EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: How can a teacher tell what a child's learning style is?

BARBARA BOWMAN: Let's first discuss what we mean by learning styles. One of the misunderstandings is the notion that kids only learn in one style. I look for multiple ways children learn different things. We want to first look to see what learning style a child leads off with, and then discern whether it is his only one. As we observe, we can ask questions such as: Does he jump right in? Hang back? Ask questions? How does he go about deciding what to do next? Is he being effective in whatever learning style he's using? If he's not, we need to ask: What intervention should I be giving that would help him extend his use of various learning styles? This is much more complex than saying: "He's an auditory learned" or "She's a physical learner."

ECT: What role does culture play in forming a child's learning style?

BOWMAN: An enormously important role. Much of how one learns is individual, it's in the genes, in the wiring, of the individual. But a great deal more comes from what one learns from one's family and one's community, and that is largely influenced by cultural issues. For instance, an observation has been made that in the African-American community, people are much more tolerant of gross-motor activity on the part of children than in some other communities. In the Chinese culture, for instance, there is much more emphasis on fine motor activity. Though not true of all African-American or Chinese children, if you look at the sweep of the cultural influence, you'll find that more African-Americans tend to be gross-motor oriented than Chinese kids. Certainly, how kids think about things is culturally affected as well.

ECT: What can we ask parents to help us understand how their children learn best?

BOWMAN: It's certainly very useful to hear parents' comments about how they think their children approach learning. But then the teacher has to filter that through differing perceptions. A parent might say: "He's so antsy, he never sits still," and the teacher's observation is that he is very quiet. She sees many children; the parents only see theirs.

Similarly, it's important not to assume that the teacher's observation in school is the only way the child ever acts. So, perhaps, the most important thing one does in consulting parents is to find out whether or not the child the teacher sees in school is the child the parent sees at home.

ECT: Can you offer specific ways a teacher might adjust her teaching style to be more inclusive of differences in learning styles?

BOWMAN: A good strategy is to have a coworker observe you and your interactions. Videotape can be very helpful. Because so many teachers teach alone, it's very hard to know how you're doing. Peer observers can help us look at questions such as, How am I distributing my attention around the classroom? Am I suggesting a variety of approaches to learning to the children in my group? If possible, it would be great to do this more than once a year Even once a month, colleagues could spend an hour in each other's classrooms and then carefully and sensitively share feedback.