Discovering Our Differences
We're inundated with "right brain, left brain" jargon. We hear that some people think with their feelings, senses, and emotions; others with facts and figures. Clearly we don't all think—or learn—alike.
Educators have found at least four separate learning styles, each with its own optimum teaching methods: innovative learners, analytic learners, common sense learners, and dynamic learners.
Innovative learners seek meaning. They learn as they listen and share ideas. For them, being personally involved in the learning process is important. Bernice McCarthy writes, "They are divergent thinkers who believe in their own experience, excel in viewing concrete situations from many perspectives, and model themselves on those they respect."
Innovative learners like to participate in small-group discussions. They're idea people, whose favorite questions are "Why?" and "Why not?" They are often found in careers in the humanities, personnel work, counseling or organizational development.
An analytic learner says, "Just give me the facts." They like to know the mind of the experts. For them, learning comes through thinking through ideas to form reality. They tend to have less interest in people than in ideas and concepts. They like to critique information and collect good data.
These are the people who love the traditional classroom. Straight lecture suits them well, as long as the lecturer is qualified. They are willing to do the memory work and lap up all the facts. It's easy to like these students because they are happy to sit still and listen. Learners like these excel at creating concepts and models. They cluster in careers like math, research, the basic sciences, and planning departments.
Drama, art, or small groups seem a waste of time to them—fluff when they are looking for information.
Common Sense Learners
These people don't want to talk about something; they want to do it. Nothing is more important for common sense learners than practical, hands-on approaches. Learning is filtered through the screen of usability. A "fuzzy idea" that they can't take apart to see how it works makes them uneasy. You'll often hear from them, "How does this work?" But they may actually resent being given answers. They would prefer to solve the problems themselves.
Grown-up common sense learners can be found working as engineers, nurses, technicians, and physical scientists.
If the Bible lesson is on stewardship, the common sense learners would enjoy working on a project to pay the church bills. Give them a copy of the church budget, the income, and the possible ministry expenses. Then set them loose to plan, to experiment, and to solve the problem using their practicality.
Dynamic learners want to discover truth themselves. Hidden possibilities excite them. Their favorite question: "What can this become?" The world comes to people like these in rather concrete principles, but they process it actively and with flair. People like this often seek careers in sales, action-oriented managerial positions, and marketing.
For a lesson on evangelism, I may charge the dynamic learners to design a strategy to reach a local apartment complex with the gospel. And I'd challenge them with the task of not only designing the plan but also finding ways to bring it to reality. This is a real task, one they would consider worthy of their enthusiasm and creativity.
Making New Methods Work
Unless I push myself into uncharted areas, I run the risk of never reaching the students with other learning styles.
Introducing new techniques to a traditional classroom is best done gently. I start with non-threatening suggestions—a work sheet done with a partner, a small-group question-and-answer session, or brainstorming in a large group—nothing that can be interpreted by nervous students as potentially embarrassing. Only when the group is accustomed to a few changes do I offer choices the class may interpret as unusual. Skits, group projects, art options, special research, or even individual study can be a breath of fresh air to those students who long to be invited to learn in their own favorite style.
I try to accommodate each of the four learning styles at some point in the lesson. When I plan, I keep in mind specific students in the class who best represent the various learning styles. Then I make sure there is something in the lesson that will appeal to each of those students. It may be the introduction, one of the options to explore the biblical data, or the application. Somewhere in the lesson, I want each person to know the message is for him or her.
In his grace, God has made each of us unique. At times, teaching a roomful of people who learn in different ways can be frustrating. But we can use that same uniqueness to enrich our classrooms.
At the time of writing, Penny Zettler was minister of Christian education at Central Baptist Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Learning is not an easily diagrammed 1-2-3-4 process, says Marlene LeFever in this training tool. "God was much more creative when he crafted our minds. Each of us learns best in a pattern that is uniquely ours." The children's and adult education programs in our churches will be more effective when we embrace this reality. We must try to teach in the ways that our congregants can learn. This resource can help you understand the range of learning styles out there, and how that should shape your church's teaching.