educators translate educational research into classroom practice. Specific information on all the techniques discussed in this post may be found in her books: Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom, Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom, and The Cluster Grouping Handbook.


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