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Learning Styles

Whole-Child Learning
by Pat McNees

This article appeared in Parents magazine in July 1986, before Dr. Clark's sudden death, indirectly from Marfan's syndrome.

Copyright © 1986 by Pat McNees

When six-year-old Sarah boasts, “I know what a syllogism is!” you can be pretty sure she doesn't — though she is probably eager to please a parent who wants her to know. Children like Sarah parrot abstractions long before they can grasp them, according to Drs. Faith and Cecil Clark. Through their Human Development Clinic in Bethesda, Maryland, the Clarks offer a unique form of learning therapy. They help people deal with “learning disabilities” — including underachievement, lack of motivation, nonstandard learning style, various forms of hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, family conflict, and emotional stress, as well as with the specific problems, such as dyslexia, usually identified as learning disabilities.

Sarah’s parents do what many parents do. “They expect their children to be little adults, confusing adult-like with intelligent,” says clinical psychologist Cecil Clark. “They have a narrow definition of intelligence: fluency with words, a good verbal memory, pseudologic, and information. Many parents pump the word bin, urging their children to learn even more vocabulary. They ignore fantasy, physical movement, art, and other physical and creative activities that enhance the functions of the right brain, and by encouraging the child to memorize, create the misconception that learning is the same as memorizing.”

It’s an oversimplification to talk about “right brain” and “left brain,” because both sides of the brain work together, but as a metaphor it can be helpful in understanding how people see and do things differently. For example, an artistic, kinesthetically oriented child, geared to movement and feeling, who uses more right-brained — intuitive, imaginative, and spatial — functions, tends not to do as well in a traditional classroom as a less fidgety, verbally oriented child who uses more left-brained — linear, logical, and analytical — functions. Schools and parents do children a great disservice by rewarding the accumulation of information and knowledge — a predominantly left-brained activity — at the expense of more creative and physical skills. Indeed, the Clarks feel it is biologically more appropriate to focus on stimulating right-brain activity in children up to the age of seven, who learn primarily through play.

“This may be why some child prodigies burn out and lose their gift," explains Cecil Clark. In fact, “may of them don’t learn to read very well, because reading requires an integration of many kinds of brain function" They are the victims of a cultural focus on a single learning style.

Diagnosing learning problems

Once married and now divorced, the Clarks continue a remarkably synergistic working relationship. They have developed a form of learning therapy that combines traditional psychotherapy with a thorough diagnosis of individual learning styles. This helps them decide which blend of learning techniques — many of them untraditional — is appropriate for a particular client.

The Clarks say children who specialize in memorizing (a predominantly left-brain function) follow a classic pattern. After an original knowledge spurt at three or four, which their parents overly reinforce — at parties they are asked to recite the 50 Latin names for dinosaurs — many of these children find it difficult to learn other things.

Jeff, for example, came to the center at five. His neurologist mother and historian father made a semi-religion of his verbal intelligence, buying him several computers and encyclopedias, and a jumble of learning information. Jeff’s mother even made audiotapes of Carl Sagan speaking on the cosmos, which Jeff played and memorized at bedtime, and recited for company, though he didn’t understand the tapes. Jeff played with small imaginative figures all the time, but avoided playing out of doors. By the time he was old enough for kindergarten he had a self-made learning disability: He was tripping on his shoelaces, falling off chairs, and couldn’t form a letter of the alphabet. Embarrassed by his own clumsiness, and unskilled at playing or interacting with children, he refused to go to school.

The Clarks persuaded Jeff’s parents that he needed no more information for the time being: It was time to calm down his verbal track, improve his eye-hand coordination, and get him engaged with children his own age in activities more suited to his developmental stage.

“There is a prime time when learning for any given ability is at its peak," says Cecil Clark, “when the system is most ready for it — and when certain learning approaches are most appropriate. Between the ages of four and seven, children learn best through fantasy, play, and storytelling."

Jeff’s physical education coach agreed to throw a ball with him for an hour after school every day and later coached him in gymnastics. His father began playing catch with him before school — to serve as a role model for physical activity, and to help him develop the motor intelligence needed to form letters. He installed a foam-basketball hoop and a dart board in the new “playroom," bought various art materials (art is one of the easiest ways to stimulate various neurological connections), and encouraged Jeff to play more with other children. Learning therapist Faith Clark helped Jeff develop social skills with his peers, and convinced him that school had as much to offer as home.

According to Cecil Clark, “Parents mistakenly want children to adopt adult norms — to see play as something you do to pass the time, for example, to learn to compete, or as a reward for working. They don’t understand that children don’t distinguish between work and play — that play is a child’s work. It’s not just that learning in children through age seven should occur in the context of play. The play is the learning. When they are rolling cars and carrying dolls and playing doctor and nurse they are creating the universe."

