More Than One Right Way

Posted by on Aug 5, 2017 in General, Teaching, Thoughts on Teaching | 0 comments

Have you ever thought, “It would be so much easier if he would show me!”? Or maybe, “Just let me try it out, and I’m sure I’ll get it.” I know I have.


Everyone has a different way they would prefer to learn things, and, of course, no one person is the same. In the field of education, teachers and researchers are constantly developing better pedagogical practices in order to address the multitude of learning styles in their classrooms. By examining how learners operate, process, and understand information, they continue to develop better strategies that promote more effective learning. Within my own music teaching, my goal is the same—to figure out what strategy works for each student.


One specific area of educational research I find fascinating relates to sensory modalities (i.e., how learners take in and process new information through the five senses). Of the five sensory receptors—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—three are emphasized in informative learning within the classroom—auditory, visual, and kinesthetic/tactile. By comparing and contrasting these three sensory inputs, it is easy to see how different preferences can lead to different kinds of learning.


Auditory learners rely on listening and talking to process information. They enjoy participating in class, listening to lectures, responding to verbal prompts, and answering objective-based questions. Postsecondary education caters to this type of learner with its emphasis on lectures and objective tests. Not surprisingly, auditory learning is the most prevalent type of learning in music. Music students listen to sounds, pitches, and rhythms around them in order to replicate or analyze what is being played. Auditory students often learn music “by ear”—or by copying what they hear—as opposed to reading it from notation. They are able to process what they hear and transfer it into something that makes sense.


Visual learners, on the other hand, prefer to observe presentations, look at books and pictures, write notes and outlines, and complete written assignments. They struggle more in lecture environments and do not understand abstract concepts as well without visual aids or elements. They prefer assessments that include pictures, graphic organizers, charts, and diagrams. Visual learners also enjoy puzzles, videos, and observing demonstrations. For musicians, this type of learning reveals itself in the form of reading musical notation. Often times, those who prefer visual aids do well with sight-reading music and comprehending music through visual symbols on a page. Sometimes these students are not adept to learning by ear. (Note: A subcategory within visual learners includes those who prefer reading and writing text as opposed to diagrams and videos.)


The final sensory learning style is kinesthetic/tactile. These learners encompass all of their senses and exhibit the need to move, experience, and do in order to effectively process information. They love taking things apart, demonstrating concepts, interacting with other learners, creating exhibits, and engaging in hands-on activities. However, these students are often the most neglected in the classroom because of the extra effort and resources required to plan interactive lesson plans. Ironically, in today’s society the increasing amount of technology and decreasing attention spans have led to more and more learners who need to move and participate in order to retain concepts. Musicians who are more kinesthetic rely heavily on muscle memory and need to do in order to understand. These are the learners who practice things over and over, paying attention to how things feel in their body.


(Note: Some pedagogues would also argue for two more learning styles: global and analytical. In my opinion, these are ways of thinking more than they are related to the five senses.)


In reality, musicians really embody all three types of learning styles concurrently. They match sounds, read music, and practice their instrument, usually all at once. However, it is vital for educators to understand the importance of learning styles within their classrooms and teaching studios. By accommodating a variety of preferences, teachers are able to reach more students quickly and effectively, ensuring the overall success of their classroom. This can be accomplished by interviewing students, observing their behavior, or administering inventories, such as the VARK Questionnaire—Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic Questionnaire, which was developed by Neil Fleming in 1987. Teachers can easily identify the strengths and weaknesses of each student, thus proactively ensuring a higher success rate for memory and learning retention.


The integration of technology easily allows instructors to take advantage of multiple modalities at once, engaging auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners through oral, written, and hands-on activities. The implications for music education are just as important, especially because the performing arts emphasize kinesthetic learning. Aural imitation, verbal/written description, visualization, demonstration, and rhythmic movement are just some of the components integrated in music education in the classroom, ensemble, and private studio environments. Understanding and adapting to each student’s particular preference allows a teacher to better serve the needs of the student, leading to a more positive, rewarding experience for all involved.


What learning style are you? Take this quiz to find out! You may be surprised by what you find.