by Tamsyn

March 8, 2016

Learning Styles- Legos

Perspectives of a Homeschooling Mom

I don't talk about the homeschooling aspect of my life much on this blog, but it is very relevant to my understanding of different learning styles so you get to learn something new about me today.  I know the countless amazing public school educators will have a different perspective, but I know what I know, so here we go.

Taking on the task of educating my own children was a role I didn’t take lightly. As a homeschooler myself growing up, I always knew it was something I wanted to do, but as I became a parent, I realized how very little I knew about learning as an educator. For the first time in my life, I was home alone all day with a baby with an incredible amount of free time. No homework- I had graduated from college with a protruding belly. No formal job aside from a few piano students- I had a baby to take care of. But newborns sleep. So what did I do? I checked out every early education book I could get my hands on and plotted the education of a newborn barely able to keep his own head up. Gee, wouldn’t I love to have that kind of “me” time now!

Anyway, one of the things that kept popping up was that there are a variety of different learning styles. I’m not talking about kinesthetic learning, audio learning, visual learning, and tactile learning, although these are different learning types as well. I think all children benefit from being exposed to a variety of learning environments. While one child may respond better to visual learning than another, I hesitate to label a CHILD as a visual learner just because they picked something up well when a visual activity was presented to them. Likewise, I don’t think it is ideal for a teacher to say to themselves that they prefer audio learning and to always favor audio learning products. All human beings, whether gifted, handicapped, or perfectly ordinary (in the best way), will become bored with only one learning approach. I think it’s wonderful to add variety to the day as well as variety to each subject. If math always involves pulling out wonderful manipulatives but spelling is always out of a dry textbook, the child will naturally think that math is fun and spelling is boring. Yet sometimes it’s the dry textbook that really helps the child go to the next level and learning a little grit is good for all of us. I like to keep things balanced.

In that light, the learning styles I want to talk about today are Direct vs Discovery Learning, Mastery vs Spiral learning, and Whole vs Part learning. I don’t necessarily have a favorite, I think each has their place. However, being AWARE of the different learning styles, and which kind of approach I am using at a given time has been very useful. Knowing that I am using a spiral approach, for example, could help me be more laid back on the mastery aspect of my children’s learning, knowing that we’ll have plenty of chances to master the subject as we continue to learn. Knowing which approach is being used and how they each work will help any educator teach any subject, and music is no exception.

Direct Instruction verses Discovery Learning

Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is where the teacher tells the student directly the material that they want them to learn.  A classic example would be, well, to give an example on how a problem should be solved.  After seeing a few examples being worked through step by the step, the student is then given the task of performing the work on their own.  In the short run, this is a much faster way to learn a greater amount of material than discovery learning, although the material is less likely to be retained in the long run.  Even so, one does not preclude the other.  The first time a student solves a problem correctly, they've made their own discovery that they can do it.  Likewise even in the discovery method, a wise teacher will know when to ask the student questions and when to give them insight.

The music application for direct learning can be found in most classroom and private settings.  When I teach my children a new song on the piano, I like to play it for them first so they know what the song will sound like.  If they are given a theory assignment, most private teachers will not leave their student floundering to figure out what the textbook is talking about before they are expected to hand it in.  In truth, direct learning is probably how most formal teaching happens.

Discovery Learning

Discovery learning happens when a child is allowed or encouraged to discover how to learn or do something on their own. This kind of learning happens when a child spontaneously picks up a book on their own because they want to learn about something, when you go on a field trip, and when educational activities are set out as an invitation during playtime. The best “unschooling” environments are inspired by discovery learning, although it can happen in a formal classroom as well. A teacher might give the students a handful of resources and tell them to accomplish a specific task. A group of students will then work to figure out how to do it. Kind of like a puzzle. This kind of learning takes much longer than direct instruction, and in the short term students often will not test as well as those who have studied the material directly. However, when tested a year or two after a learning activity, students who learned through discovery methods retained their skills better than those who learned through direct instruction.  See more about these studies here.  Children learn through play, and the more playful the learning environment, the better. Unfortunately discovery learning takes much more time to prepare as a teacher which limits the breadth of material that can be covered. Fortunately, children seem to have no problem creating their own discovery activities when given the chance, and their own play will often reflect what was learned through direct instruction. At least I’ve seen this in my own children. I am truly in favor of both learning/teaching methods depending on the circumstances. It’s not an all or nothing deal.