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New approaches to learning

Faith Clark’s personal experience made her extremely receptive to the explosion in learning technologies and brain research that began in the 1970s and early 1980s. Near-blind for the first 33 years of her life (because of a congenital condition known as Marfan’s syndrome), she had been able to focus clearly only about two inches from her nose. Encouraged by her father, she became adept at developing alternative learning strategies, got a doctorate in education and psychology, and began working with Cecil Clark. She saw herself, and a field of tulips, for the first time in 1977 when a successful eye operation gave her near-perfect vision. With sight came a flood of new information and bursts of creativity. As she learned to integrate her separately nurtured senses and as her brain established new neurological connections, she acquired a deep understanding of the unlocking of learning.

“One thing we’ve learned is that no one thing works,” she says. If a child can’t learn the alphabet or the multiplication tables the usual way, for example — by drill and repetition — she tries other approaches. Thus a child whose main channel for receiving information is auditory might learn 2 x 3 = 6 best by learning it as a song. A kinesthetic child (including most children who are diagnosed as hyperactive) might learn best by chanting the times tables while bouncing on a rebounder (a small trampoline) or by physically arranging and counting two groups of three blocks each. (Faith will describe the blocks as horses because “if they picture them moving, they will learn faster.”) For a child who learns best visually, the Clarks recommend writing “2 x 3 = 6” in large color letters on large sheets of art paper, and taping them around the child’s room. The images get imprinted on the memory; later, the child can summon that calculation up as a visual memory.

For each skill or concept an individual may need to learn, the Clarks draw on a wide variety of modern learning techniques and materials. “We don’t teach all of the techniques to everyone who comes in, “ says Cecil Clark. “We apply them as the need arises. Mainly, developing greater intelligence means engaging all of the senses, both sides of the brain, and the body as well as the mind.” Training in the dozens of learning technologies used at the clinic is available through the Clarks’ nonprofit National Learning Laboratory.

The walls of the learning center are lined with an incredible variety of books, workbooks, films, computer programs for the much-used Apple computers, and dozens of video- and audiotapes. During breaks, many clients do cross-lateral exercises on rebounders (e.g. lifting first the right arm and left leg simultaneously, and then the left arm and right leg). Others juggle tennis balls. (Cecil says, “We like to increase the neurological connections.”) The idea is to match subjects, media, and techniques to individual learning styles and interests.

In helping clients, the Clarks focus less on content of material to be learned than on the learning process itself. People go to them to learn how to learn — especially the particular way they learn best. “We encourage clients to become aware of themselves as learning machines,” says Cecil. “We don’t try to teach, we try to catch them learning, and frame the learning experiences as they happen, so they have insight into their own learning style — which begins a process that is lifelong. We also help them extend that style.”

Because some learning styles are less well suited to standard school curricula than others, Faith shows people different ways to learn the same kind of material. First, she analyzes how they take in and process information, using a form of sensory analysis based on “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP). By interpreting both verbal statements and nonverbal cues such as eye movements and breathing rates, she and her staff get a good idea how each person gains access to unconscious thoughts and memories through special videotaped interviews. If they ask a right-handed person what his first memory is, for example, and his eyes look up and to the right as he thinks about it, chances are he is primarily a visual learner. If his eyes look sideways, his primary learning mode way well be auditory. And if his eyes look down he may learn best kinesthetically — through movement and body feelings — or through a form of self-talk (a dialogue in his head).

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Understanding your child’s learning style

Parents sometimes limit a child’s learning through their own fears and inhibitions, and by not recognizing or allowing for differences in learning styles. You can see this clearly when two children from the same family perceive, think, and learn in different ways. Mike may be happiest watching ballets; Wendy may have no interest unless she is dancing herself. He is a watcher; she is a doer. Mike may be fascinated reading about how the pioneers made candles; Wendy may have to make candles herself for pioneers to catch her interest.

Unfortunately, a parent whose primary learning mode is visual or auditory will often interpret a kinesthetic learning style like Wendy’s as misbehaving. According to Cecil Clark, the adult who panics because a small child can’t sit still when reading doesn’t realize that “sometimes a little activity adjacent to a critical brain area stimulates the area.” Based on clinical experience, says Clark, “with certain children, jumping up and down and especially doing cross-lateral exercises stimulates general neural activity in the brain, facilitating the reading response and helping the child remember.”

The parent who doesn’t habitually visualize (form pictures in his head) may consider the child with imaginary playmates to be weird. The predominantly visual parent may complain of her auditory son, “He won’t look at me when I call him. All he does is listen to music all day, and sometimes he turns on the TV when he’s not even watching it.” In fact, you often hear parents say, “Look at me while I talk to you,” when some children need to look to the side to really “hear” and others need to look down when they are accessing their feelings. The sideways and downward eye movements are an involuntary but necessary component of reaching those parts of their consciousness.

Between the ages of two and five, children begin expressing strong aesthetic preferences: “I like this” and “I hate that.” This helps give them a sense of partitioning the universe — and separating from Mother. You can pick up early clues to the sensory modalities they may lean toward by listening to their predicates (as in “see you later,” “something tells me,” and “that’s yucky”). One child will like or hate the way things look, another the way they sound, and yet another the way they feel or taste. Most people use and integrate several modes of learning. The narrower someone’s learning style, the easier it is to identify and the more likely it is to be dysfunctional.

