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Diversity, Learning Style and Culture

by Pat Burke Guild  

Without an understanding of the unique meanings existing for the individual,
the problems of helping him effectively are almost insurmountable.  
--Arthur Combs

Educators do not believe that all learners are the same. Yet visits to schools throughout the world might convince us otherwise. Too often, educators continue to treat all learners alike while paying lip service to the principle of diversity.  

Teachers know that students learn in different ways; the experience in the classroom confirms this every day. In addition, well-accepted theories and extensive research illustrate and document learning differences. Most educators can talk about learning differences, whether by the name of learning styles, cognitive styles, psychological type, or multiple intelligences. Learners bring their own individual approach, talents and interests to the learning situation.  

We also know that an individual learner's culture, family back?ground, and socioeconomic level affect his or her learning. The context in which someone grows and develops has an important impact on learning.  

These beliefs, principles and theories have an important impact on the opportunities for success for every student in our schools.  

Diversity, Uniformity and School Practices

Despite acknowledgment of important differences among learners, uniformity continues to dominate school practices. More than 50 years ago, Nathaniel Cantor observed that "the public elementary and high schools, and colleges, generally project what they consider to be the proper way of learning which is uniform for all students" (1946/1972, p. 102). In 50 years, too little has changed. Most schools still function as if all students were the same. Students use the same textbooks and the same materials for learning. They work at the same pace on the same quantity of material. They study the same content and work through the same curriculum on the same schedule. Teachers talk with whole groups of students, delivering the same information at the same time to everyone. And, of course, schools use the same tests for all to measure the success of the learning.  

Is this kind of sameness always wrong? Surely, given the task of educating large numbers of people, efficiency justifies some consistency and uniformity in the process. Even more valid is the argument for general standards and equality across schools, districts, and states. This is a realistic perspective, but to better match beliefs about diversity with practice, we must address the imbalance between uniformity and diversity.

At present, schools are heavily biased toward uniformity over diversity. An appropriate balance must be determined thoughtfully with attention to beliefs, theories, and research rather than efficiency. We need to decide intentionally what should be uniform for all students and what should be diverse and strive toward putting into practice what we say we believe. 

In one sense, the current imbalance is easily understood. Sameness is always easier to accommodate than difference, and education practices often have been developed to consciously promote the same education for all students. We have few teaching models that appropriately accommodate both consistent educational values and human diversity.  

A clarification is needed here. Attention to diversity does not mean "anything goes." Honoring diversity does not imply a lack of clear beliefs and strong values. There are indeed some absolutes in education. Every learner benefits from an outstanding teacher and an engaging learning experience. Every student and teacher deserves to be treated with respect. Every student should have an opportunity to reach his or her individual potential. Every student should master specific basic skills. The challenge is to identify what should be the same in schools and what should be different. We need appropriate uniform standards but not standardization.  It's important to decide:  

? What outcomes should be expected for all students?

? What experiences should every student have?

? What curriculum should be uniform?

    ? How can educators work toward a common mission while honoring diversity?  

These questions do not have simple answers, but we must explore them to accommodate individual differences in the classroom and to give all students the best opportunities for success. 

Attending to Diversity  

The need to address the balance between uniformity and diversity is urgent because the current imbalance is consistently damaging to many learners and teachers.  

The emphasis on uniformity is a serious disadvantage for students whose culture has taught them behaviors and beliefs that are different from the norms of the majority culture most often emphasized in schools. Students whose families value collaboration are told to be independent. Students whose culture values spontaneity are told to exercise self- control. Students who are rewarded in their families for being social are told to work quietly and alone. Hale- Benson (1986) points out: "A duality of socialization is required of Black people. Black children have to be prepared to imitate the "hip," "cool," behavior of the culture in which they live and at the same time to take on those behaviors that are necessary to be upwardly mobile" (p. 62). This cultural clash often causes students to struggle in school, and yet their individual strengths, if valued, respected, and promoted, would bring them success and increase their self- confidence.  

A limited acknowledgment of individual learning differences also encourages a continual search for the one "best" way for students to learn, teachers to teach, and the curriculum to be studied. There is ample proof over the years- in reading, mathematics, writing, and foreign language instruction, for example, that it is futile to search for the single best way to achieve a broad educational outcome, in large part because learners do not fit a single mold.  

