Learning Styles v. It’s a Syndrome

Regardless of what you’ve heard or read before about children, about how they learn, or about the things that influence learning, I ask you to put aside all those preconceived ideas and consider what you are about to read with an open mind. Based on these descriptions and what you already know about your own children, draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. Note that this information applies equally to boys and girls; behaviors and fictional names are used for examples only. Let us begin.

Why “Learning Styles”?

I began studying learning styles when the teaching methods I was using did not work well at all with how my children actually learned. However, the learning style descriptions that I found in my studying also did not match the reality I was living. I read many scholarly-sounding explanations that looked very impressive on paper (or on-screen), but they failed to hold up in practice. I had two case studies sitting at my own kitchen table that disproved most of the things I was reading about how kids were supposed to learn and how they should be taught. Child “A” did seem to fit with several items on this checklist, but not that one or that one, and these three items she would never do in a million-billion years. Child “B” fit most of the descriptions from that list, but its suggested teaching methods didn’t interest him in the least. As I paid attention to what my kids did throughout their days (not just during school time), I began to spot some very consistent trends. Some of those trends were repeated in other kids (and adults) we knew, and I realized that learning styles are revealed more in the things we do away from the lessons, than they are in any particular learning situation, and the teaching methods that will be most effective will be tailored to match those preferred, leisure-time activities. I eventually wrote my own books on learning styles, and my methods have been proven successful over and over again in my own children, in the children of my friends, and in the children whose parents have attended my workshops or read my books and blog articles. (See the links at the end of this article)

Those scholarly works on learning styles either contained too few or too many categories. Many of them combined tactile (touching) with kinesthetic (moving), as though they were one and the same style of learning. However, my kitchen table was home to one very tactile child, who was not so very kinesthetic, and one very kinesthetic child, who was not so very tactile. Hmmm… a dilemma. Other learning style proponents created far too many divisions, leaving me even more confused, as my children seemed to fit some of the criteria from each and every category, without dominating any single one. I further read the descriptions of how these numerous categories were supposed to be utilized, and I again thought “Okay, this child does do this, but he/she would be totally bored by that method… and what about the other subjects that don’t work that way at all?” What to do… what to do?

I started making notes of how people acted and what people did that could be indicators of how they would learn best. I watched kids at our homeschool group activities and kids at play; I watched parents at the grocery store and people of all ages wherever I saw them. I saw four basic categories being represented: tactile and kinesthetic were there, but as two separate and distinct styles, plus visual (seeing), and auditory (hearing/saying). The more I watched and studied and observed and analyzed, the more these groups were confirmed. Sure, people applied those groupings in various ways, but touching was still touching, and moving was still moving, no matter how each individual performed it.

The next revelation for me was that different academic tasks require different learning methods. That told me that each person must be able to adapt to learning with other methods than the one that is most comfortable for him. Spelling requires visual skills more than anything else, but music must be heard, and handwriting requires muscle training. What happens to the child who is taught within one and only one style of learning (as advocated by many learning style authors)? I can tell you what will happen to him: he’ll slip through the proverbial cracks and fall behind in learning!

As I saw my four categories represent basic learning styles, I also saw the need to re-combine them for cross-over learning throughout all academic disciplines. Focusing on a single learning style was the error that I saw in most learning style philosophies, and that singular-focus seemed to be a guarantee for failure. No one learning style could work in all situations. The student who faithfully read every printed assignment from elementary through high school would become hopelessly lost in the college lecture hall. Those finely-honed visual skills would fail when non-existent auditory skills became vitally important. How could I bridge that gap?

Teaching to students’ learning styles is regarded as impossible in a single-teacher classroom of 20-plus kids. An efficient classroom model depends upon visual examples, auditory lectures, and abundant reading and writing assignments for every academic subject. Tactile and kinesthetic methods can be time-consuming, space-consuming, and are generally considered impractical in a large group. With standard classroom methods, any students who are dependent on tactile and kinesthetic methods are inevitably left out, or they must instinctively train themselves to adapt to visual and/or auditory methods. If self-adapting isn’t possible, or doesn’t occur rapidly enough, those same students begin to fall behind, and as the class moves on without them, falling behind turns into failing.

How Behavior Relates to Learning

Eye color has been used to show the folly of prejudices by segregating students by eye color and relegating approval or disapproval on that basis alone. But what if learning styles could be demonstrated just as simply? What if we began training tomorrow’s teachers by saying that only their brown-eyed students could understand certain lessons? And what if we further said that those with the darkest brown/nearly black irises would understand most easily, and those with lighter brown/nearly amber irises would catch on a little more slowly? Then suppose that the parents of any students whose eyes were shades of blue or gray or green or violet were later informed by these teachers that their students’ non-brown eyes were distracting to all of the brown-eyed students and therefore disrupted learning for the rest of the class. The suitable solution, the teacher would relate, would be for the parents to obtain a prescription for colored contact lenses from their eye doctor and for their children to wear those lenses every day, school day or not. What effects might this have on all the students? What effects would carry over to the other teachers or to the parents?

Now instead of eye color as our determining factor for who learns how and when, let’s use deportment, a good old-fashioned word that encompasses demeanor, conduct, and behavior. For Group #1, let’s take the students in a hypothetical classroom who are fidgeting with their pencils or drumming their fingers on the desk or chewing on their fingernails or twirling a lock of hair or doodling in the margins of their notebooks or doing anything at all with their hands or fingers. You’re not in trouble – you’re in good company. After all, Leonardo da Vinci was a great doodler! All Group #1 students may move to this corner over here.

Group #2 will consist of those remaining students who are wiggling in their seats, tapping their feet, crossing their legs, or doing anything at all with their feet or legs. Group #2 students, you may come and stand in this other corner, knowing that you belong with every Olympian throughout history.

For those who are left in the original group, any who are laughing, smiling, joking, or making comments (either saying them aloud or just thinking up good one-liners in their heads) may move to that far corner. This is neither a judgment nor a punishment for being off-topic or truly funny. We are merely grouping the more vocal students together as Group #3, along with every great philosopher and stand-up comedian who has ever lived.

Those who are left become Group #4 – the more reserved and quiet students, those who read without prompting, those whom teachers love to characterize as “cooperative” and “obedient.” Here, though, their only act of cooperation or obedience was to wait until we finally described all the other groups that they didn’t fit into. Group #4 may move to the last corner to continue analyzing this activity, because it’s about to take another sharp turn.

Students, you may now pick up a large, numbered card that matches your group number. If you feel that you belong in a different group, you may also take a smaller, numbered card for whatever group (or groups) that you feel describe your personal characteristics (which are listed on the back of the cards, in case you need to review). It doesn’t matter how many cards any student ends up holding – 1, 2, 3, or 4 isn’t important. As long as each of you has one large card, that is what counts. If you really feel strongly that your large card is the wrong one, you may exchange it, or you can just pick up a small card for the other number and hold onto both cards. I’ll explain the significance of the card sizes later.

Once everyone is reasonably settled on their cards, let’s regroup according to how many cards each student has. Those holding only one card may form a new group along that wall; those with two cards on this wall, three here, and four over there. Hold your cards with the numbers facing out, so that we can all see them, and take a look around at all the different combinations. These two students are holding the exact same combination of cards, both in size and number, but does anyone think these students are exactly alike? No, and that’s because even though their cards match, they will still act and behave and think in different ways, based on their individual interests.

This exercise is showing us how behaviors relate to learning styles. By behaviors, I mean the little things we all just naturally do without thinking, rather than consciously making an effort to be polite and follow the rules. Now I’ll tell you what behaviors are represented by the different numbers. Look at the numbers you’re holding while you think about these descriptions.

Card #1 is held by Tactile Learners, those who learn best from having their hands and fingers busy. If their hands and fingers can be involved in learning a lesson, they will learn that lesson much more quickly and more thoroughly than if their hands are empty and their fingers are held still. These hands and fingers are direct transmission lines to this learner’s brain and need to be involved in some way for learning to occur.

Card #2 is held by those who are Kinesthetic Learners, who love to be on their feet and in the game. Large muscle movement fuels their brains, so what will happen when we make these students sit still and quiet? That’s right – absolutely nothing. Well, nothing productive, that is.

Card #3 represents the fast-thinkers, the Auditory Learners, those who have such a deep need to share their thoughts that they blurt them out for all to hear. They ask questions because they can’t wait around to see if the answer will come later, and they answer both questions and un-asked questions because their brains are begging their ears for more information.

Card #4 marks our Visual Learners, the ones who observe and study and analyze and memorize, rather than jump in, grab hold, or speak up. These students will attempt new things, but only after they have assured themselves that they know absolutely every step required, the order in which those steps must occur, what things could possibly go wrong, and how to avoid making those mistakes in the first place. When they try, they will succeed. The first time. They have read, researched, studied, and acquainted themselves with all the information they could find – that is what kept them quietly busy while everyone else was volunteering to be the guinea pig, doing the experiments, or asking 1,427 questions.

The large number cards indicate a predominant learning style, the way the student will prefer to learn and experience new things. He knows he’s good at learning in that way, and his attention will always be captured by those methods. The smaller number cards represent learning styles the student uses less frequently, but often enough to know that he is somewhat comfortable with them. As I said before, no one learning style works in all situations. Focusing on a single learning style is the downfall of most methods that advocate learning styles, but by gradually expanding and increasing a student’s experiences in his weaker styles, he will become more comfortable with all styles of learning and learn how to learn in every situation.

