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Managing The "Learning Styles" Myth

Every student has a primary learning style, right? Not exactly.

If you've been on social media as of late, you’ve likely seen some version of this story: attacks upon the popular theory of "learning styles," after thirty academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology wrote a letter to The Guardian, effectively encouraging educators to abandon the idea in their approach to education. In the letter, they note that it is both an ineffective strategy, as well as a potentially damaging one that could lead to learners less capable of adapting to varied learning environments. This flies in the face of some long-held beliefs around how humans learn. But where did this popular theory of education come from, what is the science behind these new revelations, and where do we go from here? Today, Education World offers a teacher’s response to the controversy around "learning styles," how to embrace the changes in mindset it might propose, and understanding that it does not have to turn our classrooms upside-down.

Learning Styles: A Prolific Myth

Okay, so…this was a "thing," right? We didn't all just make this up, did we? Well, a recent international survey found that 96 percent of educators believe in the idea of preferred learning styles, so don’t worry: you’re not the alone on this. But if it’s not exactly true, then where did it come from?

Numerous models of "learning styles" became particularly popular during the 1970's, despite the criticisms of researchers. The basic idea was that all people could be classified according to their "style" of learning. How those styles were categorized and defined depended on which model you were following – from Kolb to Honey/Mumford. Each style was championed by a wealth of experts, yet were oddly backed by weak or altogether absent science. Although the body of literature on learning styles is exceedingly vast, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the legitimacy of learning styles as applied to the field of education. And of those that did use an appropriate scientific method, many yielded results that simply contradicted the popular theory.

But you can't knock the appeal. Every parent and teacher wants to see their student getting as individualized of an education as possible. The possibility of bringing a method to the classroom that would tailor to the specific learning style of each and every student was uncompromisingly attractive. It gave the illusion of a key to magically unlock each and every student's unique learning capability. Add the backing of a handful of enterprising educational "gurus," and we have ourselves a well-propagated and alluring model for learning. Now, this is not to say that there aren't multiple different ways to learn information. Nor is anyone saying students don’t have strengths and weaknesses in these different modalities, or that students don't prefer one over the other. The truth is a bit more complex than all that.

What Are The Facts?

The recent letter to The Guardian certainly made it across the social media platforms, but the science rebuffing preferred learning styles is not exactly new. Psychologist Howard Gardner in his 1983 ground-breaking book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, makes it quite clear that there is "strong evidence that human beings have a range of intelligences." Although he refers to the variance from learner to learner as "jagged profiles of intelligences." In practice, he suggests that any success a learner finds in utilizing a seemingly "primary learning style" more accurately incorporates a variety of styles. For example, a student might excel in language learning, which would suggest a strength in linguistic learning styles. However, said student is also likely employing aural learning skills and in many cases visual learning in order to master content. The combination of stronger and weaker styles (or preferred or practiced styles) makes up the individual's true learning profile. It's not one or the other: it is one and the others.

Furthermore, studies from 2008 and 2009 essentially found that teaching students with their preferred learning style did not yield stronger academic success. The latter even found that optimal learning occurred when students were presented material not in their preferred modality. This is not to say that students do not have a preference in how information is presented to them. But classroom engagement practices and high-interest content is an entirely different issue. It does mean, however, that teaching students to adapt to and engage with new learning styles is better for their overall growth. Not to mention that teaching students to rely upon (and perhaps demand) one modality severely limits their access to new and complex ideas. Check it out:

So What Do We Do?

While there is little evidence for the benefits of matching teaching style to a preferred student learning style, by no means does this mean that we shouldn't be creating individualized and differentiated learning plans for our classes. It just suggests that we allow students to explore and practice multiple paths to learning content and skills.

First, Gardner recommends that teachers greatly diversify their instructional activities. This is not to simply reach different learning styles, but to help students to practice multiple ways of internalizing and experiencing new information. Teachers might explore the many different ways we can learn, and then encourage students to practice and improve upon the modalities they are not so readily used to. In this sense, we teach them how to learn, and not to simply rely upon their perceived preference. 

Many educators lean upon the related Universal Design for Learning practices originally put forth by David H. Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology in order to diversify the types of learning students employ. In short, UDL champions multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. Students are free to explore a variety of routes to their learning, and teachers are tasked with facilitating that practice. This sort of flexibility in the classroom allows for lots of student choice, which not only encourages an assortment of learning styles to practice and improve upon, but particularly aims to improve our differentiation for students with more specific learning disabilities. 

Another direct skill you might want to explore with students is if they have already personally identified a learning style strength and tend to rely upon it, teach them strategies on how to transfer the current learning environment into the preferred style. There are many ways to do this, and it’s a skill that lifelong learners tend to internalize in one way or another. This is yet another method to help kids "learn how they learn." Below, find an adaptability brainstorm sketched out by Sacha Chua that points to this work:

The idea here being that even if students already believe they only have one successful style of learning (or if they find that they struggle with a particular style), there are multiple strategies that can help them to adapt to the style they might presently be mandated to work with. Mind you, this practice is not to replace or undermine the work of encouraging students to practice learning styles they might feel they struggle with. Instead, think of it as showing students that they have some control over how they choose to learn – taking perceived weaknesses, and turning them into potential strengths. It's all about teaching them to adapt.

Too Long, Didn't Read?

At the end of the day, yes: "learning styles" are a thing. There are certainly many ways to learn new concepts and skills. However, no: students do not have only one or two ways they are able to learn. Yes, students have preferences in how they learn; but no, that preference does not necessarily yield better learning. You're best to talk to your students about their learning strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately encourage them to strengthen the "learning muscles" that feel weaker, as adapting to variety of learning modalities will ultimately lead to better learners.

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.