An Equity Perspective on Learning Styles

The claim that students will perform better when the teaching is matched to their preferred learning style is simply not supported by science.

Letter in The Guardian

The standard argument against learning styles is simple: experimental research seems to have definitively shown that matching instruction to students’ learning styles does not improve learning.

In my experience, this argument is also unconvincing for many teachers. I’d like to try on a different perspective.

Anecdotally, the most common learning style that people identify is being a visual learner. I’ve also met many people who identify “learning by doing” as their preferred style. Certainly other styles exist, but these are the two I have seen the most, drawn from the VAK (visual/auditory/kinesthetic) framework that is popular. These are people who are likely to speak up in learning situations by saying things like, “I’m a visual learner, I need to see a visual to understand this”, or “I really need a chance to do this to get it”.

One way to understand these requests is to acknowledge that effective visuals and active “learning by doing” strategies are underutilized, and all learners benefit from learning in a variety of ways rather than through a single modality. From this perspective, identifying with a certain learning style functions to influence instruction to improve learning. The learning style could be understood as a privilege — through prior experience, individuals have learned to advocate for better instruction through the lens of learning styles. Those who don’t identify with a certain learning style do not have these tools to advocate for themselves. Inevitably, this creates inequities between outspoken learners whose position allows them to advocate for more varied instruction to meet all learners’ needs, and those who, for whatever reason, do not.

While learning styles can create inequities that advantage those who advocate for themselves, they can also cement existing disparities by creating an avenue for learners to say, “well that’s not how I learn”. Labeling a student, or allowing a student to label themselves, as a certain type of learner is not very different from allowing them to label themselves a “math person” or “not a math person”. Whether or not the underlying label is valid, it functions to limit what the learner believes themselves capable of and steers them toward learning situations where they don’t need to push outside of their comfort zone or try new things.

Do These Land? 
The research evidence convinces me, but it doesn’t land for many other teachers. Is this perspective a useful one to change minds on the value of learning styles?

5 thoughts on “An Equity Perspective on Learning Styles

  1. xiousgeonz

    I can believe that in their study, with randomly selected students, that adapting teaching to learning styles doesn’t improve learning.

    I can also recognize that this does not mean there is “no such thing as learning styles.” The “oh, if you’re cool you know the latest fad” thing is operating here in full swing.

    If we throw out, part and parcel, discussion of learning styles, do we have to stop talking about the interesting ways we can perceive and organize the world focusing on one sense or the other? Without that conscious effort, my teaching materials are text text text text text. I love that myself — put the silly pictures away! No, you shouldn’t change teaching for me but that doesn’t mean I don’t, no really, actually, yes for real, have a preference. Maybe I’m not normal — but the research didn’t say people don’t have preferences — it said changing teaching to match it didn’t help. (Let’s not forget confounding variables, either… )

    I agree with your perspective on advocating for oneself w/ the framework of learning styles as well as the “well, I can’t learn here, because I’m a visual learner.” I respond, “yes you can — let’s work how you can be a responsible learner and if you need to make things visual, we’ll make ’em visual.” Doesn’t matter whether the “learning style” is valid… engagement is happening…

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I see your point on the danger of throwing out learning styles, but there’s plenty to replace it with. There’s research on how all humans learn that can support teaching, there’s research that using a variety of modalities (rather than modalities customized to students) supports all learners, there’s research suggesting that the way people prefer to learn may actually just be a preference for what’s easiest, not what is best for their learning. All of that is useful and informative, and paints a much richer picture than “learning styles = myth”.

      I think a fundamental perspective on teaching that is useful is that teaching should challenge students to think in new ways and push them outside their comfort zone. Learning styles can lead to the opposite, and I don’t see a lot of value in it given the lack of evidence.

      1. xiousgeonz

        I think you’re right and modalities make for a better model.
        I’ve been thinking about different ways to work with cognitive dissonance and challenge. When cognitive dissonance has a student or teacher (who’s learning that learning styles aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, say) feeling like “this stuff I thought I knew is all wrong,”then … I see students just decide that they’ll never have a comfort zone anyway so it’s *all* bogus…. that “opposite” thing… thanks for challenging me 🙂

        1. dkane47 Post author

          Thanks for your openness. I do think you make a really important point where you describe this as “oh you’re cool if you know the latest fad”. I think learning styles is an easy target. I actually wrote a while back that I wanted to stop bashing learning styles (I wasn’t very successful) because I just don’t think it’s harming students, and it can be an easy bandwagon to jump on without getting into the subtleties of a complex issue. Check it out here if you’re interested:

          1. xiousgeonz

            I don’t think I was following your blog then … that resonates with me. Absolutes and dogma should be reserved for those few situations where it’s deserved (see? I won’t even dogmatize not being dogmatic…) .
            I can easily imagine a teacher thinking they’re being ‘tough but fair’ when they stick to their favorite modality… and perhaps they’ve got somebody whose IQ profile is oh, 130 on the performance and 90 on the verbal end… if everything’s text and words, that kiddo’s going to think s/he’s an idiot.

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