articles, opinions, and research about teaching and learning

Different kinds of thinking, learning, and knowing

To understand learning, we need to understand what it means to have knowledge.

Think of all the different things you know how to do . . .

. . . how to tie different knots, how to prepare a meal, how to sing a song or dance a dance, how to multiply numbers, and how to teach multiplication. What else?

What does it feel like to do these things? What does it mean to know how to do them?

Now think about the people you know, and the different talents that they have.

Perhaps you know someone who plays music beautifully, or someone who speaks with eloquence, or someone who can carve intricate designs.

Each of these abilities incorporates different kinds of knowledge.

A skilled speaker knows many words, and may be awake to the emotions of her audience. A skilled woodcarver has strong and steady hands, and the ability to "see" whole shapes in his mind.

And a weaver combines the dexterity of the woodcarver with a different kind of mathematical knowledge, the ability to learn, calculate, and execute intricate patterns.

Many of us, by the time we are adults, recognise that there are certain activities and kinds of knowledge that we enjoy exploring, or that we have even mastered.

As teachers, we can also see, if we observe our classes closely, that children show signs of their unique abilities early on.

How can we expect every child to learn in the same way?

Faced with this diversity, we can try to force every child into one style of learning, or we can develop teaching practices that take advantage of all the different ways that children learn.

The range of teaching-and-learning styles in the classroom runs from memorisation and repetition all the way to solving problems and thinking creatively. Learning in perspective explores this idea more fully.

In our classrooms, we can look for ways to address this entire range. We can, for example:

  • Use blocks, models, and other objects to teach mathematics, and so tap into children's fine motor skills and their visual understanding

  • Invite children to talk about (or write about) ideas and processes in mathematics, to engage their verbal thinking in understanding mathematics concepts

  • Ask children to draw pictures for the stories that we read to them, to connect their visual thinking to the words and events in the story

  • Guide children in making maps of the area around school, to tie their experience of movement in space to visual and mathematical concepts

And every time we plan a lesson or complete an activity in class, we can ask ourselves the questions: Which different pathways of learning are we taking advantage of here? What can we do that will involve even more different styles of learning?

Journal activity: Seeing diversity

  1. Write down the children in your class who have clear strengths in certain subjects, such as mathematics calculations, or verbal expression. Describe how these are demonstrated in the classroom.

  2. Write down the children, if you can, who have other talents that don't connect so directly to classroom learning. Is one child a brilliant model maker or wood carver? Does another show co-ordination in sports and games?

  3. Now draw a circle on the page, to signify the rest of the children in the classroom, the ones you haven't linked to special skills. In the next week, observe these children more closely. If you notice that one of them likes a certain activity, enter it into your journal. What can you infer about his or her styles of learning?

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Last revised April, 1999
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