How people learn

One of the popular concepts over the past decade or so has been that of “learning styles.” It’s an idea that’s been around for many years in the field of education but it has been in danger of becoming “faddish” of late. Depending on how you count and who you read, there may be upwards of twenty-five identified “learning styles.” This may seem a bit excessive given the fact that people have only five senses that they depend on through which to “learn” throughout their lives. How many “new” ways of learning can we identify that are distinct enough to warrant adding to the list?

Some would argue, correctly, that people have more than five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell). And I think there is more merit in the concept (and research) into Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” than some of what is out there about “learning styles.” One of the merits of the concept of multiple intelligences is the notion that they are an asset, not a liability, as so often becomes the emphasis in the literature on learning styles. And while (if current literature is to be believed) the ways of learning seem unlimited, a more helpful framework is to appreciate that, to a certain extent, people learn differently during their developmental life stages (regardless of “learning style”). More specifically, while all people learn basically the same way all their lives, developmental life stages mediate the learning process.

Here are some general comments about learning and developmental stages:

  • Children depend heavily on empirical ways of learning. Therefore, their environment plays a large part in the learning process. Conditioning, play, experiences, and indoctrination are primary teaching modes in this stage of life. Because of the dramatic cognitive developmental changes during early and middle childhood teaching children can be a challenge. Children do not pass these cognitive milestone in a lockstep manner the rigidly correlates with chronological age.
  • Adolescents live in the flux of transition in all dimensions of living: physical, mental, and emotional. For them, relational domains of learning are most critical. The ways of learning that have the most impact on teenagers are social (relational) ones related to identity and self-understanding.
  • While adults enjoy a more sophisticated repertoire for learning than children and youth, they tend to be more selective in what they choose to learn, and tend to depend heavily on the learning modes of their predilection. Adults respond well and most effectively to learning modalities focusing on information processing and dialogical teaching approaches. While there is some overlap, there are distinctive elements to both the pedagogy of children and the androgogy of adults. For one thing, adults are motivated by immediacy of application in what they learn, while younger children will tend to lack discernment about the value of what they are learning—they will learn anything that they are told they need to learn.

Understanding the developmental dynamics related to learning can help us plan more effective programs and curriculum In terms of both content and process, ways of learning (approaches) are more appropriate at certain developmental stages than others. Effective programs reflect congruence in what is being learned, how it is being learned, and when it is being learned.

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About igalindo

Israel Galindo is Professor and Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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