A global learner needs to understand the concepts and see how they fall fit together before they are able to understand the steps needed to solve a math problem.
It’s the global learner who is more likely to ask me “why do I need to learn this?”.
On the other end of the continuum, the sequential learner needs to approach a problem systematically and will want to see the list of steps needed to solve a problem before they can understand the “big idea”.
It is the sequential learner who will request that I “just show them the steps”.
A simple analogy – a sequential learner will be able to start working on a puzzle by playing with the pieces, probably putting the edges together first, then working inward.
A global learner won’t feel like they can start unless they can see the picture of the finished puzzle first.
As in most things, people aren’t “all global” or “all sequential”, but we have preferences and those preferences may be situational.
These learning style designations are a bit dated – I first learned about them back in 2003. There are many other important ways people learn, too – visual, auditory, kinesthetic – plus all the multiple intelligences identified since then.
However, after all this time teaching high school math, I’ve repeatedly observed the differences between global and sequential learning styles to be critical with respect to understanding how kids processed new concepts.
That may be because I’m a strong global, myself. My own high school math experience was negative. I don’t remember having a single “ah-ha” moment because the instruction felt out of sync with how I processed information.
Sequential learners tend to do well in a traditional math class, assuming they do not have learning gaps from previous courses.
However, global learners struggle more in a math class if the “big picture” isn’t presented right away.
Sequential learners can thrive in a math class because problems solved by taking steps feels comfortable to them. Global learners will sit there and be confused until they see the whole problem completed. At that point, all the steps make sense.
But, for the global learner who has just started to figure out what’s happening, the steps may not have been written down. And now the familiar “how do I start?” question comes up. If that question is not asked and answered at that moment, the student is sent home with an assignment, has no notes, probably no textbook, and…well, we know how this story ends.
When I converted my traditional instruction to a flipped, self-paced, mastery format, I noticed that a few global learners, given the option, approached their learning differently.
In my class, students watch a video lesson when they are ready to learn that skill and then work with me individually when they practice that skill.
Let’s say the a big topic called “Congruent Triangle Proofs” and that big topic was broken down into smaller skills with a video lesson and assigned practice for each skill. My global learners would choose to watch all the videos first, take all their notes, and then practice the skills.
A few students told me that after they have watched all the videos, they prefer to do the skill practices in reverse order because the last skill usually involves using all the new concepts. They need to see how it all fits together before they can understand the smaller parts.
It is difficult for a classroom teacher to design lessons that meet the needs of all the different learners in the room. It’s possible, but differentiation for learning styles usually must be sacrificed for pragmatic realities of having a 1:30+ teacher to student ratio and the amount of material that needs to be presented in a grading period because of an important standardized exam happening on a certain date.
However, a private teacher, working with one student, can easily make modifications for an individual’s learning style. Chances are, if your student has been having difficulty, it is because the way they learn does not sync with the way the material is being presented in class.
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