I’m Done Bashing Learning Styles

I’ve seen people picking more and more arguments about learning styles recently, most often in the form of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. I’ve been one of those people kindof teeing off on learning styles when given the opportunity. Sometimes I reference some fancy-pantsy research, like this, or maybe I drop a big name like Dylan Wiliam.

I still buy the research — that adapting instruction to individual students’ learning styles is unlikely to help their learning. But I think that attacking someone for any mention of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners misunderstands how these ideas are used in classrooms, and is an unproductive argument for teachers to have.

How Do Teachers Apply Learning Styles?
First, let’s be real specific about what the research actually says is ineffective. Research suggests that when instruction is matched to a specific student’s learning style — a visual learner gets a visual activity, a kinesthetic learner gets a kinesthetic activity — students do not learn more than if their instruction is matched randomly. (There is actually some evidence that students learn more from a different learning style than their own.)

Do any teachers actually do this on a regular basis? Offer a lesson with 2-3 different choices that match learning styles, and let students choose an activity that they prefer? I’ve rarely seen it, not with that specific intention. That’s a ton of work, unreasonable to do on any kind of regular basis. And the research doesn’t tell us this is terrible for students learning, just that it is no more effective than matching instruction randomly. Are any students actually being hurt by these decisions? I’m pretty skeptical that actual classroom application of learning styles is damaging student learning, and think this probably isn’t a fight worth fighting.

What Learning Styles Do People Have?
When is the last time you met someone who is an auditory learner? I’ve heard more people than I can count say that they are visual learners. That makes sense — there are a lot of things, in math and elsewhere, that are easy to learn visually. A visual representation is a useful concrete example of an abstract idea and helps to build useful knowledge. On my first day at my new job, I went over the orientation schedule with my supervisor. He first pulled up a word document with a list of my different obligations, but then said it would be better to do it visually, and pulled up a calendar view instead. He’s not saying he’s a visual learner, or I’m a visual learner, or anything about learning styles. He’s just saying that, in this instance, a visual representation will be more useful.

The way I think about learning styles, in light of the research, is that they are less like styles and more like skills. Some people are more skilled in learning visual information, and some auditory information. Unfortunately, we can’t take every single idea and adapt it to these styles — some ideas are more conducive to sound, like poetry. Others are more visual, like functions. We serve our students well when we provide a variety of perspectives on a new topic, and when we match those perspectives to the content being learned. When teachers mention learning styles, I think this is what they often mean. They are invoking a piece of “common wisdom” to describe their unconscious decision that a particular modality will be useful in communicating a concept. I want my students to be able to use a variety of modalities to access mathematical ideas — and to gain skill with those modalities, they need practice with them. If a variety of instructional techniques is an effect of learning styles in the classroom, I think it’s a positive one.

What Is Missed When Criticizing Learning Styles?
Learning styles are a popular idea among teachers because they match teachers’ intuition that all students are different, and that it is worth being responsive to their differences. Being responsive to varied student needs makes a lot of sense. And when learning styles as a whole are the subject of criticism, what teachers often hear is that it’s not useful to be responsive to students’ specific needs. But that’s not true, and it creates a disconnect that makes the entire conversation — and in some cases, by extension, the use of academic research in classroom practice — seem unproductive.

What Do I Say To Students?
While I think the arguments about learning styles are largely unproductive, I don’t want to cultivate these ideas in my students. If a student tells me they need to learn a topic in a certain way because of their learning style, I’m likely to say one of two things. First, I might acknowledge that the perspective they named would be a useful way for any student to learn the content, and I can try to incorporate it. Second, I might tell a student that, though they feel like they are better at learning a certain way, I want them to practice learning in another way in order to gain a deeper understanding and expand their skills. While this might not be satisfying for a student, this language matches my understanding of the research, and is meant to help students stay open-minded about their abilities. These same principles could apply to a conversation with a teacher about a specific lesson, building common understanding rather than attacking learning styles as a whole.

What Are The Dangers of Learning Styles?
I’m skeptical that learning styles as commonly envisioned are either widespread in classroom practice or particularly damaging for students. I do think there is one message associated with learning styles that is important to address, and prevents students from meeting their potential. I don’t think I have ever met an adult that says they are a kinesthetic learner. It’s just not a viable way to learn much of what is worth learning. That’s not to say it can’t be done well — it absolutely can — just that much of what is worth learning does not lend itself to kinesthetic representation.