The existence of a predominant learning style does not indicate a dysfunction or disability in the other styles. Oh, no, not by a long shot! The fact that I do not speak Mandarin in no way indicates that I am incapable of ever speaking Mandarin. It simply and profoundly means that I have never yet been taught to speak Mandarin, whether by learning it on my own or by being taught it by someone else. I could do it; I’m capable of doing it; it just hasn’t happened yet. This also applies to learning styles. Auditory learners prefer oral question-and-answer to written quizzes or being given oral instructions to reading the directions themselves, but they are fully capable of strengthening their reading comprehension and composition skills. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Tactile learners touch. They feel surfaces; they pick up objects; they rub textures. Their hands are rarely empty; their pockets are always full; their fingers are always busy. They think in 3-dimensions as though they can see all sides of a structure at the same time; they understand what they can’t see, based on what they can see; they are adept at building anything. They are mistakenly called grabby, distracted, or day-dreamers, because no one else can see the complex, invisible creations they are generating in their inventive imaginations. When their hands and fingers are involved, they learn and remember.

Kinesthetic learners move. They run; they kick; they throw; they cartwheel; they skate; they swim; they climb. They are rarely still; they are rarely bored; they rarely admit to being sleepy until the moment when they finally drop. They love the spotlight; they crave action; they thrive on motion. They are mistakenly called wiggly, restless, or hyperactive, because no one else can tell that movement means survival to them, since their thinking power gradually shuts down with inactivity. When their arms and legs and feet are involved, they learn and remember.

Auditory learners speak. When they are not speaking, they are listening intently, whether to spoken words or to the theories swarming around in their own minds. They dwell on every thought; they share every idea. They have never met a stranger; they are not afraid to speak up; they know their opinions are valid. They hum and sing and tap out the continuous rhythms in their heads. An outside source of sound or music can help to block out all the other sounds around them and allow them to concentrate on the words inside their heads. They are mistakenly called noisy, motor-mouths, tattlers, or disruptive, because no one else can hear the enchanting, internal music they hear or the clever thoughts and ingenious ideas that are bubbling up, ready to burst forth. When their ears and voices are involved, they learn and remember.

Visual learners read. They study details; they notice patterns; they spot things that are out of place. They thrive on order and consistency; they walk the line of perfectionism, often on the obsessive side. They keep their crayons in spectrum sequence; they erase too much, then begin again with a new sheet of paper; they sort and categorize and alphabetize. They may be good at drawing, but will vehemently deny it, finding some insignificant fault in every sketch. They are mistakenly called shy, nit-picky, reluctant, or hesitant, because no one else can see the infinitesimal details being analyzed in their mind’s eyes. When their eyes are involved, they learn and remember.

School Children, Their Behavior, & Their Underlying Learning Styles

Now let’s look at how some behaviors have been mislabeled as “syndromes,” leading the parents and children to believe that physiological or psychological maladies exist, requiring medication to restore “normalcy.” This will not necessarily be the case in every circumstance, but in far too many situations, errant assumptions can create bigger problems than they purport to solve.

Marty’s permanent record says “trouble-maker” and “class clown” (but not in a fun way). He’s great at sports, because he is very skilled at handling whatever ball comes his way. He can even spin a basketball on his fingertip, but the faculty doesn’t appreciate that in the cafeteria. Marty has been called “slow” because sometimes he lags behind the rest of the group, touching and feeling things that no one else dared to touch and feel. On one field trip to a museum, Marty got caught balancing a banana on end on top of a globe. (Now really, it takes talent to stand a banana on a globe!) Marty got in trouble in that museum for other things, too. He touched the suit of armor (and the chain mail); he ran his hand along the textured plaster walls; he stopped to feel the tapestries (every one of them, as if they were all different); he lingered by the stained glass windows and traced the leaded panels with his fingers. By the end of the museum tour, he’d been scolded so many times to “keep your hands to yourself,” that he reached up in frustration and flicked a small sign sticking out over a doorway, making it flip around and around on its little pole. Marty’s tactile senses meant nothing to the group’s chaperones, even though he learned so much that even the tour guide doesn’t know (she’s never felt the tapestries); they just saw him as a disobedient, nerve-wracking nuisance.

Debbie’s teacher calls her a day-dreamer and says she has difficulty paying attention. Debbie’s records list ADD, claiming that she can’t stay on-topic with the rest of the class. If only we could see the ideas generating inside Debbie’s imagination, we would realize that the poster of a castle on the classroom wall is being transformed in Debbie’s tactile-learner mind into an intricate 3-D model, complete with moving drawbridge, pennants flying from the parapets, crocodiles swimming in the moat, and a lovely princess who has been unjustly imprisoned in the tower. Debbie is pondering how to glue sugar cubes together to build her own miniature castle… or does she have enough Lego blocks to do the job?

Next we have Matt, who can sometimes get stuck on math problems, but he knows that walking around helps him think things through. It has been determined that he has some physiological or psychological syndrome that compels him to move and pace, while his classmates are capable of sitting still and writing quietly. Remember what I said earlier about how kinesthetic learners’ thinking ability gradually shuts down with inactivity? Matt has instinctively adapted to his classroom situation by getting up from his desk and pacing to restore his energy and his thinking power. The “syndrome” notation in his records has merely made it permissible and acceptable for him to leave his desk and move around.

Now there’s Henry, an athletic, high-energy boy whose arms and legs never get tired. Every muscle movement of Henry’s seems to expand into something much bigger than is necessary for the circumstances, getting him into trouble with his teacher, who incorrectly believes that the only good child is a quietly seated child, one who only speaks when spoken to and only moves after receiving permission. Henry is another kinesthetic learner, one who charges through life at top-speed, one who sees no need to wait around for others to catch up, one whose goal is to be the first to cross every finish line. When Henry most needs a long play-break to expel some of his energy and wake up his mind, he is punished for his actions with remaining seated at his desk during the next recess.

Consider Andrew, who hums frequently. His mom apologized for his “disruptive behavior,” saying he’d been diagnosed with “Tourette’s” and just can’t help himself. She was sure we’d all noticed (and been bothered by) his incessant humming at a group event, but not a single person had noticed anything out of the ordinary. In my estimation, Andrew is an auditory learner. He’s humming the songs that naturally play in his head. He is probably a budding musician, who will need only minimal encouragement to attain proficiency.

Everyone calls Gloria a chatterbox. She talks all the time, about anything and everything. If she’s not quoting entire scenes from her favorite TV shows and movies, then she’s singing the latest hit song. Her classmates think she’s a flirt and a gossip, only because she has already talked to the new student and learned all about where he came from, what kind of job his dad has, how many siblings he has, and has told him something about each of the other students in the class and about the kids who used to live in the house that his family just moved into. The art teacher scolded Gloria for being “distracting,” but the silence was making Gloria forget what she was supposed to be doing. Talking aloud to herself actually helped Gloria’s mind focus on working the clay. Her records say “disturbs other students” and “is constantly disruptive,” when they should say “auditory learner.”

Rhonda is a proficient reader, reading and comprehending at a grade level far beyond her classmates. However, the fact that Rhonda is so easily bored with the level of lessons in her classroom has led her teacher to become frustrated and insist that Rhonda has a problem paying attention. Rhonda’s temper sometimes flares up over the puerility of her classmates’ responses to the lessons, resulting in outbursts or acting out (and an “ADHD?” notation in her records). If Rhonda were only taking medication to help her focus, her teacher reasons, teaching the entire class would be much, much easier. In reality, Rhonda is a very bored visual learner, who comprehends everything the first time it is presented and gets tired of waiting for the rest of the class to catch on. She was bored last week and read ahead in her textbook, which is why she is even more bored this week and why she’s now browsing the dictionary for words she doesn’t already know. There was a ratio problem in her math lesson yesterday, comparing the number of feathers to the number of fish hooks in a fisherman’s tackle box; Rhonda was curious as to why a fisherman would need feathers; her research last night left her with 38 beguiling facts about fly-fishing that Rhonda desperately wants to share with the class, but the teacher said “That’s science, and this is math class. Sit down and be quiet.” Rhonda’s greatest allies will be her family, who can praise her expanded learning efforts and encourage her to spend her free time researching every little thing her mind hungers to know. They can take her to visit Bass Pro Shops or another big sports emporium some weekend, where she could meet a real fly-fisherman and get her questions answered first-hand. Mom, Dad, and siblings can all appreciate Rhonda’s interests and “off-topic” discussions, because her interests can prompt delightful outings to museums, libraries, zoos, or other special trips that the entire family enjoys.

Sherry is also a prolific reader, but unlike Rhonda, Sherry is extremely quiet and withdrawn. When her teacher has the students gather to watch a science experiment, Sherry stays toward the back. She would much rather watch from a distance, than be dragged into participating in anything new. Sherry doesn’t like to be called on, never volunteers to help, and is never first in line for anything. Or second, or third. The teacher told Sherry’s mom about this “shyness” problem, and says she has tried coaxing, bribing, cajoling, and forcing, but Sherry just can’t overcome her shyness. Once, when the teacher finally convinced Sherry to try doing an experiment after all the other students had done it, Sherry did it perfectly. “SEE?? You could do it all along!!” Teacher thinks Sherry’s reluctance to join in is a serious psychological issue and has recommended counseling for Sherry, a visual learner who prefers quietly watching until she knows what to do and how to do it.

