George Lucas Educational Foundation
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There is a small belief that learning profiles do not exist or, if they do exist, they have no place in classrooms. The truth is that every teacher witnesses students learning in different ways. For example, when I’m learning about effective blended-learning practices or how not to overcook salmon, I will turn to a variety of resources. I’ll watch videos, read articles, talk to different experts via social networking, and look over models that make sense to me. I have a better chance of learning when I use a combination of these learning modalities rather than using just one.

Offer an Entry to Learning 

We all have similar experiences when learning. Some learning approaches simply work better for us than others. If we learn through a variety of ways, then so do students. Therefore, our lesson planning should reflect a variety of ways to offer entry to learning by all students. If you know that a student builds understanding best when she can watch a demonstration and then dialog about the content and it’s implications, you should provide that experience. While each student has different approaches to learning, learning preferences do overlap in groups of students. The result is activities that are accessible for small and large student groups.

We can start using learning profiles when we know the various ways that each of our students makes sense of content. The more we understand our students, the more efficient we can ensure their learning successes. When we have in-depth understanding for how our students learn, there is a major impact on diagnosing student needs and planning effective supports. Multiple intelligences and thinking styles inventories can be effective tools for gathering data about students. Here are a sample of approaches to find what fits your instructional belief system:

As soon as this learner data is collected, you can start differentiating lessons in ways that intentionally and strategically improve student learning.

Cross-Train Learning

Everyone learns through a variety of approaches. Placing learners into a single learning style container ignores the reality of the whole person. Teachers need to cross-train students by using two or more approaches to thinking styles profiles when planning differentiation. The more we know about our students, the more we can be effectively strategic in meeting everyone’s needs. This is where learning profile cards, student profile surveys, and student learning perceptual quick surveys can provide detailed insight about students that spans across multiple thinker processing categories.

Learning profile cards: Completed by students, these cards can give teachers rich detail to inform instructional planning of content, process, and product based on interests and learning profiles. I’ve found this tool to be the best for managing differentiation with large numbers of students.

Student profile survey: Families or guardians complete this survey about their child. Involving the child in the conversation creates a richer response for teachers to support them. When we’ve completed such surveys for our kids, my wife and I have formed a deeper appreciation for those teachers because they demonstrated their commitment to truly meet our children’s learning needs. Here’s an example from Alberta Education.

The student learning perceptual quick survey is a simple and quick five to 15-minute activity to get a classroom view of the students’ learning styles. Students appreciate when the results are posted in a location where they can reflect on them anytime.

Plan Three-Dimensional Lessons

Three-dimensional lessons incorporate a variety of different experiences in a lesson. For example, revise a lesson to teach content in three different ways. This will help all students find ways to connect and delve into key concepts and skills. Here’s one lesson format example:

  • Content: Show a video that gives an overview.
  • Process: Summarize the video’s key points in student groups of three, and then share out.
  • Content: Jigsaw an article or chapter reading while completing a graphic organizer. Groups share their findings.
  • Process: Use think-pair-share to reinforce student understanding.
  • Product: Provide three ways to apply the content, such as in a RAFT, Think Dot, or Tiering via Readiness.

Embed Choices

When using learning profiles, one guarantee is that all learners fall somewhere on the learning styles range. Design versions of an activity or product that incorporates different aspects of a learning profile. For example, use Sternberg’s MI to create three product options that reflect analytical, practical, and creative. Let students decide which pathway option they want to take. Sometimes, students will choose an option that may not "align” with their learning profiles. This is okay because they are making the choice. Consider letting students design products based on modes of their own choosing. This approach signals to students that their input matters.

The belief that learning profiles have no place in education fails to understand formative assessment data, absent assessment fog, that shows how not all students are achieving. For challenges like large class sizes, high-stakes testing, and intense focus on teacher and administrative accountability, increasing success by all students means we must engage them into the learning dialog. The mindful use of learning profiles keeps the light on and the door open for them to learn.

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Differentiated Instruction
When it comes to how students learn, one size does NOT fit all.

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Ken Wong's picture

Hi John great article and good points made, thanks. Ideally all teachers would want to get to know their students learning styles and profiles. I think this is more achievable in primary school. For high schools do you think it is more challenging as a teacher may have up to 6 classes per week?

Joe Kovaleski's picture

All educators should promote evidence-based practices. Is there any research that supports any of these ideas? That is, have they been empirically tested with real kids to determine if they work? I seriously doubt it. In spite of its intuitive appeal, ccommodating learning styles has been shown to be an instructional dead end. Check out:

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Joe,

I'm very familiar with the youtube video you've shared of Cognitive Psychologist, Daniel Willingham, as with several others who are like-minded as he is. I find his argument over generalized and flawed. He does make one important point that I wish he and others like him would explore. That is: Everyone learns through a variety of ways. In his example of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic--which is typically related to Howard Gardner's Theory on Multiple Intelligence (MI)--he acknowledges that people pick up information through different senses. We agree.

