In the last few decades, there has been a surge of theories and models to explain the differences in the ways people learn. But, out of all of these theories and models, which is the best?
The answer is: all of them and none of them. The word “learning” is a broad term that encompasses different phases of the same complex process. Each of the models and theories focuses on learning from a different angle. When you watch the entirety of the learning process, you perceive that these theories and models that seemed contradictory to each other are not really contradictory, and they even complement one another.
As teachers, and depending on which part of the learning process we focus our attention on, sometimes we’ll want to use a model, and sometimes we won’t.
One possible way to understand the different theories is the following three-step model:
- Learning always begins after the reception of some kind of information. Out of all of the information we receive, we select a part. When we analyze how we select the information, we can distinguish between visual students, auditory students and kinesthetic students.
- The information we select should be organized and connected. The model of the brain hemispheres gives us information about the different ways to organize the information we receive.
- Once that information has been organized, we use it in one way or another. Kolb’s learning cycle distinguishes between active, theoretical, reflexive and pragmatic students.
Naturally, this separation of phases is fictitious, and in practice, these processes are confused with one another due to being closely related. The fact that we usually select visual information, for example, affects the way we organize that information. We can’t, therefore, understand someone’s learning style if we don’t pay attention to all its aspects. Apart from the theories related to the way we have to select, organize and work with the information, there are models that classify the learning styles according to other elements like social behavior.
We have three great systems to mentally represent the information: visual, auditory and kinetics representational systems. We use the visual representational system every time we remember abstract images (like letters and numbers) and concrete images. The auditory representational system is the one that lets our mind hear voices, sounds, music. When we remember a melody or a conversation, or when we recognize the voice of the person on the phone, we’re using the auditory representational system. Lastly, when we remember the taste of our favorite food, or when we feel something when listening to a song, we’re using the kinetics representational system.
Most of us use the representational systems in an uneven way, strengthening some and under-using others. Using one representational system more than others is important because of two reasons:
- First, because representational systems are developed more the more we use them.
- Second, because representational systems are not neutral. Each one of them has its own characteristics.
Representational systems are developed when we use them. A person used to selecting a type of information absorbs more easily that type of information, or, saying it the other way around, a person used to IGNORING the information received on a certain channel won’t learn the information received through that channel, not because he/she is not interested in it, but rather because he/she is not used to paying attention to that source of information. Using a system more implies that there are systems I’m using less, and so, different representational systems have different levels of development.
Many different elements affect our learning style, but one of the most influential elements is the one related to the way in which we select and represent information.
We all receive an enormous amount of information at all times through our senses, and all this information comes from the world that surrounds us. Our brain selects some of this information and ignores the rest. If, for example, after a trip we ask a group of tourists to describe one of the places they visited, then probably each one of them will talk about different things, because each one of them noticed different things. We can’t remember everything that happens, but rather just part of what happens around us.
Naturally, we select the information we focus on based on how interesting it is to us. It’s easier to remember our wedding than just any other day. But, the way in which we receive the information is important as well.
Some of us tend to pay more attention to the information we receive visually, others pay more attention to the auditory information they receive, and others pay more attention to the information they receive through the other senses.
Paying more attention to one type of information than another seems to be directly related to the way in which we remember that information later on.
Even though research on memory has just started, it seems it’s very clear that our brain is not a filing cabinet in which we keep pictures or recordings of what surrounds us. When we remember something, we don’t get back a recording stored in a filing cabinet, but rather, we create a representation of what we want to remember, based on diverse information.
When we pay more attention to the information we receive visually, it’s easier to reconstruct the visual information in our mind. Or, said in another way, it’s easier to represent visually the things we already know.