These children are but a few examples of what is too commonly occurring in today’s classrooms. If these same children could be allowed to follow their own instincts for learning, instead of conforming to the methods that are traditionally believed to cover the most students, they could be building complex models or standing up to do “seatwork” or talking through their thoughts aloud or whatever else might be needed for them to accomplish the lesson tasks more quickly, more easily, more interestingly.

Those who deny the validity of learning styles do so in some very interesting ways.

  1. They divide learning styles into too few or too many categories, thereby making it all too confusing, and also by mixing up the behaviors into unnatural groupings. Their classifications don’t make sense in practice, therefore they conclude that learning styles don’t exist.
  2. They deny concrete evidence and proof by claiming that “one more try” would have worked for the student anyway; changing the method to fit the student had nothing to do with it.
  3. They see preferred methods of learning as being completely separate and distinct from personality, interests, and behavioral tendencies, which ultimately invalidates the entire premise of learning styles.

Teaching Methods for Learning Styles

If your child reminds you of Marty or Debbie, try some of the following tactile solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their fingers and imaginations and delights their hands with finger-friendly textured surfaces. Because tactile learners depend on finger stimulation to learn, keeping their hands and fingers involved is vital. Let him use Scrabble letter tiles for practicing phonics patterns, forming spelling words, or breaking words into syllables. Calligraphy pens and alphabet rubber stamps are unique tactile methods for learning spelling words, since the student will spend more time focusing on phonics patterns, prefixes, suffixes, and root words while diligently printing out each letter, than he would if he was merely expected to copy the words over and over with a pencil. Let him regroup toothpicks as math manipulatives to physically prove to his eyes and his brain how multi-column addition and subtraction really work. Magnetic learning manipulatives have an adhesive feel that appeals to tactile learners, as do Velcro, vinyl clings, stickers, and sandpaper. Textured papers (scrapbooking supplies) are another great motivator for tactile students and can be used in place of or to enhance plain, boring notecards, flashcards, or writing supplies. Tactile students learn best when they are allowed to experiment freely and use manipulatives themselves, not just passively observe demonstrations that are done for them. If the child has a favorite “security object,” that item can be held or kept close during lessons as tactile stimulation during periods of thought and concentration. (It’s not that the object helps the child feel secure or avert fear, as much as the child enjoys handling the object for its tactile sensations that invigorate his mind.) Construction toys of all types are beneficial for tactile learners and will feed both their need for fine motor activities and their desire for 3-dimensional learning. Tactile learners may find certain textures displeasing, just as certain sights are deemed ugly by our eyes.

If your child reminds you of Matt or Henry, try some of the following kinesthetic solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their high energy and love for action and delights their muscles with ample physical challenges. Because kinesthetic learners depend on muscle stimulation to learn, keeping their arms and legs involved is vital. Let him take a play break before starting lessons, to warm up his large muscles (which activates his brain) and tire out his body enough to enjoy sitting for a little while. Let him do worksheets or other reading or writing assignments while standing at a kitchen counter, kneeling on a chair, or kneeling or lying on his tummy on the floor. These positions allow plenty of muscle movements for balancing and reaching, which keeps the muscles active, which keeps the brain active. Incorporate sports activities into lessons: oral Q&A or quizzing math facts while playing catch, jumping rope, or running laps around the house (ask a question, run a lap while thinking, answer the question, repeat). Let him take a brain-break between or during lessons, any time he feels his attention lagging or his thoughts getting fuzzy or his legs getting restless. That break can be anything from a few laps around the yard to ten push-ups right here, right now, to grabbing his basket of clean laundry and running it upstairs to his room before dashing back – it’s just enough exercise to restore ample blood flow to the gray matter. Kinesthetic learners often enjoy role-playing and drama, since it means being in the spotlight, at the front and center of the action. If he can’t think, take him out of the chair or outdoors, and find some way to use balls of every size and anything with wheels as props or prompts for reciting facts or to help illustrate lessons. Use sports equipment as large-scale math manipulatives in the backyard, or set up a multi-station quiz course: run to the tree, circle it twice, answer a question; run to the baseball bat, balance it on your hand, answer a question; run to the basketball, make a basket, answer a question. You get the idea, and your if-I-could-only-bottle-this-energy kid will love it.

If your child reminds you of Andrew or Gloria, try some of the following auditory solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their questions and discussions and delights their ears with enchanting sounds. Because auditory learners depend on sound stimulation to learn, keeping their ears and voices involved is vital. Let him use background music (headphones at low volume) as “white noise” to block out the distracting noises of foot-shuffling, paper-crinkling, throat-clearing siblings. Give him opportunities to read aloud to himself without bothering others. Encourage him to read instructions aloud, then discuss them to be sure he knows what to do. Auditory learners have very distinct opinions, but sometimes have difficulty turning those into written sentences. Help him “talk it through” first, then either jot a few notes to aid his memory or help him remember it all long enough to get it down on paper. Expect hundreds of interruptions, questions, comments, statements, explanations, discussions, jokes, funny stories, and mouth noises from an auditory learner – every hour of the day. Expect him to hum and sing and talk to himself aloud, and if that will be distracting to others, make some provision for allowing the auditory learner to be noisy while allowing the quieter learners to think in peace. I found it very helpful to let my budding comedian get the jokes out of his system first, then proceed with the lesson. I allowed my son to make notes of any off-topic story he wanted to tell me during lessons – the notes helped him remember it later, but jotting it down got it off his mind and let him move on with his lesson. Trying to keep an auditory learner quiet when he has thoughts to share (on-topic or not) is like trying to put a lid on an active volcano. Auditory learners may find certain sounds displeasing, just as certain sights are deemed ugly by our eyes.

If your child reminds you of Rhonda or Sherry, try some of the following visual solutions to encourage learning in an environment that welcomes their intense examination and delights their eyes with intricate details. Because visual learners depend on visual stimulation to learn, keeping their eyes involved is vital. Let him have ample time to study and observe and watch a demonstration before expecting him to try it. Visual learners benefit from seeing manipulatives and demonstrations, but they are not likely to join in. Ask what parts he’d like to see done over again. And again. He’s not shy: he’s analyzing and memorizing. Go beyond the basic reading assignments with posters, diagrams, charts, and maps, giving him plenty of time to study the intricate details of each. Show him how to use color-coordinated notecards, file folders, and highlighters to organize subjects, thoughts, and ideas. Making notes, highlighting them in specific colors, and re-copying and re-highlighting those notes helps the visual learner remember – and the colors are as important to the memory as the words are. Help your visual learner avoid falling into the perfectionism trap by comparing everyday play clothes and special-occasion nice clothes to everyday handwriting and special occasion handwriting: Mom’s grocery list is written much differently from Grandma’s birthday card, so please don’t encourage him to believe that every single word on every single worksheet should be written in perfect script. It can be helpful for the visual learner to look for imperfections in other areas of life, to help him understand that life is neither perfect nor ideal: typos and grammatical errors can be found in professionally published books, and artists simplify their paintings’ subject matter (paintings are not photographs, after all).

Combining Learning Style Methods for a Well-Rounded Experience

I mentioned earlier that focusing on a single learning style is undesirable, because it leaves the student at a disadvantage in many learning situations. Remember all the students in our classroom experiment who ended up holding multiple cards, representing multiple learning style groups? Those students have already recognized that they have some learning abilities in styles other than their predominant learning style. Whether we recognize it or not (like the children who were holding only one card), most of us do have skills to varying degrees in each learning style, but if the weaker skills can be strengthened, we could be adept at learning in any situation. That’s a very worthy goal, right?

As teaching parents, we can use the predominant learning style to grab and hold a student’s attention, then add subtle experiences with the other styles to expand and broaden learning abilities. This can be done as simply as letting the student read the instructions for a lesson by himself aloud, combining the visual experience of reading with the auditory experience of hearing the words from his own voice. A brief discussion of the lesson takes the auditory experience even further. Then some hands-on and moving-around activities can supplement the lesson to add experiences in tactile and kinesthetic learning. Students benefit from being allowed some time for free-play and unplanned experimentation with tactile learning aids, so don’t rush to put everything away as soon as the lesson is over.

