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Learning styles — roughly defined as the individual ways that best enable a person to learn stuff — are a much talked-about subject in homeschool circles. What do you need to know about them to be a successful homeschooler?

Have you recently started homeschooling, are you thinking about it, or are you simply curious? On your path towards finding out more about how other people have made learning at home work to reap the full benefits of homeschooling, you'll probably come across the term "learning styles". If you'd like to find out what learning style your child has, or children have, an abundance of online quizzes purport to help you find it. 

What do you really need to know about learning styles if you want to make the most of your family's homeschool experience? 

What Are Learning Styles?

The theory of learning styles, which has been popular since about the 1960s, boils down to the idea that every person best learns in a particular way. The actual categories learners are said to be able to fall into depend on the resource you're looking at. Learners may be divided into visual, auditory, and, kinesthetic or those plus some other options, such as logical and social. Distinctions may be made between social and solitary learners. [1] Others divide students into those who learn primarily through experience (activists), those who learn better through observation (reflectors), those who learn mostly by exploring how things are connected (theorists), and those who learn from doing things that have a practical reason (pragmatists). Some even bring Meyers-Briggs personality types into the learning-style equation. [1

Do Learning Styles Really Exist?

Several well-designed studies found that, though people do have their preferred ways of learning, evidence that their academic outcomes depend on being taught in the way that matches their preference lacks completely [2, 3]. These conclusions have led many to believe that learning styles need not be incorporated into policy decisions [4]. 

I'm sure that teachers all over breathed a sigh of relief at the thought that the theory of learning styles has "now been debunked" — it's rather hard to accommodate individual learning styles in a classroom of 30-odd children, after all! As hard as it is to give individual students one-on-one attention in a brick and mortar school setting, this is where homeschooling shines, and as homeschool teachers, we can indeed help our children learn in ways that suit them best. 

Though I am unsure whether any neatly categorizable learning styles really do exist, it seems plain that the ways in which we learn best are as individual as the rest of us. I'm sure we've all met people who are incapable of learning languages from a textbook while easily picking them up through immersion, for instance, or people who retain everything they saw in a documentary but draw a complete blank after just reading a book on the same topic. Judging by all the musical chairs: curriculum edition that's discussed in homeschool groups and on online forums for homeschool parents, it also appears obvious that not every curriculum works for every child. To name one example from within my own family, my oldest child did much better with a math curriculum that didn't contain colorful illustrations or cluttered pages, but instead had a minimalistic look to it, with only a few problems per page. To name another, my younger child learns a lot from science videos, and much less from dry textbooks. 

"Learning styles" — or whatever you want to call them — may feature more heavily if you happen to have a child who falls, in any way, under the "special needs" umbrella. That's to say, for instance, that it'd be Captain Obvious to conclude that dyslexic children learn more from videos with spoken words than from textbooks they have serious trouble decoding. (Who can concentrate on content when just the mental process of reading itself drains all your brain juice?) Some learners may only have preferred learning styles, but others will undoubtedly have ways in which they can learn and ways in which they simply can't. 

Should Learning Styles Play A Role In How You Decide To Teach?

I say — read about them, take all the quizzes you want, but at the end of the day, watch your kid(s) and don't be a slave to (debunked) theory. Pegging your kid as an an auditory learner and teaching accordingly may rob them of a whole lot of learning they might have really enjoyed and benefited from. So, keep what you read in mind in case it starts ringing a bell, but have your eyes on the child you've got. 

Should they not retain anything from a particular textbook, or textbooks in general, you'll notice. Should pictures really play a role in reinforcing their studies, you'll notice that, too. Should they always seem to want to do something with their hands, or walk away from a workshop with knowledge they never gained from books, or do so much better after discussing material with a group of people, you'll know. You'll know, and will be able to shake things up accordingly.

Freedom — to make changes as they're sorely needed and to explore new ways of doing things just because we and our kids want to — is one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling, after all. 

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