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Easing the pressure to perform

Learning-style differences within the family underlie much family conflict. For instance, seven-year-old Chuck always makes his bed but his older brother Larry never does. What their mother doesn’t realize is that to Larry, an uncoordinated ten-year-old with few visual skills, making a bed is equivalent to assembling an engine in a car. Anxious to teach Larry “responsibility,” she may present him with a hurdle he’s not ready to jump. She may have to walk him through the process more than she did his younger brother, demonstrating repeatedly, saying “First you do this,” and letting him tackle the process one step at a time while she continues to help him.

Of course, motivation is also important. “You can be sure that children working on phonics alone are not motivated,” says Faith Clark. “As far as children are concerned, studying phonics is like eating spinach: the best that can be said about it is that it’s for their own good. Let them study phonics in the context of reading a story — enjoying the benefits of reading while they are learning the process — and they will be motivated to learn.”

Many family problems stem from differences in the parents’ learning styles. As often as not, say the Clarks, opposites do attract in the beginning — but the special qualities that add to our partner’s initial mystique may in day-to-day living together become the basis for misunderstanding and conflict. And when a child’s learning style is more like one parent’s than the other’s, the child may end up identifying with that parent. It’s as if the child has to please two masters, each speaking a different language, so the child tends to choose. One parent may become good (“[s]he always understood me”) and the other bad (“[s]he was always on my case”).

Sometimes children inherit the different styles of both parents and have trouble integrating their own consciousness. And children whose parents have different learning styles sometimes opt for a style different from both parents. The parents often end up thinking, “This is not our child!” and the child often ends up with no role model for his individual learning style.

Because children look to their parents as role models, the Clarks (who also work with adult learning problems) often have to work with parents as well as children. Sometimes they help the parents work with the child’s learning style, and sometimes the focus is more on emotional role modeling — particularly if the parents are so stuck in their own internal processes that the child does not know how to relate to the world.

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Help for family problems

Near-autistic and with an IQ of 64, four-year-old Maura seemed not so much retarded as emotionally inhibited when she came to the Clarks. Her young father was logical, literal, and energetic at his job as a patent attorney. After two car accidents and a brutal rape, Maura’s anxiety-ridden mother was unable to function at her job as a designer. Developmentally unable to adopt her father’s encyclopedic learning style, Maura took on the mother’s nonfunctional fear and became withdrawn, inhibited, and phobic — even of TV. The parents, who barely communicated, had ignored Maura’s slow development until a school official called to say that the girl did nothing but sit in a corner. She rarely spoke, and when she did she often asked questions like, “What does a Mommy do? What does a Daddy do?” It was as if she had no parents.

While Cecil helped Maura’s mother work through her fears in psychotherapy, Faith simply held the child for the first few sessions, to gain her trust. Gradually she engaged Maura (who at first couldn’t even hold a pen) in activities like “scribble-scribble.” She often did this with the “help” of Oreo the stuffed bear, because Maura was responsive to small animals, as children often are. It was mainly a matter of “matching and leading”; watching what the child showed interest in and reinforcing that, using her interest to lead her into activities that would extend her visual-spatial abilities. A year after Maura came to the center, the Clarks retested Maura’s IQ and recorded an astonishing 40-point improvement in verbal intelligence.

Parents and teachers often underestimate the importance of the emotional connection to learning. “Some classroom teachers bond with their students naturally; others are strictly content-oriented, and don’t even talk to individual students,” explains Faith. “But it’s the emotional bonding that makes the difference between teaching and assigning, the relationship that provides the motivation. If you think about it, when people recall important school memories they remember the teacher who was ‘so wonderful’ to them. The dynamics of the relationship opens up all the systems; the emotional process keeps the learning open.”

Watching Maura and Faith on the rebounder — Faith jumping enthusiastically, Maura moving more tentatively — Cecil Clark draws a parallel between that small rectangle and a bed of hot coals. “People in other parts of the world walk barefoot on coals hot enough to melt an aluminum can, on a daily basis. They can do so because they have the right mental state — and they have someone they trust holding their hand. There may be physical explanations why people can walk on hot coals without burning their feet — moisture in the feet and so forth — but you don’t have to know this to be able to walk on the coals. You need the trust in your mentor, and then the next time you can do it alone. In some ways that is what we do.

“For some people the process of learning is like walking on coals,” he says. “It’s very scary. We’ve had children who are afraid to jump on that rebounder. You wonder if they are going to fall off, they’re so stiff-legged. Sometimes they’ll do it because they like you — and it’s a breakthrough for them. They do it because they like you, and then they like it. And then they go on to try the next thing, which is probably more useful to them than jumping on a rebounder. And then they are willing to try a new technique in learning.”


Faith Clark and her learning center are gone, alas. I count myself among the many beneficiaries of her wonderful therapy. While I was interviewing her for this article, she analyzed my "learning style" and told me that I would write much faster if I went dancing more. So I did, and whether or not I write faster because of it, I am certainly a happier person. That's part of what made her such a wonderful therapist.

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