Let’s suppose that our lesson is in geography, and we’re studying the state of Iowa. We’ve read the instructions to locate Iowa on a map of the United States. We’ve discussed what that means, and our student understands what he is expected to do. However, Frankie doesn’t live anywhere near Iowa and isn’t familiar with all of the states yet, so there is a bit of a challenge for him. And he’s starting to wiggle in his seat. Let’s have Frankie run upstairs to the game closet and bring back the USA jigsaw puzzle, then he can help move these chairs to make some room on the floor. (Now he’s re-energized and thinking clearly.) Frankie, you can start the puzzle by sorting through the pieces for states with names that might look or sound similar to Iowa. That’s right, Iowa, Idaho, and Ohio. (Trust me, I’m from Iowa, and there are people running around loose who think those three are all the same state. I could not make that up!) Frankie, you can set those pieces aside while you work on putting the rest of the puzzle together. (Working on the floor gives Frankie lots of reaching, stretching, and kneeling to keep his large muscles active, and fitting the puzzle pieces together gives his fingers some fine-motor involvement and connects the shapes of various states from his fingers to his eyes and his brain.) Now can you see where those three pieces you set aside will fit in? And where is Iowa? Correct! Now point to the state where you live. Correct again! Let’s count how many states are between where you live and where Iowa is. Very good! Can you go find the big atlas on the bookcase and bring it here? (More physical exercise for the energetic Frankie.) Let’s look in the atlas for a USA map, and you can try to find Iowa on that map, too. (This gives Frankie a visual workout, as he compares the map in the book to the puzzle on the floor.) Excellent! Great job today! Now I’m going to take a few minutes between subjects to start a load of laundry, while you take the puzzle apart and put it back into its box. If you’d like to play with it a little more first, that’s okay, too.

Mom scurries off to the laundry room, but takes her time coming back. She quietly peeks in on Frankie to see that he has taken the puzzle apart and is putting it back together again. Mom pours herself another cup of coffee, knowing that Frankie is not just playing, Frankie is learning numerous lessons: how puzzle pieces fit together very intricately, what shapes the various states are, which states are located next to each other, how the Eastern states are generally smaller in size than the Western states, and so on. Now Frankie is grouping the states by shapes: which ones are odd-looking rectangles, which ones are sort of triangular, which ones are rough combinations of wobbly rectangles and triangles, and an “Other” category for states that make no geometric sense whatsoever. As Frankie sees Mom peek in once more, he regales her with the extensive details of all the things he has discovered while playing with this puzzle. (To him, it’s no longer tedious learning; it has become discovery.) Mom can ask a few leading questions to show her interest and keep Frankie sharing: “Tell me more, Frankie. This is great!” Some puzzles have little pictures on each state, signifying the various products produced by those states, which can lead to more comparisons or more sorting (every piece in this pile has an ear of corn on it; now change the pile to match one of the other pictures on the Iowa piece). Sort the states by name and line them up in alphabetical order; if the state capitals are listed, the states could be re-sorted into the alphabetical order of the capitals’ names. States can be lined up in order of size, or (with a little research) by the year they attained statehood, or (more research) alphabetically by state nicknames. Are you beginning to see the possibilities for strengthening learning styles that have come from one formerly boring lesson? Every learning style has been used, our student has learned immeasurable lessons in just a few minutes’ time, and his ability to learn in his weaker styles has already begun to improve. His fingers were satisfied with manipulating the puzzle pieces over and over again; his large muscles were kept active with all the movements across the floor and around the room; he was able to talk about his various projects and share what he learned; and his eyes ranged from the small details of tiny pictures and letters to seeing the overall puzzle as a whole. Frankie was captivated by being allowed to play during school today (try not to spoil it, Mom), and the mundane puzzle has morphed into an amazing learning tool.

 

Anyone can conduct a study and skew the outcome to support their desired agenda, but that doesn’t mean the results are accurate. Compare what you’ve read here today about learning styles to how your children act and learn, then judge for yourself. Experiment with some of these suggested techniques the next time your student gets stuck on a lesson, and see if changing the presentation helps to dislodge the educational roadblock. Crossing the learning style boundaries will hone the skills in every style and result in a student who can fit his methods of learning to the circumstances.

Obviously, the writers of this blog believe that homeschooling is the ideal environment for children who need understanding of their learning needs more than they need labels, but perhaps some of these tips can help you where you are right now. If this article has piqued your interest, our books offer even more on learning styles from the Guilt-Free Homeschooling perspective. They include simple, low cost/no cost, learning style teaching methods that often use items and materials you may already own. For much more insight into learning for all students, for all subjects, and for all ages, check out our books:

Diagnostic Tools to Help the Homeschooling Parent, and
Taking the Mystery Out of Learning Styles

Many more GFHS blog articles expand on the various learning styles and offer ideas in numerous subject areas. The tips, techniques, and ideas in our articles are not limited just to homeschooling – they work for helping your child understand his homework, too!

Applying Learning Styles with Skip-Counting
My “Rule of 3”
Texture Dominoes
Sugar Cube Math, Part 2
Dominoes Make Great Tactile “Flashcards”
ABC Flashcards
Beanbags (No-Sew DIY)
Hopscotch – A Powerful Learning Game
Jumpropes
100-Grids & Flashcard Bingo
“Mystery Boxes” and the Scientific Method
Color-Coding as a Learning Tool
Untangling the Math Pages (with colored pencils)
“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play
“Tactile Learning” topic
“Kinesthetic Learning” topic
“Auditory Learning” topic
“Visual Learning” topic
“Learning Styles” topic
“Activity Ideas” topic
“Workshop Wednesday” topic

Top 20 Snappy Comebacks for the Socialization Question

NOTE: Extreme sarcasm is present in these comments that have been gleaned from other homeschoolers, actually used ourselves, and/or are being held in reserve, awaiting the right moment. Our sincere thanks and admiration goes out to those intrepid souls whose remarks we have shamelessly borrowed.

So what do you do for socialization???

20. “Nothing. We just sit on the couch all day, staring at the wall.”

19. “I don’t believe in socialization.”

18. “With our large family, I usually say, ‘If you come down to breakfast in this house, you’re socializing!’”

17. “I’ve seen the village, and I don’t want it socializing my children!”

16. “Socialization? That is why I homeschool.”

15. “Socialization is the easy part. I just corner the kids in the bathroom every few days and steal their lunch money.”

14. “Oh, right, because (obviously) spending years with no one but her own family really hurt Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

13. “New studies show that, contrary to popular mythology… the average home-schooled child has no problem ‘socializing’ with other children… as long as he remembers to use smaller words and shorter sentences.” (From the Mallard Fillmore comic strip, 6/14/2005)

12. “The last thing I need is what you call socialization.”

11. “What you consider to be socialization is what Karl Marx endorsed as Communism.”

10. “We want our kids civilized, not socialized.”

9. “I’m not relying on the state to socialize my kids.”

8. “I prefer to have my kids learn to deal mostly with adults. The bullying you learn in middle school is only beneficial for bullying other middle schoolers.”

7. “What swear word do you think my kids don’t already know?”

6. “Are you worried about the quality of the education my children will get at home? Perhaps you should be more concerned about the type of education your children are getting in public school.”

5. “Well, I guess I can teach my kids how to swear, and my wife can make them wait in line for the bathroom.”

4. “You don’t go to school—how do you socialize?”

3. “You mean because we live in a cave, never go to a store, a restaurant, or a doctor’s office, never go to church, never visit friends or family, and basically avoid all contact with other human beings? How is it then that I’m talking to you?”

2. “Do you mean good socialization or bad socialization? Because it works both ways.”

1. “Do you mean, ‘Do I think my children are missing out on something by not being in public school?’ Yes, they are definitely missing out on some very important things. They are missing the explicit, X-rated vocabulary from the playground, bathrooms, school bus, and every other unsupervised moment; the sexual harassment in the lunchroom on hotdog day; and the physical, mental, and emotional abuse from the little extortionist in the next desk who used to beat my child for the correct answers whenever the teacher’s back was turned. My children do miss out on those things by not being in public school, and that is exactly why we are homeschooling!”

These responses can all be summed up by a conversation my son had with his driver’s education teacher, a high school track coach who had worked with both public-schooled and homeschooled students. The coach was concerned that homeschooled students were ahead in some areas and behind in others. Curious, my homeschooled son asked in which areas the homeschoolers were behind. “Socialization,” came the confident reply. Pressing still further, my son prompted the coach to explain exactly what the homeschoolers lacked. “My other students have been here for a long time, and they all know each other. When a homeschool student comes in for the first time, they don’t know anyone here.” My son’s emphatic response was, “When have you ever gone somewhere for the very first time and known anyone there? And how is that a lack of socialization?” He’s going to be a great homeschool Dad some day.

For more insight on the issue of Socialization, see these articles:
Socialization and Why You Don’t Need It (a.k.a. The Socialization Myth, Part 1)
The Socialization Myth, Part 2
The Myth of Age-Mates
The Socialization Code
Bullying

How to Encourage Learning

I am no one special. I am just an ordinary Mom who has learned a lot about teaching. More specifically, I have learned a lot about learning, about how to learn, and about how to help someone else learn.

I grew up in a very small community, went to the same small school from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and graduated in a class of fifteen. I was always scolded that I was not working up to my potential, no matter how hard I tried or how much I did. My teachers discouraged anything that wasn’t already part of their tried-and-true lesson plans, and as a not-always-by-the-book learner, I did not enjoy school (in fact, I hated school) until I went to college—the second time.

I know first-hand what it is like to feel trapped in public school. I know the ridicule, the bullying, and the torturing, and I know the sinking feeling of helplessness that comes from the inability to change anything, including teachers’ preconceived notions of who you are and what you can or can’t do. Now, decades later, I also know the freedom that homeschooling brings. Through homeschooling my own children, I was able to break free from many of the stigmas that accompanied me through the first portion of my education. I say “first portion” because I now recognize education as a life-long endeavor, and the most recent portion of my education has been acquired through homeschooling my kids. Having done as little as possible through most of high school, I welcomed the chance to try again, and I learned many things right along with my students.

