James Gilroy, Assistive Technologist
Educational tools for learning are great but we need to find ways for different learning styles, abilities, and focus levels to interact with and demonstrate content mastery. Technology has a lot to offer but the familiarity and flexibility of teachers, school staff, and others involved with the student will be just as important to make sure that the appropriate teaching styles and strategies are implemented.
One guiding concept that allows for adaptability is the Universal Design for Learning or UDL. It is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. This may seem like an easy task until the individuality of learners becomes evident. Parents know how difficult this is, as they are often faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to integrate their child’s needs and abilities into a classroom’s teaching goals.
My hope is that by learning the ways that some students learn, we can start to be curious and try new things to promote the learning environment for all students of all abilities through a system of trial and error that is not distracting, overwhelming, or frustrating for students. Playful curiosity and changing teaching styles may feel chaotic but introducing new styles and seeing how children react can be very rewarding.
In terms of learning styles, there are many categories and labels that are used to describe learning styles and here is a description of the most commonly used categories. Let’s think about these styles in the context of learning the word ‘red.’
Visual learners need lots of colors, flashcards, and symbols or text that represent ideas and would need the color red written out and to see lots of examples of red objects.
Auditory learners use musicality and the voice, including audio notes and may need to speak or hear the word red while interacting with a red object.
Read/Write learners require lots of notes and explanations written out on the board. A notepad or a sandbox that allows them to write things or a tablet or other device that allows them to write something out can be very satisfying to read/write learners.
Kinesthetic learners need lots of breaks and need to do something before they listen to the instructions. Tactile learners may be included in this and may need sensory or tactile input to gather information. Kinesthetic and tactile learners may need to feel the word red or move their bodies, or even feel something warm and red, or touch a fuzzy red ball to associate the feel of the color with the new vocabulary. Using sign language for red may be useful for them as well, or red finger paints.
Other categories may include logical/mathematical learners. Someone may associate symbols or numbers with red, or be confused about how red is used for lots of shades but only uses one word, and so this may need to be explained in more depth for logical/mathematical learners to help them make sense of it.
What if a child doesn’t fall into any of these categories? What then?
Most individuals lean towards one learning style but some learners may use a combination of these styles throughout the day. Keen classroom or home observation will help to distinguish the style that suits your child best. Solitary and social learners are also categories that can be used but these are part of the environment that the child performs best in. Many classrooms have started a quiet space and even made a closed in area for solitary learners to concentrate and feel more comfortable. It should be noted here that socializing and group work should still be implemented to encourage social skills that are invaluable to long-term goals of independence and socialization.
In terms of the Universal Design for Learning, here are some tools that you may not immediately think of as individualized, but there are many ways that you can adapt them to fit the needs of diverse learners, and try out a variety of activities that use visuals, sound, touch, movement, reading, writing, speaking or singing, and logical explanations to see what works best for your student.
I have a few apps, tools, including low-tech solutions that may help to explore different learning styles. Enjoy!
Chromebooks are more common in schools in recent years and allow students to create and track their own projects. In addition, there are many add-ons and adaptations that can make them more accessible to students. Some of my favorites include Scrible, MindMup, and LucidChart for organization that also uses some kinesthetic elements, as well as ChromeVox and VoiceNote for more auditory learners.
Evernote seems at first like a straight-forward note taking system, but is really a blank canvas to create text, images, or recordings and share them with others thus allowing for multiple ways to entice diverse learners to interact and share content.
Singing Fingers is a great app to promote letter writing, but it can also be used to speak or make sounds while the person is making a shape, letter, or symbol, so that the word circle, for example is played as the person treads their fingers over the circle shape. The combination of sound, color, and tactile input can be just the right recipe for some learners.
BitsBoard is a very flexible app that can be used to bring new content and vocabulary by making boards, or by choosing boards that others have made for specific subjects.
Number Pieces is a way for students to get deeper knowledge of place value by manipulating the numbers. In addition, find out what your teacher is using in the classroom and if 3-D models or other representations of math may be more valuable to your learner.
Tactile and kinesthetic strategies are my favorite ways to get the brain moving and tapping, squishing up paper balls, and sensory bins with feathers, pom-poms, pipe cleaners, and tissues are inexpensive ways to help students relax or concentrate. In addition, home-made play dough and stuffed animals with vibration or sound can be great ways to incorporate tactile and sound together, and with the right equipment, the toys can be adapted with a switch so that students with accessibility needs can also use them.
Enjoy the process of discovery for the child, educators, and other members of their support system in finding ways to learn and interact with new content. Creativity and a playful, curious nature about learning styles can lead to a more positive experience for everyone.
James Gilroy is a San Francisco based assistive technologist and a member of the ATeam (Assistive Technology Team). He speaks Spanish and Mandarin and he has a background in sociolinguistics and child development.
Education.com, Different Learning Styles in Education. Education.com Published October 28,2013 Web. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://www.education.com/reference/article/Ref_Teaching_Tips/