Learning Substance… Not Learning Style

More matter, less art. (Gertrude to Polonius in Hamlet)

Welcome to the new school year! I am thrilled to see students arriving at school early in the morning, and I am comforted by the sounds of teaching and learning activity that spill out of each classroom into the hallways and commons areas.

My walks around both schools reassure me that teaching and learning are alive and well at Lawrence School. Our teachers are engaging, enthusiastic, energetic and expert.  The environment they create in their classrooms and on the playing fields support students and simultaneously challenge them to keep them moving and growing.

At Lawrence School, all of our students have learning differences. Their approaches to learning may vary greatly from one student to the next, but they share one very significant experience: in prior school experiences they were not well-served by the ‘one size fits all’ approach promoted in most general education environments.

The Lawrence mission statement pinpoints what we do every day, which is to teach students who have distinct learning styles, ignite their potential and inspire academic and social success.

Interestingly, this week, National Public Radio carried a piece on Learning Styles. While I missed the original broadcast, a friend and colleague sent it along and asked “Lou, what’s your take on this?”


The piece questions the existence of “learning styles” which identify children as ‘auditory ‘or ‘visual’ learners. The reporter quotes psychologists who state there is no scientific evidence that some of us favor one sensory system over another when we are learning new information.

As parents, instructors, and those invested in the community of learning differences education, we may feel threatened by this kind of report—and we might even be tempted to get a tad defensive.

Does this report mean we got our mission at Lawrence School wrong???

Wait! We know our kids and we know they learn differently!  However, there is truth to the claims that historically in all schools we have not based enough of our educational practice on evidenced-based research.

Education is often prone to lunge in the direction of fads – particularly in the reading education arena.  Debates about how to improve reading skills in children with dyslexia, for example, over the last thirty years tell a discomforting story of our need to find quick fixes and easy answers. Controversies often fueled by media attention have included impassioned considerations of tinted lenses, antihistamines, visual training, blue-green algae, balance beams, vestibular stimulation and a host of other supposed “cures” for dyslexia.

Most recently there has been a rush to generalize findings of  brain researchers who use fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonating Imaging) that provide scans of our brains as we try to accomplish specific tasks. While we can now generate a clear picture of our brains in action, we do not have clear understanding of how the findings of laboratory research apply to classrooms.

“So Lou,” you might ask, “what do we actually know from research that we might apply in our classrooms serving students who have failed to learn in other general education venues?”

Thanks for asking!

We have known for decades that students identified as struggling readers have weak memory and retrieval skills for letters and sounds regardless of whether the information is auditory or visual.  More often than not, these students also demonstrate delays for processing and production of oral and written language which compromise participation and production in class.  About a third have associated difficulties maintaining focus and attention.

(For more information and research regarding the role of memory and retrieval in reading skills acquisition, look up Charles Perfetti. For information and research on the role of attention, look up Russell Barkley. Or see the video links in the “Links and Resources” section of my sidebar).

Children who are identified with these learning differences are known to be a widely heterogeneous group—that is they differ markedly from one another in the ways they learn differently. But they all have some sort of underlying processing challenge that does not compromise intelligence, but does cause a failure to thrive in school.  We can call the resulting differences whatever we might agree to call them… challenges, processing delays, or styles. But however we name them, it is our obligation to create learning environments, classrooms and curriculum that teach to our students’ particular needs.

At Lawrence we refer to our students as having ‘distinctive learning styles’ because it is respectful, it draws no negative assumptions, and – most importantly – it promotes the thought that distinctive teaching addresses distinctive learners.

What we have known for decades is that teachers need to offer all students in every class a variety of presentations in order for them acquire new skills and remember information. Children who struggle with reading, who have language or other information processing differences or delays, need to interact with information multiple times in a variety of ways in order to move concepts and skills from short-term memory into long-term memory.

The attached is from a presentation I gave at NAIS several years ago and have used in my talks about how to make secondary education classrooms more ‘user friendly’. The lesson of the data is clear: just by combining various presentation modes, retention is significantly enhanced – not only for children with learning differences, but for all kids.  For example when we simply read something silently, then discuss what we have read, we retain 60% more of the information compared to situations in which we only read. This might explain the popularity of book groups!  The neat thing is that applying this research to a classroom costs nothing, is already in a teacher’s tool box, and can significantly enhance learning for all brains–even the kind I have!

We don’t teach this way because one child is a “visual” learner and another is an “auditory” learner.  We do this because we are all learners whose brains use both visual and auditory sensory information all the time.

So, I agree – the NPR story has it right regarding the research on brains not having a particular visual or auditory “style”.

And I remain steadfast in my belief that the challenge we all face in education and the mission we embrace at Lawrence is to help all the children in a classroom learn by providing sufficient variety in the way information is presented and practiced to keep learners excited and engaged.

For more information on brain research and how it might impact curriculum design, see the two recommendations below.

I welcome your comments below or feel free to e-mail me directly with your thoughts at lsalza@lawrenceschool.org.  Here’s to a great school year! Let the games begin!



Here are two books that have helped me to understand how the brain works and what it might mean for teaching and learning:

A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain

By Dr. John Ratey

Dr. John Ratey co authored Driven to Distraction with Ned Hallowell. He is an expert on ADHD and in this book he provides  instructive, accessible metaphors about brain function. Ratey notes that brains are especially sensitive to changes in our environment. The typical or ordinary will be quickly ignored in favor of the unusual or strange. So, to pique attention in our classrooms and maintain students’ focus, we need to keep the environment in a constant state of flow and change – but at the same time provide structure. We need to challenge ourselves to find different ways to review and revisit information and apply learned information in new contexts – all the things effective teachers do in any classroom, in any school, to hold students’ attention.

The Art of Changing The Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning

By James Ellwood Zull

Professor Zull is right here at CWRU and his work in the area of brain research as it impacts practices in the classroom is meticulous and readable for parents and teachers. Zull’s work is exciting because it proves that the brain grows new neurons and is capable of making new connections all through the life span. New skills promote new brain development.  This is a most welcome message at my chronologically gifted stage of life!


About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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