I enjoyed learning creation science with my kids and studying its relationship to God’s Word, something I had never thought about in my school days filled with evolution-as-scientific-fact. I learned much more about history, while helping my kids learn, and was able to connect the random facts I did know into a more accurate timeline of civilization. Reading was no longer a tedious assignment that I despised and avoided, but it became an enjoyable leisure activity for me. I grew to love reading aloud to my children as much as they enjoyed listening to the daily installments.

Back in public school, I’d had mediocre teachers, poor teachers, and absolutely horrible teachers, all of them with overwhelmingly discouraging attitudes. I’d had a few good teachers here and there, but it was not until my second try at attending college that I found some truly excellent teachers, and I attempted to recreate their methods later on when I began homeschooling. They had not rejected questions; instead, they had convinced me that the only “silly” question is the one which a student is too intimidated to ask, and they further convinced me that any intimidation at all is the teacher’s creation, not the student’s personality. These teachers did not criticize incorrect answers or solutions, but kindly and gently showed students the proper methods for proceeding. At a point when I had never even heard of homeschooling, those teachers fostered the teaching techniques that I would utilize years later.

One thing I had learned during my public school education was that students didn’t matter. Students who didn’t immediately grasp every concept as first presented were being purposely dense and stubbornly making the teacher’s job more difficult. The teachers could only be bothered to explain tings once, and if you didn’t understand right away, there was something wrong with you. These were the required subjects that must be taught, and if you didn’t find them delightfully interesting, there was something wrong with you. These were the few elective courses they had the resources to offer, and if you didn’t find them endlessly fascinating, there was something wrong with you. A student who dared to object to the standard fare or dared to suggest possible alternatives or dared to desire anything more interesting was met with horrified gasps. The professional educators knew what was best, and they were in charge. End of discussion.

And then I met Mr. Benbow. Mr. Benbow taught engineering, math, and programming classes at the community college, but Mr. Benbow taught me so much more than just trigonometry. He could elicit a response from even the shyest, most introverted student, because he eagerly waited for and listened to that response. It was as if everyone else in the room disappeared when he spoke to you, and you knew he was truly, genuinely interested in your opinion on the subject at hand. He didn’t seem to want to leave the room without hearing your thoughts and having the opportunity to discuss them with you and ask another question or two for clarification. Your response, no matter how tentative, no matter how ill-prepared, was important to Mr. Benbow. And after only a few weeks in his class, you began to feel that maybe you were important to more than Mr. Benbow.

I recall a rather under-achieving student who described an incorrect method for solving a particular math problem. I was groaning inside, realizing he was wrong and feeling sorry for the humiliation I thought he was destined to endure as his error was pointed out, ridiculed, and corrected. But Mr. Benbow didn’t do that. He listened to the student’s entire explanation of how he’d arrived at his wrong answer, and then Mr. Benbow thoughtfully considered each misstep and gently replied, “Well, you could do it that way… but think about this… If we go back to this step, and instead of what you did there, we do this…” and he went on to fully detail the correct method, step-by-step, arriving at the correct solution, while keeping the errant student’s dignity intact and giving the rest of us a beautifully practical lesson in humility.

Every Wednesday, Mr. Benbow began class with a quiz—always just one question or just one problem, but it always reinforced what we’d just learned. Every Friday, he began class with a joke—it was his way of starting the weekend with a little fun. Any time someone asked him for help on an assignment, he gave that student his complete attention and always hinted at the answer just enough to help the student discover it for himself. Mr. Benbow knew that telling a student the answer outright taught nothing, but guiding the student on the path to discovering the answer taught much more than the answer to that single problem.

I eagerly signed up for Mr. Benbow’s introductory course in computer programming. It was required for my degree, but I knew that he was capable of teaching anything to anyone, even programming language to someone who had never seen a computer before, and I knew he would make it a fascinating class. When my first complex program failed to run as intended, I sought his help. He quickly read through the cryptic steps, smiled with that intriguing little twinkle in his eyes, and simply said “Computers are stupid. They are machines that can only do exactly what we tell them to do.” And there he left me, both feet firmly planted on the path to discovery. Obviously, he meant that my program was telling the computer to do the wrong thing. More precisely, as I soon discovered, my program had not told the computer to do the right thing. Mr. Benbow’s programming hint became a life-lesson for me. It’s as important not to do the wrong thing, as it is to do the right thing. When teaching and training my children, I have tried to remember to show them what not to do, as well as what to do.

All of Mr. Benbow’s excellent teaching methods influenced me heavily. When my children asked questions or gave answers to my questions or offered their opinions on random topics, I tried to give them my focused attention, as if their ideas mattered—because their ideas really did matter. When I listened to every little thing my 7-year-old son wanted to tell, he learned that Mom cared, that his thoughts were either funny or thought-provoking, that he could make people laugh, and that he was important, and he mattered. My kids learned to give answers with confidence, knowing that if they happened to be wrong, they still weren’t subjected to ridicule, taunting, or shame. Any incorrect assumptions would be gently but thoroughly straightened out, until they had a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand.

If I expected my kids to learn, I knew they couldn’t feel intimidated. Our classroom had to be a place where they felt safe enough to ask any question and discuss any concept that they didn’t fully understand. If I wanted them to learn, I had to find an eleventh way to explain or illustrate or demonstrate what my first ten tries had failed to clarify. Their lack of understanding came from my failure to teach, not their failure to learn. In order for my kids to learn, I had to find better methods of teaching.

Because my early teachers had turned “Go look it up” into a discouraging punishment, I was determined to transform educating my children into a delightful challenge, an eager race for knowledge, a dare of discovery that they couldn’t help but pursue. Whenever we came across something of uncertain meaning, I looked my students in the eye with the most intriguing twinkle I could muster, then I dashed to the bookcase to grab the dictionary or whatever reference book might hold the answer. They enthusiastically joined me for a cheek-to-cheek search through the pages, as we found the answer together. Before long, they were the ones dashing off to find the answer, proudly beating Mom to it, but still generously sharing the moment of discovery as we read and discussed the treasured facts together.

To encourage my kids in their learning, I made up examples and story problems that were personal to them, I involved them in the illustrations and the demonstrations, and we worked together to build the models and create the learning aids that finally made the concepts clear. We converted our board games to use the facts and skills they were trying to learn and played the games over and over to practice their new knowledge. As Mr. Benbow had done, I used impromptu questions now and then to prove to them what they had just mastered (instead of shaming them for what they didn’t yet know), and I made time during our classes for an abundance of jokes and silly stories and amusing tricks, just to keep life fun.

Learning is encouraged when fear is removed and confidence takes its place. Learning is encouraged when the student sees each question as a game to be played, a challenge to be attempted, a goal to be conquered. Learning is encouraged when the student is intrigued to the point that he does not want to walk away without knowing the answer. Learning is encouraged when the examples are personal, when the problems become tantalizing puzzles to solve, when research begins an exhilarating bunny-trail adventure through a hundred twists and turns, and when every question opens another new door to wonders yet undiscovered. If learning is not fun or exciting or satisfying or rewarding, who would waste a single moment in its pursuit?

For more tips on getting your students interested and encouraging their learning:
10 Ways to Improve a Lesson
How to Adapt Lessons to Fit Your Student’s Interests and Make Learning Come Alive
Looking for the “Hard Part”
My Student Is Trying, but Just Not Learning as Expected
The Know-It-All Attitude
Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson

Top 10 Homeschool Mommy Myths

Homeschool moms, especially new-to-homeschooling moms, can easily fall prey to some nasty myths. These myths, as with any myths, are simply not true. Read, learn, and be encouraged.

1) School requires 7 hours of carefully-planned-to-the-minute instruction. If your child doesn’t respond well to 7 hours in a chair at a desk, the answer isn’t how to fix him or how to fill 7 hours. The solution comes from realizing that schools spend up to 75% of each day in non-instructional activities: waiting for silence, waiting for eye contact, waiting for the slower students to catch up, counting who’s there, counting who’ll be eating lunch, counting noses again after moving from here to there, standing in line after line after line—you get the idea. Seventy-five percent! Three-quarters of their day! My kids could go off-topic eleventy-dozen times and still get all their work done in less time than they would have spent at school.

2) School requires homework beyond the lesson. Some new homeschool parents wonder how much homework should be assigned after their students complete each subject’s daily lesson. My answer is none. Schools assign homework because there isn’t enough time left in their busy day to actually complete a lesson. We did lesson work as part of each subject’s “class time,” so there was no need for further work after the class was done. (Bonus: Homeschool kids get to do the practice work immediately after learning the lesson, rather than struggling hours later to remember what to do and how to do it.) Reading was our only exception, and that was because I never held reading class once my kids were reading independently—I just let them go off and read on their own time. We called it pleasure reading, instead of considering it as another academic subject.

3) It doesn’t really count as homeschooling if:

  • We didn’t learn it during school hours. (Sometimes the best lessons happen on the weekends or in the evening or while you’re away from home.)
  • We didn’t learn it from “approved” curriculum. (Sometimes the best lessons happen out-of-the-box and away-from-the-books.)
  • We didn’t plan to learn it. (Sometimes the best lessons happen spontaneously.)
  • None of our friends are also studying it. (Sometimes the best lessons fit your personal, immediate needs, and not the needs of anyone else.)

