Beyond Learning Styles: Preferences and Needs

Are learning styles dead? Should we be concerned with recent articles saying that there is no evidence of learning gains by teaching only to that student’s primary learning style?

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If a researcher does not find evidence of something existing, it typically means two things: 1) that thing doesn’t exist, or 2) the thing does exist, but the researcher did not conduct a study in a way to find evidence for it.

Taking one aspect of one category of learning styles, and trying to teach a student through only that one aspect, is not likely to result in optimal learning for that student. That’s like throwing flour in a bowl and complaining that it’s not a cake.

For example, one category of learning styles is perceptual modalities. Of the six or more modalities, one is auditory-listening. Having a student only learn through listening, and no other means, will not likely yield the best results. Usually students need to learn through multiple means. There have been studies that showed evidence that students initially learning through primary learning styles, and then following up with secondary and tertiary learning styles, did have stronger learning gains.

However, learning styles include more than perceptual modalities. Other categories include environmental, social, psychological, neurotype considerations, conditional-situational, and more. Learning styles inventories – or typologies – vary in how many categories they include.

Every typology is limited to what that typology measures or inventories. For example, a super simple modality inventory might only have three options: visual, auditory, and hands-on. A slightly more complex modality inventory will recognize the difference between visual-text and visual-picture, or between auditory-listening and auditory-verbal, and so on. An even more sophisticated inventory will begin to account for the possibility of synesthesia and other perceptual input considerations. And that’s just modalities.

Some typologies include modalities plus several other categories. For every single category, the typology is only measuring for the possibilities that it predicts to exist. Each person is more complex than what even the most complete typology can show.

However, it’s a start. It’s a conversation-starter. A learning styles or similar assessment can facilitate the beginning of self-awareness, hopefully provide some affirmation, and serve as a catalyst to communicate needs and preferences.

Communication is important for learning, and word choice is important for communication. The phrase “learning styles” has been defined and applied in a variety of ways, making communication and research about learning styles problematic at best.

Learning needs and preferences is better terminology than learning styles. Most can agree that a student who is blind is not likely to learn from visual means, and that a person who is Deaf will not likely learn through auditory means. They have learning needs that seem obvious, wouldn’t you agree? Where do we draw the line though? How about a student with a processing disorder confirmed with fMRI scans; would this be accepted evidence of a learning need? At what point do we draw the line between a need and what we would instead define as a preference? Or should we?

There’s value having students experience learning in a variety of ways, and even growing skills and strategies for different approaches and scenarios. Active reading strategies help with processing text. Note-taking practice to help process auditory information, or using technology such as recording and speech to text can also be a great tool to discover. Learning how to work independently is important. Learning how to work with others, or even to oversee a group in a project management capacity, can be valuable skills. Some students will be more capable of using certain learning approaches than others, both due to learning needs and preferences.

Why would preferences matter?

What it comes down to is this: emotions count. If you get a student who needs to be detoxed from previous experience, or who is coming to you from trauma or simply a poor self-image as a learner, having that student begin the learning process in ways most comfortable and manageable could be vital for that student to move toward a growth mindset. Some students don’t have bootstraps; and if they did, what happens when you try to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps? You fall. That’s the original meaning of this phrase.

Emotions impact motivation, as well as the ability to learn in the moment no matter how motivated. Affirmation, being seen or validated, and gaining a sense of self-awareness can lead to an empowered learner. A sense that success is possible – an increasing internal locus of control – and that one’s own unique strengths and traits are valuable, makes it easier to try. Starting with preferred ways of learning, experiencing success and building upon that foundation, can put the student in the position to stretch and try new things later. It’s part of a complete recipe for success.

Err on the Side of Compassion



Teachers were reacting
To an article about a former student
Who had been raped
Before she came to us
Who had not told anybody
Until after she left us

Nobody knew

How can we make sure that we know these things?
The teachers were asking

And they began to brainstorm

Student information system
Digital documentation
Communication applications

And I interrupted.

And what will you document?
You won’t know. Most of the time, you won’t know.

Then we need to ask, the teachers were saying. We need to inquire and open up that communication, and…

Do you introduce yourself and ask, “Have you been raped?” Or go down the list of many, many, other possible traumas?

You won’t know. Most of the time, you won’t know.

Because you cannot know.

And did you know… it isn’t your right to know.

It isn’t your place to demand this information. You are not entitled to this.

Yes. Mandatory reporting, is a must
But until you have that trust
You might miss the signs, and the actual danger might be in the past.

