As part of YouthWorker Journal’s 25th anniversary, we are pleased to revisit this classic article from 1991 by Marlene LeFever, who has kindly added an update at the end.
Sarah learns by listening and verbally responding. She enjoys her youth leader’s stories and mini-lectures. She’s adept at class discussion and almost always volunteers to participate in roleplay. At the end of the 45-minute class period, Sarah will remember about 75 percent of everything she heard and said. She will get the most out of a mission trip when she is able to debrief by sharing the stories about her days. Sarah is an auditory learner.
Jack learns by seeing. He remembers PowerPoint slide information that illustrates what his youth leader says. He often takes notes and he may decorate them with swirls and geometric shapes. He claims he’s addicted to text messaging and enjoys reading the Bible and Christian books. Jack can remember about 75 percent of what he has seen in a teaching session. He is a visual learner.
Michael learns by doing. He needs to move in order to learn. Simulations, games and projects help him process information and respond personally to learning in a classroom. However, he may retain best what he believes during missional activities–hands-on learning. One mission trip a year may not be enough movement to hold his interest in what Christ could do through his life. Michael is a tactile/kinesthetic learner. Students such as Mike are often at risk when they are taught in any other way.
Sarah, Jack and Michael are equally smart. They have different learning styles, or different senses they prefer to use when they learn. While they are not the only senses teens use to learn, their auditory, visual and tactical senses are primary. When their leaders teach with methods that use their preferred senses, often called modalities, they learn more and faster; and they enjoy the learning process. Most importantly, they are more likely to put what they have learned into practice; 70 percent of teens have a preference.
A learning style is like a fingerprint–unique to each student. Students of equal intelligence learn in very dissimilar ways. Successful teachers adapt their teaching to the ways students learn rather than expecting them to adapt to our preferences. Learning-style language can help equip teachers to do deliberately what many gifted leaders do intuitively. Conversely, teachers who have not learned to “read” students may teach only the students who process information most like the teachers themselves do–wonderful for the students who are most like the youth leader, but how disastrous for those who are different.
A year with a youth leader who never provides for students’ innate learning preferences can negatively affect their feelings about youth group–and perhaps God–forever. The opposite is also true. Christian educators should adapt the mindset reflected in the old Yiddish proverb, “All our kids are prodigies,” and edit their Bible studies and youth curriculum in ways that allow the adage to be (almost) true.
By the time they are in sixth grade, children have a perceptual preference that usually remains consistent for the rest of their lives. For example, in an average class of 10 sixth-grade students, it would be normal to find two auditory, four visual and four tactile/kinesthetic learners. Unfortunately for eight out of 10 students, 90 percent of all teaching is auditory. The teaching processes most often used by teachers are lecture, storytelling, questions and answers, and discussion. We tend to teach in our preferred learning style. Yet when we are motivated to push ourselves out of our comfort zones—–hat is, to learn to teach in other styles–we achieve greater effectiveness.
Teaching the Auditory Learner
More girls than boys are auditory learners. Some auditory learners simply cannot take notes. They are so in tune with sound that they need to pay total attention to what the leader is saying in order to learn. By the same token, outside sounds may distract them. When auditory learners read, they often move their lips. They are usually very good at Bible memorization. Auditory learners often learn very well in groups, a life skill many teens have not spent as much time honing as they have text messaging or blogging.
Teaching the Visual Learner
Jack is a visual learner. He often stops and stares into space, his mind visualizing what only he can see. Albert Einstein, a visual learner, had a marked disability with auditory learning and the use of language. Yet he had an extraordinary ability to construct complex card houses, to build phenomenal structures with building blocks and manipulate geometrical diagrams–all of which suggested he had a specialized mental ability for visual-spatial perception, visual reasoning and visual memory. If he were evaluated in the traditional way, he would be identified as learning disabled.
Visual learners are usually unaware of sounds, but they can be distracted by visual stimuli. The faces of visual learners are usually easy to read. Some visual learners deal with emotions that are very close to the surface. For example, many cry easily–at what is beautiful, as well as what is sad. Visual learners are our most pictureliterate students. Pictures are becoming increasingly important to the learning process for visual learners, as well as those who have visual learning as their second strength. Pictures increase learning for most students. There is overwhelming evidence suggesting pictures and symbols should be used with every lesson we teach. Research shows that text with pictures results in better student grades and better retention. One reason for these results is simple repetition. Pictures combined with words, either written or spoken, force students to use different semantic or sensory tools. So the teacher presents concepts once in words and a second time through images–a superior approach to presenting the concept twice.
