Learning Styles: Part 1 – The Active Learner

By Debra Bell,

Part 1 – The Active Learner

Homeschoolers can take individual approach to education, whether gifted or not—and many parents begin with the question, “How does my child learn best?” This article describes the first of four learning styles. Links to parts two to four are below.

How do kids learn best?

That’s the question I set out to answer when pursuing my education degree. But after working with kids for more than twenty years, it has become clear to me the question should be, “How does this kid learn best? That’s one thing that sold me on home schooling – the opportunity to design a program uniquely cued to how each of my kids is wired to learn. You’ve probably been exposed to teaching along these lines – and all of them have value to whatever extent they help you recognize your child’s preferred method of learning. I want to cover here the model developed by Dr. Keith Golay in his book Learning Patterns and Temperament Styles. I’ve taken the model he developed for a classroom setting and applied it to home schooling. Cathy Duffy has also used this model to evaluate curricula in her books for home educators (see end of article). You’ll want to look there for additional resource recommendations. There are four key categories of learners, Dr. Golay concludes. For our purposes I’ve renamed them: the active learner, the routine learner, the focused learner and the global learner. It will take me four articles, but we’ll look at each one.


This kid is controlled by his impulses. Doing is his thing, forethought is not. He lives for the moment. Any learning that occurs is an unintentional by-product of his actions. He wants to touch, manipulate, construct and destroy. While it is not in the research, I’m sure there is a high correlation between the active learner and the kid with at least one broken bone by age eight.

It goes without saying, this guy is the least suited for the traditional classroom and formal learning experiences. He won’t sit still for lectures, repetition or drill. Material requiring concentration or seatwork quickly frustrates him. He has a short attention span, and does not organize nor plan ahead. He cannot sustain a project or an assignment over an extended period of time. He wants to be unrestrained by structure, routine or authority. He loves games and enjoys being in a group but is competitive and often takes charge. Other kids enjoy him for his antics and sense of fun. In a highly structured environment with strong authority he can quickly become a behavior problem, causing disruptions and acting defiantly.

Here we have Dr. Dobson’s strong-willed child, and among teachers, psychologists and exhausted parents, he is quickly labeled hyperactive and often medicated. Without consideration for this child’s learning style, he will likely become a dropout.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good:

This little guy is just the one you need to get the job done when the situation calls for quick wits and resourcefulness. He often has the ability to act swiftly with precision. He’s Huck Finn improvising a plan that saves Jim’s life, or Jim Lovell patching together an air filter that rescues the Apollo 13 mission. He’s Jacques Cousteau, Henry Ford, Wilbur Wright or Daniel Boone, taking risks and opening new frontiers.

He’s adept at manipulating, constructing and performing. In an environment that allows for his interests, he excels in areas requiring invention, physical dexterity, resourcefulness, and courage. He will respond well to any subject presented in such a way that he is free to move and act.


First, this kid needs strong but patient parenting. His inability to control his impulses must be brought under the loving command of your authority. The best book I’ve found on this issue is Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp. Make this your number one priority. Remember this is more important than any academics you may or may not get done each day.

Second, set up an environment that is quiet and clear of distractions. This will help your active learner to stay focused longer on his schoolwork. Establish a daily routine that delays the activities and subjects he likes best until the afternoon as a reward for staying on task during the morning. Give him short breaks after each subject is completed. Have him do something physical during this time – go outside, exercise or complete a daily chore. Spice up the routine regularly with variety: field trips, special projects or cooperative classes. Introduce an element of competition where possible. For example, use computer programs such as Math Blaster (Davidson), which have a game-like format and reward players for improving scores in skill areas.

Be tolerant of your active learner’s need to move around, lie on the floor or fidget while studying. Forcing him to sit still when it isn’t necessary means all his focus will be on this command, and he won’t be able to concentrate on the subject at hand. Be flexible. Tolerate the nonessential stuff. Fight the battles that really matter.

Set short, achievable goals and immediately reward good attitudes and acceptable work. Incentive charts, stickers or special treats can all be motivational.

When looking for resources and curricula, choose as many as possible that are activity-based. Your active learner needs to physically handle the material he’s learning and to manipulate it in a variety of contexts to understand it. My youngest daughter is an active learner – I’ve used manipulatives, such as Cuisennaire rods for math. We’ve tied art projects and map-making to history and geography lessons. For science, I’ve incorporated field trips and experiments using the books by Janice Van Cleave. I’ve also found that content-based coloring books are a quick and simple way to reinforce what my active learner is reading about.

Finally, think sports. This learner is frequently gifted in areas that require physical dexterity, primarily athletics. I’ve seen many active learners thrive in an organized sports program. This is an acceptable release of their energy and it is often a place where they can excel and feel good about their achievements. It gives them a much needed focus and teaches them to control their impulsive behavior because they are highly motivated to play.

Don’t despair with your active learner. I know his energy can often be exhausting for harried homeschool moms with lots of other kids. Designing a program that honors his learning style will do a great deal to manage his behavior and bring out the best in him. I know many older active learners who have grown up to be passionate in their pursuit of the Lord and who are real leaders among their peers–God has His purposes in mind in their unique design.

Read More

Part Two – The Routine Learner

Part Three – The Focused Learner

Part Four – The Global Learner