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Different kinds of smart

Jennifer-Skuza.jpg Youth perceive

and process information in very different ways. In fact, their learning styles are based on those two fundamental cognitive functions. Learning styles theory suggests that how much individuals learn has more to do with whether the educational experience is geared toward their particular style of learning than whether or not they are "smart." So, we should ask, How is this youth smart? rather than, Is this youth smart? Here are some general learning style classifications.

Concrete perceivers and abstract perceivers

Concrete perceivers absorb information through direct experience -- by doing, acting, sensing and feeling. Abstract perceivers, however, absorb information by analyzing, observing and thinking.

Active processors and reflective processors

Active processors make sense of an experience by immediately using the new information. Reflective processors make sense of an experience by reflecting on and thinking about it before acting on it.
Some authors suggest that practitioners should tailor their teaching styles to be more congruent with the youth they are working with. Others have suggested that a moderate learning-teaching style mismatch encourages and challenges learners to expand their capabilities.
Best practice might involve offering educational experiences that employ a variety of teaching styles. In that way, youth workers and educators can emphasize and reward the full spectrum of learning styles so that all young people have equal opportunities to learn. To do that, practitioners could place curricular emphasis on intuition, senses, feelings and imagination, in addition to skills of analysis, reason and sequential problem-solving.

In terms of instruction, practitioners may design their instruction methods to connect with all learning styles, using various combinations of experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation. Practitioners may also incorporate a wide variety of experiential elements into the learning environment, such as music, sound, movement, visuals, texture, experience, and talking or signing.

How smart is this young person? A question framed in that manner implies a number of things. First it acknowledges that all youth are smart; they simply have different forms of intelligence. It also suggests that practitioners are responsible for taking initiative to find out how young people learn. It also suggests that youth should know their own preferred learning style so that they are prepared to drive their learning. Lastly, it is a strength-based way to view young people and their learning which may set the tone for positive youth development, quality of youth-practitioner relationships and effective learning environments.

What are your thoughts on learning styles?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Thank you, for taking time do this research and presenting the multitude of learning styles to educated professionals. Growing up as a student who learned differently in comparison to my peers I was passed around a number of schools in search of The answer to that very question; how smart is a student? My mother also searched for schools and teachers who used practice to seek out answers. As an educator I now realize that each kid has a unique learning style and it is our job to adjust our teaching style but, the question is- are we up for the challenge? Or is it even systematically possible to adjust our teaching styles to fit the students needs without giving them a negative title such as "special education"

  2. Hello Jennifer -
    Thanks for sharing your personal experience with learning styles and how it influenced your school choices. There is training available for educators on how to flex their teaching styles. For instance, Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed a widely used learning styles inventory based on Kolb's learning theory. They identified four distinct learning styles or preferences: Activist, Theorist; Pragmatist and Reflector.Here is the website to learn more about it:
    Do you have any resources that can help educators familiarize themselves with their learning style or stretch their style?
    Thanks for participating in the conversation.

  3. I think that you highlight one of the frustrations and challenges of education...each learner unique.
    As a parent I think about your blog post and immediately begin asking myself...What are my kids? I can fairly easily identify my older child as a reflective processor...the challenge often is creating space for the reflection to occur! So where do I take this understanding once I have it? Do work to develop the non-preferred learning style so that she is more efficient as a learner when educators use different styles? Do I evaluate and engage only in learning that is easiest for her?
    As a professional I am also torn...part of me wants to have an understanding of the youth I work with so that I can custom tailor learning to each group and individual. Part of me also recognizes that I do not have the resources to effectively connect with each learner in their specific preferred learning style.
    My reflection on the topic is that it is about balance. Connecting with all learning styles through intentional design of the learning experiences. The balance point for each session may shift as a result of instructor preference and skill, the group of unique learners and the goals of the provider of the education. We also must understand that poor performance in one style does not mean you have a poor performer.
    Is there a specific learning style that is often forgotten in non-formal education?
    How can non-formal educators do a better job at incorporating that style?

