Before thinking about personality and learning styles, you have to know what MBTI personality typing is. If you need to know the best personality test around, check out my resource page for all things personality.
Those of us educating young children tend to use the vocabulary of learning styles, though current research seems to be showing that most of the learning styles rhetoric is bunk.
Still, we do know that children are different. We know that there are different modes of and avenues for learning. There is value in reading, in hearing, and in doing. It turns out that personality and learning styles intersect, or, more accurately, personality steps in where learning styles falls short.
I believe that some of what people are describing when they speak about different learning styles can be tied back to personality. In fact, Isabel Briggs Myers has an entire chapter in her 1980 book, Gifts Differing titled “Learning Styles” as well as another chapter called “Type and Early Learning” (all quotes in this post are from this book).
In the midst of the see-and-say reading fad, Myers includes in her book on personality a defense of phonics and why phonics instruction works for all types, but how see-and-say only works for a select few types (hence, there are examples of it working that are valid, but they don’t prove it’s a valid method). Ns can spot patterns without realizing it, but Ss tend to need to know rules before they can figure something out. ESxx types, she says, are the students who struggle in early education and the ones who usually do not test well, because testing relies on mental speed and trusting your gut – something that typically comes naturally to INxx types, can be learned by other N and I types, but generally not by ESxx, who always want to double check and make sure before marking an answer. Personality and learning styles, then, are related.
Listen to this post!
Personality and Learning Style
Myers makes it clear that this difference presents a serious problem to our methods:
I should note here that I know from personal experience that all IN-types do not read early – I was a late bloomer and was 8 before I could read. However, when I did learn to read, it was like a lightbulb switched on and I went from not-reading to reading in an intuitive flash and not with the slowly, gradually building ability by which my current 7-year-old ES child is learning to read. My three N children, despite being boys, were all early, intuitive, eager readers.
In her chapter on learning styles, Myers boils effective teaching and learning down to attention and communication. Hello, Charlotte Mason, I wasn’t expecting to meet you in this book.
These two essential components are affected by type. Type tells us what interests this person the most (that is, what do they naturally pay attention to) and how they best “catch on” to an idea through communication – both affected by the perception, whether N (intuitive – theories, patterns, thinking) or S (sensing – facts, seeing, doing).
This doesn’t mean that S children are doomed, of course. But it means that if we have a child who seems slower on the uptake, it might not be because they aren’t as smart but that they require more time. We tend to equate speed with intelligence, but that isn’t a necessary correlation. Myers’ primary admonition to teachers is to simply be more patient and give students even 5 seconds thinking time before requiring an answer, and also to speak more slowly and deliberately – slowing down, she argues, immensely helps sensing students and doesn’t adversely affect intuitives either, as they can use the extra time to make the mental connections that come more naturally to them. Everyone benefits from slowing down the pace of a lesson.
Whether or not we have secured our student’s attention, interest, and understanding is of upmost importance. We are wasting our breath and our time if we don’t have those three things. In fact, we might even be doing harm if our goal is simply to move quickly through a lesson and be on to the next, without pausing and interacting to see if we still have attention, interest, and understanding every step along the way.
Personality and learning styles – what always works
Success builds upon success. This is why we must teach the student in front of us, not our ideal student or our own expectations or ourselves. It is the one – each one – we are teaching that needs to be built up, and we can’t do that if we aren’t paying attention to him as an individual, where he is in his ability and understanding in the moment. We can’t help him move farther along the path unless we are helping him take the next step from where he currently is.
I think Charlotte Mason’s practical methods answer Myer’s observations perfectly. The words presented, whether spoken or read, are given in short chunks, allowing time to process the idea. The ideas do not fly by, but are handled singly and shortly. Breaks, alternating the kind of energy used, help especially the S children recover from the effort of paying attention to concepts rather than concrete things, which they prefer. Science, through nature study, is taught by paying attention to things rather than by more and more abstract words. Narration ensures communication, and allows the teacher insight into what is or is not capturing the child’s attention and interest. Narration allows the child time and space to form their response freely, rather than trying to determine what the teacher wants in fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice tests.
If we know our child’s type, we can better suit the lesson to capture their attention and interest. Intuitives want to know the principle, the theory, the why. Sensing students enjoy the practical application, the what, the how. All lessons and subjects have all these parts, but we as teachers probably emphasize the part that appeals to our own type rather than what appeals to our students’ types. But even if we have a class with a mix of types, we can present a lesson to include both parts to make sure we secure attention.
But while we can and should be aware of tactics to secure attention and to promote interest and to allow learning, we should not take it so far as to say intuitive types should only do theoretical work and never have to do hands-on experiments (drat, I wish we could), or that sensing types don’t have to bother with principles and are allowed to learn facts out of context. Once we’ve secured attention, we can teach any type of student the needed lesson, directing him toward Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, which exists abstractly as well as concretely.
We all need to use our senses and our intuition, letting one grow to the exclusion of the other isn’t proper development, either. One will likely always be stronger and preferred, but that doesn’t mean we can allow the other side to be excluded. A full-orbed understanding arises from both angles, taken together. But we as teachers can be more effective when we draw our students in from the angle at which they are most likely to succeed.
Even Myers herself makes this caveat:
She even has a practical suggestion:
She continues with this charming story:
If we can help our students learn both the skill of application and the skill of “getting interested,” we will have served them well for anything further they have to do in their adult life. Both can become habits if we do not allow the student to sit back and complain and gripe and get themselves out of work by excuse-making.