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Learning Principles: More Important
than Learning Styles

People not only learn at different rates, but also in different ways. Some students want their teacher or lecturers to write everything on the board. Others prefer to listen. Some like to sit in small groups and discuss a question; others like to listen to a lecture, translating it into pictures or doodles in their notebook. Such individual learning preferences are known as learning styles.

Learning styles are generally divided into three categories: (1.) visual learners, who need to see it to know it, (2.) auditory learners, who need to hear it to know it and (3.) tactile/kinesthetic learners, who prefer a hands-on approach.

It goes without saying that a visual learner profits most by learning from books, because his memory retains the printed words, sentences and paragraphs. He may remember without much effort that the paragraph about the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini was printed on an upper left-hand page of his history book. If he goes to a cinema, he will remember actions and incidents that he saw on the screen, while the spoken word becomes hazy and fades away.

In contrast, the auditory learner profits more by lectures than books, since his memory retains what he picks up through the ears. He may be able to repeat a conversation almost verbatim and at the same time have difficulty describing what the person with whom he conducted this conversation looked like. If he attends a cinema, the sound of words and music will stay with him, while the actions are very soon forgotten.

Tactile/kinesthetic learners learn best by a hands-on approach. Tactile refers to touch and kinesthetic to movement, two learning modalities that are closely related. Kinesthetic learners often do well as performers: athletes, actors, or dancers.

Once you understand your (or your child's) learning style, you may be able to adjust your learning approach (or help your child adjust his approach) for maximum benefit. However, BEWARE! Although there is some value in adjusting to a preferred learning style, its value should not be overrated. Learning principles, which are universal, are of far greater importance than learning styles, which are individual. Learning failure will not necessarily result if one omits to adjust to a preferred learning style. However, the chances of learning success if one fails to teach or learn in accordance with learning principles are remote.

Let us compare the above situation to eating. When people eat like when they learn they also have individual preferences. Some people prefer to eat with their hands, some with a knife and fork, while others prefer to eat with chopsticks. Some cut their food into small chunks, while others put rather large chunks into their mouths. Some chew their food very well while others do not allow much time for chewing.

However, the role that these individual preferences play in the eating process is relatively small. What really matters, however, is what all people have in common. All people (1.) place their food into their mouths, (2.) chew their food, and then (3.) swallow their food. Without following these three universal steps, eating would not be possible. In the same way, learning is not possible unless one follows universal learning principles.

Learning is a stratified process

The first universal learning principle is that human learning does not take place on a single level, but is a stratified process. This characteristic is worldwide accepted as a didactic principle. The way in which the school system throughout the whole world is organized is an acknowledgement of this. One cannot send a child to university first. He must start in the first class and then progress year after year to the higher levels of education. Unless he has mastered a sufficient amount of the learning material presented to him in one year, to form a firm enough base on which to build the knowledge of the following year, he will not make progress in the next class.

Another simple and practical example is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible, and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child to add and subtract. This shows that counting is a skill that must be mastered before it becomes possible to learn to do calculations.

This means that there is a sequence that is to be observed in learning. Certain things have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to learn other things.

The ageless principle of repetition

A second learning principle of great importance is that learning cannot occur without repetition. There is not a single person on this earth who learned to speak a language, learned to swim, skate, play golf, or drive a car, without repetition.

Repetition is important in the "wiring" of a person's brain, i.e. the forming of connections or synapses between the brain cells. Without repetition, key synapses don't form. And if such connections, once formed, are used too seldom to be strengthened and reinforced, the brain, figuring they're dead weight, eventually "prunes" them away.

Mere repetition, however, is not the end of the story. A "pyramid of repetition" has to be constructed for the beginner learner. This means that the beginner learner must start by repeating a limited amount of material many times over and over. Gradually, less and less repetition will be necessary to master new skills and new knowledge. Suzuki illustrates this principle in his book Nurtured by Love: A New Approach to Education:

Since 1949, our Mrs. Yano has been working with new educational methods for developing ability, and every day she trains the infants of the school to memorize and recite Issa's well-known haiku. [A haiku is a short Japanese poem, consisting only of three lines.] Children who at first could not memorize one haiku after hearing it ten times were able to do so in the second term after three to four hearings, and in the third term only one hearing.

Without building this "pyramid of repetition" first, later learning will always be time consuming and prone to failure.

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