There’s an idea that often comes up in online forums and real-life conversations. It goes something like this: “I love the concepts of the Charlotte Mason philosophy. It would never work for us, though, because my child is a ________ learner.” Fill in the blank with one of the three learning styles that are popular in education today: kinesthetic/auditory/visual-spacial. (*Note* The reading/writing style was an addition to the original learning styles theory, but I’ve never heard a parent give that as a reason CM wouldn’t work for them!) The thought behind learning styles is that a child learns best when they are taught in the style that best suits them. Some people are concerned that their kinesthetic learner won’t learn to their fullest potential through reading books. Or that their visual learner will waste time on narrations.
I spent much of my time as a public school teacher worried about learning styles. I seriously struggled with presenting information four different ways. When I went through training to become an Ambleside teacher, I spent a very intense week learning about how to teach Charlotte Mason’s way. I learned about living books, narration, dictation, habit training…the works. During one of the sessions, another teacher asked, “How do we adapt the lessons to suit different learning styles?”
I think I held my breath. This is one of the hoops I struggled to jump through in my previous teaching career, and my legs were tired. Then the answer came.
*Sigh of relief.
Charlotte Mason and Learning Styles
This is good news, CM mamas! Charlotte Mason relied on living books and ideas to teach children, not songs or special projects. But as it turns out, recent research shows that there isn’t much merit to this modern theory of learning styles. A 2008 study published in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, in which students were instructed using different learning styles that weren’t necessarily their preferred style. Then, all of the students were tested to see if the students who learned in their preferred style understood more than the others. The results did not demonstrate this. The study concluded that students didn’t learn better when the lesson was tailored to their specific learning style. (You can read more about this research here and here.) (And, if you’re curious as to why this hasn’t become common knowledge in the last 9 years, keep reading. I was curious, too.)
It’s true that people can have a preference towards a specific learning style. But failing to teach to that preference will not put a child at a disadvantage. I think it’s safe to say that these preferences are habits. A child who enjoys learning a specific way might pick up the habit of inattention when asked to listen or participate. Instead of assuming that a child can’t learn a different way, we need to teach them how to learn a different way.
The motto of a Charlotte Mason education is:
I am, I can, I ought, I will.”
I am refers to my beautiful worth through God.
I can means that I can do things, even hard things, through Christ who gives us strength.
I ought describes my duties under God’s authority, like putting in my best effort.
I will accomplish the things that God has set before me.
This is very different than the theory of learning styles, which instead says, “I am a kinesthetic/auditory/visual learner. I can only learn when I’m doing/hearing/seeing.”
In School Education, Charlotte Mason spoke of John Locke’s theory of “faculties of the mind.”
Ideas, images, were for him to be got only through the senses; and a man could know nothing but what he got hold of with his own senses and assimilated by his own understanding.” (page 50).
While this theory much preceded the modern day theory of learning styles, I can see the root of these modern ideas. If we do, we learn. If we hear, we learn, etc.
Charlotte Mason continued:
The mind (i.e the man?) appears to have little color or character of its own, but has certain powers and activities for the employment of the ideas it receives; and to account for these, Locke invented the pestilent fallacy which has, perhaps, been more injurious than any other to the cause of education– the fallacy of “the faculties of the mind.”(page 50).
Locke’s theory said that people should be put in the way of things and skills that a person should know to properly function in society. This was a limiting view.
The problem with this, according to Charlotte Mason, is:
There is no unity of an inspiring idea, no natural progress and continuity, no ennobling aim, in an education which stops at the knowledge a gentleman should acquire and the accomplishments a gentlemen should possess. The person hardly appears except in the way of the semi-mechanical activities of his so-called faculties: he is practically the resultant of the images conveyed through his senses. The evolution, the expansion of the individual in the direction proper to him, has no place here; every man is shut tight, as it were, in his own skin, but is taught to behave himself becomingly within the limit. That intellectual commerce of ideas whereby the dead yet speak their living thoughts in the work they have left us, and by which as by links of an endless chain by which all men are bound to each and all men influence each, has no place in a philosophy which teaches that a man can know only through his own understanding working upon the images he receives through his senses.” School Education, page 50.
Phew! Are you still with me?! I see four things here that make a statement about the theory of learning styles:
- Learning stops at knowledge. When we make an effort to present something in a specific way, the goal is often a little piece of knowledge, not planting a seed of an idea that grows and will continue growing.
- It doesn’t view a child as a person. The personhood of children means they are capable of learning on their own, and we don’t need to force knowledge on them.
- Growth is limited. When we reduce a learning opportunity into standards to be learned through a specific approach, we are limiting the child by not allowing them to take ideas and run with them.
- Books aren’t seen as valuable resources. The focus is taken from the beautiful wisdom found in books when we assume that they aren’t enough t teach children.
Changing Our Mindsets
I spent too many years thinking that I was a visual learner. That became my excuse to not listen when someone was talking, or not participate in “hands-on” things because I thought I needed to see a demonstration before jumping in. It turns out that I had limited myself. As I got older, I realized that I could listen; I could participate. I just didn’t enjoy those methods of learning as much. It is this core principle – your preference and how these habits form that form the basis of the Learning, Cognition & Development degree. Trying to understand how people grow up, in certain environments with certain people. Rutgers University extends this to learning about the best teaching methods in school, university and in the workplace. I realised after that all I had to do, was to change my mindset and work on the habit of attention so that I could pay attention even in circumstances that weren’t quite as appealing to me. It is this change in mindsight that these studies have evolved their ideas on the psychology of learning.
The research that states learning styles are not as important as we once thought has been around for almost 10 years. Every couple of years, new articles pop up, explaining that this idea is a “neuromyth:” a portion of research that was misstated or exaggerated. I encourage you to read this article called, “One Reason The Learning Styles Myth Persists” from New York Magazine. If you skip the article, I can tell you the gist: educational “research” still talks about learning styles, ignoring the studies that have proven it wrong. My point in telling you this is not so that we can start a learning styles revolution and change the dialog about how children learn. I hope that it sets us free from the idea that our perfect preparation and presentation is going to make or break our child’s education.
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