He also says that a problem with MI approaches is that people do not learn primarily through one sense or modality. We agree.

This is where my views and that of others on MI diverge from those who say that learning styles do not exist. In my article above I address this point in two places:
1. Cross-Training
2. Plan 3 Dimensional Lessons

I noted: "Everyone learns through a variety of approaches. Placing learners into a single learning style container ignores the reality of the whole person. Teachers need to cross-train students by using two or more approaches to thinking styles profiles when planning differentiation. The more we know about our students, the more we can be effectively strategic in meeting everyone's needs."

Even Daniel Willingham, perhaps unconsciously, understands this from the very way he constructed the video. It uses a mixture of text, images (lots), and voice to make his argument. His very format of presentation discredits his argument. Or rather supports mine regarding Cross-Training and 3 Dimensional instruction.

The reality about Gardner's MI is that we learn through all of the modalities. Some areas are more receptive for us than others. For example, I'd say that naturalist is perhaps my least developed, whereas I have a well developed "muscles" for Interpersonal and Intrapersonal--which are 2 seemingly opposites. Then there is the one time president of the American Psychological Association, Robert Sternberg who developed the Triarchaic Theory on MI, which includes just 3 areas: Analytical, Practical, and Creative. Sternberg emphatically states that we have the capacity to be strong in all 3 areas, which opponents of learning profiles should embrace as a viable way of seeing it's effectiveness. Here's a link to one of his articles, from Education Leadership. You'll find that he references several research done

The key to Learning Profiles, as I discuss in the article above, is collecting data on your students. The more we know how they process information and the lenses (yes plural) they use to filter school and subject areas--the more effective we can be in constructing learning experiences that supports students.

If I sound passionate, please understand that it's not directed at you. I deeply appreciate your raising this question. It's the proverbial elephant in the room which I strove to address in the article. You see, Daniel Willingham makes a statement at the end of his video that I sometimes have heard from a couple of his like minded colleagues that truly concerns me about protecting learners. He states:
"Good teaching is good teaching. And teachers don't need to adjust their teaching to students' individual learning styles."
This statement often means that the teacher should be more concerned about their delivery of instruction, and that students must adapt. This type of illusionary power and control only creates frustrations to teachers who then struggle with why portions of students are not learning. Students become disengage as they fall further behind in understanding, and disconnect from learning when they realize that their needs will not be met.

Any teacher who is excellent at their craft knows their students, and includes them in the learning process. Learning Profiles is one very critical approach that provides tools for success.

Chelley's picture
High School Math Teacher from Cleveland, Ohio

Where would one find the Learning Styles Inventory or Sternberg's Multiple Intelligences Inventory?

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Chelley,
There are several Learning Styles Inventories available online. The links change often for the free one. A google search will find you some to consider. I prefer the approach where students are involved in self-reporting based on an informal mini-lesson I do on the learning styles. ASCD has an expensive DVD that demonstrates a similar process. Here are some tools I've used along with others:
Learning Profile Cards
Quick Surveys
These should get you started. Let me know how it goes :)

CathieC's picture

Thanks for a thought provoking article.
I love the idea of learning profiles- not to put my students in a box or to label them- but to help them know themselves better, and in doing so empower students to take more control over their own learning.
I like to think that I already plan lessons that would cater for all learning and personality styles, as I do believe that we all occasionally work/learn/function outside of what may be determined to be our dominant 'styles' and that it is important to cater for all.
Do you see a clear link between the different learning styles and personality styles?

Jacinta Ilo's picture

Thanks for your profile. I agree with you on the fact that everyone learns through a variety of approaches; as it is to a teacher so also to a student. But instead of using learning profile cards to ascertain each student learning styles, I prefer the use of the learning styles inventory. All the teacher needs to do is to go the website along with his/her student, allow them to answer the questions and submit. It is very easy and does not take much time.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Jacinta,
Thank you for your kind words about the article. Learning Preferences are very important. The idea is that the students become empowered to decide what works and how best they wish to engage in the learning experiences. The more we learn about our students, the better we can provide opportunities that they may choose from.

Learning styles inventories are useful for getting to know about our students perceptions of themselves. We can even use the inventories are part of reflective dialog for processing understanding. It is important to help students realize that they have multiple preferences, and that they are not strong just in one area. There lies the danger because such thinking pigeon holes people.

John Haitti in his book on visible learning found that the vast meta research does not find any noticeable increases in achievement when using Learning Styles Inventory. He argues quite effectively that Learning Styles Inventories have inherent flaws. This does not mean that the information is not useful. It is helpful, when included as part of a larger body of data about the student. This is one reason why the learning profile cards recommends collecting data on at least two different sources, and use the information to provide choices that the students decide on, not the teacher.

Hope this helps. :)

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