But this idea comes up in a much more sinister way in schools, in particular with respect to boys, and often boys of color. They struggle in school, because they have to sit still for long periods of time, and that’s not a 13-year-old’s idea of a fun day. That’s a natural thing for kids to struggle with, and there’s a broader discussion there about how our school system is structured that’s worth having. But the reality is this: for the vast, vast majority of kids, sitting in school will help them learn valuable skills, and set them up for a happy and fulfilling life. And for the vast, vast majority of kids, the self-discipline to do that is within their reach. If we label students as “kinesthetic learners” because they seem to want to move their bodies, and as a result move them into lower-tracked classes, or provide them with meaningless activities full of movement but devoid of learning in place of serious instruction, we send the message that they are incapable of being good students, and we cripple them.

In Closing:
It’s kindof fun to attack learning styles. It makes folks seem like they’re up on their edu-research, and it’s an easy horse to ride. But I’m skeptical it’s one worth riding. The challenges of moving research into practice are significant, and that fight is not one that is likely to make teachers take kindly to more research-based practices, all for what is likely a pretty insignificant difference in student learning.

At the same time, bashing learning styles as a whole brushes over important subtleties that do matter for students, and oversimplify a complex issue. Differentiation is really hard, and has a ton going on within it. Teachers need support with that work, and not broad criticism for practice that matches their intuition.

What am I missing here? Is this a useful approach to learning styles? Am I too pessimistic about that research broadly penetrating teachers’ working knowledge? Are there other points that are worth making, or is it more damaging than I make it out to be?

11 thoughts on “I’m Done Bashing Learning Styles

  1. Henri Picciotto

    Great post. Teaching “to different learning styles” usually means “approaching the same concept in many ways.” That is just good teaching, as it will reach more students and help deepen all students’ understanding, irrespective of what they think their personal learning style is.

    However, I have to disagree with you about kinesthetic learning. No doubt, like anything else, that idea can be misused, but I have had tremendous success with the activities I spell out here:
    http://www.mathedpage.org/kinesthetics/
    In particular, the activities about equidistance have had a tremendously beneficial impact on my geometry class.

    As to whether students should be forced to sit still for long periods of time, that’s a different conversation. It is not a productive one to have outside of the context of a specific school schedule and school culture. I know that in my own experience, the fact that I was relaxed about this was helpful to some kids and not harmful to the rest. I just tried to make clear that some of the time in my class was informal (you can go to the bathroom, say, without asking), and other times are formal (you stay in your seat, only speak if called on, etc.)

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks, Henri. I really like the way you phrased that bit about learning styles.

      I think you’re probably right on about the potential of kinesthetic activities — just glancing through your work I have a bunch of ideas for my class this year. I especially like the complex numbers on a number line activity — we spent some time working through similar ideas at Twitter Math Camp last summer. Malke Rosenfeld has a ton of great ideas on this topic, and I’ve been really impressed with how deliberate she is in making sure that there is mathematical rigor in her kinesthetic activities.

      I think I’m coming from two perspectives here. First, I don’t have a great bank of ideas that I think are useful for giving students a kinesthetic perspective, and have no interest in forcing it if I don’t have a great opportunity. Second, I have seen too many activities that are completely hollow — doing a dance about functions where the students clearly aren’t doing any valuable mathematical thinking, for instance. I can’t imagine myself doing more than a handful of those types of activities in a year for any given course. Definitely valuable when used well, though.

      Thanks for your thoughts, as always.

      Reply
  2. trigotometry

    Henri’s point that “teaching to different learning styles” usually means “approaching the same concept in different ways” is exactly how many teachers use of the phrase.

    In some respects, I think the proliferation of eduspeak phrases like “incorporating learning styles and multiple intelligences” obscures what may be occurring in a classroom. If you asked teachers, “What does incorporating different learning styles look like in your instruction?” I wonder how many teachers would discuss activities students complete compared to teachers who discuss their instruction techniques.

    In terms of using the idea of learning styles to describe responsive instruction, I wonder if this phrase is just some eduspeak way of teachers describing how they meet student needs. I’m not sure what your experience has been, but I’ve found that most of the time I’m not thinking of a learning style when I’m responding to the difficulties a student or group of students experience during class. More often than not, I’m drawing upon my accumulated knowledge of strategies, questions, approaches to a concept, and my knowledge of my students (what worked well for them in the past). In this respect, differentiation is more of an art than a science. Differentiation needs to respond to specific students, which will change depending upon the students who need it. Perhaps the ideas of learning styles and multiple intelligences are ways that educators attempt to empirically justify their approach to the inexact and delicate art of differentiation?

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      I really like that idea, of teachers using “eduspeak” to justify something they understand intuitively but have trouble articulating. I wonder if it comes up in other areas?

      Reply
  3. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Just need to comment on my concerns with the use of learning styles/multiple intelligences in education.