Students who do not learn through whatever the current "best approach" happens to be are too often labeled "disabled" because their way of learning does not respond to that particular method. To further complicate the situation, the method becomes the identified deficit and the target for remediation. For example, in reading, remediation in phonics, which is a strategy, often becomes the target for learning. In a typical situation, a young learner who initially was not successful learning to read with a phonic approach receives additional instruction in phonics. The overarching goal, in this case the ability to read, is lost as the instruction emphasizes the specific practice of the deficit technique. Remediating a deficit technique rather than teaching the desired skill through the student's strength is the norm in too many schools.  

The same pattern is evident in behavioral areas where, for example, an active, hands- on learner who does not have the opportunity to use that approach in a positive way in the classroom is described as lacking self-control and labeled disruptive or hyperactive. It disturbs many educators to see the tremendous increase in the number of students medicated for attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) without an examination of their learning styles. Thomas Armstrong, a former special education teacher and a proponent of the multiple intelligences theories, addressed this issue.  

The traits that are associated with ADD- hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsiveness- can result from a number of causes. For example, a child may be hyperactive or inattentive because of being bored with a lesson, anxious about a bully, upset about a divorce, allergic to milk, temperamental by nature, or a hundred other things. Research suggests, though, that once adults have labeled and medicated the child- and the medication works- these more complex questions are all too often forgot?ten. By rushing to drugs and labels, we may be leaving more difficult problems to fester under the surface. (1995, p. 42)  

Teachers, too, suffer from the imbalance between uniformity and diversity, especially when they are evaluated with uniform processes. Numerous educators,including John Goodlad, Roland Barth, and Ted Sizer, have written eloquently about the value of diversity of teaching styles. We do not have evidence of one best way to teach, just as we don't know of one best way to learn.  

An emphasis on uniformity creates competition rather than collaboration among teachers. While identification of specific teaching skills can be uniform, diversity of teaching styles can and should be a school's strength. For example, all teachers can be held account?able for thoughtful planning, but that planning could be linear and sequential for one teacher and holistic and conceptual for another. The plan books of these teachers would look very different, and they should be evaluated differently, too.  

Distinct approaches to teaching methods, content instruction, curriculum organization, and special education programming come and go over the years. It is unrealistic to expect that a particular approach will be successful for all learners. This expectation only leads to disappointment and another swing of the education pendulum. Instead of an either-or mentality, many experienced teachers know that using the best of a variety of approaches benefits many learners.  Instructional tools must be carefully and intentionally adapted to accommodate individual learners.  Only in this way will all students have an opportunity for success.  

Defining Learning Style


The Drum

daddy says the world is

a drum tight and hard

and i told him

i'm gonna beat

out my own rhythm

--Nikki Giovanni  

To understand people's behaviors, we need to look at the roots of their actions. One way to do this is to consider several basic ways in which we all interact with a situation, a person, information, or ideas. First we take in the occurrence; then we think about it; react to it; and ultimately act upon it. These basic functions imply four categories of style differences.  

? Style is concerned with cognition: People perceive and gain knowledge differently.

? Style is concerned with conceptualization: People form ideas and think differently.

? Style is concerned with affect: People's emotional responses and values differ.

? Style is concerned with behavior: People act differently.  

These categories help organize the diverse aspects of style, but they are not meant to be rigid. The complexity and subtlety of human behavior makes any organization of individual differences accurate in one instance but arbitrary in the next. To understand styles and their implications for education, it is best to view these categories in conjunction with all the characteristics that are integrated in the total personality of each human being.

Cognition: How Do I Know?  

Perception, the initial stage of cognition, involves receiving, obtaining, taking possession of, and discerning information, ideas, and concepts. Some of us best perceive what is real; others clearly see possibilities with their imaginations. Some people see parts of a whole, separating ideas from their context, while others see the whole, not unlike the difference between seeing the forest or the trees.  

These perceptual differences affect what and how something is received. My best intentions and extensive efforts to convince another to see exactly as I see will not eliminate these personal differences. A gifted artist can describe the gestalt of a painting, but some viewers will be struck by, and confined to, a single image in the work. The artist can plead, cajole, and discuss the entire painting in detail, but to little avail if the viewer's perception governs a certain view.  

Consider how it would be if you hiked through the woods with a friend who suddenly became fascinated with a mushroom. At first, you might not even see the mushroom; your friend must point it out. Then, even when you physically see it, it doesn't mean the same thing to the two of you. You never eat mushrooms, and besides, you're on the hike mainly to enjoy your friend's company. But your friend is an accomplished gourmet chef who is looking to a new challenge: learning to cook with wild mushrooms he himself gathers. He'll soon be taking a class to learn to distinguish between edible and poisonous varieties. Your perceptions about the mushroom, obviously, are different.  

