How do we Learn?

Learning must be one of the most complicated simple things in our lives. Just think about it for a moment; literally everything you think or do is something that you’ve learned at some point, in some way and usually from some person. But can you remember the who, what, when, where, why or how for the overwhelming majority of them? Sure the big things will probably be clear enough; you’ll probably remember who taught you to ride a bike, or the first time you drove a car and the person that was (hopefully) with you, and other large learning events. But what about the small things? Or better yet, do you remember why you know certain things? The answer for most of us is no, and that’s perfectly normal as the details are usually unimportant, just the outcome. Unless of course you’re an educator. Then these small details become incredibly important as they can make the difference between understanding and a sea of blank faces staring back at you. So in this blog, we’re going to take a look at how children can learn, and how we try to incorporate different ideas and strategies to help them get the most out of their sessions at Gym Bubbas.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

It can be very easy to assume that teaching, especially teaching an activity such as gymnastics, is mostly a case of demonstration and then letting those learning copy you. This is basically how we’re conditioned to think of learning as adults after all, we take instruction, either from a person, in writing, in a video, etc. and then we’re expected to follow those instructions to do whatever the thing was we were being shown. But this is far from the most effective method of teaching because it’s not the most effective way for people to learn, simply the most broad.

Copying the actions of others is one of the most fundamental skills we have, and one of the first things any of us learn to do. Babies learn to copy their parents from a very early age. This is why they initially smile back at us or look to us when they fall to see if they should cry. This skill develops very fast and accounts for a lot of early childhood learning. But copying also quickly gets joined by exploring in babies. So why would we assume that copying someone is the best way to learn (especially if that someone is one or two of our instructors…) by default for older children and adults?

The simple answer is that whilst there is a whole field of academic study around learning, most of the time demonstration is not only the easiest and simplest method of teaching, but also the best starting point.

So, How do we Learn?

Onto the big question then. If copying and instruction isn’t the best way for us to learn, how do we learn? Well depending on who you ask there are many possible answers to that. But the general wisdom is that we all learn in a variety of different ways, usually more than one at once, and this helps us take in information and retain it. There are many different models and arguments around types of learning, but one of the most popular (and the one we tend to use) focuses on four key “styles” of learning: Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing and Kinesthetic.

Each of these styles is probably pretty self explanatory, and whilst they have a lot of depth we can simplify the ideas:

  • Visual – Learning by observing and copying.
  • Auditory – Learning by listening to instructions and ideas.
  • Reading/Writing – Learning from books and making your own notes.
  • Kinesthetic – Learning by doing.

This is known as the VARK Model and was developed by teacher Neil Flemming.

Pick n Mix

The basic idea with the VARK model is that everyone will have a preferred learning style, or at least learn better from some styles over others. But it’s important not to get hung up on the idea that an individual is specifically one type of learner (in most cases). Just because someone learns better kinesthetically, doesn’t mean that the other styles are worthless to them. In reality, we all learn better from an approach that incorporates aspects of several / all four styles. This is because our brains are very good at processing a variety of information at the same time, so if we can give it essentially the same message in different ways (visually and audibly for example) then it increases the chances of that information actually sticking with us.

When we plan out our lessons here at Gym Bubbas, one of the key aspects we always discuss at some length is how we can try and incorporate different learning styles into the activities. Sometimes this isn’t possible of course, but plenty of skills and activities have more than one learning style at work to help the children.

For example, you will quite often see one instructor demonstrating whilst another talks. This isn’t just because our instructors struggle to multi-task, but also because it allows clear and concise instructions to be given (audibly), whilst an accurate demonstration is taking place (visual). If these two things were coming from the same place, it would be harder for the instructor to deliver them both accurately, and because the children aren’t focusing on the instructor speaking, they don’t realise it, but they are more likely to listen effectively so long as the instructions match the demonstration.

A Varied Approach

By utilising a varied approach to teaching wherever we can, we hope to maximise the learning opportunities for as many children as possible. In this photo for example, the children were performing their end of term routine they had been working on. They had practised the skills involved and the routine as a whole many times over the previous weeks (kinesthetic), but we decided to provide them with prompt cards (a visual aid) as well. This kind of additional scaffolding is always a consideration with our classes and if we’re doing it well then you will probably never notice!

Understanding how people learn is even more relevant when planning and teaching our classes for children with additional needs, as they will sometimes have very specific learning requirements or be far more inclined to one learning style than other children might be.

For these classes we tend to have an array of extra resources at hand that provide additional scaffolding, such as visual cue cards, different music, extra instructors, etc, to allow us to cover the children’s learning needs more effectively. But by far the most important skill for us, is to not fall into the trap of being overly rigid in our approach. Just because something works once, or with one class, doesn’t mean it’s going to work with another class, or even the same class on a different occasion. This flexibility is all part of understanding how children (and the rest of us) learn, and being willing and able to accomodate the fact that it does change and evolve, and is rarely exactly the same twice.

With all that in mind, hopefully the complexity of understanding how we learn has shown itself. Yes, it’s a simple, natural and innate process for us all, but how that process works can and will vary wildly from person to person. We all have the ability to copy what others are showing us (although we will warn you again, copying some of our instructors isn’t always the best idea…), but when you enhance that with other learning aids from across the Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing and Kinesthetic model, that’s when you can really provide a great learning experience by making sure you’re covering as many options as possible. Not only does this give most children the best opportunities to learn effectively, but it also provides the outliers to “normal” learning methods more tools to engage with; and providing that kind of access is very important to us, and core to the Gym Bubba’s ethos.