Style Preferences Make a Difference

When Ralph Cain, school superintendent in Kershaw County, S.C., climbs the stairs to check on his teen-age son and finds him sprawled on the floor with music going at full tilt and a snack in hand, he wonders how he can possibly be productive with the school work in front of him.

Cain himself could only succeed at handling difficult material by sitting at a desk in absolute quiet under a bright light. But Cain knows his son is a successful student, and he also recognizes that he has been a successful educator using his own style to learn.

Sometimes, we just don’t get it.

Educators often think everyone ought to learn the same way. But a growing body of research makes it clear there are a number of different, yet equally valid, ways of gaining an education. The research on learning styles by Rita and Kenneth Dunn, for example, explains why, even in the same family, certain children respond positively to school and some do not. Some 20 years ago, the Dunns looked at environmental conditions and other factors in classrooms, which they concluded had a distinct impact on the learning style and preferences of each student. They identified 18 such factors as crucial to the way each of us learns.

More important than simply documenting how conventional schooling works for certain students and inhibits the achievement of others, the research on learning styles provides clear directions for teaching individuals how to use their style patterns to their advantage.

The Kershaw County School District began using the Dunn and Dunn model of learning styles in 1996. All students in the district completed the Learning Styles Inventory, which allows teachers to understand the dominant learning preferences of their students. These preferences then were used to guide their planning to meet students’ needs for learning new, difficult material. For example, teachers might need to incorporate more kinesthetic activities--strategies involving movement or games--as opposed to predominantly auditory/visual input.

Early Benefits
Impressed with teachers’ reports of the effectiveness of the strategies, the district administration sought to gauge any decisive differences between schools’ levels of implementation of learning-styles methods and student achievement. Students in a school not implementing learning styles at an advanced rate served as the comparison group. These students were matched to students from a school with advanced learning-styles use.

In the advanced learning-styles environment, students showed an acceleration in their learning rate as the program was implemented, and they maintained that acceleration while scores in the comparison group tended to plateau. Over a four-year period, the advanced learning-styles group achieved a learning rate that was 24.7 percent faster than the comparison group, with indications that continued acceleration would follow.

The process involved here is similar to racing cars competing at different speeds. Suppose that one automobile accelerates to 122 mph while its competing racer peaks at 98 miles per hour. The longer the race continues, the more obvious the superiority of the faster car will be and the greater the comparative distance covered.

In the learning realm, this greater distance is like the inverse of the cumulative deficit--a flat learning rate without intervention will geometrically develop deficits in knowledge over time. In the positive version, the advanced learning-styles group will show cumulative gains that will snowball into successes. Because of this success, our school system is moving quickly toward full implementation in every program and curricular area so that every learner can experience gains at a maximum rate.

Since the emphasis on learning-styles instruction was countywide, what actually accounted for the differences revealed? Many teachers were experimenting with incorporating environmental and instructional accommodations into their classrooms. The advanced learning-styles group, however, had taken this district emphasis further and had shown what resulted when the program was implemented on a continuous basis.

As teachers experimented with incorporating environmental and instructional accommodations into their classrooms, efforts were discussed at faculty meetings and during staff development days. Teachers were able to share their experiences and ideas. Further, the principal chose these activities and implementation plans as the focus of classroom observations and shared the successes with the faculty.

Positive Results
After a comparable start in grades 1-3, scores began to spike in the 4th-grade advanced learning-styles group. Scores continued this trend in the move from 4th to 5th grade. At 5th grade, the score growth difference could account for all percentile rank attainments. That earned the advanced learning-styles group top 10 status in the state for reading, math and language at the 4th-grade level and for math and language at the 5th-grade level. (The reading level at 5th grade was three percentage points below the top 10 score).

Those results provided strong evidence that the intensity of the implementation of learning-styles methodology paid off in student achievement. They also cemented the superintendent’s resolve to fully apply learning-style approaches throughout the district.

Ralph Cain is superintendent of Kershaw County School District, 1301 DuBose Court, Camden, SC 29020. E-mail: Mary Norwood is assistant superintendent for instruction in Kershaw County, S.C. They acknowledge the help of Stephen Taylor, a professor of education at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., in preparing this article.