Two people listening to the same music respond differently to the nuances of the sound, reflecting the depth of their musical experiences and their personal perceptions. Perhaps one is tuned to certain subtleties, while the other listens more generally. Two people sitting next to each other at a movie will recall different things when they discuss the film later. Students in a class often hear the teacher's directions in very different ways.  

Gaining knowledge is another part of cognition. People get information in different ways. Some people use abstract sources, reading about things and listening to others' descriptions. Others need concrete experiences. The concrete person often will depend directly on the senses for information: "I see it; now I know what it is." The abstract person is more receptive to secondhand sources of knowledge. Some people have to touch something or see it operate before they accept it as real, while others can imagine a vivid reality with?out needing to experience it. There are also sensory specialists, those people who rely on one sense more than another to gather information. Again, these different ways of getting information and gaining knowledge reflect distinct personal styles.  

Conceptualization: How Do I Think?  

People also exhibit differences in what they do with the knowledge they gain: how they process information and how they think. Some people are always looking for connections and ways to tie things together. Others are more divergent: One thought, idea, or fact triggers a multitude of new directions. Some people order ideas, information, and experiences in a linear, sequential way, while others organize their thoughts in clusters and random patterns. Some people think aloud; they verbalize ideas as a way of understanding them. Others concentrate on understanding concepts and experiences privately in their own minds. Some people think quickly, spontaneously, and impulsively; others are deliberate and reflective.  

We see these and other examples every day. You may have had the experience of asking someone, "Whatever made you say that?"   Then you realize the person was thinking about something in a very different way than you were. The important point is that these differences form patterns for each person and affect their total behavior.

Affect: How Do I Decide?  

Differences in motivation, judgments, values, and emotional responses also characterize individual style. Some people are motivated internally; others seek external rewards. Some people actively seek to please others: children to please their parents and teachers, adults to please bosses and spouses. Some people simply are not attuned to others' expectations, and still others will rebel against any such demands. Some people make decisions logically, rationally, objectively, and coolly. Others decide things subjectively, focusing on their own and others' perceptions and emotions. Some people seek frequent feedback on their ideas and work; some are crushed by slight criticism. Others welcome analytical comments, and still others would never ask an outsider for a critique.  

For some people, the medium is the message; others focus directly on the content. Some people are emotionally involved in everything they do, and others are neutral. The emotional learner prefers a classroom with a high emotional energy while another learner works best in a low-key environment. These affective differences are also stylistic and interrelated with the conceptual and cognitive characteristics discussed above. 

The discussion of differences in affective style does not contradict basic humanistic beliefs in education. Everyone does best in a supportive atmosphere free from excessive criticism. But an awareness of stylistic differences can help administrators and teachers recognize that every person does not seek the same affective response and understand the kinds of support students, parents, and coworkers want.

Behavior: How Do I Act?  

Cognitive, conceptual, and affective patterns are the roots of behavior, and pervasive and consistent stylistic characteristics will be reflected in a person's actions. The reflective thinker, for example, can be expected to act in a reflective way in a variety of situations from decision making to relating to people. Some people scan a situation to get the overall gist before tackling a problem; others focus on, a certain part of the problem immediately and start with it. Some people approach a task randomly; others are very systematic. Some people need explicit structure; others prefer and perform best in a more open- ended situation. Some people prefer to work alone, and others like groups. Many people prefer working in certain kinds of physical environments.  

In education, we recognize a variety of differences in how people learn and how these basic styles affect the individual learner's behavior. Reflective students are slow to respond to questions and need to think through a response carefully. Impulsive learners respond quickly and blurt out their thoughts. The step-by-step person learns best when each stage is clear and the transitions are spelled out. Another kind of learner makes intuitive leaps. After several weeks of struggling with division of fractions, this student may suddenly announce, "I've got it!" This same intuitive learner also will be impatient with sounding out parts of a word and doing phonetic worksheets when she has already grasped the essence of a story.  

In sum, people differ in the ways they perceive, think, feel, and behave. Researchers have identified many specific examples of these differences, as summarized in the chart which follows. Equally important, the personal and professional experiences of educators provide constant evidence that style differences exist and that they affect many aspects of learning and teaching each day.  

To provide an equal opportunity for all students to be successful in school, educators must first  develop a deep understanding of individual differences in learning. The research and theories on culture and learning style adequately document learning differences among individuals. While these theories are familiar to many educators, and generally accepted, their application is relatively shallow.  For example, many teachers know that it is important to provide a "visual" learner with visual information. But if the visual is words on an overhead projector mimicking the words spoken orally, this is a superficial accommodation of the learner's style. Far more significant would be an image, symbol, or visual representation of the information so that the visual learner could learn through his or her strengths. 

