Learning Modalities: Pathways to Effective Learning
Article by Dr. Patricia Hutinger
Learning modalities, learning styles, or multiple intelligences - these word labels emphasize the different ways children and adults learn best. Just as a single shoe size doesn't fit everyone, neither does a single learning environment ensure learning for all. We come not only from differing localities, abilities, cultures, and home experiences, but we inherently have different learning modalities. In addition, we possess varying combinations of these learning modalities - it's not an all or none issue. Your own learning style affects your teaching and what you plan for and with children.
Overview and Definitions
Some theorists and practitioners reduce learning modalities to three categories including visual, motor, and auditory. Visual children tend to learn by watching and looking at pictures and may be easily distracted by movement and action in the classroom. Those who respond to motor/kinesthetic stimuli tend to be involved and active, would rather do than watch, and prefer 'hands on' projects. Auditory children tend to learn by being told, respond to verbal instructions, and may be easily distracted by noise.
Learning modalities refer to the style learners use to concentrate on, process, and retain information, while multiple intelligences are the learners' biological potential and independent, diverse cognitive abilities Â their talents, which can be influenced by educational and cultural influences. Howard Gardner refers to multiple intelligences as tools to use in teaching and learning. He suggests at least eight elements of multiple intelligences that provide finer distinctions among behaviors.
Linguistic/Language: learns by listening, reading, verbalizing, enjoys discussion, likes word games, books, and records, and remembers verses, lyrics, and trivia.
Logical/Mathematical: thinks conceptually, uses clear reasoning, looks for abstract patterns and relationships, likes experimenting and testing things, likes classifying and categorizing.
Musical: thinks in tones, learns through rhythm and melody, enjoys playing musical instruments, remembers songs, and notices nonverbal sounds in the environment.
Spatial: likes mazes and jigsaw puzzles, likes to draw and design things, likes to build models, and likes films, slides, videos, diagrams, maps, and charts.
Bodily kinesthetic: processes knowledge through bodily sensations, communicates through gestures, moves or fidgets while sitting, learns by touching and manipulating, likes role playing, creative movement, and physical activity, enjoys fixing and building things.
Interpersonal: understands and cares about people, is the social child, has lots of friends, and learns from cooperative learning experiences, and likes group games.
Intrapersonal: enjoys working independently, likes to be alone, appears to be self-motivated, and needs quiet space and time.
Naturalist: investigates, experiments, questions, and finds out about elements of science, the phenomena of the natural world, weather patterns, growing things, animals, conditions that change characteristics (water changes from liquid to solid when frozen).
How can you determine what the strongest learning modalities are for each child? You don't need to administer a test, but you do need to be a careful observer. Keep notes or a checklist to document children's behaviors and sort them according to Gardner's multiple intelligences listed above. Or, you might begin simply by finding out which children tend to be visual or auditory or motor/kinesthetic (or combinations of the three).
Listen to children's questions and conversations. Watch what children do when they are given choices. What do they resist or ignore? What are they drawn to and what do they return to day after day? Are they more likely to engage in dramatic play or construction work with blocks or go to the book corner and settle down with a familiar book? Do they sing and hum as they go, enthusiastically moving to music? Do they seem to prefer verbal directions or watching a demonstration? Do they spend time drawing and painting, or working in three-dimensional clay, papier mache or block sculpture? Do they try things out to solve problems? Do they work alone or with others? What kind of software do they prefer when they use a computer -puzzles, games and stories, or graphics? Answers to these questions can help you figure out how children approach learning, and to how plan effective learning experiences.
Structure the environment. The learning centers, materials, and equipment in early childhood classes offer abundant opportunities to engage in a variety of learning modalities. Paint easels, the block center, the library corner, and science center are just a few examples. Analyze the software available on the computer. What modalities does it address?
Analyze the learning experiences you provide. How many modalities do they address? Plan and provide a variety of experiences that include different activities and opportunities to use a range of learning modalities. Children can learn one set of concepts using a variety of modes. Imagine a first grade class learning rather difficult conceptual words such as 'that', 'them', 'when', 'what', and 'got'. The teacher writes the words on the board (visual) then they chant the words (combining visual and auditory). Then, they sing the words to the tune of "row, row, row your boat" as she points to the words. Next, they write the words in their 'journal' (motor/kinesthetic) and finish with another round of song. (A child could easily do the pointing). That teacher makes use of visual, auditory, music, and kinesthetic modes with an entire group of 20 highly engaged children.
Use an investigative, project-based approach, described so well by Lillian Katz and Sylvia Chard, based on an event or theme that both the children and you want to learn more about. If you have new construction going on nearby - a house, a big building, a road -you have the potential for children to learn in a variety of ways about different subjects (math, social studies, geography, art, science, literacy), all integrated into an umbrella topic.
Portfolio assessment, with individual and group products children produce over time, children's self reflections, photographs, project narratives, and your observational notes, provide the necessary material to analyze each child's progress in developmental and subject matter areas. Portfolios may be maintained as computer files, using scanned photographs and/or digital cameras to record what children do. Analyzing weekly sign-up sheets for various activities across time shows children's progress in writing their names.
Although the internal physiological and neurological processes of learning have not changed, the external attention to learning modalities has increased significantly. If you plan learning experiences that incorporate a wide range of modalities you are likely to produce a group of enthusiastic, engaged learners.
- Gardner, H., The Unschooled Mind. New York: BasicBooks. (1991)
- Gardner, H., Multiple Intelligences. New York: BasicBooks. (1993)
- Godt, P., Hutinger, P., Robinson, L., & Schneider, C., "A simple strategy to encourage emergent literacy in young children with disabilities." TEACHING Exceptional Children 32 (2) 38-44. (1999)
- Hutinger, P., & Johanson, J., Software for Young Children. Assistive Technology for Young Children with Disabilities. Cambridge: Brookline Books. (1998)
- Helm, J.H., Beneke, S., & Steinheimer, K. Windows on Learning. New York: Teachers College Press. (1998)
- Katz, L.G., & Chard, S.C. Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach. Second Edition. Stamford, Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corp. (2000)
- NEAToday, "Extra? Extra? Interview with Howard Gardner," (March 1999).
About the Author
Dr. Patricia Hutinger is a former kindergarten, first grade, and Head Start teacher, mother to two and grandmother to four, and is Professor of Early Childhood and Director of the Center for Best Practices in Early Childhood Education in the College of Education and Human Services at Western Illinois University. She has more than 40 years experience teaching both children and university students, and administers federal and state funded grants focused on young children from birth to 8, their families, and professional staff. Hutinger's current research emphases include web-based training, early childhood program content related to literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, and art, technology applications for young children, and early intervention strategies.
Published: November 2001