Engaging Learners in Your Classroom
- Grades: PreK–K
Morning meeting is over and 4-year-old Ramon heads right for the science area. Yesterday, his classmates helped him tape leaves onto his arms and covered his legs in brown construction paper and bark back on! He wants to move and sway just like the trees he saw outside his window during last night's rainstorm. Ramon is full of information about trees and plants. And he learned about them the way he learns about most things-by becoming physically involved in the learning process. Jason, on the other hand, is fascinated by the book of plants he found in the book corner this week. He runs his fingers over every part of the illustrated plant, clearly enjoying examining each of the plant parts and noticing their similarities and differences.
These children are both exploring and successfully absorbing information by learning in ways that suit their very different learning styles. More important, both are learning about themselves as learners. They are learning that every day at school is an adventure, that they like learning new things, and that they are bright, capable learners.
Ramon and Jason's teacher has worked to create a classroom environment where children with very different strengths and interests can flourish. She also understands Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory (MI). She knows that there are many ways to learn and that we can use different intelligences to learn a skill or concept. She knows that it is her job to use her students' strongest intelligences to help them learn. Classroom life is stimulating and satisfying for this group of children!
Observing Learning Styles
To best assess children's individual learning styles, observe them as they go about performing their classroom activities. You can:
- Carry a clipboard (or have one handy) or use note cards to record children's choices, successes, and frustrations.
- Organize learning centers so that you can easily determine which children chose what center and how successful they were at completing activities. (See Learning All Around the Room on page 45.)
- Share information with parents. Asking parents, "Is this how you see your child spending her time at home?" is a good way to begin a dialogue about the child's learning style and strengths.
- Encourage children to be aware of the choices they make and the activities they enjoy. This is a good way to help them appreciate their own strengths as well as the areas in which succeeding will require more effort.
While observing, be alert to the ways children use many intelligences to show what they know. Children can form their bodies to create the letters in their names or they might draw a picture to tell a story. They might choose music to capture the emotions displayed in a story they have heard or create a dance to show how caterpillars become butterflies. The many ways in which MI can be used are as infinite as the collected imaginations of the teachers doing the planning!
Children as Unique Learners
Respecting individual intelligences and learning styles means offering children different ways to learn. This approach abounds in good early childhood programs, where music, art, opportunities to explore nature, and movement activities are an integral part of the day. In educating the whole child, early childhood educators consider the intellectual, physical, emotional, and social aspects of a child's growth. As teachers plan experiences, they need to ensure that all of the intelligences are represented.
Specific activities can be re-designed to accommodate all of the intelligences. For example, a "my family" unit can be approached in a number of ways that meet the needs of children with different learning styles:
For spatially oriented learners: Ask children to draw/paint pictures representing each of their family members.
For logically-mathematically oriented learners: Ask children to name the people in their family. Write their responses on chart paper. Then help the class count the moms, dads, and siblings. You could place family photos on 3" x 5"- cards and mount them on poster board. Then ask children to draw each family member on a separate sheet of paper. Mount the drawings, grouped by type of family member Using large sheets of paper create bar graphs of the different types of family members (one sheet for moms, one for dads, one for siblings, one for grandparents, and so on). Children can use these bar graphs to count and compare ("Are there more moms or sisters? Are there more grandparents than brothers and sisters?").
For musically oriented learners: Audio-tape typical family members singing songs or lullabies, then play the tape and ask children to identify which sort of family member is doing the singing ("Is it a mom or a dad? Could this be a grandmother?"). You can also make your own tape or ask staff members to make tapes.
For bodily-kinesthetically oriented learners: Ask children to role-play, acting out what mom or dad does to get ready in the morning. Other children can try to identify the roles being depicted.
For the naturalist: Ask children to look at drawings and photos of animal families, identify adult and baby animals, and discuss their different roles (the point here is less that they identify animals correctly, and more that they are aware of the different family roles).
For linguistically oriented learners: Ask children for words to describe the activities of their various family members. You can also offer words (drives, cooks, plays ball, goes to school, brings me to school, sews) and ask children to guess to identify the family members these roles best apply to (this is a great way to begin breaking stereotypes-showing that some dads like to cook, for example).
For intrapersonally oriented learners: Ask children to arrange photos or drawings of family members from youngest to oldest.
For interpersonally oriented learners: Ask children to bring something to school that reminds them of family members.
