By Lillie Therieau
Sometimes it can feel like education is built for only one kind of learner.
Lectures and note-taking might work well for many students, but some of us get left behind! The truth is that most people learn in a unique hybrid way: combining visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing.
Though you might hear folks self-identify as purely visual learners or entirely auditory ones, we all learn better when education engages multiple senses. Memory and comprehension are deeply tied to our perception and senses. When the scope of education expands, our understanding deepens!
Triggering multiple senses helps us send a stronger signal to our brains. It also helps us to integrate new information into existing schemas of what we already know. When it comes to math, learning with multiple senses helps to ground abstract concepts in life experiences that are already familiar.
It’s time to free ourselves from the limiting labels of learning styles and recognize that the ways that we learn defy easy categorization.
When children self-describe as visual or auditory learners, it’s usually because their parents introduced these concepts to them. As soon as they grasp them, however, students start to use these labels as an excuse. They tell themselves that they can’t learn math because they’re visual learners, or that they aren’t doing well in English because they aren’t reading/writing learners.
It’s a way to get out of subjects that students might not feel come as naturally to them--It’s an easy story to tell ourselves and others! The problem is, many of us start to really believe it.
In fact, many parents share this kind of labeling system with their children because they feel like it has constrained their own learning. As adults, we’ve internalized this message and allowed it to limit how we allow ourselves to learn.
When it comes down to it, we continue to pass the same limiting message to our children, believing it to be true. It’s important to stop the cycle and allow students to search out their learning style and unique cognitive functioning on their own terms.
When it comes to math, the learning styles system can be extra harmful. It’s often a way to disguise math anxiety. Many of us use “our learning style” to justify our aversion to math or anxiety surrounding it.
Over 50% of Americans report anxiety when it comes to mathematics. Think about it; it’s a truly staggering amount of people. In effect, labeling ourselves as a certain type of learning is just another way to pass the math anxiety to our children!
In fact, all of us are capable of learning math and thriving in math class. This is because math is, essentially, a language. We all have the capabilities to understand it, even if we aren’t provided with the opportunities and resources to access that potential. Math anxiety and the learning style system allow us to further limit and close ourselves off to learning math.
It’s up to us to change the narrative and replace these terms in our own vocabulary with empowering ones. We can build our children up from an early age and allow them the possibility of a much better relationship with math than we had.
Encourage your child to experiment with learning! Whether it’s through podcasts, games, reading books, or building models, every student will benefit from mixing it up.
Even the instinctive math whizzes out there would benefit from a more multisensory teaching experience. Our brains are amazing, integrated machines. We rely on each of our senses to inform us about the world and to teach us. Evolutionarily, our brains function this way to protect us. By taking input from each of our senses and weaving them together to create a cohesive understanding, we’re less likely to make deadly mistakes.
Two plants with similar berries may look exactly the same. However, one of them is poisonous. We might have been able to use touch and smell to decide which is which. The senses are designed to work in tandem to improve on each other.
As young learners, we all require a mixture of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli to understand concepts. It’s how we build our fundamental framework of knowledge. We learn to count through grasping objects, seeing groups of them, and hearing our parents refer to them numerically.
As math gets more complex, we still crave connections to the physical world around us. How does this abstract idea play out in real life? How can we visualize a math concept? How can we verbally explain why we solved a problem the way we did?
When math is taught in a way that incorporates all of the senses, students learn better. They can gain a deeper conceptual understanding of what is being taught and are more likely to remember it.
This requires a much more flexible curriculum and innovative teaching style. Bring diverse tools into the classroom or study session! Don’t be afraid to try something new and non-traditional.
Elephant Learning is built to be multisensory. The problems are visual, playing out through animations on a user’s screen. They’re auditory as sound plays explaining the problem or further illustrating it. The exercises are kinesthetic, asking the users to drag, drop, and move elements on the screen to solve them. Finally, they connect each of the other senses to reading math words and terms, through the formally written out problem.
This set-up was no accident! We know that students of all ages learn better when multiple senses are triggered and when the material is covered in many different ways. The interplay between these different senses and experiences is a very effective way to convey new information.
This strategy allows us to reach students that may not feel seen or understood in a traditional math classroom, and to show them that they can succeed in math like anyone else. None of us are any one type of learner and the sooner we figure that out, the better we’ll learn and understand ourselves.
Discover the work of Sophie Germain, one of the earliest woman mathematicians, who defied gender stereotypes to conduct her life’s work in number theory.
Discover how to teach math to a child with any learning style and why we learn best when we use all of our senses.
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