4) All children progress according to an age-based “scope and sequence.” Pfft! Children don’t all begin crawling at the same age (some prefer scooting, and others just stand up and take off), children don’t all begin talking at the same age (or with the same vocabulary), children don’t all learn to use the potty at the same age, and children don’t all learn reading, geography, and trigonometry at the same age. Age actually has very little to do with learning ability. And while we’re on the topic, when was the last time you saw a scope-and-sequence for learning very important skills of when and how to rotate tires or change motor oil, cooking an entire meal and getting every dish done at the same time, sharpening a lawn mower blade, changing a newborn’s diaper with one hand while holding onto a toddler-Houdini with the other, or being able to tell the difference between chicken pox and a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to medicine? Sometimes education comes on a “need to know” basis—when you need to know it, you’ll learn it. Life is its own scope and sequence, and the scope and the sequence are different for each person.

5) There’s a better teacher out there somewhere. Maybe you’ve been waiting for the ideal teacher to come along to take your kids under her wing and set afire their love of learning—the right teacher. You feel a little like the old knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, who guarded the Messiah’s chalice for 900 years, waiting for a new knight to come and relieve him of his post. However, that ideal teacher, the “new guardian” of your children’s education just might end up being you. We were fervently praying for our daughter, Jen, to get the right public school classroom and the right teacher for her 5th grade year, when God showed us Door #3: Homeschooling. He disregarded both of the options in her public school and guided us down an entirely different path to the school and the classroom and the teacher He had chosen for her needs: Mom. Our son, Nathan, needed a teacher for 1st grade with a personality that would accept and appreciate his boundless sense of humor, since his Kindergarten teacher had kept him on the Time-Out Chair for nearly the entire school year. Again, Door #3 led to Mom being selected as the ideal teacher for him. The ideal teacher you’re waiting for, the ideal teacher your kids need is in all likelihood staring back at you from the bathroom mirror.

6) Comparing ourselves to other families will show us how we’re doing. Comparing my family to other homeschooling families was not really a good thing to do. Comparing how my kids were doing in their schoolwork to how other kids were doing, again not a good thing. Comparing how my kids were doing now to how they had previously been doing was great! We could definitely see their individual progress from week to week and month to month (sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but they continually moved beyond where they had been before). When I came across a blog where another mom had posted her 12-year-old’s super-aggressive list of books that he’d read during 7th grade, I wanted to poke my eyes out with salad tongs. His unbelievably extensive list (for that one year!) could have passed as the cumulative life-time achievements of a tenured college literature professor. I decided to stop reading that blog. It was a wise choice. Instead, I paid more attention to how my child learned to read words, rather than guess at them, and reading those words led her to read a whole book, which she enjoyed enough to want to read another, which was two more than she’d ever read before.

7) I need “Me” time. When my kids were smaller and needed more attention, I used to feel like I never had any “me” time. But I wasn’t the #1 focus at that time—and I assured myself that “my time” would come later. As my children grew, I taught them skills and responsibilities, which gave me helpers to lessen my long list of to-do’s each day and gave me just enough “me time” to let me think an entire thought by myself and thereby make life bearable. As my children’s abilities increased each year, their ability to help out increased, too, and my free time grew accordingly. The bigger shock came when they had both gone off to college and left me with no more helpers!

8) “I blew it, I made a mess of things, and I can’t undo it.” If you’ve made a big mistake (like pushing your student to the point of tears over conjugating verbs), apologize. Hug each other and promise to help each other figure out the best way to learn this stuff. Your child will respect you more for your role-modeling of humility. Ask your kids for their input on different ways to learn certain subjects—they will have great suggestions for activities to try, and their ideas will help tailor activities to their specific learning style needs. When my kids weren’t sure of how to proceed, I made little reminder signs to decorate our classroom: “One free hug with every hint!” “If you’re stuck, ask Mom. If you’re confused, ask Mom. If you’re not sure, ask Mom.” (Can you tell my students had lost all their self-confidence in public school?) Holding a child on my lap and offering encouraging cuddles was extremely beneficial to both of us. Even during those occasions when you just don’t know what to do next, sharing the love through hugs and prayers will draw you and your students closer together—and that’s the biggest reason why you chose to homeschool in the first place.

9) The teacher must always be right. Wrong. We are fallible humans, and we make mistakes. Textbooks and answer keys occasionally include mistakes, too. I found several mistakes in textbooks and answer keys during our homeschooling career. Sometimes they were typos, and sometimes they were just errors, but regardless of why, the books were wrong. Parents and kids alike will learn from homeschooling, and we learn more from our mistakes than we do when everything goes smoothly and perfectly. When you mess up, admit it; apologize, ask for forgiveness, make amends, and then move on. Be a shining example of how an adult should handle personal goof-ups with grace and humility—they certainly won’t see that in many other areas of life.

10) “I can’t homeschool—I don’t know everything!” That’s the point. Homeschooling parents don’t have to know it all, but they can teach their children anyway and can learn right along with the kiddies. When my kids asked me a tough question and I didn’t know the answer, their eyes lit up when I said in all honesty, “I don’t know… but I’ll bet we can find the answer together.” Kids appreciate honesty, especially from adults, and an honest admission of “I don’t know” is a refreshing change for them from the know-it-all attitude they usually get from the adult world. My kids delighted in playing “Let’s Stump Mom,” and their desire to learn increased with every round, won or lost. No one knows everything, but everyone can learn more. Let learning become a regular habit for parents as well as for children. It’s another facet of that role-modeling thing!

When Did I Become an Unschooler???

I went to public school for my education. It was a rural school with Kindergarten through twelfth grade all in one rather small, three-story building. The teacher-to-student ratios were fairly low, since most classes rarely exceeded twenty students. Most of the teachers used traditional methods of oral lectures and reading assignments.

I remember feeling detached from the rest of the class, because I was either way ahead of the teacher or way behind. In Kindergarten, I could already read enough to know what the workbooks said, and I could tell when my teacher was changing those directions and leaving out the parts that I thought sounded like more fun than what she wanted us to do. I had to sit and wait and sit some more, surrounded by a roomful of enticing learning toys that could never be touched. And my teacher insisted that sitting quietly and listening quietly were the best and only suitable ways to learn anything.

In fourth grade, I knew nearly all of the spelling and vocabulary words before my teacher wrote them on the board, but she often mispronounced them. I had my very own personal dictionary in my desk, something I loved to read more than any of the storybooks on the classroom shelves. I pulled it out one day to show my teacher what the correct pronunciation of a certain vocabulary word was, because I thought she would want to teach things accurately. Instead, she just got upset. For some unknown reason, we didn’t get along for the rest of that year.

In sixth grade, I had a very old, very worn out teacher. She had her methods that she had used for decades, and she expected them to work forever and for every student. She also had certain subjects that she didn’t care to teach, so she glossed over them with the same three words for every assignment: “Outline the chapter.” I learned nothing from geography that year, except that I could not possibly produce an outline to her satisfaction.

Occasionally, a random teacher would allow us to do a special project as an assignment, but it didn’t happen more than once every few years and never in more than one subject. Any project was also limited to about a week in length and still had to meet that particular teacher’s expectations. The year I prepared a typical Medieval meal for my World History teacher, I thought he was going to have a stroke right there in the classroom. He seemed very concerned that I had smuggled some beer into the school building, until I whispered to him that his tankard contained cream soda as a visually-similar substitute. Despite all my research into the types of foods, serving utensils, and customs common to the time period, he didn’t know how to grade my beef stew and fake beer. He was much better with salt-dough castles and cardboard armor.

All in all, I hated school. I hated the teachers who treated me with contempt for daring to want something other than outlining the entire geography textbook and droning through random passages from Shakespeare read aloud in class. I hated the endless repetition, year after year of boring textbooks that all said the same boring things. I hated it all.

Once I had my own children, everything changed. I loved watching my kids discover the world for the first time. I loved the expression of recognition on their faces each time something new began to make sense. We played games, we played house, we played dress-up, we played everything we could play. We made forts, we made cookies, we made make-believe. We read stories and more stories until we knew them by heart, and then we recited them together when the books weren’t close at hand. I read them simple stories, pointing out the details in every picture. I read them chapter books beyond their years, allowing them to meet brave explorers like Christopher Robin and form pictures in their minds of what “heffalumps” and “woozles” must look like. I read them the lyrical poetry of A.A. Milne, Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson, and countless others. And then suddenly they were old enough for school.

When I sent my children off to public school, they fit into their classrooms just as well as I had in mine, which is to say “poorly.” They wanted to play with the hundreds of wooden blocks at the back of the classroom, instead of sitting at the teacher’s feet as she did yet another mind-numbing counting-to-ten exercise. They had to endure adding 1 + 2 + 3, being told it was difficult and challenging, when they had already figured out how to do 2-column subtraction in their heads. They had to sit and wait and sit some more, surrounded by a roomful of enticing learning toys that could never be touched. And their teachers insisted that sitting quietly and listening quietly and reading quietly were the best and only suitable ways to learn anything.

When my husband and I made the decision to remove our children from public school to begin homeschooling, I used the traditional school model of textbooks and worksheets, simply because it was the only thing any of us had ever known. There I was, ordering boring curriculum, assigning boring lessons, and grading boring worksheets, doing all the same things I had hated all through my own school years and boring my own children with every step.

