Meaning Research

Exploring learning styles: developing a flexible teaching approach: reflections on Pedagogy Saturday VI

Rebecca Rischin
American Music Teacher, Oct-Nov, 2002

Reprinted from

If only one size did fit all…. If only teaching were as easy as one plus one equals two–a mathematical problem with a single solution. But teaching involves people, not numbers, and while numbers can be plugged into formulae to yield predictable equations, people cannot. They are not perfect squares; they come in many shapes and sizes; they act and react in such a way that similar problems must frequently be approached from different angles. It makes sense, then, that teaching should be as variable as the people it involves. Clearly, one size does not fit all, and teachers should try to mold their methods to fit their students instead of trying to mold their students to fit their methods.

This was the theme of Pedagogy Saturday VI, “Developing A Flexible Teaching Approach,” a fascinating day filled with sessions devoted to understanding differences as a means to teaching more effectively. From sessions on intuitive versus non-intuitive learning and temperament-based teaching and learning styles to addressing the various stages of human development, each session provided compelling insight into how to adapt our teaching methods to accommodate the needs of different students.

“Teach as you were taught” is a philosophy with which many of us are familiar. And yet it is no surprise that, in practice, teaching as we were taught is frequently ineffective. Why? Because, in spite of the possibilities suggested by genetic engineering, we are not human clones. Every human being is born with a unique genetic configuration into a unique environment. The result is a unique learning style. This was the premise of the opening session, “No Dumb Students: Teaching the Non-Intuitive Student,” by Earl Oremus, headmaster of the Marburn Academy in Columbus, Ohio, a school for children with learning differences such as dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Most of us chose music as a profession partially because we were good at it, said Oremus. We may have known intuitively how to create a beautiful phrase and were probably rewarded for this talent. As teachers, however, we often forget that we are not all “talented” in exactly the same way. We forget that our students may not see, hear, think and feel exactly as we do, and they are living in an era and environment distinctly different from the one in which we grew up. And so, we get frustrated when teaching methods that worked for us do not work for them.

Effective teaching depends on recognizing the differences between intuitive and non-intuitive learning styles, explained Oremus. While intuitive learners usually have an affinity for the activity at hand, non-intuitive learners may have an aversion to it. Intuitive learners are motivated by challenge, are able to persist despite setbacks and are emotionally self-supporting; whereas, non-intuitive learners feel defeated by high levels of challenge, are unable to persist in the face of failure and require a supportive environment and teacher. Intuitive learners are able to perceive the syntax, structure and mechanics of the discipline effortlessly or unconsciously; non-intuitive learners cannot deduce each step from the last but must be taught each segment overtly. Intuitive students require less intensive, less detailed, less carefully sequenced instruction than do non-intuitive learners; they also progress more rapidly, require less practice and review, and retain material more easily.

Problems arise from teachers’ lack of recognition of the above differences; namely, our inclination to value and reward the intuitive learner as a “good” student and to see the non-intuitive learner as a “bad” student. We are not inclined to see learning differences as evidence of the need for teaching differences. Rather, we lack training in teaching methods effective for non-intuitive students and expect to have a class of exclusively intuitive learners. We assume everyone learns at the same rate and emphasize competitive grading systems.

Oremus proposed numerous strategies for reaching the non-intuitive student. The first step, he said, is to overcome the student’s distaste for the activity–help him or her experience the joy of music. Only then should the issues of technique, work ethic and refinement be addressed. Learning must be broken down into small segments, with each step sequenced from simplest to most complex. Teaching must be direct rather than through induction or inference; abstractions must be made concrete; and rules and patterns must be established before exceptions or ambiguities are introduced. Various techniques (auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic) as well as supervised and independent practice time, drill, review and time management must be employed to foster retention and fluency. Tasks must be given a clear structure, feedback must be given and desired behavior must be frequently rewarded.

In sum, said Oremus, if students learn differently, then we must teach differently; in order for them to learn from us, we must learn how to respect their differences. After all, as Oremus concluded, quoting Will Rogers, “We are all ignorant, only in different subjects.”

Ages and Stages

While human beings are unique, they are similar in that they undergo identical stages of development: infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Each one of these stages is characterized by certain emotional, intellectual and physical changes that must be addressed for effective teaching to take place. This was the theme of “Ages and Stages: Is that the Same Child I Taught Last Year?” sessions, which addressed the differences in teaching approaches necessary for various age groups.

