Talking About Learning Styles

Screenshot 2017-04-29 at 7.59.31 AMScreenshot 2017-04-29 at 7.58.53 AM

These are the results of a completely unscientific survey I did of people who happened to see these tweets, with a sample size of 75 < n < 147.

My hypothesis, which remains unproven by these polls, is that many of the people who say “it’s important to address student learning styles” actually mean “it’s important to use a variety of modalities”.

This is important because, after a number of reviews of the research (lit review, letter in The Guardian, research summary), there seems to be convincing evidence that adapting instruction so that teaching meshes with each individual student’s learning style does not improve learning. That’s important for teachers to know. It’s also a pretty narrow claim. If I am working to provide visual learners visual instruction, auditory learners auditory instruction, and so on (or other variations on learning styles) then the research has something to offer me. If, when teachers talk about learning styles, they really mean that they try to use a variety of representations and activities in class, that is a separate pedagogical strategy, and one that many more educators agree with. My experience is that it’s actually fairly rare for a teacher to attempt to determine student learning styles and tailor instruction to those styles. It’s not a unicorn; it does exist, and the research suggests it’s an ineffective use of teacher time. But pretty rare.

I think this is worth noting because discussions between educators on learning styles can quickly become angry and bitter. I think some of those conversations would benefit from a pause and clarification of what is actually being discussed. I think those who believe the research that learning styles are a myth could be much more careful to ensure that they are being critical of learning styles theory, and not other, related ideas that a teacher is using learning styles as shorthand for. And I think all teachers could be much more precise in their language and what they actually mean when they talk about learning styles.

6 thoughts on “Talking About Learning Styles

  1. Michael Pershan

    Apologies for this comment, which is more a thought about learning styles talk than replying to your post, which I think makes a good point.

    We want teachers to have good mental models about learning. Learning styles is not part of a good mental model of learning, but — as you say — it’s a fairly narrow claim.

    I think that people who want teachers to have better mental models shouldn’t worry too much about what teachers believe about learning styles. After all, learning styles is just an indicator that good learning models haven’t been developed. The real problem is helping everyone — teacher, students, parents, people — understand how we think learning happens.

    Battling learning styles doesn’t help or hinder this project in any significant way. Myth-battling is the scientific equivalent of the teacher who, troubled that his kids all get the same question wrong on a test, only teaches the class how to properly answer that question.

    Teaching will be no better as a profession if we all know the right answer to the ‘learning styles’ question. Keep the eye on the ball: spreading good models of learning and teaching.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I see your point. Here is a counterargument, to both your point and mine. Teachers should have some knowledge of research about how humans learn, and should also have some experience interpreting research for classroom use. Believing in learning styles suggests we’re coming up short on that one, and we need to address it as one important indicator of broader, more useful knowledge.

      I don’t know if that makes sense but it’s one idea I’ve thought more about recently.

      1. Michael Pershan

        I’m sure it makes sense, but I don’t quite get what you’re saying.

        “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” But it would be pretty useless for the fire department to show up and try to put out all the smoke. THE PROBLEM IS THE FIRE, FELLOWS.

        Sometimes, thought, the symptoms matter more than underlying disease. Last summer I brought my kid to the ER because he was running a high fever. The cause of the fever was an otherwise harmless bug, and there’s really no way to treat the bug. The symptom, not the disease, was what it made sense to attack.

        There are still other times when both the disease and the symptoms matter, and treatment becomes a sort of “all hands on deck” situation. Attacking educational inequality might be like this. To make any real long-term change, we need to address poverty/polarization/segregation/inequality/hate/love/self-love/fear/trust/family and a million other causes of the disease. We also need to treat the symptoms, i.e. a huge gap between what students of various backgrounds know about the world. These are symptoms of deeply entrenched social ills, but we need to address the fever and the disease.

        So, what is “learning styles” like?

        I think learning styles is a lot of smoke. Belief in learning styles isn’t such a big deal on its own (OK yes smoke can kill you this metaphor is bad), and really we care about the theory of learning/teaching that people have. Yes, belief in learning styles is a result of weak theories of learning, but they’re sort of minor results.

        AND the only way to really address these false beliefs is to address the underlying model that people believe in.

        I’m happy to hear disagreement on this, as I don’t really have any reason to believe this. Call it a gut feeling based on my own theories of learning/teaching, that really this isn’t worth battling. Less battling, more teaching strong models of teaching and learning, that’s what I vote for.

        (It’s unclear to me if scientists really know enough about teaching to focus on teaching strong models. They need help with this, it sure seems to me.)

        1. dkane47 Post author

          I see your point. I think one underlying model I see in folks who believe in learning styles is “all students are unique” and “one-size-fits-all education is broken”. I have a tough relationship with those. They make valid points, but I feel I have improved my teaching far more by learning what all students have in common than I have in learning ways in which I can adapt my instruction to specific students’ individuality.

          1. Michael Pershan

            That’s an awesome message to share, and I bet it’s one that would find a receptive audience if aligned with the authority of research. It would also do far more good to share that model than to try to play whack-a-mole with specific violations of that model.

            It would make a big, sexy, Dan Meyer-approved presentation title: Beyond Individualization: What Research Suggests All Students Have in Common.

  2. Pingback: Why Mythbusting Fails: A Guide to Influencing Education With Science – Teaching With Problems

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