Discovery learning in music can look very much like the little boy shown with a musical instrument and a mallet left on his own to play.  It can also be much more complex.  Improvisation is a valuable skill that can be learned and taught, and the best performers have spent a great deal of time "discovering" their instrument.  Composers have given us the fruits of their discoveries.  Make time for discovery learning.

Mastery Learning verses Spiral Learning

Learning Styles

Mastery Learning

Mastery learning is an approach that focuses on thoroughly learning and mastering a topic before moving on to the next piece.  Step by step.  Mastery vs Spiral learning are learning approaches that can apply to any subject, but when I was doing my research for this article, these two were connected to math, so let's run with it.  In a mastery approach, a student may learn how to add one-digit numbers to perfection before they move on to two-digit numbers or subtraction.  If they are learning to tell time, they may spend a month or two on the subject until the child is very comfortable.  Then, and ONLY then do they move on to a new subject.  Mastery learning can be a textbook's style in that there are several lessons devoted to a subject before moving on, but it can also be a parent or teacher's style.  A parent may say- "We are doing this until you get it, because I want to make sure that you get it."  One of the best known math programs, with an incredible success rate is the Kumon math centers.  I might add that sometimes obtaining mastery is absolutely crucial, depending on what a person is learning.  When running large machines, for example, a person's life may depend on it.

In music, mastery learning is best applied to performance pieces.  If you are going to perform, and especially if you are going to compete, you need to truly master the material.  You need to know it like the back of your hand, inside and out.  (don't ask me how well I know the inside of the back of my hand).  On a much smaller scale, mastery happens when a teacher expects perfection before a song is passed off.  One of the best known mastery approaches to music again comes from Japan, the Suzuki method.

Spiral Learning

Spiral learning is where a subject is introduced on a basic level and the student has a chance to work with it a bit.  Then the subject matter changes the next day, with a brief exercise on the subject matter of the day before, often slightly more difficult.  A student has plenty of chances to master the material because the subject matter keeps coming up.  The biggest advantage to spiral learning is that the workload becomes less monotonous, and a much broader spectrum of information can be presented.  Look at the spiral staircase pictured.  A student starts at the bottom and progresses upward.  After a time, a person walking up the stairs would be directly above the spot where they were before, however, this time they have advanced upward in their position.  Applied to learning, they may be covering the same material as before, but this time their understanding is deeper and more comprehensive, especially after being exposed to all of the material on their way up to the second level.  I have chosen Saxon Math for my own children because I really like the spiral approach.  It's working well for us.  Others prefer a mastery approach, and that's great for them.  Spiral learning can help you learn and truly remember anything.  A friend of mine highly recommends a program called "SuperMemo", where he would teach his son a concept, they would type key concepts into this program, and after a certain number of days he would be quizzed on it.  If he remembered, it wouldn't pop up again very soon, but if he forgot, it would pop up much sooner.  By spacing the learning and expectations of mastery like this, you can cover a lot more material and still ultimately gain mastery.

How does this apply to music?  Let's take a choral setting for example.  A choir director will hand out 2-3 pieces during the first week of class and the students will begin practicing them.  On the second week, a new song is introduced and less time is spent on the first few numbers.​  The students did not master the first songs during the first week, but they are still expected to begin learning a new song while retaining what they learned of the first.  More time will probably be spent on the new song.  In this way, a choir can learn a LOT of music during a semester and perform it well.  Time will be spent mastering difficult sections, but perfection is not expected or required early on because the director and students know that there will be plenty of time to master it with bits and pieces of practice time.  As a parent teaching my own children, I have adapted a more spiral approach to piano.  I let my children progress through their songbook before they master any given piece because it keeps things fresh and challenging.  However, we frequently review.  Maybe once a week, we will play through their old songs.  Playing more challenging pieces has helped them to master the challenging parts of easier songs.  It works for us.  Even so, there are performance songs that we spend more time on, striving for mastery before a big event.

Whole Learning vs Parts Learning

Parts learning

In this case of this vs that, the classic example and debate is in the reading sector.  Phonics vs whole word learning.  Many argue that phonics first is the best approach- learn the sounds that each letter makes, then take those pieces, put them together, and voila!  You have a word.  After a student becomes comfortable with words, they are strung together to make sentences, paragraphs, and finally entire stories and ideas.  For many children this is the best approach, especially if the child is ready and capable of remembering and understanding each of the individual pieces and how they work.  Learning from parts to whole is akin to being given a large pile of toy bricks and building a specific creation.  The student may or may not know what the final picture will look like, they are simply building with the pieces as they are instructed.  Their focus is on the individual pieces.  Finally a magic moment happens- the big "AHA!"- when everything clicks and they see the big picture.