Many teachers know that the active, kinesthetic learner needs hands-on experiences. A deeper understanding of these learners tells us that the experiences should come early in the process while the initial understanding of the concepts and skills are being developed, not just during practice time. Yet many times these learners are asked to "understand" first, then "do" later. The kinesthetic learner needs to manipulate the science equipment to understand the concepts, and she will learn abstract math concepts while doing the measurement project or even after it's completed. The kinesthetic learners' impatience to get started sometimes causes teachers to demand that they explain what they will do before they start. This is difficult for these students, since the doing leads to the understanding and the explaining. 

Learning styles research and resources are rich with examples to help develop appropriate activities for different learners. But if the activities are not guided by a consistent and deep understanding of the significance of learning differences, the activities will be a cursory attempt to implement these concepts. Learning styles labels are simply a tool; the diverse behaviors we see in the classroom are reflections of much deeper cognitive processes.  

Not all learners who share a certain label are alike. A "visual" learner who is also "concrete sequential" seeks visual order and would benefit from a linear diagram of material. A "visual" learner who is also "abstract random" responds to design and would be drawn to a mind- map format for organizing information. A careful study of the major concepts of learning styles is necessary for the practical application of these theories in schools.

  Examples of Learning Style

Cognition: perceiving, finding out getting informationsensing/intuitionJung, Myers-Briggs, Mok, Keirsey and Bates, Hanson, Silver and Strong
 field dependence/field independenceWitkin
 abstract/concreteGregorc, Kolb and McCarthy
 visual, auditory (verbal, musical), kinesthetic, tactileBarbe and Swassing, Dunn and Dunn, Gardner
Conceptualization: thinking, forming ideas, processing, memoryextraversion/introversionJung, Myers-Briggs, Keirsey and Bates
 reflective observation/active experimentationKolb and McCarthy
 logical intelligenceGardner
Affect: feelings, emotional response, motivation, values, judgments
feeling/thinkingJung, Myers-Briggs, Mok, Keirsey and Bates, Hanson, Silver and Strong
 Effect of temperature, light, food, time of day, sound, designDunn and Dunn
Behavior: manifestations of all the above-mentioned characteristics  

*Characteristics separated by a slash (/) indicate bipolar or opposite traits.


Culture and Learner Diversity

When you describe a culture, do you include ethnicity, religion, gender, and socioeconomic background? What words do you use to describe characteristics of your own culture? When do such descriptions feel comfortable, and when do they become simplistic stereotypes? Are you "typical" of your culture in some ways, and are you unique in other ways?

As you think about these questions for yourself and discuss them with people of various cultures, it's likely that the responses will be complex. Thus, it's no surprise that when we ask how culture affects learning, we broach a sensitive area.

We know that culture and learning are connected in important ways. Early life experiences and the values of a person's culture affect both the expectations and the processes of learning. If this relationship is true, could we then assume that students who share cultural characteristics have common ways of learning? Does culture create a way of learning, and how would we know this? Do African American students have similar ways of learning? Do girls learn differently than boys? These questions are both important and controversial.

They are important because we need all the information we can get to help every learner succeed in school, and because a deep understanding of the learning process should provide a framework for curriculum and instructional decisions. They also are important questions because success for the diverse student populations in schools calls for continual reexamination of educators' assumptions, expectations, and biases.

Such questions are controversial because information about a group of people often leads to naive inferences about individual members of that group. Additionally, in the search for explanations of the continued achievement difference between students of color and mainstream white students, there is an understandable sensitivity about causes and effects. It is all too easy to confuse descriptions of differences with explanations for deficits. The questions also are controversial because they force us to confront philosophical issues in the uniformity versus diversity debate. Is equality of instruction synonymous with equity of educational opportunity for all? Is the purpose of public schooling to create a "melting pot" or "a salad bowl"?

A highly public example of how sensitive these issues are occurred in 1987 when New York state published a booklet for educators aimed at decreasing the student dropout rate. A small section of the booklet described learning styles typical of minority students and identified certain patterns associated with African American students. These descriptions became the subject of intense scrutiny and animated debate. The descriptions were eventually removed from the booklet, but a review panel concluded that "learning style and behavioral tendency do exist, and [that] students from particular socialization and cultural experiences often possess approaches to knowledge which are highly functional in the indigenous home environment and can be capitalized upon to facilitate performance in academic settings" (New York State Regent's Report ms. in Claxton, 1990, p. 6).