  4. Hi Jennifer!
    Great blog and such an interesting topic! Several thoughts rush to my mind upon reading.
    First, I think of the comic strip where the teacher is sitting behind the desk and prompts the students being an elephant, a snake, a turtle, and variety of other animals to climb a tree to show their success. Obviously, the variety of strengths represented in the animals doesn’t necessarily match with the strengths needed to climb a tree. Our children are wired differently as well. This shows in their strengths, learning styles, preference to spend their time, etc.
    Second, one of my children underwent an intelligence test. One of her answers went above and beyond the simple comparison they were looking for so she didn't get the "points". My comment was that she should have gotten extra credit for that because she was making a higher level of comparison beyond what they were asking. But “no” the answer she had given was not the exact of what they were expecting so points were not given. Again, the creative strengths were not awarded in this standardized test because the answer someone else decided was correct was not given.
    The third idea that popped into my head (yes, I am one of those random thinkers), was a Ted Talk I just happened to watch earlier today by Angela Lee Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania. Her compelling presentation was around research suggesting that the traits of grit and self-control are better predictors of success in school, finishing higher education programs and sticking with a job than IQ, family economic status, or several other predictors of success that are currently being used. I haven't looked up the research studies yet but I have viewed similar results and believe it could offer hope to children/parents.
    Finally, as practitioners I believe it essential to provide a variety of learning opportunities to reach children with a variety of learning styles and interests. Watching, listening to comments, and interacting with children/youth as they are experiencing learning activities will also reveal clues as to what works well the young people in the programs you are working.

  5. Comment on teaching & Learning Styles
    In teaching and learning styles I agree that students perceive and process information in a very different ways. Each individual student has a unique learning style. This unique learning style has to be identified by educators/teachers at the very beginning of learning process to establish a method that works for both parties. As a life-long learner I have been through almost all learning styles. Let me elaborate my experience as youth and adult learner/perceiver. School for me, during my young age was one sided and orders come from the educational hierarchy in which students had no part but heard what they were told to pass from grade to grade.
    As adult learner here in Minnesota, I have gone through traditional teaching styles in my undergraduate years where inputs from the students were minimum. In my graduate school, I saw a big difference in teaching styles where my learning style and teaching styles were close to be integrated.
    It is up to the teacher to balance the curriculum in order to fulfill the needs of young people. To entertain both “teacher centered and student centered “ learning styles, it is crucial to consider the uniqueness of individual learners and co-create what style is the best for the youth without abandoning both. Even if young people know their own preferred learning styles, they still need guidance from the educators to drive their own learning styles for success. From experience, there is no any doubt in my mind that preparing a learning environment is significant. Young people learn from their environment be it negative or positive.
    Just to mention about youth workers and other educators caring for the wellbeing of youth I suggest and support that we need strong coalitions of youth workers, teachers, after school leaders, and community /parents to see positive outcome.
    About the “Youth being smart” All young people can be smart depending upon the environment they come from.
    To conclude my points, in teaching style I would say facilitating is more important than lecturing and students would be free to address the way they could perceive information and process among themselves. Integrated teaching and learning styles would be excellent for positive youth development.
    Please see the “Style of Learning & Teaching
    An Integrated Outline of Educational Psychology for Students, Teachers and Lecturers
    By Noel Entwistle. (1998).

  6. Hi Jennifer!!!
    I love your thoughts around "How is this youth smart?" What a great reminder to all of us that there are so many different sorts of "smarts"!
    Making sure to incorporate a wide variety of experiential elements into the learning environment is what 4-H is all about - experiential hands-on learning activities. How does this play into the learning styles of all of our 4-H'ers? Is this a good or bad thing?
    I see different learning styles everywhere around me - my husband and I learn very differently than one another, as do my two children. Keeping this in mind is very important and helps to ensure that everyone can have opportunities to be successful. The difference between concrete perceivers and abstract perceivers is intriguing to me. We hear lots about different learning styles, but not this. Any ideas why this is not discussed as much? I find myself to be an abstract perceiver who appreciates having processing time. It also makes me think about times that I worked in groups, been in a class or in larger group meetings - were those quieter in the group abstract perceivers who needed time to process before providing feedback or actually just quieter people. Lots to think about!
    I see my daughter as a very visual learning (maybe because of her special and different abilities) who thrives in an environment that allows for visual schedules, using pictures for making choices, and viewing video modeling to prepare for the task at hand. I am also a very visual learner. My son on the other hand is a kinesthetic who can learn just about anything if he can experiment with it and actually try it himself. My husband is right there with him. Amazing how our minds work! What a great topic for all educators to contemplate and intentionally using when planning their programs. Thanks for sharing!