My students began stumbling over what I called “potholes”—missing portions of vital information that their former teachers had failed to impart. My 5th-grader was delighted to discover that anything she hadn’t understood at public school could be re-studied at home without penalty or ridicule, and she provided me with a list of math concepts that she wanted to master, including fractions, decimals, percents, and measurements. Specialty workbooks helped us fill in those gaps, but actual practice in real life experiences gave the concepts purpose. We measured dozens of things around the house, maybe hundreds of things. We converted the measurements into fractions and decimals. We converted the fractions and decimals into percentages, until it was apparent that the different forms were just “nicknames” for the same amounts. Manipulating the numbers became fun, and math lessons became less intimidating.

I realized that my children were benefiting from the hands-on experiences that solidified what the textbooks had to say. When a math problem spoke of so many red trucks and so many blue trucks, and my child wasn’t understanding it, we used colored blocks to illustrate the problem in a way she could do over and over again until she got it. When my daughter couldn’t solve an anagram for her spelling lesson, she took the letter tiles from the Scrabble game and rearranged them until she figured out the word. The enticing learning toys gave the lessons tangibility, and the fingers understood what the eyes had missed.

I haven’t met a spelling curriculum yet that I like. Phonics is a systematic method for learning to read, but why should that be followed by repetitive lists of spelling words that anyone with a decent grasp of phonics could spell without difficulty? Vocabulary words were never much different from the spelling words. If my students could break the word down into its phonetic components and learn to read that word, either they already knew its meaning, or we would look it up in the dictionary together.

As a child, I had loved having my own personal dictionary, which I routinely browsed for new words. That was the basis of my own vocabulary expansion. Using the pronunciation guides, I could learn to read any word I came across, and the definitions, origins, and various forms of the words added even more to my personal studies. My son picked up this habit himself and regularly quizzed me with new words he had discovered, trying (usually unsuccessfully) to stump Mom. Reading material is an excellent source of new vocabulary words – if it’s not, then your students are reading things that are too simple for them. Another personal habit of mine is to keep a dictionary and pencil close by while I’m reading. Any unfamiliar words get their definitions written in the margin of the book. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to pencil a definition in the margin of a library book, reasoning that if I didn’t know that word, the next reader probably wouldn’t know it either and would be grateful for the notation.)

No matter how many curriculum programs we tried, nothing was a perfect fit for us. The textbooks were too boring and too far removed from everyday life. We supplemented the textbook studies with activities, games, and field trips, and we always found that we learned much more from the extra activities than we did from the textbooks and workbooks. Even the math texts that provided solid teaching were tedious in their repetition-without-application. Board games could always be counted on for practice in the same concepts, but with much more enjoyment. Although we enjoyed a wide variety of supplemental activities, most of the time we stuck to a pretty structured sequence of academic studies. It was only toward the end of our homeschooling journey that I began to research and understand learning styles and see the full value and effect of alternative types of study over traditional methods.

Today, I’m much more likely to recommend family activities, a video-and-discussion session, or a round of board games instead of textbook lessons. How did I get to this point? When did I become an unschooler? If we had it all to do over again, we would probably be more like that eccentric unschooling family we met when we first started homeschooling—their spontaneous and unconventional approach to learning did not fit into my definition of education at all (but they did seem to be having a lot more fun at learning than we were). We would read more biographies from the library shelves, instead of purchasing over-priced textbooks that barely scratched the surface of any remotely interesting topics. We would spend hours dropping Mentos into Diet Coke, instead of just watching the You Tube videos. We would have all sorts of wonderful fun, we would learn all sorts of wonderful things, and we would enjoy journaling all our wonderful exploits, because we would be making and documenting real history instead of slogging through yet another tedious assignment made up by some stranger who knew nothing about us or our interests.

The way I see it, looking back over many years of actively homeschooling and many more years of mentoring homeschoolers, if a student can learn something well by reading it in a book, he doesn’t need anyone’s help. On the other hand, if a student is struggling to learn from reading and struggling to learn from discussions and explanations, that student needs a hearty dose of unschooling methods. Get elbow-deep in an experiment, work out a physical representation of a math problem with some type of thingamabobs, watch someone demonstrate a real-life skill and ask them to help you learn it step-by-step. Going places, seeing stuff, and doing things are much more valuable methods of learning than just reading about someone else going places, seeing stuff, and doing things. If unschooling means leaving the books behind and getting out there to learn from life itself, then I’ll happily call myself an unschooler. I never did fit into a classroom very well.

 

[For a further explanation of educational potholes, see Meatball Education: Filling in the Potholes of Public School]

Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Began Homeschooling

Whether you are beginning homeschooling after removing your children from an institutional school or are starting by simply not sending your little ones to preschool or Kindergarten, I can offer you some valuable been-there-done-that advice. File this under “If we’d only known…”

10.       The “classroom model” is counter-productive to learning.
Seating students in tidy rows of individual desks is only beneficial if the teacher needs to maintain control over a crowd of students by herself. Ditto for periodic testing. Double ditto for asking permission to speak or to use the bathroom. Let them do science in the backyard; let them draw while lying on the floor; let them read in the treehouse; let them compare prices and quantities as math while grocery shopping. Demanding attention, waiting for silence in the room, waiting for all eyes forward, waiting in line—all are dehumanizing tactics meant for crowd control or to break the spirit of the individuals. These methods are used with new recruits in the military—and in prison. Exploration is the birthplace of genius, but when was the last time anyone turned loose a classroom full of students to randomly discover their hidden genius?

9.         Schedules are made for faculties, not families.
Who in their right mind would put constraints on learning? What parent would tell their child “No, I’m sorry, Sweetie, but I can’t let you learn any more today”? Schools insist that learning must take place between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday, September through May—and then they are disappointed that the students’ skills diminish over summer break. Homeschooling parents can sneak in “stealth” lessons on trees or flowers or bugs during a family picnic. Homeschoolers can browse an antique store during a weekend outing and turn it into an impromptu history lesson. Homeschooling students can help Dad change the oil or re-grout the bathtub or trim an elderly neighbor’s bushes… and get credit for learning valuable lessons at the same time. Learning opportunities abound every moment and every day. Never stop learning, and never stop looking for the “teachable moments.”

8.         Reading and lecturing alone are insufficient teaching methods.
Textbook directions and diagrams only went so far in helping my kids learn. I soon found myself drawing different diagrams (if only bigger or more colorful), explaining concepts in multiple ways, or using borrowed game pieces as manipulatives to illustrate concepts. We did lessons outdoors; we did lessons on the floor; we used board games as lessons; we used videos as lessons. We acted things out; we made up rhymes; we used sign language to help us remember things. We added bright colors; we built models; we made flashcards; we invented games to help in practicing new skills. I had my kids teach difficult concepts back to me to be sure they understood them correctly. We used every possible method we could think of for illustrating and demonstrating lessons—and it worked. It worked very well.

7.         Every homeschool is different. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
Each family will need to use the methods and materials that fit their own children’s needs. It’s supposed to work that way; it has to work that way; that is why we are homeschooling in the first place. It is beneficial to share with others what has or has not worked and why, but each family needs to run that input through their own filter. Trying to mimic what others have done is a trap destined for failure. Borrow their idea, if you really like it, but adapt it to your own family’s tastes. If it works well, continue to adapt it and keep changing it as your needs change. If it doesn’t work well, either make enough changes that it will work or toss it back and try something else. You have your own preferences, you have your own values—build your homeschool around those, and ignore the Homeschooling Joneses. Two (or more) families can use identical materials, but still use enough variations in supplemental activities that their lessons will look nothing alike.

6.         Students need academic success to build their self-confidence.
I didn’t realize that my (former public school) kids would need to see that they were capable of learning on their own… without the collective input of two dozen other kids backing them up. They needed to learn that they could move on to the next concept as soon as they had mastered this one. They also needed to learn that I would not push them to move on until they had mastered each concept, whereas classrooms move on with as little as one correct answer and, at most, one-third of the room understanding. Most of our first year of homeschooling was spent in learning how to learn and learning that they could learn. Once they had acquired confidence in their own abilities, things progressed much more quickly and much more smoothly.

5.         The price of the materials has nothing to do with the amount of knowledge your students will gain.
We found used materials at book swaps and garage sales. We used hand-me-down materials from relatives and found great learning games and toys at thrift stores and flea markets. We made our own cheap versions of fancy educational gadgets from cereal boxes and tape and glue. I even made up my own lessons when I couldn’t find suitable materials to purchase. Purchases of popular, highly recommended, expensive materials often turned out not to be a good fit for us. We often learned more from the inexpensive items than we did from the pricey ones. Shiny boxes and high price tags do not automatically equal success.

4.         Fit the materials to your students’ preferences and expectations.
My daughter’s former school did not have enough books, and they treated workbooks like textbooks, requiring every student to copy lessons into personal notebooks. One thing my daughter reallyreallyreally wanted from homeschooling was to have her very own personal workbooks that she could write in and decorate with gold star stickers. Done: I ordered a workbook. One thing my daughter reallyreallyreally didn’t ever want to see again was a red pencil mark on her papers. Done: I used bright orange and lime green and sky blue colored pencils to correct her work. Problems solved. Focus on the learning.