A deep understanding of both culture and learning style differences is important for all educators, though the subject must be addressed carefully. The relationship of the values of the culture in which a child is currently living, or from which a child has roots, and the learning expectations and experiences in the classroom is directly related to the child's school success academically, socially, and emotionally.

The Nature vs. Nurture Issue

If a classroom teacher is to facilitate successful learning opportunities for all learners, he or she must "know" the learner. This includes knowing about innate personality and also learned cultural values that affect behavior. The learner, of any age, is a product of nature and nurture. We each are born with predisposition for learning in certain ways. We also are products of external influences, especially within our immediate family, extended community, and culture.

Researchers confirm that learning patterns are a function of both nature and nurture. Myers (1990) asserts: "Type development starts at a very early age. The hypothesis is that type is inborn, an innate predisposition like right or left-handedness, but the successful development of type can be greatly helped or hindered by environment from the beginning" (p. 176). Many researchers describe the importance of socialization within the family, immediate culture, and wider culture. They agree with Ramirez (1989) that "cultural differences in children's learning styles develop through their early experience" (p. 4). Gardner (1991) echoes this perspective: "[W]e are as much creatures of our culture as we are creatures of our brain" (p. 38).

Sometimes people wonder which is more important: innate personality traits or the influence of culture? This question has no clear answer. The most accurate response is probably "it depends." Variables such as the congruence of innate traits with cultural influences; the support, or lack of it, within the environment for preferred behaviors and for taking risks; and general life successes will influence how learning patterns are shaped. When my culture supports my individuality, I grow and develop in healthy ways. When my family encourages my uniqueness, I learn to trust my own innate predisposition. If, however, I do not innately fit the expectations of a "typical girl" or "typical African American," I become aware of the lack, of congruence of my inner self with external expectations, and I have to reconcile those differences. Sometimes that reconciliation gives me more strengths and a wider range of behaviors. At other times, it leads to conflict and uncertainties. Both results confirm the important roles of nature and nurture in shaping a person's approach to life- and to learning.

Every child of every culture, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, age, ability, and talent deserves to have an equal opportunity to be successful in school. Knowing each student's culture is essential for providing successful learning opportunities. Understanding learning differences will help educators facilitate, structure, and validate successful learning for every student.

Similarities and Differences

Reports about culture and learning style consistently agree that within a group, variations among individuals are as great as commonalties. Even as we acknowledge that culture affects learning styles, we know that distinct learning style patterns don't fit a specific cultural group. "Researchers have clearly established that there is no single or dual learning style for the members of any cultural, national, racial, or religious group" (Dunn, 1997, pp. 74- 75).

This important point is often verbally acknowledged, but ignored in practice. Cox and Ramirez (1981) explain the result:

Recognition and identification of these average differences have had both positive and negative effects in education. The positive effect has been the development of an awareness of the types of learning that our public schools tend to foster . . . . The negative effect[,] . . . arising primarily from common problems associated with looking at mean differences[,] is [that] the great diversity within a culture is ignored and a construct which should be used as a tool for individualization becomes yet another label for categorizing and evaluating. (p. 61)

Many reports contend that African Americans or Hispanic Americans or girls learn in certain common ways. Where is this information coming from? In general, there are two sources of information about learning styles and culture.

The first source includes descriptions and profiles of learners of certain cultural groups written by people familiar with these groups to sensitize those outside the culture to children's experiences within the culture. Descriptions of minority students' learning patterns often are contrasted with the "majority" white Anglo students' ways of learning and with expectations in the schools designed by this majority group.

There are a variety of descriptions of typical learning patterns of African Americans (Hale- Benson, 1986; Shade, 1989; Hilliard, 1989) which report the students'desire for oral experiences, physical activity, and strong personal relationships (Shade, Hilliard). These patterns would call for classroom work that includes collaboration, discussion, and active projects.

The same authors report that mainstream white male Americans value independence, analytic thinking, objectivity, and accuracy. These values translate into learning experiences that focus on information, competition, tests, grades, and critical thinking. It is no surprise that these patterns are prevalent in most schools because they were established and are generally administrated by mainstream white males. The further away from this style of education a student is, the more difficulty he or she has adjusting.

Another way we know about the links between culture and learning style is research study descriptions of specific groups. In this class of inquiry, researchers administer learning/cognitive style assessments to produce a profile of a particular cultural group, to make comparisons with previously studied groups (usually mainstream white Americans), or to validate a particular instrument for cross-cultural application. While a variety of published studies use this approach, it is important to realize that they are based on various assessment instruments that "measure" learning styles in different ways.  

