Kids Can Reach Beyond Learning Preferences

A MiddleWeb Blog

This blog post is a long time in the making. Back in 2013 I was adapting to my evolving point of view about the validity of the learning styles theory.

In this archived MiddleWeb post, Why we don’t need learning styles to teach diverse learners, I shined a light on the need for educators to change the way they think about and act upon their point of view on learning styles as they design daily lessons.

My timing for revisiting this long-standing topic was sparked by a recent serendipitous experience:

“Hi, Mrs. Stein! Mrs. Stein, how have you been?”

A voice was calling after me as I was walking to my car from the school building at the end of the day. I turned around and immediately recognized one of my past 8th grade students who was now a senior.

“James! How wonderful to see you!”

I recognized his voice and enthusiastic nature as if four years ago were yesterday. Despite the presence of our masks (and different hair styles) we both immediately connected and recognized one another.

“I have been wanting to thank you. I just can’t believe I am seeing you now. I am graduating in June, and I am going to college on a scholarship for engineering.”

Following my excitement, support, and genuine congratulatory comments, I reminded him that his own efforts and commitment to learning were the source of of his success. He responded:

“You taught me to be flexible in my thinking and to open myself up to all the ways I need to learn. I had always thought I was a visual learner, but you helped me to see that sometimes I need to listen again and again instead—or get out my pencil and draw it out!”

He chuckled and added, “I used to get in trouble for sketching in class, and when I got to high school, it was hard, but what you taught me stayed with me. I talked with some of my teachers, and they were cool with letting me do what I needed to do.”

Learning Preferences: 3 Focus Points

It seems like every two to three years or so, there are new literature reviews concluding that research does not support the learning styles theory. Learning styles are debunked again and again. Yet, here is what I have come to embrace about learning styles over the years:

1. Flexibility: How we learn is not an either-or belief. The evidence points to the awareness that learners have strengths (hence, preferences), yet it is not beneficial to just teach to the preferences. What about their other skills?

To be effective learners, learners need to develop attributes associated with all learning styles. We need to teach students to be flexible, so they can apply their strengths – while strengthening areas that need improvement.

2. Balance: Educators must know their students through the lens of each learning modality. Know their strengths – incorporate those modalities – yet find a balance where students are challenged to strengthen other ways of learning. Students also need to advocate for how they feel they need to learn. This means educators must embrace an equitable – not equal – approach in their practice.

Allow for options, choice, and space for students to engage in the learning process. Design lessons that do not require all students to do the same thing at that same time every time. Shake things up.

Check out the UDL guidelines to discover ways to provide options for your next lesson.

3. Empower each learner: When co-teachers remain aware of the various learning modalities, they can connect the options in ways that support and meaningfully challenge their students to own their learning and increase their abilities.

It is helpful to acquaint your students with the various learning modalities and increase their awareness of some of their natural learning strengths. Use quick check-ins like the VARK questionnaire.

From the VARK questionnaire

However, make sure at the same time you increase their knowledge about other ways of engaging in learning to increase their flexibility and overall skill set. Remind them that the context of lessons changes from day to day—and minute to minute.

The bottom line is to remember NOT to use learning styles by selecting a type or category to box any student into. Rather, implement the balance and range of opportunities for optimizing learning depending on the context of each lesson.

Learning preferences should provide experiences for students to tap into their strengths while expanding their overall skills and advocating for themselves as learners. Students like my James are in your class, too. You may just not know it until a few years from now.

How are you and your co-teacher embracing learning preferences in your class?


Elizabeth Stein’s Two Teachers in the Room provides a wealth of practical strategies and tips to help K–12 educators co-teach more effectively. Stein presents examples of different co-teaching models and shows how to cultivate a dynamic co-teaching relationship to benefit all students. Click on the book cover here and use the code MWEB1 and receive a 20% discount at the Routledge site.

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein has more than 20 years teaching experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy, and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her books include Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5) (Scholastic, 2013), Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein and #coteachat

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