An Interview with Dr. Kathryn Knox: Learning Styles

Today I have the privilege to introduce you to a good friend, Dr. Kathryn Knox, who I am so grateful to for taking the time to share her knowledge and expertise on the topic of Learning Styles.  It’s a topic that I have been passionate about ever since 2005 when I attended Dr. Knox’s presentation on learning styles and I realized that I was teaching my child in the learning style which “I” best learn in.  Dr. Knox’s presentation 6 years ago truly helped me to better understand the different learning styles and how I as a parent/learning coach/mentor can best help myself to help my child learn.  I hope the information below will be as much value to you as it was and still is to me.

First a little about Dr. Kathryn Knox, ok, she has a very extensive and impressive bio and I just couldn’t leave anything out.

Dr. Kathryn Knox, from Ft. Collins, Colorado is Director of School Improvement at Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA).  She has twenty-six years of experience in diverse areas of education, including university, online, and public charter. She is in her eighth year with COVA. In addition to being COVA’s K-12 Director of School Improvement, Dr. Knox has been Assistant Head of School, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and K-8 Principal. She is working with teams on many academic improvements including unified focus with the School Accountability Report and improved writing and thinking. She has also overseen school accreditation and special services. Dr. Knox has been an English and French teacher, an ESL instructor, and a writing instructor in Japan. She also worked at Colorado State University in three different departments, including Project Promise. Her master’s degree is in linguistics and ESL; her doctorate from CSU is in teacher education and staff development. She has also been a school and principal professional developer, a Core Knowledge trainer, and a national Quantum Learning professional developer.

1-We hear a lot about Learning Styles.  There are proponents and detractors.  Can you give us a quick overview about what Learning Styles means?

Learning style preferences focus on how we prefer to take in information (meaning how we select information to focus on) and how we prefer to process information (meaning how we think and use that information effectively).

Let’s take an example:  suppose you purchase a new barbecue grill that is accompanied by a small 10-page manual of detailed assembly instructions.  How would you approach putting the grill together?  Would you start working with the physical parts?  Would you read the instructions first?  Would you call someone and have them talk you though the process of assembly?  If your approach to this problem is to work immediately with the physical parts, you might find your kinesthetic preference for manipulation in solving problems is stronger than your preference for reading a long and detailed manual and, if you approach the problem using a kinesthetic approach, your engagement will be much stronger.  In fact, if your teacher required you first to read a long and detailed manual before you touched the parts, you might give up the task before you even unpacked the box.

On the other hand, a person who prefers reading the manual and looking at all the illustrations first might become frustrated by a teacher giving them the parts first to “play around with.”  These examples are what we are talking about when we discuss learning style preferences. We all have them.

There are detractors and believers in the effectiveness of learning styles, sometimes because the idea of learning styles has been misused in classroom settings.  Essentially, thinking about different ways of learning for your child in different subjects and situations just makes sense.  This process is the real essence of learning styles—working with different styles of learning effectively, removing barriers to what may be holding our children back from learning, and helping them use, connect and retain information over time.

Learning styles are malleable preferences, not set traits that don’t change.  Learning styles are typically thought of as visual-auditory-kinesthetic combinations (or Fleming’s visual-auditory-kinesthetic-read/write combinations), with a primary and secondary preference for taking in and processing information effectively.  (Just as a side note, there are several other types of approaches to learning styles as well such as A. Gregorc’s perception and ordering system which includes concrete or abstract perception combined with random or sequential ordering.)

One thing that is important to remember is that identifying a learning style preference is not an excuse for not using the other preferences in learning.  Identification of a preference also encourages us to think about our own thinking and learning and it also identifies where one needs to work harder in some situations to take steps to develop other competencies over time.

It’s good to have the idea of learning styles as a tool when working with your child, because you can talk with him or her about effective learning, to encourage resilience and creativity in approaching problem-solving, and just to empower and bring fun and effectiveness to the whole learning process!

2-How important is it to teach to your child’s learning style?

The more information you have and the more flexible you are about wanting to help your child learn, the more fun, satisfaction, and effectiveness both of you can have in this exploration.   As mentioned above, a good teacher and parent brings flexibility, creativity, and a deep desire to have their child have the very best experience with learning and growth.  When you approach any subject or make cross-connections between subjects, think how you might typically teach, then think again how you might teach while taking into consideration a child’s learning preference in that situation.

