Andy Bowman reflects upon some of the learning preferences he has observed in his class, and discusses the steps he and his colleagues have taken to begin to support these
The label 'Learning Styles' has often been attached, perhaps too closely, to VAK - essentially a model for ensuring effective transition of information from Teacher to Learner. However,it could be argued that a person's Learning Style is a broader, more complex and - most significantly - more fluid combination of preferences.
The majority of learners have a surprisingly clear view of the environment they prefer to learn in. Leading a class discussion with the question 'where do you prefer to do your homework?' is a good way of beginning to tap into the learning expertise present in every classroom. Certainly, some pupils prefer to learn sitting on a chair at a table, but there are, in my experience, just as many who prefer to sit cross-legged on their bed with their books around them and music on, or to lie on the floor with the curtains closed, or to stand up and lean on a desk with the curtains open and the light on...
Many learners I have spoken to and observed demonstrate variability in their preferences, depending on the subject or task. Even the time of Catering for Different Learning Preferences the day may impact on a learner's preference. I wonder for how much of their time in school are a considerable proportion of our students forced to develop strategies in order to overcome the barriers to learning that are unknowingly placed in front of them, simply by the presence of tables or artificial light? Our challenge is to devise a classroom environment that enables an ethos of choice and flexibility, creating a truly level playing field for all learners.
'Changing Rooms' in Three MDF-free Steps..!
- Talk to your pupils. They are the experts when it comes to learning. They will probably know what helps them, they may have ideas about what could help them, and they will definitely know what doesn't help them! You could give them an outline of the room and ask them to design it themselves.
- Assess the furniture in your room. Avoid keeping something just because it has always been there. Unless it needs to be there, move it out!
- Set aside some time to experiment. Maybe ask a colleague to help you bounce ideas (and furniture) around. Here are some changes you could introduce...
Are the lights in your classroom in pairs or rows? If so, perhaps one set could be turned off to create a darker area. Alternatively, you could take the bulbs out of unwanted lights, or cover over with dark material (not forgetting to consider health and safety). Self-adhesive blinds can also be bought for around £5.
Some learners prefer to be in natural light and learn well if they are sitting as close to the window as possible. However, if this is the same learner who prefers to gaze longingly out across the field and let the lesson drift on past, it is useful to have desks in the light but facing a wall or board, to pre-vent distractions.
If the classroom is big enough, perhaps you could set up different zones, such as a Creative Zone, Information Zone, Collaborative Zone, etc.
Room to Move
DO learners have to be sitting behind a desk when they face the board? If the answer is 'no', try pushing as many of the tables as possible back against the wall. This can create a more open space to enable learners to sit on the floor if they prefer, as well as allowing room for spontaneous, kinesthetic learning.
Cushions or small stools may help to make life nearer to the floor more comfortable for pupils, and by including a few clipboards in your classroom resources and making these permanently available to pupils, you can ensure their standard of presentation is maintained even without a table.
You could devise more than one layout, and 'train' pupils to shift the furniture from one plan to the other depending on the need. If you have access to an over-head projector, you could display the desired plan on a transparency, or if you have an interactive whiteboard you can save a set of layouts into a specific folder on the computer and call up the preferred option at the click of a mouse. Add in a bit of 'change' music ('Changes' by David Bowie, 'Changes' by Kelly and Ozzie Osbourne, or -my favourite-'Right Said Fred' by Bernard Cribbins) and then the job will be done in no time.
Some Final Thoughts:
A colleague teaching in Year 1 approached me soon after creating a dark area in her classroom. Out of interest, she had asked her class to move to the area of the room in which they thought they would feel most comfortable learning. A selection of children moved instinctively to the darker area, and all of them were pupils who throughout their time in school up to that point had under-attained. Upon hearing this, I asked my own Year 6 class the same question, and was amazed to see a very similar response. Time has shown that this is not always the case, and even with that same class, the pattern changes frequently. However, some pupils consistently show a clear preference, raising an important question: are certain learners destined to under-achieve simply due to the environment they are placed in?
I have heard pupils comment that they prefer to do their homework sitting on their bed with music on and the curtains closed, but one of their parents tends to interrupt, swish open the curtains, turn off the stereo and insist they sit at their desk so they can concentrate. How much should we allow our own learning preferences to dictate layout and atmosphere of the room we teach in?
While I believe choice is important, I feel it shouldn't be at the expense of developing flexible, resourceful learners. Pupils should understand that they might not always be able to learn in their ideal position, and should develop strategies to manage this. Equally, it is wise to make it clear that if the reason for sitting in a certain place is more to do with friendship preferences than learning preferences, then they are not making responsible decisions and the choice may be taken out of their hands.
And finally, you never get tired of referring to 'The Dark Side', particularly if you have someone called Luke in your class!
This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2005.