Learning Styles May Answer Meddlesome School Board Members


The Tallahassee, Fla., school district appeared to be in crisis. With three new board members and a new superintendent all assuming office around the same time, the board took "broad responsibility to describe duties and functions of itself and the superintendent," said Emily Millett, former board president and 20-year veteran of the Tallahassee school board.

Millett said she recognized the board's job was not to meddle in day-to-day operations of the district yet the board spent 99 percent of its time on trivia and 1 percent on policy issues. "Some members loved to hear themselves talk. Consequently, meetings continued to the point of exhaustion until we hired a facilitator," she said.

The first thing the facilitator did was to introduce board members to learning style exercises. This, she said, "opened previously closed doors toward effective communication."

Addressing Style Differences
Learning and thinking styles refer to the emotional, social, cognitive and physical ways a person prefers to take in, process, manipulate and use information. It also includes reflection on previous input and anticipation of outcomes. Effective boards and superintendents attend to style differences that improve everyone's basic desire to perform well.

  • Emotional Learning. With ample time to study issues, emotional learners investigate innovative solutions by drawing or diagramming possible implementations or by developing written documents in anticipation of high interest by others. They are disappointed with routine and matter-of-fact decision making, so they attempt to transfuse enthusiasm and foster innovation.

    After limited results, emotional learners may daydream or move forward with innovations on their own, thus splintering the actions of a board. Those with robust emotional learning produce best when exploring alternatives to challenging issues and when others explore innovations with them.

  • Social Learning. Some persons base decisions on personal perspectives while others rely on constituent views, thus postponing their vote. The latter group relishes approval and support from an authority figure-whether a superintendent or a board president. Without a personal connection, their productively is limited. Further, they are unusually sensitive to embarrassment, which makes it essential that personal matters be dealt with outside the limelight of public observation.

    Matching their mode of communication---rapid articulation, crisp discussion and metaphorical language---can greatly enhance their focus and comprehension of oral discourse.

  • Cognitive Learning. Humans tend to be either strong logical/rational or strong holistic/random thinkers. Someone in the first category might ask: Are we doing things right? They are concerned with detailed accuracy and often resort to adult temper tantrums if process steps are omitted or if they fear failure. This response strengthens defensive posturing by others.

    By contrast, holistic/random thinkers might ask: Are we doing the right things? They see how a policy affects the whole district and are concerned about losing sight of long-range issues while concentrating on details.

    Individuals in both camps appreciate information conveyed through a superintendent's weekly summary of actions because it reduces their need to meddle in day-to-day operations to find out what's going on.

  • Physical Learning. Persons with a strong physical style absorb salient points through their senses and make rapid decisions based either on concrete information or on intuition. It's valuable, therefore, to know which modalities they favor-visual, auditory, tactual or kinesthetic.

    Some board members need written explanations or illustrated information of the whole picture for repeated study (visual input). Others prefer discussions (auditory input) or an opportunity to try out solutions physically or metaphorically (tactual and/or kinesthetic input). When a visual learner only hears the issue discussed, repetitions are needed for comprehension. Others can hear, but they need opportunities to walk around an issue, to visit the site or to handle the issue physically.

  • Reflective Learning. Those with a strong reflective style require time to sleep on possible solutions. Otherwise, they demand vote reconsideration at the next meeting. They long for closure but tend to prolong decision-making.

    The facilitator in Tallahassee helped identify ways to foster effective decision making through reflective humor. Members informally agreed to send a note---"The gum's beginning to stick"---to anyone who blocked progress or talked extensively. The "Dirty Chewing Gum Award" passed from board member to board member with each person signing his or her name to show agreement. Upon receiving the note, the perpetrator would end his or her remarks diplomatically without public embarrassment.

  • Matching Distinct Styles
    All individuals are a composite of the five major learning domains with a pronounced dependence generally on one. Thus, based on individual learning and thinking styles, behaviors can be anticipated, questions answered before they are asked and responses designed to match individual styles.

    Attention to style can turn the most meddlesome school board into one of the best as Millett learned from her experience.

    Barbara Given is an associate professor of education, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, Va. 22030-4444. E-mail: She also co-directs the Center for Honoring individual Learning Diversity.