  • Would it be good to have the child “see the ideas visually,” see the big picture before the details, or connect with colors and images and diagrams?
  • Would the child be more engaged and receptive if he or she can “sound out” ideas, use dialogue, or be given verbal instructions?
  • Or might the child prefer some activity along with the talking or reading and like to be given the opportunity to “fiddle and figure out” things as the learning process progresses?

A child who is strongly visual in preference for example, may certainly be able to attend to something auditorially (just from hearing it spoken by someone else) but it may not be their best way to really learn and retain the information.   We don’t have to adapt everything a child encounters to a learning preference, but when a child is having difficulty paying attention, remembering, approaching new academic challenges, or connecting information, it can be very helpful to consider working with their strengths first.

3-What can I do as a learning coach to help my child learn if we both have different learning styles?

In any learning situation it’s good to consider which preference for taking in and processing information and skills will work best for motivating your child to learn, and to persevere with deep learning and thinking.  Think about which is the least likely way your child generally takes in and processes information: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (physical), or through more intense reading and writing?  What is the most effective way you have seen them learn?  Those questions are good things to think about, and talk about together, because too often, we teach from our own preference and don’t understand that even with our best efforts, we might need to move from our personal preferences and “teaching comfort zone,” into a more collaborative learning zone — in a new preference.  It’s good to think how your own style complements or challenges the style preference of your child and what that might mean for teaching and learning.  Sometimes we “fit” well and things click together; other times we get stuck. When you and your child take into consideration other preferences (and methods related to those preferences), together you can work to get past those stuck times so you don’t give up.

If a presentation method isn’t working to help learning and achievement, you don’t just redo the same thing again and again until you and your child are frustrated.  You try something different, and naturally approach teaching and learning in a way that expands from the “sit and get” (I tell you, you watch and listen) model to include different strategies such as movement, varied pacing, reflection time, speaking and listening time, music, colorful visual connections,    tactile timelines, reading with oral summarizing etc. –until you find something that “clicks” for the child.  Essentially, this process is the real essence of learning styles—working with different styles of learning effectively and removing barriers to what may be holding our children back from learning, using, connecting, and retaining information over time.

4- How can I help my child become a better learner in whatever learning environment they encounter?

It’s always good to talk with your child about the idea of learning styles and different approaches to new skills and knowledge, to have them think about their thinking in approaching new challenges, and to debrief learning experiences together.   When one develops reliance and perseverance about learning challenges, that process stays with the child as they move up in grades. It builds strength.  They realize that intelligence is not “fixed and there is nothing they can do about it,” but rather they may start to develop a more growth oriented approach to learning where they try different ways of approaching learning so they can be successful.   If these types of discussion are part of the majority of learning situations between the parent and child, the learning can be enhanced and deepened for both the parent and the child.

5- How do I identify our individual learning styles? Is there a reliable online test my child and I can both take?

If you’re looking for a visual-auditory-kinesthetic and read-write orientation, Fleming has an assessment online.  There are actually many different assessments that are available that I haven’t personally reviewed.  I’d suggest that you do an online search for “learning styles” and review the annotations and the websites. Take one of the assessments first and see if it seems intuitively “right” to you before you share it with your child.  You might also take two different assessments and see how “true” it seems to you from your own preference.  A good assessment for a child should be easy to understand and should ideally have suggestions for ways you can use that preference information for learning. Give some of the ideas a try, talk with your child each day about what has worked and what hasn’t, about their preferences in relation to  the work ahead, and discuss how you can work together to make the whole learning process better for growth and achievement.

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  1. This is a wonderful resource that I will refer to often. I think I have a different learning style than one of my children and I found this interview very helpful.

  2. I learned a lot from this. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I’ve heard of this for a few years now and “think” that Minnesota has different schools set up with the ability to adapt to different learning styles. I’ve also heard that boys are more often Kinesthetic learners – involving movement and hands on than girls (obviously no hard and fast rule there).

    My son loves to play with legos, tinker and stand up while doing homework, while my daughter loves to talk. So I’m guessing my son is the Kin and my daughter is auditory. But that’s a guess.

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