Teaching young children and elementary students can be an absolute delight. It also can be fraught with difficulty. Short attention spans and high emotional dependency often result in a need for excessive parenting and patience. In spite of their limited verbal skills, babies have distinct personalities that manifest themselves in different learning styles, said Kenneth Guilmartin, founder of Music Together and presenter of the session, “Learning the Language: Even Babies Have Learning Styles.” The more willing the teacher is to adjust his or her expectations, he said, the quicker the baby will learn. As the baby enters childhood, he or she becomes ready to graduate from educational play to more formal instruction. But for the bud to blossom, the teacher must provide plenty of shrubs and flowers (variety) along with healthy doses of water, sun and fertilizer (loving care), said Donna Brink Fox, chair of music education at the Eastman School of Music and presenter of “Buds and Blossoms: Designing a Landscape for the Musical Development of Young Children.” In other words, it is crucial at this stage to find creative ways of motivating children so they can still have fun in a more formal learning environment.

In adolescence, a surge in cognitive development permits more abstract, hypothetical thinking, a deeper appreciation of beauty and art, and the utilization of information in a more sophisticated way. Attention span, processing speed and memory improve, as do problem-solving skills and self-understanding. The child who needed frequent breaks is suddenly able to focus for longer time periods. If only it were not for the physical and emotional growth spurts that make teaching and parenting such an adventure at this age! Is that the same child I taught last year, we ask.

Dealing with the adolescent can be rewarding, but it also can be quite exasperating, commiserated Kim Dolgin, professor of psychology at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, the presenter of “Resonating with Rebels: Establishing a Positive Relationship with the Adolescent Student.” During adolescence, the physical changes of puberty can cause embarrassment and self-consciousness, and the emotional changes can provoke moodiness and depression. Increased cognition may lead to egocentricism that may manifest itself in rebelliousness, self-righteousness and total self-absorption. Peer influence becomes extremely important as the adolescent strives desperately to conform. Patience and sensitivity are crucial at this stage to be successful at harnessing the adolescent’s boundless energy during this tumultuous time.

Though teens do outgrow adolescence, many of their insecurities and general tendency toward skepticism often carry over into the college years. According to the well-known psychologist A.W. Chickering, the college student struggles with seven principal issues, explained Judith Piercy, director of judiciaries at Ohio University in Athens and presenter of “Who Are these Students Anyway?” These issues include: 1) achieving intellectual, physical and social competence; 2) managing emotions; 3) becoming emotionally and instrumentally independent; 4) establishing identity; 5) becoming more comfortable with interpersonal relationships; 6) clarifying purpose in career and lifestyle; and 7) developing integrity and a personalized value system. Sensitivity to these complex issues is essential in becoming an effective college teacher. The student also may struggle to find his or her ethical and cognitive center, leading to a general indecisiveness. In this period of uncertainty, when the student seems to be continually vacillating, it is helpful if the teacher can remain as centered and focused as possible, said Piercy. A teacher with a firm sense of self and direction can offer the student some much-needed balance on the turbulent course toward personal affirmation and commitment.

It was interesting how the above theories on learning development figured into the afternoon panel discussions on video clips of individual lessons and group master classes. In the video clip of a master class by William Westney, professor of music at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, college students engaged in a “loosening up” exercise, passing around a ball, and playing and dancing with it in response to the music. Dolgin reminded us that this is exactly how two-year-olds respond to music, and this kind of activity can be extremely helpful in rekindling the kinesthetic sense that often wanes as we get older, she said. These activities also can inspire synergy rather than competition, which is exactly why fraternities and sororities engage in group bonding rituals, she added. Piercy noted that this kind of activity can help older students deal with one of the Chickering issues, physical and interpersonal competence and confidence, for as students become more physically comfortable with themselves, they also learn to trust their peers. Sylvia Wang, professor of piano at Northwestern University, remarked eloquently that the activity seemed to bring out the students’ “inner child” and illustrated how passing around a ball could be interpreted as a physical metaphor for the musical passing of one phrase to another.

Humans are Animals

Human beings may go through the same developmental stages, but temperamentally, they are different animals. This was the theme of “Introducing the Animal Kingdom–It’s a Jungle Out There? and “Looks Like an Ape to Me!” presented by Keith Golay, professor of psychology at California State University in Fullerton and creator of the “Temperament Teaching Model.” People are fundamentally different, he claimed, born with a unique set of genetic traits that affect the way they think, act, perceive, feel and desire. Understanding differences in temperament is one key to forming successful relationships.

According to the noted psychologist Keirsey, there are four basic temperament types: the impulsive, spontaneous Artisans; the responsible, rule-governed Guardians; the analytical, theoretical Rationals; and the romantic, diplomatic Idealists. For easy identification, Golay assigned each temperament type an animal: an ape for the Artisan; a bear for the Guardian; an owl for the Rational; and a dolphin for the Idealist. Each animal or temperament type has specific characteristics that manifest themselves in unique learning and teaching styles.