Many of these instruments are self- report. In other words, the adult or student fills out a response to a series of questions, and the frequency of responses indicates certain preferences for specific approaches to learning. When a person is asked to respond to specific words and questions, the language is interpreted through personal (cultural) experience. Some assessment instruments test a person's strengths, or the ability to do tasks with a certain approach. When strengths are tested and learning style inferred from the results of these instruments, a great deal of variety exists within like- cultural groups.  

Thus, the information obtained from formal assessments of learning styles of specific cultural groups has been based on different ways of assessing and describing style. Yet results of different studies are often compared, ignoring or diminishing the relevance of the type of assessment instrument in the report of the findings. The variation in type of assessment instrument used often accounts for the seemingly contradictory information reported about groups of learners.  

From both sources of "research" we see that culture and learning style are connected, but cautions about specific application of this information are necessary. When educators apply knowledge of culture and learning style to the classroom they face a number of unresolved areas and differences of opinion.  

Cox and Ramirez (1981) observe:  

The concept of cognitive or learning styles of minority and other students is one easily oversimplified, misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Unfortunately, it has been used to stereotype minority students or to further label them rather than to identify individual differences that are educationally meaningful. (p. 61)  

Ask yourself how much you would want a teacher and a school to know about your own child. Should there be full information in a student's file that is shared with everyone who works with the student? Even when such information exists, some teachers intentionally don't read students' files. They argue that they want to form their own impressions of each learner. Other educators feel that comprehensive background and educational history of each student is invaluable for helping the learner be successful. Why waste time reinventing the wheel? When these same issues are applied to knowledge relating to a specific cultural group, there is also lack of agreement. "The greatest care must be taken to use the concepts as tools for growth and individualization and to avoid their use as labels or stereotypes" (Ramirez, 1989, p. 5).

Achievement Differences

The relationship of culture and learning style is also addressed in reference to student achievement. Most researchers believe that learning styles are neutral. All learning styles can be successful, but they also could become a stumbling block when overused or applied inappropriately. This concept explains the success or failure of different learning approaches with different tasks, especially as they relate to expectations in schools. There is evidence that students with specific learning style patterns (kinesthetic, field- dependent, sensing, extraversion) underachieve in school. Regardless of their cultural background, students who have these dominant learning style patterns have limited opportunities to use their style strengths in the classroom.  

While relating culture, style, and achievement requires much more examination (Guild, McKinney, & Fouts, 1990; Myers, 1974/ 1980), serious inequity results if schools undervalue behaviors that certain cultures foster. Gardner (1991) advises that cultural practices yield "[c]hildren and adults who are characteristic of their own culture and who may appear dysfunctional in a culture that embraces a diver?gent or opposing set of assumptions" (p. 53). This appearance of dysfunction affects the student's potential for successful achievement. Some students are caught in a no- win situation, unable to be true to their culture or meet school expectations. Irvine and York (1995) are blunt: "The cultures of students of color or their "way of life" are often incongruous with the expected middle-class cultural values, beliefs, and norms of schools. These cultural differences are major contributions to the school failure of students of color" (p. 489).  

It is also important to be willing to confront the issue of cultural identity and self-esteem. Many large city school systems struggle with the appropriateness of ethnically identified schools such as an African American academy. Bilingual programs continue to debate the priority of instruction in students' first languages. All- girl schools, math classes, and science classes are promoted for their affirmative action approach. The goal of encouraging positive self- esteem would lead one to argue for like- groups at certain stages of development. An acceptance of learning style differences demands an approach than develops skills through strengths. Should the same not be said of cultural identity?

Teachers' Cultures

Another unresolved issue is how teachers working from their own cultures and teaching styles can successfully reach the diverse populations in most schools today. What training do teachers need for this challenge? Bennett (1986) is not the only one who believes that "to the extent that teachers teach as they have been taught to learn, and to the extent that culture shapes learning style, students who share a teacher's ethnic background will be favored in class" (p. 96). Bennett also warns that ignoring the effects of culture and learning style affects all students:

If classroom expectations are limited by our own cultural orientations, we impede successful learners guided by another cultural orientation. If we only teach according to the ways we ourselves learn best, we are also likely to thwart successful learners who may share our cultural background but whose learning styles deviate from our own. (p. 116)

Some argue that teachers play a special role in representing their own culture. "It is incumbent upon Black professionals to identify the intelligences found especially in Black children and to support the pursuit of their strengths" (Hale-Benson, 1986, p. xiii). However, we all have learned successfully from teachers who differed from us in learning style or culture. Often, these were masterful, caring teachers. Sometimes our own motivation helped us learn in spite of the teacher. Yet teachers of all cultural backgrounds and style will have to work conscientiously to provide equity for students as classrooms increasingly reflect the diversity of our society.


