This post is part of a mini-series introduction to Individual Differences in Instruction and Storytelling. I lay the groundwork for deeper adventures in Differentiated Instruction, Learning Styles, Personalized Stories, and the like.

Check out the rest of the series.

Be warned, this post is a little on the long side. I considered splitting it in two, but there was no good place to cut it.

We’ve talked about Learn Styles and Multiple Intelligences; basically coming to the conclusion that (duh) every person processes information differently. There are Linguistic, Mathmatical, Musical, Kinesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, and Spatial, among many others. The intelligences factor into a student’s (any student’s) Learning Style and shows us the best way to present information to that particular student.

This is very important, and we will talk more about how to do this as time goes on. But, a student’s Learning Style is only part of the equation. We are all more than brains seeking information to swallow. Humans are complex, social, broken, distractable, creative, and unique creatures. No two are alike. All of these other factors (along side Learning Styles) form a student’s Learning Profile. What follows is a somewhat incomplete list of other factors to account for when developing a student’s learning profile. In the next series post, we will combine all these together to create an index Learning Strategy for a particular student.

The Past

What I already know. How I already know it.

Obviously, all students have a past. From the five year old to the eighty five year old. And, our past colors how we perceive, process, and respond to everything. This is not limited to hyper-traumatic events or life-shaking moments. Every moment builds upon the last to shape us. It has been said that “we are not but the sum of our experiences” after all.

One of the most important elements of the past to consider in a student is scaffolding (moving students progressively toward stronger understanding of a particular concept). This includes everything the student already knows about the subject at hand, even if what the student knows is incorrect, incomplete, or misinterpreted. The know it and it may have to be unlearned or modified in a similar fashion to our discussion about Piaget’s Accomodation. Before we move any student forward, we must know what they know. More on scaffolding here.

Good and bad learning experiences color a student’s learning profile as well. I, for example, had a terrible learning experience the week we were introduced to multiplication. It took me years to really grasp the multiplication table. If information was presented or interpreted incorrectly, that is a past learning experience that must be accounted for. Often, when students struggle it is not because they misunderstand the current task, but have a hole in a more fundamental bit of knowledge.

The Present

What makes me who I am right now?

This includes everything that is happening outside the learning environment. Yes, that is a massive amount of “stuff” to consider. For now, let’s focus on motivation. Students learn best when they want to learn. What is a particular student’s motivation toward learning the concept or task? (high or low). What drives that motivation? (threat of discipline, peer standing, personal ambition?).

The Future

What I want to be when I grow up? (Space alien, btw)

Just because human beings are tied to one moment in time, does not mean we are limited to it. Each has hopes, dreams, goals, plans, and fears for the future. Far future. Near future. The next moment. These considerations come into play. How will this unit of learning affect my future? Is there a future goal we are working toward?

The Interests

Baseball, ballet, and books.

One of the most important factors in a Learning Profile are a student’s interests. What do they enjoy outside the learning setting? Baseball, ballet, music, stories, crafts, video games, television shows, and the infinite myriad of things our civilization has developed to battle for our attention. Knowing these interests, even just a few, could be the most valuable tool in your set. It is also interesting to note that, often, these interests go hand-in-hand with dominant intelligences. Those students who are kinesthetic (physical learners) will likely have interests that keep them physically active.

The “Don’t Likes”

Anchovies, acrobats, and wasting my time.

Just as students have interests, they have things they will avoid at all costs. Which activities, ideas, subjects, or even people will drive the student into a “I will do anything BUT that!” mode? Even if they enjoy the topic at hand, a dislike may overpower and color the learning experience. Don’t get me wrong: a big part of learning is growing, and that requires confronting dislikes. I am not advocating tip-toeing around everything that may upset a student. Just be knowledgeable about some of the big ones so you can handle them intentionally.

The Social

My friends, my personality, my place

We all live in highly complex social settings, connected to others in varying degrees. Social consideration can be an overpowering factor to any learning experience. So, in developing a learning profile, we want to consider a students social group (immediate, family, peer, and extended). How does this circle influence, support, and detract from learning experiences, both specific and general? Do not stereotype “all those kids,” but be aware that student’s will most often listen to peers before authority. Social skills should also be considered: ability to work in groups, ability to communicate with others, and aptitude for seeing through other points of view. These skills are often crucial to learning, and can be learned, themselves. Finally, be aware of social personality, meaning personality type or personality when in different social settings. Is the student an introvert or extrovert? Do they become the class clown when in large groups?

The Strengths

Not just my muscles.

Every student has strengths, again most often tied to their dominant intelligence: math, language, music, etc. Students also have more general strengths: creative problem solving, communication, mentoring, and the like. Don’t forget about “strengths in disguise.” That student who is constantly talking may have a strength of bringing people together. Though they are not executing it ideally, it is a strength to be aware of. And, that is what all of this is about. Be aware of the individual differences among your students.

The Weaknesses

Not so great at it, so why try?

Just as each individual has strengths, we all have weaknesses. Or, opportunities. When discovering weaknesses in students’ performances, do not fall into the trap of confining or limiting the individual by what they cannot do or may not do well. These weaknesses are opportunities to grow. Beyond that, weaknesses and disinterests often play together. Having a grasp on these will help you tailor individual learning.

The Conclusion

We have looked at some elements of an individual student’s learning profile. It may seem, after assessing all of these items and more, that a learning profile can be just as limiting or harmful as treating every student the same way can be. Not only does it complicate a teacher’s job, but it can be easy to draw lines and definitions around students based on their profile.

“Jason isn’t good at math and doesn’t like numbers. His dominant intelligence is language. Let’s just focus on that.” These approaches can be dangerous. A weakness now or disinterest now does not mean so in the future. We do not know who any of us will be tomorrow. People grow and change, and growing in weaknesses and strengths must go hand in hand.

Also, learning profiles can encourage assumptions about students. “Carol loves music and is good at public speaking. She should always be the leader of small groups.” Perhaps Carol is good in situations where larger crowds are nameless, but this does not mean she will excel naturally at small group leadership.

At the end of the day, like everything else, a learning profile is just a tool. A way to organize information about students in an effort to remember that everyone learns differently. Everyone is different. And it is those individual differences which make life special (in my opinion).

In our next post, we will put all this together. Stay tuned and please comment below.

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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