    There are teachers, parents, and students who come to the doubtful conclusion that if a student is labeled (and I use that word advisedly) as an X-learner, that this means that student can only learn via lessons geared for X-learners. This strikes me as an overly-rigid notion for a host of reasons, the most important of which is that people are generally far more slippery than the labels we try to put on them in almost any aspect of life one cares to consider. Trying to label what sort of learner someone is can be an invitation for that person to shut down and shut out any other approach to learning.

    While it may be helpful for a student to note that in a particular subject, s/he tends to learn better with a particular approach, the increasing emphasis on having teachers present mathematics with multiple representations means that all students will be exposed to a given mathematical concept from more than one perspective using more than one modality. To my thinking, that’s a very good thing, as it tends to deepen understanding of a given concept and, done right, the relationships among concepts. Coordinate geometry is one of the places where a huge link is made between geometric and algebraic ways of solving problems, with graphing of equations and relations presenting rich opportunities to view a variety of mathematical ideas in a richer, interconnected way.

    There is some real danger, from what I’ve seen in many classrooms over the last 25 years, for a student to believe that s/he CAN’T learn math in more than one way. Some students use the learning styles notion to refuse to look at more than one model or explanation for a given bit of mathematics. While sometimes there may be legitimate concerns about being overwhelmed or confused by multiple representations, it’s dangerous to let students refuse to grapple with their less-preferred modalities, particularly writing about mathematics, something that many students wish to avoid.

    Another danger arises for some teachers who may find themselves falling into a related trap. Labeling a student as a particular type of learner can lead instructors to exempt that student from having to consider, let alone master, more than one representation or model because “S/he can’t handle that; s/he’s an X-learner.” And of course, parents can readily fall into this same error, leading them to undermine efforts to get students to think in more than one way about math. I have dealt with parents who argue with me that their child simply cannot and should not be asked to write or talk about his/her mathematical thinking, telling me that the student is simply not a verbal/oral learner. And usually this is coupled with the complaint that the child “gets the right answer, so why should s/he have to explain it?”

    The obvious “solution” to these concerns is as suggested here and by Henri Picciotto: teachers need to offer multiple representations on a regular basis. Variety in lesson styles is good for everyone (except maybe for teachers who’ve grown complacent over the course of their careers). Students who are taught from early on to view any subject through multiple lenses will generally be more adept at applying their learning to new and unfamiliar circumstances. Flexibility is a good thing in more than just athletic endeavors. Multiple learning styles/intelligences is a useful thing to consider, but it should not be used as a way to pigeonhole anyone.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      (Sorry for the delay, was out of town.) I absolutely agree. Reading your thoughts, I’m struck by the similarity between what you’re talking about and a growth mindset. That learning styles may communicate a fixed mindset to students. I think I definitely understated the potential dangers of communicating that mindset to students, and I wonder how those two ideas synergize together. Food for thought. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  4. Hannah A.

    You have certainly put the idea of learning styles into a different perspective for me! I’ve always gone with the idea of learning styles and believed there are ways that certain people learned best. I always considered myself to be a visual learner. I need to see instructions and an idea of what I should be doing usually in addition to writing everything down in order to comprehend the tasks. Whenever someone gives me verbal instructions or is trying to verbally explain something to me I get flustered and don’t comprehend it fully. For this reason, I always thought I was a terrible auditory learner! When you discussed the dangers of learning styles you mentioned preventing students from meeting their potential. Personally, I think this is what happened for me. At some age I figured out that I wasn’t an “auditory learner” so whenever someone tried to teach me without any visual representation, I shut down and became stubborn. I claimed that I wouldn’t understand unless I could see it. This may or may not have actually been the case for me though. You addressed in the section for what to tell your students that having them learn in styles different from what they’re “good” at or learn best in would be beneficial and may help expand their knowledge and skills.

    As for the differentiation in instruction, I feel that as an effective teacher you shouldn’t need to label all of your students with a certain type of learning style in order to best teach them. Putting a label of any sort on the student can often lead to tunnel vision in your approaches with the student. This may not allow yourself or the student to stray away from a path and possibly discover something new about one another or the material. No student will perfectly fit one single label either. As a good teacher I think it’s just natural to pick up on certain things that work for each student and carry these things on throughout the year.

    That being said, I agree with you that the different learning styles of each student are a discussion not really worth having. It potentially harms your teaching by focusing each student into a certain style and I think there would be a lot of missed opportunities for learning in the classroom if everyone is learning in the one style that is best for them.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks, Hannah. Your point about labeling and having tunnel vision for a certain approach to students is right on I think. I’m also curious how many teachers do that — I feel like it’s something that’s much more popular to talk about than to actually put into practice, at least on a broad scale.

      Reply

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