Styles of thinking and learning are as important as intellectual ability, asserts Robert Sternberg, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale Univeristy. And ignoring students’ thinking styles, he writes, puts teaching and learning in jeopardy.
Learning differences, Sternberg maintains, are not due solely to differences in ability. Learning styles are directly related to how students achieve in school. Sternberg states that most people are flexible in their use of different learning styles and can adapt with varying degrees of success to different learning situations.
Matching learning styles
However, different teaching methods, test formats and assignments are better suited to some styles than to others. Students generally do better on an assignment when it matches their preferred style of thinking and learning.
Students tend to gravitate towards learning activities that are compatible with their style of learning, just as teachers tend to plan activities compatible with their styles. These styles don’t always match. Sternberg believes that the degree of similarity between the teacher’s and the student’s thinking styles profoundly affects both the teacher’s perception of the student and the student’s perception of the teacher.
Sternberg thinks that many educators are understandably confused by the term ‘learning style’ because it has been used to mean many different things. Sternberg has his own theory of learning style, which he refers to as a thorty of ‘mental self-government’ in which three factors – function, scope and form – each contributes to the way a student learns.
He writes that just as governments carry out legislative, executive and judicial functions, so does the mind. The legislative function is concerned with creating, formulating, imagining and planning. The executive function is concerned with implementing and with doing. The judicial function is concerned with judging, evaluating and comparing. Sternberg believes that in each person, one function tends to be dominant.
Sternberg also stresses that any subject can be taught in a way that is compatible with any learning style. A literature lesson, for example, can involve putting oneself in the place of an author or character to imagine what will happen (legislative function), or it might involve a short answer test on factual material (executive function), or an essay test which requires interpretation of events or evaluation of consequences (judicial function).
Sternberg states that people are more motivated and perform better on activities that match their learning styles. Therefore, it is important for teachers to be aware of their students’ preferred styles in order to take advantage of opportunities for student learning. Sternberg reminds us that when students reject or do poorly on an assignment, we should not necessarily assume that they are unmotivated or lack ability. Instead, he writes, we must continually bear in mind that if a particular student seems unmotivated or slow, the student may simply have a very different thinking style than ours.
Internal or external orientation in learning
Sternberg also cautions us to be aware of a natural bias toward our own personal style in order to avoid unconsciously penalizing students who do not match us in learning style. Sternberg’s goal for himself and other educators is to expand the repertoire of teaching techniques to meet the needs of a population of students with a variety of styles. To do so, we must be more flexible and we must be able to offer a greater variety of learning activities in our classrooms.
Scope is another aspect of learning style which must be considered when developing appropriate teaching activities. Scope refers to either an internal or external orientation in a person’s learning. An ‘internal’ orientation means that the student (or teacher) prefers individual, independent assignments, whereas an ‘external’ orientation refers to people who prefer group or collaborative activities. If an internally oriented student is placed in the classroom of a teacher who is strongly externally oriented or vice versa, the student can feel like a fish out of water.
Forms of self-government
Just as functions of mental self-government resemble, in Sternberg’s theory, the branches of government, so the forms of government – monarchic, hierarchic, oligarchic or anarchic – are analogous to forms of mental self-government.
In the monarchic form, a single goal or way of doing things predominates. People who are oriented in this way ten to focus single-mindedly on one goal or task at a time.
The hierarchic form allows for multiple goals with different priorities. Students with hierarchic forms of mental self-government are able to prioritize and be systematic in completing class assignments and solving problems.
The oligarchic form allows for multiple goals also, but here each goal is of equal importance. Students who function in this manner have difficulty prioritizing. Competing goals can keep them from completing assignments.
For individuals who have anarchic thinking styles, rules and procedures are a problem. They tend to perform best when tasks and situations are unstructured and when problems are most readily solved by insights that are innovative. Teachers with this thinking style often teach in alternative schools. Students who function anarchically tend to seem intolerant of rules and resist authority.
Schools, in general, exhibit a preferred style as well. They tend to reward students who exhibit an executive/hierarchic style. Virtually all standardized tests involve the kind of thinking typical of the executive style.
Schools tend to reward styles that are effective in the school setting, but not necessarily styles that are important in the workplace or in an unknown future world. We reward those students whose styles make them good consumers of the knowledge we teach. We usually do not encourage students who may have styles that will enable them to become producers of knowledge in the future.
As teachers, we have our own preferred styles and we unwittingly reward students whose styles match our own and can sometimes judge negatively those students whose styles differ from ours. Students whose styles correspond to our own can appear brighter than the rest, even though the difference is due to style rather than intellectual ability.
Few people rely solely on one style, but some people are more flexible than others in switching between styles. Teachers who adhere rigidly to one style are not likely to reach the majority of their students.
On the other hand, a teacher cannot be expected to use a mode of teaching or testing that matches each student’s preferred style. Nevertheless, educators, according to Steinberg, should be able to understand a student’s style and be able to use it as a point of entry to motivate or to teach a concept to a student who is having difficulty in class.
Teachers can also help students to recognize and capitalize on their stylistic strengths, as well as help them to develop the ability to move more easily between styles.
Steinberg urges us to encourage students’ learning styles that might pay off in the future. Without understanding learning styles, we risk teaching in ways that are educationally ineffective or even counterproductive. By providing a variety of activities that match different learning styles, we will enable a greater number of students to demonstrate their intellectual ability and to experience success in our classrooms.
“Thinking Styles: Keys to Understanding Student Performance” Phi Delta Kappan January 1990 pp. 366-371.
Published in ERN May/June 1990 Volume 3 Number 3