Ask any counseling psychologist – humans are remarkable. Scientists once thought we were all alike, but now we know that there is a mind-boggling array of physiological and psychological variations that combine to create our distinct, individual personalities.
Psychologists understand that each of us perceives the world differently – that is, we see and interpret everything in our own, personal way. Additionally, we each have specific, unconscious preferences about how we receive and integrate that information – a process that causes ripple effects in the way we interact with people, learn, form relationships, work, and plan our lives. This information is part of the personality baseline that counseling psychologists use to help patients work through their problems.
A New Look at Intelligence
In 1983, Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, proposed in his paper on Multiple Intelligence Theory that our single-focus approach to intelligence testing was misleading. His research showed that there are at least seven different kinds of intelligences that we all possess to varying degrees: visual/spatial, musical, verbal, logical/mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and bodily/kinesthetic – and one more that he added later – the naturalistic intelligence.
Although we all function in all of these areas, we each have tendencies that are stronger in some than in others – tendencies that often define our learning style. The VARK system – standing for Visual, Auditory, Read/write, and Kinesthetic, is a variation on Gardner’s approach and speaks more specifically to how we prefer to act, learn, and interact with the world. It was developed by Neil Fleming while teaching at Lincoln University, Christchurch, New Zealand.
VARK tells us that visual/spatial people tend to think in pictures and like to learn from visual sources including the contextual or background information gleaned from surrounding imagery. Auditory learners learn through listening. They like discussions, talking things through, and prefer lectures over reading. Read/write learners like books and generally prefer to learn quietly on their own, while kinesthetic learners want to actively experience learning. They like demonstrations and experimenting with the subject matter. Naturalist learners prefer to learn from outdoor experiences.
How Your Style Can Help You Understand Your Problems
Identifying with one or more of these learning styles tells you about how you approach all aspects of your life. You start to understand why you are attracted to certain things – books, music, math, or science. It’s vital information for a counseling psychologist who might be trying to help you sort out your unhappiness with your job, your depression about a relationship, or your confusion about your next career move.
Armed with the knowledge that the patient is a visual learner, a counseling psychologist might ask him to rethink his decision to be an English teacher. An attorney who loves research but hates a new responsibility that involves having to do presentations in court might be counseled to find a new position within or outside his current law firm.
On the other hand, counseling psychologists have found that adults who are strong in more than one learning modality sometimes have even greater conflicts about their career direction. A visually dominant writer may move back and forth between art and literature several times before he or she finally finds a job as an advertising copywriter or as a script writer for a kid’s television show where the writing and visuals go hand-in-hand.
Interestingly, most of us didn’t have the luxury of these studies when we started our careers, but because our learning preferences are so integral to our personalities, it is likely that more of us than not have found an acceptable niche.
Diversity and Mutual Understanding
The focus on understanding the individual has led the way to better employer-employee relations. Counseling psychologists who work in corporations are finding that employees who understand more about the psychological makeup of their workmates have a greater respect for both individuals and for people of other ethnicities.
The Briggs-Myers Type Indicator is a common personality test which incorporates learning styles. It’s a useful tool for helping an employee understand why he or she may be feeling reactive, or why his or her perspective might be different from others – as well as why the guy in the next cubicle has a cleaner desk.
A Change in Education
An outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to education and life in general consistently overlooks individual differences. As a result, many adults find themselves relegated to unsatisfying jobs and relationships, and many children slip through the cracks.
A disruptive child who isn’t interested in school and who refuses to sit still during class makes everyone’s life difficult. Teachers get angry. Parents worry. And worst of all, the child’s experience of his world is not positive. While there are many possible diagnoses for this problem, a counseling psychologist might want to proceed slowly, first testing the child for learning attributes, and appropriately changing both the learning atmosphere, and the parents’ expectations.
Similarly, the parents of a kinesthetic young man might find it difficult to understand why their teen is so good at chemistry but is failing math. His psychologist might suggest a school that has a more experiential curriculum where teachers are aware that kinesthetic kids need a more physically involved way of learning.
Research is now confirming what counseling psychologists have known for a long time – that learners need educational resources that mesh with their learning styles. The absence of those resources doesn’t mean that learning doesn’t take place. It means that learning is not fun or engaging, and it means that retention is not as great.
In a world where knowledge increases exponentially every year, competition becomes more intense, and distractions become more and more engaging, an effort to individualize work and learning experiences offers new potential for a more successful and enjoyable life.