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.
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?