Teaching the Tactile/Kinesthetic Learner
Michael needs movement in order to learn. His preferred learning style consequently puts him at risk in many school and youth group classes. Students in this group may have low visual and auditory skills. Many of them fail if they are taught in any other way.
Often these learners cannot sit still, especially if they are engaged in activities that do not include manipulating materials. (Writing does not qualify for tactile/kinesthetic learners who need movement, as well as things they can touch, feel and manipulate.) If these students are not actively involved in what’s going on, the teacher has lost them. They are not usually attentive to visual or auditory sections of the lesson. If students’ learning styles and instructional methods are mismatched, kids tend to be frustrated and stressed, precursors to behavior problems. What middle-school boy wouldn’t rather be seen as a discipline problem than as a dumb kid?
As an indication of how teens are feeling, look beyond facial expression to their general body language. The whole body of a tactile/kinesthetic learner is an index of emotion. A leader will have no trouble telling if a guy is bored. It’s as if his brain enters a rest state–nothing there! (Discerning girls can be more challenging; they can be bored while keeping their eyes open and performing adequately.)
More guys than girls remain tactile/kinesthetic learners throughout their lives, while girls are more auditory. This may provide a partial answer to the questions: Why aren’t more boys excited about learning about their faith? Why do so many of them leave church when parents no longer require them to attend? Much teaching leaves the tactile/kinesthetic students–usually boys–without a successful outlet for demonstrating their learning powers.
Youth leaders must look for ways to involve the strengths of all learners in every class period or learning experience. Evaluate every lesson. Is there an opportunity for auditory learners to shine? You’ll probably have twice as many visual learners and tactile/kinesthetic learners as auditory earners. Does your methodology reflect this? If not, add or adjust activities, and aim them at accomplishing the learning objective through each student’s learning strengths.
What Has Changed Since 1991?
Much has changed since this article first appeared in YouthWorker Journal. At that time I was doing a seminar titled the “20-40-40 Rule.” At that time 20 percent of our kids had an auditory preference; today it’s 15 percent. The 40 percent who prefer tactile/kinesthetic learning has dropped to 35 percent. No surprise the big gain has been in visual learning. Now, according to the Brain-Friendly Strategies by Judy Willis (ACSI, 2007), 50 percent of our teens have this preference.
This makes sense. Since my article was first published, teens have had increasing exposure to technology: text messaging, PowerPoint, computers, video games, Wii; everything is visual. Visual training starts early. Even though pediatricians say children younger than 2 should not watch TV, 90 percent of them regularly watch TV, DVDs and videos. One-third of kids ages 3 to 6 have a TV in their bedrooms.
Some educators have wondered if our kids are losing the ability to mentally visualize, because everything is visualized for them. When there are no images, our kids have a quick boredom trigger.
When I first wrote the article, I never mentioned color as an enhancer for the visual learner. Who knew! One advertiser tested adding color to ads and gained a 34 percent improvement in response rate, and people responded faster. Color is not just something that catches the eye; it actually affects our emotions. Twenty percent of the optic nerves don’t go to the eye; they go to the pituitary gland. Kids actually have a glandular response, an emotional response, to color.
If you’re thinking about painting your youth areas, research colors. Red separates the boys from the girls: Boys prefer a yellow-based red (rust, brick); girls prefer a blue-based red (burgundy, maroon). If you’re painting a whole wall red, go with the yellow-based. About 80 percent of your kids will pick blue as their favorite color–not a bad choice for a church because blue carries moral weight for Christians. Stemming back to 431 A. D. when the Catholic Church chose to dress images of Mary in blue, the color carries the qualities of respect, goodness and responsibility. A dark, rich blue is a great color for a youth room wall; but know, too, the downside is that in a blue room, time seems to pass more slowly.
Since I wrote the original article, education has become more fun. New research needs to be considered, tested and evaluated. The goal remains the same and is beautifully stated by Dallas Willard: “That our young people may live their lives like Christ would live their lives if He were they.”