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Discover Your Child's Learning Style

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #38, 2001.

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Mary Pride


Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis and Victoria Kindle Hodson are the authors of Discover Your Child's Learning Style. This book, which we reviewed in PHS #34, has the potential to revolutionize the way children are taught - and treated. Its main thrust: kids learn, think, and are motivated according to their learning styles. Their book outlines five learning dispositions, three learning modalities (each with several sub-modalities), and a variety of ways in which children's learning is affected by their environment, talents, and interests. The book also includes checklists to help you determine the learning styles of everyone in your family. Unlike other books on this topic, it also outlines a Learning Styles Model for education, one based on first determining each child's unique approach to learning rather than on "labeling" huge numbers of children as "challenged" or "deficient." With that as an introduction, let's meet the ladies!

PHS: Tell me somewhat about your book - what it covers and what kind of reception it's had so far.

VICTORIA: The book is for parents. Sometimes that message gets lost, because we end up talking about schools, but Discover Your Child's Learning Style is actually for parents and what parents can do regardless of what schools are doing. Of course the learning style profiles are in the book. They measure all five aspects of learning style. Parents can take the profiles; all of their children in the family can take the profiles; you can make charts of all the different dispositions and the different modalities. . . . It's like a unit study in a way.

PHS: A unit study on education.

VICTORIA: And how we all meet the challenge of education. The reception seems to be very good, I think it's going into its third printing. So there are at least 10,000 of these books out there, and we receive requests daily. . . . I mean I have phone calls, and people seeing me on the street ask, "Where can I get it, how can I get it?"

MARIAEMMA: It's divided into sections: Let's Get on the Team, where we have background foundational information and also some little activities for the parents to do, some questions to answer, what are their goals for their children, things like that to think about. Then there's Do the Profiles, to find out about the learning styles, and in that whole part we give specific strategies and techniques for all the different styles, so in Disposition you get techniques for all the five dispositions, and in the Modality section you get techniques for all those different modality areas. The last part is called Coach for Success.This is where we wrap it up. We have a section called Stay Fit, Focus on Solutions, Identify Goals, Track Successes, Take the Pressure Off, and there's also a chapter on how to talk to the teacher. And then there's What About Learning Disabilities? where we go into that in depth, and then we finish with Educating for the Real World, What Are We Really Trying to Do Here?

PHS: Speaking of educating for the real world, what do you think about the current trend in schools for higher standards and more testing?

MARIAEMMA: Well, you can have higher standards, but more testing isn't going to get you there. As long as we throw out information in one way to all these people who learn in all different ways, we're not going to get there. We're going to continue to have 3-5 kids in every classroom who get all the A's, and the rest are labeled.

PHS: I just thought of something - the tests themselves are geared to a certain type of learner, aren't they?

VICTORIA: That's right. We call him or her the "Producing Disposition," the visual print learner with a language reasoning talent. Students with those attributes will do fine on these tests. This is a disaster in the making because I would not be surprised at seeing dropout rates go up, I would not be surprised at seeing more use of drugs among teenagers, or at the suicide rate going up. . . .

PHS: An interesting thought just popped into my mind for the first time in my life. Regarding the use of drugs among teenagers: I'm wondering what the odds are that the ones who aren't on Ritalin - which is a drug - are using drugs other than Ritalin to make it through the day, to deal with the mind-numbing boredom and alienation they're feeling. I'm not saying that this in any way justifies it, of course, but kids don't take drugs because they're happy and feeling well-adjusted.

VICTORIA: That's right. They've got to find a way to cope with this structure that we tell them they have to go through.

MARIAEMMA: There are many reasons why kids take drugs, and there is some bad stuff going on in families nowadays. . . . But when you think about it, you spend the majority of your time in school, from the time you're five or six years old. And if that is a place that every day almost all day long is reminding you that you're deficient, it's going to take its toll, and something's going to come out of that that's not going to be positive.

PHS: Drugs and alcohol certainly are a way of escape for those who are unable to physically escape the environment.

VICTORIA: We've talked to so many adults who say, "I went through years of therapy to turn around my feelings and my beliefs about myself because of what happened to me in school." So many adults are out there walking around with this. You know, the people who are labeled "average," that's just as much a tragedy as those who have been labeled whatever else. . . .

PHS: You're labeled "not good enough," however they want to disguise that.

VICTORIA: Yeah. Because average means you're just kind of there. . . .

PHS: You're not special.