How should we accommodate differences in style and culture? Must schools and other institutions adapt to the diversity of the people who work and study there, or must the people who come to an institution meet its demands? In an individual teaching and learning situation, does the teacher adapt to the student, or the student to the teacher? Do parents adapt to the styles of each child, or do the children adapt to the parents' styles?  One could argue that with the large numbers of people who learn and work in schools, uniform approaches are justified. But when we choose a uniform curriculum program, we definitely decide that students must adapt to the demands of a particular approach. When we require all teachers be evaluated in the same way, we demand that they fulfill the style requirements of that specific evaluation process. 

Although using variety in teaching methods is certainly not a new idea, most educators would agree that we have a long way to go to adequately provide for learners' diversity. Seldom is there only one way to learn. It is this understanding that should encourage us to value students' and colleagues' differences. Teachers and administrators who understand these concepts consciously attempt to respond to the diversity they regularly encounter in schools.  Practical implementation of learning styles concepts and research challenges us to develop two things: understanding of individuality, and a commitment to help each individual do his or her best in the learning and teaching process. 

The very first practical application is awareness of style and cultural differences. When we accept that people learn in different ways, we face daily decisions about uniformity and diversity. But, a deep awareness of diverse learning styles requires a commitment to the belief that all students can be successful learners. If a learning experience is adjusted to accommodate diverse styles, students will be able to use their strengths to achieve this success. We know that currently not all learning styles are equally valued in schools. Most schools do a more effective job with learners who are reflective, linear, or analytic than those who are active, holistic, personal, or practical. Learners whose styles are accommodated more frequently in school achieve more immediate success. Students who struggle to adapt to an uncomfortable way of learning often underachieve.  

Awareness of learning differences results in educators working together on various programs with a learning style perspective. As new curriculum materials are selected, discipline policies formed, and staff development goals set, questions of individual diversity and style will be prominent. The concepts of learning styles will be discussed on a regular basis, and opportunities for learning more about the theories and research will grow from these discussions.

Belief in learning differences becomes a rationale for many educational decisions. It is particularly important for teachers to adapt new techniques through an understanding of learning styles. In other words, a teacher would be motivated to apply a new method with the goal of accommodating the needs of certain students in the class?room. By focusing on learning styles, teachers would understand that a specific technique is successful because it provides the opportunity for approaching a task in a way that is important for certain, though not necessarily all, learners.

For example, cooperative learning is successful not just because it is an alternative to lecture but because it allows some students the opportunity to process externally, to work with their peers, and to share responsibility for a task. Integrated curriculum is successful because it offers opportunities for connections that are made naturally in some students' minds and for the chance to study a topic in depth, which is appreciated by other students. Indeed, educational innovations that have "worked" can trace a relationship to some students' preferred learning patterns.

Teachers who understand learning and cultural differences will strive for intentional variety in instruction, curriculum, classroom management, and assessment. Administrators who believe in learning styles actively value differences in teaching styles. Curriculum specialists who practice a learning styles approach encourage diverse programs in classrooms, schools, and the district.  Administrators can increase awareness of individual learning styles and cultural differences through  encouraging and supporting appropriate professional development experiences for all levels of school personnel, including their own.


Knowledge of the child's culture and learning styles helps teachers examine their own instructional practices and become sensitive to providing diverse learning experiences. Intentional instructional diversity will benefit all students. In other words, improved instructional methodologies and practices for certain students will result in improved instruction for all.

A teacher who brings outstanding skills and competencies to his work offers students from all cultures and with varying learning styles greater opportunities for success. The teachers who are successful with students of various cultures want to know all they can about their students so that the learning opportunities and structures they provide are responsive to students' needs. These teachers know that to provide effective instruction, they must accommodate both the cultural values and individual learning styles of their students. Therefore, they are continually interested in learning about their students.

A teacher who cares about and develops methodologies sensitive to the needs of the learners she works with will foster success. Too often, the accommodation of cultural differences is limited to a holiday celebration or a multicultural fair. Even the study of multicultural content often fails to consider the different ways students learn. Thus, serious consideration of culture and learning styles together will offer the opportunity for more depth for culturally sensitive teaching.

Bennett (1986) emphasizes the value of a learning style perspective:

The concept of learning styles offers a value- neutral approach for understanding individual differences among ethnically different students .... The assumption is that everyone can learn, provided teachers respond appropriately to individual learning needs. (p. 97)

In a review of learning styles research on culturally diverse students, Irvine and York (1995) echo that sentiment: " [A]ll students are capable of learning, provided the learning environment attends to a variety of learning styles" (p. 494).