Find out what your kids expect homeschooling to be like. Find out what they do want and what they don’t want. Ditto for yourself and your spouse. Homeschooling should not be about one parent’s dream to play school with desks in a row and maps on the walls (although desks and maps are wonderful learning tools, they should not be the primary focus); homeschooling should be a learning adventure for the whole family. It’s okay to keep some parts of the school model, if what your family really wants and needs is that consistency. It’s okay to scrap all preconceived ideas and start over from scratch, if what your family really wants and needs is an Opposite Day educational experience. It’s also okay to use this method for this student and that method for that student, if that is what they really want and need.

3.         Finding gaps in foundational skills is proof of academic success. (just fix ’em before moving on)
I was under the mistaken assumption that I could just begin teaching where the school had left off. I was also naive enough to think that the public school teachers had made sure my kids had understood everything… correctly. I was wrong on both counts. We had been homeschooling for only a few weeks when we hit our first educational pothole. The math book expected my child to work with fractions, and my child was horribly confused about fractions and what to do with them. I ordered some workbooks that focused solely on fraction math and put the regular math lessons on hold until my child was confident in handling fraction problems. These workbooks made fractions very simple to understand, but my child became incredibly angry and frustrated—but not at learning fractions—she understood those concepts very quickly, once they were explained adequately. Her anger and frustration came from seeing how simple fractions were to understand and remembering how difficult and complicated her teachers had told her fractions were.

We found materials to fill in each gap of missing knowledge, and then we moved on. Regular lessons in any given subject were suspended until that particular pothole was filled (the time varied from minutes to days to weeks), but once we could resume the lessons, the progress always came faster. We found numerous potholes during that first year, but by the end of that year, my children were learning with confidence and gaining ground rapidly. Every pothole proved to us that we were learning—if we hadn’t been making progress, we would never have discovered the potholes.

2.         Play is learning, and learning should be fun.
Children work diligently at playing, whether they are building sand castles, playing dress-up, or roller-blading on the driveway. Kids wear themselves out having fun, and they learn important lessons from their playtime. They learn that moist sand packs best; they learn that long skirts and high heels don’t combine well with stairs; they learn that balance is very important in skating as well as in life.

Do you remember being eager to get your driver’s license? Do you ever hate waiting for a new movie to come out after you’ve seen the trailer for it? Have you ever called a friend to tell them all about your latest accomplishment? That is the excitement of learning!

What you do in your leisure time is your version of fun, whether that means reading a book or watching TV or painting your toenails or fishing for The Big One. If it wasn’t fun, you would do something else with your leisure time. Now look at what your children do during their leisure time—and find a way to incorporate those methods into their lessons for some really motivated learners.

1.         Mom = Teacher = Mom (or Dad)
The first time Mom answers her student’s question, a miraculous transformation takes place: the student realizes that Mom knows stuff. Each answered question builds that reputation, and answering “I don’t know, but let’s try to find out together” increases the thirst for knowledge.

Parents have a unique advantage over traditional classroom teachers, in that parents can admit they don’t know all the answers. Homeschooling parents can use a bunny-trail question as the next teachable moment without disrupting an entire room full of students or getting hopelessly off a pre-set schedule.

Parents have a dynamic relationship with their children that allows snuggling during particularly difficult lessons. Learning to read is a magical milestone that should be celebrated with hugs and kisses and shouting and dancing, not relegated to the far corner of the room and conducted in hushed voices. Parents know instinctively when their child can be encouraged to try one more time and when that same child will benefit most from taking a break. Parents see their children day and night, weekday and weekend, season after season, year after year, on good days and bad days, in sickness and in health. Parents know what their children want and what their children need—and they will move heaven and earth to provide for them

Teachers are motivated by a paycheck and a sense of duty; parents are motivated by love. When a random child acts out in a classroom, the teacher seeks to make the disruption stop, even to the point of removing that child; when a parent’s own child acts out at home, the parent seeks to determine the cause of the problem and remove the problem, not remove the child. No one can know any given child to a greater degree than that child’s parent, no one will love a child more than that child’s parent, and no one can be a better teacher for a child than that child’s parent.

 

As homeschoolers, the most important thing to focus on is learning. If something is getting in the way of the learning, it becomes a stumbling block and is probably not all that important. Do things in a different order, try another method, or set that material aside for a time and see what happens. Homeschooling should be about learning, not about following in someone else’s precisely spaced footsteps. We made the most significant progress when we focused on what we were learning and stopped worrying about how we were learning it. Focus on the learning, and watch it happen!

Why Choose Homeschooling?

When the tomatoes at your local market are less than desirable, you may start looking elsewhere for your produce. No one intentionally shops for tomatoes that are unripe, hard, and green, or worse, bruised and blemished. If the supermarket produce is less than satisfactory, consumers may turn to a specialty grocer, the weekly farmer’s market, or start their own garden plot at home in the backyard or in a few pots on the patio or balcony.

A similar phenomenon is happening with education. Consumers (parents), who have become dissatisfied with the educational product of the mainstream schools, are turning to other means for their children’s academics, including the do-it-yourself method, homeschooling.

My husband and I turned to homeschooling because of health reasons: our daughter suffered from migraine headaches, and the school nurse didn’t believe us or our doctors. My daughter’s frequent absences were a problem with the school’s administration, although her grades never slipped, since I was able to tutor her at home and keep her on track with the rest of the students. Meanwhile, I had noticed that the classroom’s progress was not ideal. The teacher got important concepts wrong and was unable to teach critical math skills. This ineffectual teaching forced us to take matters into our own hands. Literally. I do not have a teaching degree, but I quickly realized that I could certainly do no worse than our local elementary school was already doing.

Our reasons for homeschooling are not unique. A survey of homeschooling families today would reveal many who are motivated by their children’s health concerns or special needs issues. Another, larger group would say they are dissatisfied with the quality of education provided by today’s schools, both public and private. Those parents who are re-teaching the material to their child every night, as I was, cannot help but see that they are already the primary educator of that child; they just have the worst time slot of the day in which to do it. Classroom size and the related student-to-teacher ratios, the disappearance of fine arts programs, and sex and violence in the schools are sub-topics of the “quality of education” issue.

A few more families would list flexibility as their primary reason for choosing homeschooling: students can pursue a variety of individual activities, while still maintaining their academic endeavors. Today’s homeschooled students may very well be tomorrow’s Olympic champions or symphony musicians, since the freedom of a homeschool schedule allows more time to focus on one’s passions. Childcare concerns, changes in the job market, and relocation of the family also depend on the flexibility of homeschooling to help families maintain stability during lifestyle changes.

Some families opt for homeschooling after the government schools have failed to meet their students’ needs. Some families are able to decide before preschool (or even sooner) that they want to keep their children at home for school. Some families homeschool for only a year or two, while others prefer home education from preschool through high school and even on into college-at-home. The duration is determined by the family’s preference, just as the methods and materials used are also each family’s choice.

I am often asked about the benefits of homeschooling, a difficult question simply because of the vast range of its answers. First and foremost, I see the improved relationship of the family as the chief benefit, even before any academic advantages are considered. Parents and children bond as teacher and students in a way that non-homeschooling families just cannot understand. The freedom and flexibility of the homeschooling schedule allow for spontaneous family activities, all of which have educational benefits, whether obvious (or intended) or not. That relaxed schedule is a tremendous boon to most families — the opportunity to do things in whatever order or method works best for each family and each student (which, incidentally, is the philosophy of Guilt-Free Homeschooling: homeschooling should be comfortable, relaxed, and fit your family’s lifestyle).

The one-on-one attention that homeschooling provides is far superior to any classroom. Even large families are able to provide individual attention to each student when he needs it, along with the training in independent learning, which prepares homeschooled students for handling college classes (and life in general) on their own. Parents of special needs students find that no teacher, no matter how well trained, can know the student or love the student as well as the parent can. The parent who has lived with the special needs child 24/7 since birth understands more and at a deeper level than a teacher who is hired to cover seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year.

Homeschooling is extremely popular with conservative Christian families, although it is practiced by families of every religious and political persuasion. Besides the reasons of academic excellence and personalization, homeschooling allows families to emphasize their own philosophies and worldviews. Government-mandated curricula are often based on evolutionary principles, which are diametrically opposed to Creationists’ beliefs. Homeschooling allows these families to use materials that support their beliefs, such as that life is sacred and a precious gift from God, the Creator. Government-funded schools do not allow prayer and do not teach the Bible, even as literature, although many anti-Christian religious philosophies and practices are now showing up in those same schools under the guise of “diversity.” Families for whom personal Christianity is the guiding force in their lives want to see their children educated with God-centered principles, a Creationist viewpoint, and a Biblical worldview. They will not accept submitting their children to antithetical teaching day in and day out.

Homeschooling is not a fad, although some people treat it as such. Public schools, sponsored by a government, are the “new kid on the block.” Personal tutoring had been the educational standard for centuries, until the time of the American Civil War, when it became fashionable to apply industrial methods to education by grouping local children together for academic efficiency. The homeschooling movement, in general, is providing a return to excellence and individuality in education, a return to a focus on the family as an institution in society, and a return to individual responsibility as a primary duty of citizenship. In this postmodern era, some old-fashioned homeschooling is just what this world needs.