  7. HI Mark –
    Your raise many good questions. Like you, I think about learning styles and my role as a parent too. You mentioned helping children find a balance so that they are able to reap the benefits of multiple learning styles. The term for that is called “style flexing”. Educators and trainers are encouraged to flex their teaching style so that they can increase their ability to engage larger number s of learners. The same advice can be applied to learners (or young people in this case) whereby they flex their learning style so that they may continue to grow and develop in additional ways that maximize learning and its transfer to their everyday lives.
    You asked if there is a learning style that is forgotten in nonformal education. Kolb’s learning cycle is essentially comprised of three parts: experience, reflection and application. In practice, adequate time for reflection is often short-changed. So this makes we wonder if we give those with a reflective learning style enough space and support.
    Reflectors can be supported by having a personal, agreeable learning environment and by an instructor who has a sincere interest in them as a person as they begin to apply learning. Educators can also ask “how” questions to get reflectors’ opinions about “best use” and be patient in drawing out their goals and plans. It is also important to give reflectors a chance to adjust to departures from the norm and help define roles and their place in any learning application plan. With reflectors it is also important to provide personal assurances and enough scaffolding throughout their learning process.
    Thanks for your commentary.

  8. HI Melissa -
    Thanks for the comic strip analogy. It is a perfect depiction of a learning dilemma that can be found in in any learning environment.
    You mentioned Angela lee Duckworth’s Ted Talk on The key to Success: Grit. Here is the link for others who may want to view it:
    She describes grit as having passion and perseverance for your long-term goals and as possessing stamina for the future. Like you indicated, her research suggests that grit is the most important factor in determining one’s success. I really like your point about how this finding can provide “hope” to children, youth and their families – especially those who are not thriving in their education.
    Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts.

  9. Hello Dagaga –
    I really appreciate your sharing a synopsis of your learning history and how it was influenced by teaching styles and your adaptation of learning styles. Also thanks for sharing the resource by Noel Entwistle. I look forward to learning more about that book.
    You mentioned the importance of instructors having facilitation skills over the ability to deliver a lecture. You may want to look into the work of Dr. Stephen Brookfield (if you already have not done so). His website is full of useful tips and materials that can help adults become better educational facilitators. He is also an expert on adult learning and many of his resources are applicable to youth audiences.
    Thank you for being a part of this online conversation.

  10. This topic is one that is near and dear to my research and work. There is a great book for working with learning styles for younger children - You're Smarter Than You Think, by Thomas Armstrong. I've used the concept of this book (plus other research) to create workshops that foster life long learning and passions. As educators, we must create rich learning environments where children and youth can use their unique learning styles and identify and explore their multiple intelligences.

  11. Hi Nicole -
    Thanks for sharing the resource by Thomas Armstrong for working with learning styles for younger children - You're Smarter Than You Think. I look forward to reading it!

  12. Thank you for this important and much needed discussion on learning styles. As a youth worker, I often think about how to connect experience to the interactions that I have with my youth. I especially appreciate your suggestions that youth workers/educations could focus curriculum on "intuition, senses, feelings and imagination." I find that often times experiences are treated as something that is disconnected from the person who is experiencing them. For example, you are doing an activity. You know you are doing an activity because of the actions involved in doing this activity. You learned a concept or idea through either the process or result of this activity.
    However, I believe it's important to only focus on the skills of analysis, but also process what was felt and sensed during the experienced. By removing the distance from the experience, by fostering a sense of connectedness with an experience, learning is able to become personal and engaging.

  13. HI Sam -
    I really like your points on distance and experience.
    On a related note, I think it is important to talk about learning styles with youth (without boxing them into any one style) as a step toward them becoming the drivers of their learning. Have you ever incorporated learning style inventories into your programming?


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