VICTORIA: "Average" is based upon them getting mostly C's; that's how it's defined. "Average" people are ignored. They have all kinds of talents and interests too, but we're not going to them and saying, "What are your talents, what are your interests, where do you shine? You know, in chemistry you're a genius. Let's see what we can do here." Those are the kinds of things that we're not allowing kids to discover or to even know about themselves.

I work with the literacy program here, and part of what I do is work with inmates in the county jail. You wouldn't believe how many artists are sitting in jail. They are artists, but they don't know it. They don't think of themselves that way, and you should see what they can do. It's just amazing to me.

PHS: How did you two get together?

VICTORIA: I was teaching in a second-grade classroom in a private school in California. I was really having a difficult time knowing what to do with some children in my classes. I had developed certain techniques and philosophies over the years, but I was at the end of my rope. So I went looking for help. I found an advertisement for a workshop given by Mariaemma. It was fascinating.

Afterwards I went up to her and I said, "I like this a lot! I'd like to see something like this personality test you are giving for young people, so they could fill it out themselves and learn about themselves." I guess she already had this idea in her mind. And from that day on, we were business partners.

PHS: How long ago was that?

MARIAEMMA: That was 1988, I think. For eleven years I was a director of a school for children that were supposed to have learning disabilities. And my training and background are in special education. My masters degree is in special education. I have teaching credentials in regular and special education. During those eleven years, I just kept thinking, "What we're doing just can't be right." Because I was testing, diagnosing, writing up how we were going to "fix" all these children. And I was learning so much from these children. . . .

PHS: Uh-huh.

MARIAEMMA: I was throwing out everything from my college and grad school classes - making things up, and teaching the kids according to their own talents and styles. Then I thought, "I have to find out some more about this. Somebody has to have something more about this." So I left that place and went into private practice. I started giving workshops about learning styles, and Victoria came to one of those workshops.

VICTORIA: I'd been following the work of Thomas Armstrong and Howard Gardner in my own arena, and started figuring out different ways of teaching reading, because I found out if I did certain things, children who were thought to have learning problems didn't have any learning problems.

MARIAEMMA: Right!

VICTORIA: Exactly! So that was my background, and then we came together and it was almost startling how on fire each of us was about the same subject.

PHS: Now would be a good time for you to give a brief description of your Learning Style Model.

MARIAEMMA: The foundation of our Learning Style Model is "coaching for learning success," which means that we look for the ways that will be successful with each individual child. And one of the pieces is to find out more about their learning style.

PHS: You wrote about developing their learning personality. What is a learning personality?

VICTORIA: As we were going through the learning-style research, we discovered that there are really five aspects to a child's learning style. And one of those that we call the "disposition" could be called a learning personality. That's the way a child comes to the world, the way he communicates, the way she learns. But that's just one aspect of learning style, the way we see it. There are four other aspects. There's the child's talents, his interests, his learning modality, which I think is most familiar to most people - that's the auditory, visual, kinesthetic - although we have broken that down into smaller pieces. . . . And the last on the list is the environment. The environment has a very big influence on children's learning success, and rarely is it taken into consideration.

PHS: I have some other questions on the list here. What should you do if your learning style clashes with your child's? I'm going to assume that all the readers are going to rush out and get the book and discover their learning styles.

VICTORIA: [Laughs] Well that's definitely the first step. Get that information about yourself. . . .

PHS: It's just as important for the parent to know his or her learning style, because then they'll understand why they're insisting on lecturing all the time when the kid would rather read it, or insisting that the kid read stuff all the time when the kid would rather hear it.

VICTORIA: I think teachers don't realize that each of us is bringing definite bias to the teaching/learning process. When we take responsibility for that, it can be so helpful to the children. I have seen over and over again that when a parent finds out his or her learning disposition and tells it to the child, it really takes the pressure off the child. It's as if he can breathe fresh air again. He has breathing space.

PHS: The child can say, "I'd like something I can listen to, rather than something I have to read." . . .

VICTORIA: Right, and then the parent isn't taking it personally that the child isn't reading; she's not thinking that it's such a big problem. She realizes, "I like to read, but my child likes to do hands-on kinds of things."

PHS: When you have five kids, how do you use learning styles?

MARIAEMMA: [Laughs] It's easier than you think. The minute you connect with the child and she realizes that you want to acknowledge the way she is, and give her some choices and options, the whole world opens up. Nobody can ever have every single one of his or her needs met at all moments, but if they see for instance that, "I can go in the corner and listen to my tape of Anne of Green Gables," and somebody else is saying, "I can work in the floor now, I don't have to sit up at the table," they learn that each of them needs something different, and they learn how to work with each other, and grow in their respect for others.