Apes/Artisans are considered spontaneous learners. They are impulsive and need constant stimulation. These kinds of students need plenty of physical movement and novelty, said Golay. If entranced by an activity, such as practicing, they can go for hours on end. Apes enjoy contests and competitions and like to show off. Musical prodigies and Olympic athletes are examples of apes.

Artisan teachers are Experiantialists, who prize experience as the best teaching tool and focus on improving their students’ performance through building their confidence and interacting in a playful manner. Like cheerleaders, they aim to inspire their team to perform at their best.

Bears/Guardians are considered actual routine learners. They are responsible, stable and reliable. These students tend to be cooperative and conformist and desire to meet the teacher’s expectations, said Golay. They like drill and routine and find comfort in knowing exactly what to do, sometimes feeling intimidated by more creative activities like improvisation and interpretation.

Golay named Guardian teachers Traditionalists because they follow standards that are handed down, teaching as they were taught and utilizing methods that have “stood the test of time.” They utilize explanation more than demonstration and consider the transmission of information to be of primary importance.

Owl/Rationals are conceptual specific learners. They are calm, cool and collected by nature. These students enjoy solving problems and are highly curious. They are often skeptical and desire answers to their questions, wanting to know specific practice techniques and the reasoning behind them.

Rationalist teachers are the Pragmatists; they are logical and practical in their approach, remarked Golay. They encourage their students to set their own expectations and focus on assisting them to reach their goals. They also like innovation and experimenting with different teaching approaches to fit different students.

Dolphins/Idealists are conceptual global learners. They tend to value people and relationships more than actions, responsibilities or competencies, striving to be sincere and communicate with others in an empathetic manner in order to be liked. These types of students are cooperative and interested in building a harmonious relationship with their teacher and peers. They tend to be enthusiastic and like to express themselves; for them, music becomes a means of self-expression. Dolphins like to be recognized as unique and special and are easily bored with the routines and drills so valued by the Guardians, noted Golay.

Golay likened Idealist teachers to Catalysts. Catalysts focus on bringing out the best in each student by developing strong personal relationships, he explained. These types of teachers are naturally empathetic and easily give encouragement. Like Rationalists, they try to match the instruction to the student and are willing to use many types of aids to help the student learn. Of all types, Catalysts seem to take to teaching most naturally and easily.

It was interesting to learn the results of a survey completed prior to this session, in which, utilizing a Keirsey scoring system, members of the audience scored themselves according to the four temperament/animal types. As it turned out, most people were either dolphins or bears. This is no surprise, said Golay, as teaching tends to attract these specific types.

In the late afternoon session, where we viewed video clips of lessons, we laughed and reflected as we recognized images of ourselves and our students in the various teaching and learning models. Identifying who was what became something of a game. Was he a dolphin or an ape? Was she an owl or a bear? Sometimes the answer was obvious; other times it was not. What did become clear, however, was that like seemed to attract like. Dolphins enjoyed splashing around together, and apes relished egging each other on.

Does this mean that, in order to be effective, teachers must be chameleons, changing color with every student, behaving like an ape when really feeling like a bear, asked one member of the audience. No, said Golay, but we do need to remember which approaches work best with which animals and to do our best to accommodate these differences. Apes like motivational rewards, he said, be they bananas or gold stars. Owls like a mixture of routine and lecture, lest they become bored. Dolphins like a personal, sensitive approach, preferring not to dwell on the technical aspect of music making. And bears like structure and responsibility, enjoying fulfilling an assignment and reporting back on their progress.

Isn’t this too simplistic, asked one member of the audience. In reducing human temperament to four kinds of animals, are we not defeating our original purpose? That is, if, in fact, we are all unique, then by classifying and categorizing one another, are we not ignoring our differences and perpetuating the very stereotypes that we so disparage?

Whether we are a menagerie of a million or an even family of four is not important, said Golay, for it is the utility of the classification, not the classification itself, that matters. Will this theory help us improve our relationships and job performance, he asked. If so, then it is indeed useful.

The truth is, human beings have always had and will forever have a need to classify the world around them. Man or woman, woodwind or brass, Democrat or Republican, things are what they are because of what they are not–and only because of what we have made them. That is how we make sense of the world. That is how we communicate, in fact. Language is a classifier without which we feel lost, said Golay. Perhaps that is why–child or adolescent, owl or bear–we turn to music to express ourselves. In that way, intuitively, we are all alike.

Rebecca Rischin is associate professor of clarinet and chair of the woodwind division at Ohio University School of Music in Athens. Her book, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet, is being published by Cornell University Press.

©2002 Music Teachers National Association, Inc.
©2003 Gale Group