Among all students’ behaviour, gaze aversion is the one least understood, often highly annoying and most often receives a completely wrong response from teachers and parents alike, writes Barbara Prashnig

Some time ago I came across a newspaper article that reported about the direction children look when they are spoken to. Psychologists at the University of Sterling, in Scotland, found that children often avert their gaze while adults are talking to them. From that finding they surmise that ‘gaze aversion’ may enhance children’s concentration when taking in the presented information and help the mind absorb details. Therefore they recommend to parents and teachers they no longer demand “Look at me while I’m talking to you!” but rather tell them to look away, because it may help the brain avoid processing unnecessary information.

This seems like good advice. If it’s in the paper and based on latest research, it must be true! Well, not really. That’s exactly what concerns me about this psychological research. It neither takes into account NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) nor Learning Styles, both of which can give very good reasons why children (and adults for that matter) tend to look in different directions while listening. Where eyes move in these situations are neurological indicators, and rather than calling this process ‘gaze aversion’, these (mostly unconscious) eye movements can be valuable eye-accessing cues for those who know what they mean. When people are listening to what is being said to them, they will have eye movements whilst their brain is processing the information being received. It is interesting to note that all races seem to have the same eye movement patterns based on their personal preferences in the sensory area.

According to the Learning Styles model, there are four primary sensory modalities (senses) through which human beings take information in: Visual (V), Auditory (A), Tactile (T) and Kinaesthetic (K). When this information comes via auditory channels (through one’s ears while listening to someone or something), the brain will start processing this information through its naturally strongest sense.

In short, it has been discovered that visual learners will look up while listening, auditory learners will usually scan with their eyes from left to right, and while it has not been proven what tactile learners do with their eyes, we have discovered that many tactile youngsters ‘roll’ their eyes upwards, particularly when they have to listen to something they might find boring or frustrating. Kinaesthetic learners however, generally look down while they listen, often engaging their feelings in the process.

It is here that NLP and Learning Styles complement each other and give us a far better explanation than psychologists can for ‘gaze aversion’, because it is based on innate style features and neurological brain functions: Young children have, due to their biological development, strong kinaesthetic preferences and will often look away (mostly downward) because they are processing incoming information this way.

In the process of growing up, style preferences change and many students develop visual preferences. These are the students who can hold eye contact naturally with adults. Others who remain strongly kinaesthetic in their learning style will keep looking away, particularly when they are emotionally involved in the listening process. This is also true for many grown-ups or people of certain races, and gaze averting has often been misinterpreted as shifty, dishonest or lying. There may also be cultural reasons for not maintaining eye contact, which I will not go into here.

My advice to parents and teachers is therefore: learn more about NLP, get to know your children’s learning style (LSA assessment instruments are available for all age groups through the NEP website, discuss their style preferences with them, Visual (seeing/watching/ reading), Auditory (listening) Auditory (talking), Tactile (touching/manipulating), and Kinaesthetic (doing/feeling), and allow them to listen in a way which is best for their learning. Respect their individuality – even if it seems unusual or might be uncomfortable for you.

Remember: everyone learns differently, and listening is the most difficult way of information intake for kinaesthetic learners; looking away while listening might help them more than you think! TEX

The Power of Diversity New Ways of Teaching Through Learning Styles Barbara Prashnig, ISBN 1-85539-118-X

Barbara Prashnig is Director of Creative Learning Systems in Auckland, New Zealand

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 10, Winter 2005