We're not saying you must do it only this way. Yes, the children get to do what they need to do. But there also are times when they need to all come together and maybe sit there quietly.

VICTORIA: When you start working with them, they start working with you.

PHS: Yes. They might start taking more responsibility for their own education, thinking, "I like to do things this certain way, so how can I come up with a course plan that lets me do it the way I like," perhaps?

VICTORIA: That's very true.

MARIAEMMA: Right. Sometimes the parent might say, "I'm sorry, I know this is what you need, but in this particular case there is nothing I can do. Do you have any ideas?" A lot of the time the kids will say, "It's OK, Mom, I can handle this piece" - because they feel that they've been acknowledged, and someone's noticing this.

VICTORIA: Say you're the parent and you're going to do this activity with your kids. You acknowledge from the very beginning, "I know this isn't going to be a favorite for two of you here, who are visual learners, because this is going to be a listening activity." So right from the very first moment you have acknowledged, "This is going to be difficult perhaps, but if you stick with me for five minutes then we're going to do X, Y, and Z, and I think that's going to be more fun for you." So the children realize that you're paying attention to them. What a difference that can make!

MARIAEMMA: You can also ask, "Would you be willing to do this for five minutes?" And then they usually say, "Of course!" because they feel that you respect them. It affects the whole tone of your relationship. The dynamics completely change.

It would make such a difference in a classroom if teachers would simply explain which learning style attributes are going to be needed for each lesson.

PHS: What do you mean when you say "Safety is the number one requirement for learning to take place"?

VICTORIA: Ooh . . . Mary, this is a big one. In the latest brain research, they're being cautious about what applies to education, and how to apply the research to education, but the one thing that is being said is that children need a safe environment in order to be able to learn. It's the prerequisite for learning.

PHS: Sort of the opposite of feeling under stress.

VICTORIA: Yes. And this means not just physical safety, which in some parts of America is a very big deal right now, but emotional safety too. If the child feels under attack in any way, if they're being constantly reminded to do something, or told that they're not measuring up, their body starts secreting various chemicals. It's the "flight or fight" response. And it doesn't take a whole lot to send the child into that response.

PHS: I've heard of it having physical effects, such as making kids literally unable to see words on the page in front of them.

VICTORIA: That's right! I experienced that when I was in school.

PHS: Temporary blindness.

VICTORIA: Exactly! I remember that very clearly in high school. I didn't feel confident about what I was supposed to be doing, and the teacher was putting pressure on me . . .

PHS: It's like the words just can not make it to your brain. You know they're there on the page, and you read them five times in a row, and they just don't penetrate.

VICTORIA: That's it. The child is feeling emotionally unsafe, and so he starts all kinds of protective behaviors. Some of them can be "acting out" behaviors, to draw attention away from his lack of skill . . . Those kids that we call "Performing Disposition" in our book, they will start cutting up and making jokes and trying to distract the teacher from the task. Other kids will just go into discouragement, and self-blame, and guilt, and self-punishment. Feeling emotionally unsafe is being scared that you don't have the right answer, or being scared that you might ask a question that people will think is stupid . . .

PHS: Today's kids have a way around that: they never ask questions in class!

VICTORIA: Right! . . .

PHS: About eight years ago, there was an article in Instructor magazine about who asked the questions in class. The idea was, the best learning comes when kids ask the questions. The article writer found that the average number of questions kids asked per class ranged from zero to one. I don't mean per kid, I mean per class. There were many classes in which the teacher did all the question asking and the kids never asked a single question.

VICTORIA: Asking a lot of questions is a major characteristic of the "Inventing" learning disposition. That's completely discouraged in class by comments like "Why'd you ask that? It has nothing to do with the subject," or, "You're supposed to be working now, don't ask me any questions." Pretty soon, you're not going to ask any more questions.

MARIAEMMA: Research clearly shows that 50 to 60 percent of the population are tactile/kinesthetic learners - people who need to move, do, touch, experience. This includes adults. So, not only is it a legitimate modality through which to process information, it is the dominant one! Yet these are the students who, as we already discussed, get in the most trouble and are easily labeled hyperactive, ADD, etc. In fact, even when it is acknowledged by counselors, therapists, teachers, etc., that a particular student learns best through this modality, it is considered a "special needs" condition - in other words, if they were "normal" learners they could just sit and listen and read and write their answers like everybody else. Then we wouldn't have to jump through hoops figuring out experiential kinds of activities for them. Yet if 50 to 60 percent learn best this way, then that is normal or average, according to the definition! So, it seems that, at the least, we need to start teaching the way most people learn - in home and school programs.


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