Learning Style Difference vs Learning Difficulty

The overarching role of any teacher and parent is to help their children learn how to be life-long learners. But what if a child has trouble learning? Students in grades K-3 now are learning in areas where information and technologies are changing every month.  If they are having difficulty mastering ‘the basics’ and seem unable to use these building blocks to move forward, they’re at risk for developing a low self-esteem early on. Later in life they may be unable to effectively train in a career of their choosing.

Before making an assumption that a child has a learning disability it’s important to make the distinction between a different learning style and a learning difficulty.  Individuals each experience the world in a unique way due to their different perception abilities. Individuals each process or act on information in unique ways due to their different ordering abilities. Our perception and ordering abilities can be considered what determines our learning style.

The Gregorc model is a widely used method to delineate learning style. Developed by Anthony F. Gregorc and Kathleen A. Butler, it is based upon the abilities of perception and ordering. Specifically, there are two generalized perceptual qualities: concrete and abstract, and there are two generalized ordering qualities: sequential and random.

  • Gregorc Model of Learning StylesConcrete: Information acquired directly through the senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. The concrete ability is associated with the obvious, the “here and now” as opposed to hidden meanings or interpretative relationships.
  • Abstract: The ability to visualize, to conceive ideas, to understand and contemplate that which you cannot actually experience through the senses. Abstract quality is associated with intuition and imagination; beyond the obvious.
  • Sequential: Information is organized in a linear, step-by-step manner. This would mean following a logical train of thought, having a plan and following it rather than acting on impulse.
  • Random: Information tends to be organized by chunks, in no particular order. This may mean skipping steps, starting something in the middle or working backwards from the end, acting on intuition and impulse rather than a specific plan.

It’s accepted that people are capable of both concrete and abstract perceptions, as well as both types of information organization and execution (sequential and random/impulsive).  However, most people have a natural preference for one over the other and this imparts to them a particular style of learning and communicating.  This also means that we do not all benefit in the same way from a particular type of instructional approach.

Although no one is a “pure” style it’s important to keep in mind that there may be very strong preferences or biases. In fact, the bias may be so strong that one is unable to effectively compensate and learn important information simply because it is presented in an inaccessible style. In that situation, one can be considered to have a learning difficulty or learning disability.

Children with severe learning disabilities often receive special education services and additional resources in our schools. However, there are many students with less noticeable difficulties that seem to “fall through the cracks.” Parents may already have a gut feeling that that their child is working ‘too hard’, and that there may be some kind of learning problem but the results of their hard work aren’t so far out of range as to raise a red flag with teachers.

Many students with mild learning disabilities have the intelligence and determination to put in the extra time and effort necessary to make it through school and maintain passing grades in the process. But don’t they deserve to have a more enjoyable and productive educational experience?  The good news is that students with attention challenges and learning disabilities, including dyslexia, can learn and can become successful students if their needs are met early on.

If you suspect your child may have a learning disability, get in touch with a professional who can formally assess their existing skills and where deficits are presenting real challenges for your child in the classroom and beyond.

Therapeutic Literacy Center in Solana Beach offers assessments for learning disabilities as well as programs and exercises for developing underlying “mental tools” needed for success.