In music, this kind of approach can be found in many early primer books, especially in pre-reading examples.  A student learns about finger numbers (one part), then they learn about letter names (another), then they learn about rhythm (this part is crucial!).  Finally these pieces are put together on a music staff and a whole new aspect of learning to read music is introduced.

Learning Style- whole

Whole Learning

In this case, the approach would better be described as whole-parts-whole learning, where one sees the big picture first, then the parts are examined and internalized, and finally one comes back to the big picture with a much better understanding then they had the first time around.  I have to admit that while I have been fairly balanced so far on learning styles, I am very much in favor of the whole-parts-whole learning approach.  I have taught my very young children to read by teaching them through whole-word methodologies.  I found that tiny children struggle to remember which parts they are working with.  My oldest son knew the individual sounds each letter makes in a word like "CAT", but when we would try to sound out the word, by the time he got to the "T", he would have forgotten the "C" sound.  It wasn't until I taught him whole words, words he was very interested in, that everything clicked and his reading took off.  Tiny children especially do well with a whole-learning approach.  However, ultimately the parts still need to be understood, and when they are, the whole picture becomes a lot more meaningful.  We dug into phonics when it was time to learn how to spell.  Or take for example this Lego house.  One can look at it and admire it's beauty, but one cannot truly appreciate the whole work until one has taken the pieces apart and put them back together again.  One could do this in pieces.  One day the table is taken apart and put back together, another day the couch or the sink.  In time a person would know how to build the entire house.

In music, this is often accomplished by listening to a recording of a song before learning it so that everyone knows what the music should sound like.  Then an ensemble might plow through the entire piece no matter how sloppy the results may be, if just for the opportunity to be given the big picture.  Then, wisely, the conductor pick through all the tricky spots that gave the ensemble trouble.  A good way to end a practice is to again go through the entire piece.  I like seeing the big picture before delving into parts.  The parts are important, but I think that too much emphasis on the parts distracts a person from the big picture.  The sooner a musician knows what the big picture will look like, the sooner they will be able to achieve it.  The big picture can also be an incredibly motivating factor when it's time to practice the parts.  I had a whole-parts-whole learning approach in mind when I wrote "My First Piano Lessons".


I hope this overview will help you navigate and understand the different learning styles and how they are applicable to you in your own music teaching.  There are of course many other learning techniques, ideas, and styles out there that I did not cover, many of which I probably know nothing about!  However, as a homeschooling mom AND as a music teacher, knowing about them has been of tremendous use to me.  Trying to add a variety of hands-on, off-bench activities for kinesthetic learning, listening to music for audio learning, looking at instruments and sheet music for visual learning, and singing along for verbal learning are all extremely valuable activities for ALL kinds of learners.  Everyone learns better given a variety of different approaches.  Everyone benefits from seeing things under a new light, from a new angle.   I like labeling learning types, but I don't like labeling people as a certain kind of learner.  If a child is told they are a kinesthetic learner, they might create a mental block when they find themselves in a learning environment based on audio and verbal learning.  To say that they like or prefer a certain kind of learning is great, but I don't think we should be labeling children.  Likewise, I hesitate to dogmatically cling to any of the learning styles above because I think they all have merit.  It is understanding the different learning types and when to apply them that we can glean be best that each have to offer.

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About the author 


My name is Tamsyn and I love music. I got my bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from USU. I spent many years teaching private piano lessons until I had children of my own. I have attended several children workshops on how to teach children music. I really like the Kodaly method, but have adapted a lot of different techniques for my own children.

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  1. My neck is sore from nodding! You know, you brought up a really interesting topic that I hadn’t considered before with the mastery vs spiral learning. Not that I hadn’t considered the two forms before and formed an opinion on them- I am wholeheartedly in the spiraling camp as an elementary music teacher and always shake my head at the elementary music teachers I know who insist on (what I view as) plodding along with the mastery approach. What’s new for me to consider is that I actually grew up with the mastery approach. As you pointed out, it is quite prevalent in Japanese education, where I was raised. Reflecting on my elementary education, I can see how there was a lot of mastery approach. Not exclusively so, but definitely prevalent, and I am a wholehearted proponent of the Japanese education system! So I have some thinking to do- I think there must be more to this mastery approach than I had previously given credit. Thank you for sharing this article! #fermatafridays

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