Lies About Education: Learning Styles

Don’t fall for the learning styles clap-trap.

If you say, Alexa, what are learning styles?” then Alexa just laughs, creepily.

This might explain why Amazon has been having problems.

I’ve written a couple of blogs here and there on the ridiculous educational myths, legends, fads and crazes that some teachers still follow and they both mention the futility of thinking children have learning styles.

Let’s get this straight – learning styles are a monstrous myth so please stop referring to children as visual learners, auditory learners or kinaesthetic learners. Children are learners but this VAK nonsense has no proof, no evidence, no nothing. In some cases, it amounts to is giving children a faulty questionnaire and then saying “You’re a kinaesthetic learner,”

I recently saw two Year 6 classrooms displaying this empty-headed VAK baloney on a display wall devoted to ‘How We Learn’. Seemingly intelligent teachers proudly defended their use of these posters of pedagogical propaganda but clearly they hadn’t a clue and hadn’t done their homework.

Learning styles has no credibility yet there are still classrooms pushing this to their ‘end-users’ and innocent children are falling for it too. How have gullible teachers let this happen and still let it happen? It’s not big and its not clever. It’s also expensive – some schools have wasted some of their precious budget on inset devoted to it and there is (or has been) a very lucrative industry built around testing and providing materials for different learner types.

Many teachers hold the belief that teaching children according to a preferred learning style can improve their learning outcomes. The idea is once you find a child’s preferred learning you ‘cater’ for this by e.g. singing, rapping, dancing, drowning them in manipulatives, producing activities in a rainbow of colours, wearing headphones and listening to instructions, etc. Exhausting and also bonkers.

Despite educational and scientific evidence demonstrating that the learning-style approach is not helpful, this approach is commonly justified in terms of brain function.

Pseudo-science rears its ugly head again. Preferred learning styles is all lies, lies and more lies and labelling children in this way is misleading, unhelpful and dangerous.

Kratzig and Arbuthnott (2006) note that “although categorizing each person as a specific type of learner is easy, individuals’ memory efficiency is not limited by sensory modality, nor are people able to learn in the same way in all situations. Instead, most people are likely multimodal and multisituational learners, changing learning strategies depending on the context of the to-be-learned material.”

Pashler et al (2008) conclude

…The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.

Riener and Willingham (2010) also say,

“Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning. A careful review of literature suggests that, while learning styles are prominent in education, there is nearly no supporting evidence of their existence, and that the theory should not be used in education.”

Where does this learning styles gunk come from?

According to Gilmore (2007), the learning styles theory misconception is based on a valid research finding, namely that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain. However, these separate structures in the brain are highly interconnected and there is profound cross-modal activation and transfer of information between sensory modalities.

Teaching in more than one modality makes more sense because we are after all dealing with the whole learner and not dealing in fractions. Give children just one type of learning experience and you will inevitably weaken their strengths in other areas so a self-fulfilling prophecy beds itself in.

The problem has been that teachers have fallen for faulty brain research and implemented wrong brain-based ideas in their educational practice.

As Dekker et al (2012) have found, those who have been enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom, have often found it challenging to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts.

We have to beware of neuromyths in education and learning styles is just one of many. As Geake (2008) says that teachers…

….should seek independent scientific validation before adopting brain-based products in their classrooms. A more sceptical approach to educational panaceas could contribute to an enhanced professionalism of the field.

Legend-makers have been unscrupulous and ingenious fellows and although many legends have been blown to smithereens by scholarship and research, some lies just won’t go away.

So if you see any posters in schools promoting VAK, waste no time in tearing them down as there is simply no brain based research to support it. Ineffective VAK detracts from the use of techniques which do actually work. As Newton (2015) says,

It is in everyone’s interests for educational research and resources – time, money, effort, to be directed toward those educational interventions which demonstrably improve student learning, and away from those which do not.

Here’s what Tesia Marshik has to say in the following TED talk (Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection, TEDxUWLaCrosse):

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