Education: Would you like to sit on the floor?

Research is showing that the environment in which people study can make a huge difference to the grades they attain. By Roger Callan

Roger Callan
Wednesday 07 April 1999 23:02

If you have visited Stratford-upon-Avon and entered the Grammar School that young Will Shakespeare attended, you will have seen his classroom. It is a regular classroom - wooden desks three abreast, in three rows, a big master's desk at the front. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But that is the point: the classroom has not changed in 400 years! True, the teacher's cane has been prohibited, science labs have been introduced, and computers have made an appearance, but little else is new. Schools generally have hard chairs and desks, bright lights, silence, and teachers who talk much of the time. A premium is therefore placed on the student who can sit still and silent for much of the school day, listening attentively. Such an environment suits some students perfectly, but it does not suit everyone.

Some learn better if they sit on something soft, or on the floor, whilst working, or have some music playing, or low lighting. Some prefer to be doing several projects at once. Others like to eat while they work. For some, the environment doesn't matter.

Research has demonstrated that there are basically three types of learner: global, analytic and integrated. A global learner prefers the soft-seating, low-lighting, skipping-from-project-to-project approach. An analytic learner prefers the hard seats and no distractions typified by a traditional classroom. The integrated or flexible learner is able to learn in a variety of different environments.

Within these groupings are four sub-groups - auditory ( the person who learns best by listening), visual ( learns best by reading and through pictures) tactile (learns best through touch and making), kinesthetic (learns best using the whole body - through physical education or field trips).

These findings are based on more than 30 years of research into learning. Springing from a project commissioned in the 1960s by the State of New York to find out why new education initiatives had not succeeded, researchers at St John's University in New York City found that with each programme introduced into schools, some students had benefited, obtaining better grades, while others remained the same and some students' grades declined.

The researchers were intrigued that the programmes helped some students while at the same time apparently disadvantaging other students. Perhaps, it was surmised, we all learn in different ways, and so we each have a unique learning style which responds well to some environments, and not to others. So for those students whose learning style requires silence, bright lights, a hard chair and desk, the traditional school is the perfect learning environment. On the other hand, for those who learn best in exactly the opposite way, the global students, school frequently offers only discomfort, misunderstanding and even failure because it has not accommodated to their preferences.

Students with IQs over 145 are thought to be almost all global learners, and for some of them school can be a source of boredom and misery.

If teachers can adapt their classroom to accommodate students' learning styles, their students can flourish. It is easiest to do in a primary classroom where children can choose whether to sit at their desks or sit in areas of the classroom kitted out with carpet, bean bags and armchairs. Children who like to listen to music while they learn can be equipped with personal stereos.

It is easy to identify individual student learning styles by means of a 104-question learning style inventory devised by academics at St John's University in New York City. When analysed by a company licensed by St. John's ,a unique learning profile of each student is produced, telling exactly how that student's learning may be brought to its full potential. Analyses can be done on children from nursery age upwards - different inventories are available for the differing age groups.

When any student is given this information, and told how to accommodate to it, then be ready for such comments as: "I conducted an experiment where I read all my Spanish notes into my tape player and went for a 40- minute run while listening to the tape. Reinforcing new material kinesthetically turned out to be such a positive act that on the next test my usual grade of 70 per cent went up to 88 per cent." This was written by one of my students describing how a learning-style technique helped her learn new and difficult material.

One elementary school in North Carolina, having implemented this programme, found its state-mandated test results reaching such highs that the state actually sent in officials to ensure that the school was not cheating!

Spouses tend to have opposite learning styles, as do siblings. Siblings of similar intelligence will sometimes have wildly different school careers, one successful and the other struggling

For these students, it might be that one learning style was accommodated, and the other not. With the need for improved education now at critical levels, this low-cost approach should be at least investigated. The brain is the organ of learning, just as the heart is the organ of pumping. Thus the brain will learn, one way or another, because that's its nature.

Now, with the findings of this research, whether the brain learns in the classroom or on the street is up to the school and its response to this little mantra: "Teacher, if I don't learn the way you teach, why don't you teach the way I learn?"

The writer is a religious education teacher at Bishop Kearney High School, a girls Roman Catholic secondary school in Brooklyn, New York


WHEN YOU have to do new and difficult work at home, do you:

1. prefer to sit on something soft, or the floor, OR sit on a hard chair at a desk, OR doesn't it matter?

2. prefer to have some music playing, OR insist on silence, OR doesn't it matter?

3. prefer to have the lighting quite low, OR have very bright light, OR doesn't it matter?

4. prefer to be doing several projects at once, so that with this assignment, you will occasionally move to another project for a short time, and then return to the main task, OR do you stay with it through to the end, OR doesn't it matter?

5. want to have something to nibble on as you work, OR is your preference to have nothing to eat at all, OR doesn't it matter?

If you answered yes three or more times to the first part of each question, you are probably a GLOBAL learner and learn best in an environment suggested by the questions; if you answered yes three or more times to the second, or middle, part of each question, then you are probably an ANALYTIC learner. If you answered yes three or more times to the third part of the question, then you are probably an INTEGRATED, or flexible, learner, and are able to learn in a variety of different environments.

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