Because those signs look different ways for different kids.
Often misinterpreted, or totally misread.

Trauma a year ago feels like trauma yesterday, so the past is now even though there’s nothing to report.

Yes, I know you want to help, and that this information would make it so much easier to do so. I understand this. But you won’t know. Most of the time, you won’t know.

So what can we do?

Err on the side of compassion.

If a student is struggling, assume that there is a good reason for it. Even if you are given what seems to be a weak reason, know that this may not be the only reason, or even the real reason… and err on the side of compassion.

No, this doesn’t mean become a doormat. This doesn’t mean putting up with you or others suffering abuse. I don’t speak of enabling bullying.

I speak of not being the bully.

I speak of creating a safe space. So maybe the student can share with you. If they… so choose.

I speak of empowering student voice. So they can have a say in their education, in their life, and move forward the best way they can. With or without telling you everything.

I speak of holding space. Say, I am here for you, if you need me. No judgment.

No judgment.

Err on the side of compassion.

The student who was a rape victim gained her voice over time. With a stronger voice, she was able to break her silence. And now she is serving as the voice of others.

SHE did this, this healing…. During the time she was with us. She blossomed. Without us ever knowing. We erred on the side of compassion.

So that’s what we continue to do.

For so many other students who come to us this way, this is what we do.

And there’s no app for that. This comes from heart.




Evaluating Education Options

How do you get straight answers, avoid bait and switch, and determine what options are best for your child? Whether you’re interested in online or offline, public or private, or homeschooling or unschooling — this overview is for you.

— The most important question you need to ask first.
— Elements to seek and pitfalls to avoid.
— Learn what questions to ask to get straight answers.


No matter who you were talking to – teachers, parents, students – the connections that you have fostered … are really outstanding.

This is one of the things that most stood out to me during the accreditation renewal process. We’re not just a school. We have been called a “chosen family” of eclectic individuals. United in that we’re different. United in compassion. Connected.

And you don’t even have to technically be part of the school. “It starts even before they get here.” Tina, team lead of AdvancedEd noted. They get to talk to friendly voices on the phone, and they get their questions answered, and they get their fears addressed…”

She’s correct. I’ve lost count of how many people I have spoken with on the phone, or even sat down to tea with, just to connect. Now multiply that by how many team members take those calls, and that’s how many lives we have the privilege of touching. It doesn’t even matter if the school itself is the solution, and sometimes other options are recommended. We’re all connected. That connection is honored.

“That’s a critical component on why students are successful in this school.” Tina concluded. “They really are supported individually by multiple people. And that just makes all the difference.”

Yes. Yes it does.

No Such Thing as Incorrect Emotion

EmotionsThere’s no such thing as an incorrect emotion.

Sure, it might be based on incorrect information, or you might make a bad decision based on emotions, but the emotion itself is not in question. If you feel it, it is real.

I recently said this to a CMASAS student I had the pleasure to visit. I more recently said this to a friend who reached out to me in anguish over a personal situation as she questioned the legitimacy of her feelings. The reason it is really on my mind, however, is some work that I have been doing since November.

Because I prefer to be proactive and focus on designing my life for the positive, I don’t like to dwell on the past. However, the past has a way of popping up at the most inconvenient times. Sparing you the details, I am lucky to have survived my childhood, and there were some things I needed to revisit.

When I started the process, I was doing it from my present, 40-something self, with my current knowledge and perspectives. The problem with this is that what I actually experienced was through the eyes of a child. The understanding (or lack of), the feelings, and the things actually perceived, are what impacted that child. My present self talking over my past self wasn’t doing me a darn bit of good. So I finally wrote out memories, one by one, in the raw. No judgment. No editing. Somewhat messy. With each one, a greater sense of peace replaced the previously-felt emotions. I am still amazed by the process.

In this way, I held space for myself in much the same way I advocate doing for students when they have feelings or thoughts to share. What they are experiencing is what they are experiencing. What they feel is what they feel. Let that be heard. Analysis and working with those ideas can come afterward when the time is right. From the minor things in life to greater adversity, honoring oneself and mindfully working through emotions is a life skill often forgotten in the list of subjects we teach.

And by doing this for ourselves, I now realize, we can do a better job in helping others. It still takes practice though. So my New Year’s resolution is to learn more about how to empower one’s voice – my own and others – especially for those recovering from trauma. If you have any ideas or resources to send my way, I will receive them in gratitude.

What about you? Do you do resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise? If so, what is your focus for this next journey around the Sun?

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