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Guest Posts, Learning at its Best

Learning Preferences, Entry Points and Why They Matter

This past back-to-school season, a learning styles study from 2009 got recycled by NPR and resulted in one of the most heated comment debates I’ve seen online. The study proclaimed that learning styles do not, in fact, exist and “widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.”

Maybe the problem lies in the hypothesis. Maybe we should not be asking how students CAN learn, but instead how they PREFER to learn and what kinds of contexts would most pique their interest in the subjects that they’re supposed to be absorbing for the long-haul—not just to regurgitate for a quiz or exam and then dispose of in their mind’s “circular file”.

In my house, I have two children—one an imaginative, feisty “forest ranger” and the other an inquisitive, focused “tree trimmer”. My eldest likes to look at the big picture and prefers musical, kinesthetic and naturistic (MI) aesthetic (entry points) pursuits. My youngest likes to dig into the details and prefers logical/mathematical, naturistic and visual/spatial (MI) logical/quantitative (entry points) pursuits. Though they came from identical gene pools, the lenses through which they prefer to view the world are vastly different.

In the cognitive style realm, I prefer to begin with a visual lesson in new material, then round out my understanding of a concept with kinesthetic and auditory “illustrations”. My daughter prefers to start delving into material using a kinesthetic or auditory lens, then use visual to bring the image into sharper focus.

The parents and teachers I talk to on a daily basis share similar experiences—both autobiographically and interpersonally speaking.

Educational theorists have been echoing for decades that affectivity is key to learning success. And while it may be unrealistic for classroom teachers to teach to every child’s unique learning preferences, this is where parents come into play as a critical member of their kids’ learning teams.

If your child is struggling with a concept or project either in school or during homework, put it into one of their preferred contexts. Use a multiple intelligence lens your child appears to prefer, try a cognitive style technique, or help your child look at the topic in a way that embraces his or her personality type. Don’t look at it just from the basis of trying to complete this particular assignment, but try to tie it to something that will be intrinsically motivating. E.g. got a social butterfly that isn’t “into” math? Show her how much math goes into party planning without going bankrupt in the process.

In my experience, it’s best to approach learning in the same way that you do with healthy food introductions as a parent…blend that learning “spinach” up in a berry “understanding” smoothie. Your child will not only digest the new concepts, but probably even like it as it goes down, then ask for more.

But this is just my experience…how do our other Cooperative Catalysts tackle kids’ or students’ “spinach” subjects in their homes or classrooms? I would love to have other ideas to “chew” on…

About Jen Lilienstein - Founder,

Helping parents and teachers develop more intrinsically motivated learners by celebrating and embracing kids' unique multiple intelligence strengths, personality types and predominant cognitive styles.


10 thoughts on “Learning Preferences, Entry Points and Why They Matter

  1. I like the idea of lenses – we see our missions through them.

    I’m beginning to think, “What do you want to make (or do)?”, trumps, “How do you want to learn this content?”, so let me ask this in our spirit of friendly and sincerely curious push:

    How would you unpack all the stuff of schooling in this sentence?

    If your child is struggling with a concept or project either in school or during homework, put it into one of their preferred contexts.

    For example, I might ask about the differences between a concept and project, or between a project and homework, or between school and a preferred context, or between in school and out of school. What do you think is most essential here to address in teaching, learning, and/or schooling?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 27, 2011, 8:21 pm
    • Hi there, Chad! Thanks for the feedback. In my mind, the type of assignment will often help to dictate which type of entry point to use. For instance:

      If a child that prefers a kinesthetic/tactile cognitive style is really struggling with math “drill & kill” worksheets in elementary school, it could be helpful to allow the child to use manipulatives like LEGOs to take the assignment from abstract to concrete.

      Similarly, for a more auditory learner, introducing a reluctant reader and his parents to a site like could help engage the child in current & future assignments by honoring his learning preference.

      For broader concepts in which the child is struggling, overlaying a simile, metaphor or analogy which she already “gets” can help to connect the dots. (E.g. why it is important to go through a geometry proof for a naturalist-minded child could be explained by its similarity to why it’s important to understand how a plant can grow out of a seed.)

      For long-term projects, an understanding of personality type can help the teacher and parent plan appropriately (E.g. For a perceiving student, helping to create intermediate deadlines for the project honors her personality style of waiting until the last minute to create a final product. For a judging student, helping to make the deadline seem less overwhelming by planning out how much time should be allocated on a daily basis to finish the project on time honors his personality type.)

      For teachers, knowing which students are more introverted and extroverted can help to plan group discussions appropriately. Allowing the introverted students to have some kind of a “sign” like putting his pencil at the top of her desk to indicate that he’s ready to contribute to the conversation, while giving an extrovert a time-limit for her discussion point can help to ensure that each child has a chance to contribute in a way that honors their communication preferences.