While the questions of culture and style are not easy to address, they are crucial to contemplate together. Hilliard (1989) says, "Educators need not avoid addressing the question of style for fear they may be guilty of stereotyping students. Empirical observations are not the same as stereotyping, but the observations must be empirical and must be interpreted properly for each student' (p. 69). Andrew Latham in a 1997 discussion of culture and learning style points out the changing demographics of the school population-70 percent nonwhite or Hispanic by 2026- and the immediate need for teachers to be able to teach a wide variety of students, diverse in their cultures and learning styles.

Explicit, ongoing dialogue about both learning styles and culture will provide educators with valuable information to help more students be successful learners. The goal is equity: true equal opportunity for all learners.

References and Bibliography

Armstrong, T. (1995). The myth of the ADD child. New York: A Dutton Book, Penguin Group

Barth, R.S. (1980). Run school run. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bennett, C. (1986). Comprehensive multicultural education, theory and practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Butler, K. (1995). Learning styles, personal exploration and practical applications: An introduction to style for secondary students. Columbia, CT: The Learners Dimension.

Butler, K.A. (1984). Learning and teaching style in theory and practice. Maynard: MA: Gabriel Systems, Inc.

Canter, N. (1946/1972). Dynamics of Learning. New York: Agathon Press, Inc.,

Claxton, C. S. (1990). Learning styles, minority students, and effective education. Journal of Development Education, 14, 6-8, 35

Cox, B., & Ramirez, M., III (1981). Cognitive styles: Implications for multiethnic education. In J. Banks (Ed.), Education in the 80's. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Dunn, R. (1997). The goals and track record of multicultural education. Educational leadership: 54(7), 74-77.

Elkind, D. (1981). The hurried child: Growing up too fast too soon. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Co.

Frankfurter, F. (1949). Dennis v. US, US Report, Vol., 339, p. 184.

Gagnon, P. (1995). What should children learn? The Atlantic Monthly, 276(6), 65-78.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books.

Glatthorn, A.A. (1984). Differentiated supervision. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Goodlad, J.I. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company.

Gregorc, A.F. (1982a). An adult's guide to style. Maynard, MA: Gabriel Systems, Inc.

Gregorc, A.F. (1982b). Gregorc style delineator: Developmental, technical, and administration manual (Rev. ed.). Maynard, M.A: Gabriel Systems, Inc.

Guild, P., McKinney, L., & Fouts, J. (1990). A study of the learning styles of elementary students: Low achievers, average achievers, high achievers. Seattle:WA: The Teaching Advisory.

Guild, P.B. & Garger S. (1998).  Marching to different drummers (2nd Ed). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hale-Benson, J.E. (1986). Black children: Their roots, culture, and learning styles. (Rev. ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hilliard, A.G., III (1989). Teachers and cultural styles in a pluralistic society. NEA Today (January), 65-69.

Irvine, J.J., & York, D.E. (1995). Learning styles and culturally diverse students: A literature review. In J.A. Banks & C.A. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education. New York: Macmillan.

Myers, I.B. (1980). Taking type into account  in education. In M.H. McCauley & F.L. Natter, Psychological (Myers-Briggs) type differences in education. (2nd ed.). Gainesville, Fl: Center for Applications of Psychological Type, Inc.

Myers, I.B. (1990). Gifts differing (2nd ed). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.

Oltman, P.K., Raskin, E., & Witkin, H.A. (1971). Group embedded figures test. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.

Ramirez, M. III (1989). Pluralistic education: A bicognitive-multicultural model. The Clearinghouse Bulletin, 3, 4-5.

Shade, B.J. (1989). The influence of perpetual development on cognitive style: Cross ethnic comparisons. Early Child Development and Care, 51, 137-155.

Sizer, T.R. (1984). Horace's compromise:The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Tobias, C. & Guild, P. (1986). No sweat! How to use your learning style to be a better student. Seattle: The Teaching Advisory.

Witkin, H.A., Moore, C.A., Goodenough, D.R. & Cox, P.W. (1977). Field dependent and field-independent cognitive styles and their educational implications. Review of Educational Research, 47, 1-64.  


Adapted from Marching To Different Drummers by Pat Burke Guild and Stephen Garger, ASCD, 1998, 2nd edition.  The book has an extensive annotated bibliography

 Pat Guild is a member of the education faculty at Western Washington University.  She can be reached at

Copyright © October 2001 New Horizons for Learning, all rights reserved.

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