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Ask an Expert: What kind of learner is my child?

Q. How can I tell what kind of learner my child is? It’s tough to consider school options for a young child when you have no idea how they learn best. What are the different types of learners out there and key components of each? What type of educational setting is best for each type of learner?

A. This is a great question and one that I spend most days helping parents answer.

The term “learning style” refers to the preferred way in which an individual processes information. In my experience the most common model of categorizing learning styles is the VAK method which divides learning styles into three different modalities:

  • Visual: Needs visual cues and objects, remembers better when things are written down, picks up facial and social cues.
  • Auditory: Retains information better when hearing and speaking. This learner needs to be told things, can work well with noise in the background, enjoys collaborating and discussing.
  • Kinesthetic: Enjoys hands-on approach to learning, needs to move and can learn while in motion, demonstrations prove helpful.

The application of learning styles is a common practice in most American classrooms. The idea is that if one can define a specific style in a student then one can also apply or provide a specific educational methodology to complement and differentiate with the goal of reaching the student’s fullest potential. New research, however, casts doubt on this assumption.

There are both qualitative and quantitative ways to assess learning styles. One of the most common formal tools for assessing learning styles are the OPAL (Observational Primary Assessment of Learning Style) for children ages 3 to 6 and the BE (Be Excellent) for ages 7 to 17.  However, there are many free assessments online and some parents are using Cognitive Testing such as the WPPSII and the WISC-IV.

The most important question at hand is, how does understanding “learning styles” actually help parents make better choices about their child’s educational environment?  The answer may be surprising.  In 2008, four psychologists were charged with determining whether the use of applying learning style theories to educational models was supported by scientific evidence.  The results were published in an article called Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence published in the Psychological Science of Public Interest. The findings clearly state there is NO evidence that matching learning style with educational philosophy has any added benefit.

So, if understanding your child’s learning style is not important WHAT IS?  In my work with hundreds of families I invite parents to slow down and take an inventory of what they really dream of for their child.  We work together to consider many different angles so that when a final school placement is made there is no regret. Here are key things to think about:

  • Clarify family values. Sit down with your partner and clarify what values are most important to you. Doing this will help you choose a school that is in alignment with your goals, dreams, your educational philosophy, and your parenting style.
  • Weigh your options. Denver and many other Colorado districts are fortunate to have many different school options. Denver, for instance, offers families the choice of charter schools, magnet schools, neighborhood schools, and private schools. During your search process, make sure to gain an understanding of what options are available and what education models appeal to you.
  • Don’t keep up with the Joneses. Recommendations from friends and neighbors are helpful, but keep in mind that your needs, values, and expectations may differ markedly from those of your friends and neighbors. The most important aspect to consider is choosing a school where your child and family will thrive.
  • Know your child. Spend some time writing down his/her strengths and areas where he/she may experience challenges. Consider if your child has special needs, or has tendencies towards “giftedness.”  Ask your child’s teacher for their opinion on how your child learns best.  Educational consultants can do informal observations and assessments to evaluate and pull together a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. A qualified educational psychologist can provide insight into processing and behavior issues your child might be experiencing.
  • Balance family’s needs with child’s needs. It is important to consider the whole family when choosing a school. The school becomes a second home for the child and the parents, and both need to feel comfortable and aligned with the culture of the school. Know that you will likely spend hours participating on committees and attending school events. Consider the transportation logistics and commute times when looking at schools farther from home. Is your preferred school able to meet the needs of younger siblings? If not, are you prepared to drive and participate at different schools for the next six to nine years?
  • Visit as many schools as possible. Do your homework and be prepared to ask good questions on your tour or interview. Parents often focus on being interviewed and forget that they are interviewing as well. There are many questions you can ask that will help you understand schools in a way that goes beyond marketing messages and statistical data. (However, if you want some statistical data, check out the EdNews Parent Colorado School Data Center.)
  • Know your financial options. Money is an important consideration when choosing a private school. Tuition can range from $5,500 to $24,000 per year. There are other expenses in attending a private school, including annual giving drives, fundraisers, lunch programs, and book fees. All of these “extra expenses” add to the bottom-line cost of a private school education. Many private schools have generous financial aid programs and sliding tuition scales. Financial aid forms can be daunting and require a total inventory of personal finances.
  • Ask for help. A qualified educational consultant will save parents countless hours of labor and worry. He or she can assist parents in the admissions process and provide a deep understanding of school philosophies and cultures, and align schools with a family’s values and a child’s needs. An educational consultant provides values assessments, kindergarten readiness assessments, and school evaluations to carefully narrow the choices to the best few options. The job of a qualified educational consultant is to help parents become experts in their educational choices.

I hope this answers your questions and I wish you the best on your journey!

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.