      Hope this makes sense!

      Posted by kidzmet | September 28, 2011, 11:57 am
      • It does, Jen – I love LEGOs.

        I guess my larger question is about the positioning of authority (for lack of a better term). Much of what you suggest requires a level of teacher benevolence from a position of authority over students and their work. Are you advocating that kind of benevolent authority structure or something more student-directed? Are you advocating teacher observation and reaction – or something more like teacher-student negotiation and relationships? A combination or something else entirely?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | September 28, 2011, 1:22 pm
        • I guess I’m advocating teachers & parents going beyond “Know Thyself” to “Know Thy Learner”.

          I’d like to see teachers and parents leveraging not just skills assessment tools, but also affectivity tools to help spark intrinsically motivated & student-directed learning as early as possible. There are a variety of online tools and book references that teachers and parents can use to help them get a clearer picture of their students & class mix (including I’d like to see more teachers utilizing those tools in order to demonstrate to kids that learning can be *fun*.

          To our kids’ collective success,
          Jen 🙂

          Posted by kidzmet | September 28, 2011, 3:40 pm
  2. Kidzmet,

    Thanks for presenting your perspectives and experiences.

    I love the various “Golden Hammers” wielded, the various “silver bullets” forged and hammered out only to be briefly used and then discarded. Perhaps an erroneous assumption lies at the bottom of the education conundrum* – that being the belief in the existence of a “silver bullet” that will kill the beast.

    The linked article about learning styles referenced a “study” that suggested an “evidence-based” approach be taken. The authority suggested that until something has been “proved” (in context, that one would modify their teaching approach to fit a learning style), that “something” should not be undertaken.

    Each of us knows not a single human being is identical to another. With this in mind, why do we use a “scientific” approach to dealing with one another? Why do we oftentimes act as if all human beings are, could be, or should be the same?

    I think this post ties in with Pernille Ripp’s post of Sept. 28th – “I am not Special” (and yet each teacher Is “special”, as are each of their students).

    Where does the “authority” come from? Does it come from outside the loop? Is the education car driven by persons or powers licensed to drive?

    I laugh. My laugh comes from the realization of how very ironic the situation is for “We the people”, “equals” all, are busily assuring each other’s children stay unequal through education processes (I stress that I see this as a systemic/structural matter). I wish the situation were actually funny…

    *And every other conundrum that has or will be recognized.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | September 28, 2011, 9:13 am
    • Brent,

      I absolutely agree with your point about by trying to create equality at a Federal level, we’re actually creating inequality at younger and younger ages. I look at how so many kids’ self esteems plummeted in High School during my day after receiving their SAT scores and how their self-perceptions of what was possible/achievable for them simultaneously narrowed. And then I look at how we’ve taken this process back to the 2nd grade…and how so much of the school day is dedicated to teaching to the test that we’re honoring fewer and fewer of our kids’ multiple intelligence “crown jewels”, leaving more and more of those gems “in the rough”.

      Somehow, some way, we’ve got to help kids AND their parents understand that there are incredible success pathways that are open to each and every child…even if they don’t fit the idealized ENTJ | Logic/Math + Linguistic | Visual learner of the American school system. We’ve got to stop trying to shave corners off of our triangle, square, hexagonal, etc. kids to make them ALL the round cogs that fit in an industrial wheel.


      Posted by kidzmet | September 28, 2011, 12:08 pm

    This really makes sense to me, the distinction between learning style as a whole rigid learning system and set of types (the way this is often thought of in school–like I’m EITHER a visual or auditory learner) and thinking about MI in terms of preferences and ways to enter. That seems just right, and is really helpful.

    I’ve sat in terribly canned teaching observations where kids have to “self evaluate” off a xeroxed worksheet what “kind” of learner they are, and it was all so superficial and labeling it was hard to see how it would be helpful to anyone. It would be great if you’d write more, autobiographically and from observations of your children, how the kind of knowing we have about ourselves as learners helps us get into new things, projects, ideas, concepts.

    Thanks so much for this,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 28, 2011, 10:40 am
  4. This actually makes me think about a documentary I saw about autism. It’s called Loving Lampposts and a good chunk of it is dedicated to people who believe that autism should not be seen as a disease, but just another way of the human mind to function. Instead of trying to cure autisum, there’s the idea of neurodiversity and that autistic people are just people who are at farther ends of the spectrum in the way they process information.

    If this is a movement that’s beginning to take hold within the disabled community, is it really something that’s so difficult to accept with all people?

    Posted by Alicia Rice | September 30, 2011, 3:37 pm

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