"My boy's a platypus!" she gushed enthusiastically.
"He's a what?" I was certain I must have misunderstood her.
"He's a right brained, quasi-lateral, confrontational platypus!"
"Oh," was all I could muster. I was really hoping my cynicism wasn't showing. "Well that is great."

My friend had recently purchased the latest learning styles program and clearly, she had just completed the what-type-is-he questionnaire. This also explained why I had heard her walking around muttering questions like:

Is he happier alone or in a group?
Does he prefer throwing stones across a quiet lake or leaping through a fast moving stream?
If he could be an ice cream flavor, would he be vanilla or pistachio ripple with chunks of dried corn?

She'd been at it for almost a week. But now her efforts had paid off. She had a name for him.

The problem, it seemed to me, is that the name didn't tell her anything she didn't already know. And of greater importance, if this program was like many others, it wasn't going to give her a whole lot of information from this point forward. I mean, I want to know how to teach my little Platypus when he doesn't understand why the denominators of fractions need to match before adding. I want to know what to do when a Platypus can't remember how to spell "familiar" even though he tested perfectly on it just yesterday. And I want this fancy program to tell me why he is upside down in his seat just as often as he's right side up. Where was the book on Platypus Math?

Eventually I came to the conclusion that it was time to experiment. So I went on a hunt for unique ways of teaching every academic subject. I found every different teaching method that I could and then…are you ready for the really complex system I put into place?...I simply tried it with my child. And that's when I began to discover some wonderful things about my own dear little Platypus.

For example, I one day discovered my son repeating his spelling words over and over until a natural rhythm developed. Wow! It burst open a new avenue for learning. During the years he (and all my children) learned the names of the Presidents in order, many different rules of math and a gazillion dates and events from history.

I learned that this child, who most definitely is not a visual learner, was nonetheless, able to work through material better that was color coded. Go figure.

  • If he struggled to remember the "gh" in right or fight, he practiced it and then boxed in the "gh" with a bright green marker. This additional step, plus the bold reminder in green, made it easier to remember the otherwise forgotten silent letters.
  • If he often added when he should have subtracted, have him start by boxing in all plus signs with a bright blue color and circling all subtraction signs with a yellow marker. This extra step will help his eye to catch the symbol's required action before he plunges ahead.
  • Keep a red pen nearby, and whenever you give him an assignment, have him write it in red. It will always call out to him as something with some urgency attached to it.

Additionally, I learned that each new success was cross-useful. In other words, once I found a method that worked well in teaching him spelling, I soon tried it in geography. If a new idea worked well in math, we found it worth a try in history. Successes were crossing over at a rapid rate.

So now I'm always on the lookout for new ideas to teach an otherwise struggling learner. In fact, I've come to find myself at odds with that very choice of words - struggling learner. If he isn't learning because I've been teaching him with methods that don't sync up with his learning style, then he's not a struggling learner, I'm a struggling teacher. I'm not doing the job of finding what he needs to unlock his understanding of a particular concept. It would be easy to see this as a burden. But I've come to find the fun in this part of my job; the joy of the hunt. We just need to open our minds to all the different ways there are in which material could be presented. We need to find the oddest, strangest, and most unlikely of possible methods of teaching and then…give it a whirl. It's in such whirls that learning takes flight.

Carol Barnier is the author of three books about working with non-traditional minds (which includes her own), the latest entitled The Big WHAT NOW Book of Learning Styles. Contact her at carol@opengifts.org.

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