At a recent education conference, there was a lot of debate about learning styles and it evoked some heated discussion. Unfortunately, as so often with this sort of entrenched neuro-myth, much of the emotion was based on false premises and assumptions about how the brain and learning works.
As we all know, the term “learning styles” is still very much in use, not only by "education gurus" but also in Life Orientation textbooks, and indeed also by educators, principals and parents when they talk about effective teaching and learning. On the face of it, the learning styles notion is common sense – humans are all different with varying preferences in all areas of life.
It, therefore, follows that in learning, we will all have our own preferences in terms of how we learn. As a matter of fact, there are all kinds of tests and questionnaires which can be used to identify these individual learning preferences and styles. From this, it follows that teaching which caters for these individual learning styles will be more effective than a “one size fits all” approach.
Now, apart from the fact that this sort of approach is virtually impossible in a typical classroom environment, imagine that the teacher needs to cater for auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners for each and every teaching unit in each and every subject – even with the help of technology. There is thus a fundamental flaw in the learning styles paradigm: it simply does not work!
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The learning styles premise (and why it does not hold)
Is it really true that “learning styles” does not work? Especially if I believe that my child is, for example, a visual learner? The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham summarises the issue as follows:
“According to the theory, if we know what sort of a learner a child is, we can optimise his or her learning by presenting material the way that they like.
"The prediction is straightforward: Kids learn better when they are taught in a way that matches their learning style than when they are taught in a way that doesn’t.”
That’s a straightforward prediction, or is it not? Truth is, though, that there simply is no data to support this claim.
In fact, students do not get better grades when they are taught according to their preferential style and there are a number of studies available that have unequivocally proven that.
Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014) make a similar point:
“One of the more fruitless pursuits is labelling students with ‘learning styles’. This modern fad for learning styles… assumes that different students have differing preferences for particular ways of learning…. Often, the claim is that when teaching is aligned with the preferred or dominant learning style (for example, auditory, visual, tactile, or kinesthetic), the achievement is enhanced. While there can be many advantages by teaching content using many different methods (visual, spoken, movement), this must not be confused with thinking that students have differential strengths in thinking in these styles.”
Let the content be our guide
So, if learning styles do not really add any visible benefit to teaching, is there something else that we can do which will be effective? It turns out that a better focus is that of content modality.
For example, when my child has to master the location of cities it makes sense to do this with a map (visual) rather than verbally trying to explain the locations a– great example of where the visual/auditory distinction is completely nonsensical.
Similarly, when they need to figure out how two different atoms will react, it makes sense for them to have some visual understanding of their structure, tied to a basic understanding of how and why atoms react. In the atom example, visual representation makes sense because it is tied to meaning.
In addition, some content requires more than one modality to gain a full understanding, for example, a poem has a structure which can be presented by visually connecting sentences, words, metaphors, etc, but a full appreciation also requires hearing it recited to get a sense of cadence. Once again, the nature of the content determines the best way to present the material.
Knowing this has great benefit to parents and teachers alike – using different modalities to explain concepts to my child or to help him/her study leads to richer and more productive experiences and interactions, as long as those modalities are not determined by learning styles, but by the nature of the content and its meaning.
This is a vastly superior way of teaching than learning styles and it has the added benefit that we do not put students in little boxes that add no value to their development and rather have the opposite effect.
We need to encourage students to explore and interact with their world in multiple ways – not restrict them by forcing frameworks on them that will inhibit their potential and rob them of the rich experiences and skills that they will need to thrive in the 21st-century.
Have you discovered a learning tool that's changed your child's progress in school? Tell us about it by emailing to email@example.com and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.
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