Practically every classroom will include a wide-- range of intelligences and learning styles. In a unit on friendship, teachers might ask children to draw or cut out pictures of their friends (spatial), dramatize how they would treat a friend if she was hurt (bodily-kinesthetic and interpersonal), tell a story or generate a list of words to describe what makes a good friend (linguistic), or pick a friend to join them in singing along to a song (musical).
It's also important to be mindful of sharing information with children in ways other than linguistically. (It's surprising how much information we share with children by talking to them-by delivering information orally.) For some children, teaching counting by inviting them to jump among numbers drawn on the floor; for example, will help them grasp the concept far more quickly than by asking them to count objects they see in a picture book.
Different Environments for Different Styles
Since children have different temperaments as well as learning styles, you can help to meet their varying needs by periodically altering the classroom environment. A comfy, one-person quiet area can be set up in a corner of the room for the child who needs to be free from distractions in order to focus on an activity. You can offer a space with subdued, rather than bright, natural light for children who require a more calming, soothing environment. A table with only one or two chairs is great for children who prefer to work alone or in pairs, as are cozy couches or encircled beanbag chairs for children who prefer to work in groups.
Meeting Multiple Expectations
Sometimes administrators or parents have expectations that are quite different than the needs and interests of preschoolers. It may be the case that they want a more "academic" approach to learning than what is developmentally appropriate. This can be addressed with diplomatic reminders that adults learn by using different intelligences and that this is also the case for children. Here is an effective question to pose to parents during parent night: "How would you help someone find your favorite restaurant? Would you TELL them how to get there? DRAW a map for them? SHOW them by using your hands or body to act out where to turn? COUNT the number of blocks or miles between each turn?" And, "Do you have a friend who would use another approach?" This helps adults see that even grownups use different intelligences in solving problems.
Connecting With Families
Here are some suggestions for communicating to parents the ways in which you address children's different learning styles in the classroom:
- As a starting point, label children's work that is displayed on your classroom shelves, walls, and bulletin boards. When you take a few moments to include explanations of the purposes of the activities, and the different intelligences children used when doing them, parents will better understand how working with children's particular intelligences helps them grow.
- Invite parents to watch children perform-as participants in a short play, singing with their peers, or standing next to a "me-poster" or a picture that they drew of a story they enjoy. These events are a positive way for parents to see their children's particular strengths and learning styles in action.
- Throughout the year, create portfolios of children's work. These show children's progress over time and clearly capture their growth in many different intelligences. Photos, as well as videotapes and audiotapes, are important additions to children's portfolios. A springtime portfolio night is a great way to demonstrate children's progress. By comparing work samples from September to May, parents can clearly see their child's growth.
- Ask parents to identify their own strongest intelligences and then share that information with the class. This helps children understand (and reminds their parents) that there are many different ways to learn. (Creating a bar graph or pie chart is a great way to help young children make sense of this sort of information.)
- Send home classroom newsletters that include information about children's learning styles and specific activities you offer to address them in the classroom. Many parents choose to engage in similar activities with their children on weekends.
Assessing Your Program
Unless we consciously work at it, our classrooms reflect our own interests. If we are strong linguistically, we communicate almost exclusively through the written and spoken word. Likewise, if the spatial intelligence is our strength, we have art everywhere and use graphics and drawings in abundance. Those children whose intelligence strengths correspond with ours will prosper! Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you assess your program:
- Do signs have words and pictures or graphics to accompany them?
- Are both children's and adult art prominently displayed (and rotated regularly)?
- Are photos or drawings posted that capture people showing different emotions?
- Is a nature area or access (inside or outside if available) provided for children to observe plants and insects?
- Is music used, not just for dance or marching opportunities, but in conjunction with books that are read, stories that are told, or skills to be learned?
- Are movement activities a part of every day?
- Are there opportunities for children to use their bodies to share information-to form letters, act out how animals move or plants grow?
- Do children have the opportunity to "replay" a story they have just heard by acting it out?
- During rest time, are children allowed to take turns picking the background music, choosing something that will fit their mood that day?
- Are students allowed to help select the "adult art" that is displayed in the classroom?
- Are there places in the classroom where children can work alone?
- Do children regularly work together on group projects?
In order to provide the optimum learning environment for all the children in our programs, we need to step back and look at our classrooms to ensure that all children can succeed, regardless of their intelligence profile.