Touching the Third Rail: The Learning Styles (Myth) and Are They Worth Your Time?

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It’s almost impossible to have a conversation about learning or teaching without invoking the concept of learning styles. Much of the drive behind lesson and course design is based on the need to tailor curriculum to particular or all of the learning styles that your students might come with. Is it practical – or even possible – to teach in a way that a student perceives she learns best? What observations have you made over the years that back up the claim that learning styles matter and can be leveraged? Or even, that they actually exist as a phenomenon?

Is It Possible that It’s All Just a Myth?

While it sounds good and we are emotionally and ethically inclined to help a learner get the best possible experience, devoting all our energy to finding out the learning styles and aligning the curriculum this way may not be the wisest solution.

First of all, as Harold Pashler states it, there is no evidence, not many experimental studies, and what few experimental studies there are, they seem to have come up with results which flatly contradict the meshing hypothesis (i.e., that the best way to teach is by matching the style of the information to the learning style of the individual). There is no evidence that we should incorporate any learning styles at all, he suggests.

Larry Alferink speaks about simplification of neuroscience when it comes to adopting findings of the brain function. Left-brain/right-brain and multiple intelligences – not so fast. He writes that while language and spatial information is processed differently by the two hemispheres, it is processed simultaneously, and this no single activity can address only one side of the brain, ever. Not only that, students need to master both sets of skills, analytical and spatial. In addition, he notes that “focusing on a particular “style” rather than a broad set of learning skill sets may be doing children a disservice. Indeed,
it is of questionable appropriateness to only teach to a child’s preference. In physical education, a child may prefer to kick the ball with the right foot rather than the left. However, if that child is to become a skilled ball handler, it is important that the child learns to kick with either foot, not just their preferred one. Developing skills with only the stronger or preferred limb would not develop the “whole child.” The same is true for cognitive tasks: A child who has multiple strategies available can be taught that when one strategy is not working to switch to another, even if he or she doesn’t “like it best.” Thus, it may be more accurate to strive for learning across a variety of “learning styles and preferences.” The larger the child’s inventory of learning strategies, the more likely the child is to learn across environmental settings.”

Jennifer Cromley finds that there is really little reason to call the three common modalities (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) “styles” and what that really means, there is no reliable test that diagnoses the style (most tools used are “inward” looking and rather define a preference), nor are there teaching methods that help any style to learn better.

You can also read more from a number of sources.

Is It Worth Our Time, Then?

Cathy Moore suggests that instead of focusing on learning styles and different modalities – like recorded narratives – we should focus on more important aspects of the learning process, such as allowing students to set their own pace as “people learn best when they can control the pacing.”

We need to design learning that is relevant to the skills required by the world, as well as the one that empowers individuals to pursue their own passions – no matter what style, or shape, or form, or locale, or lifestyle. We need to have activities that engage students with the real-world projects, and partner with entities that work with real people. We need to allow for a number of paths to achieve the mastery of the competencies and leave the learner with a desire for more.

Let the course be guided by essential questions and allow for collaboration and individualized learning experiences.

Let’s see what you think about this. Are learning styles the real deal or are they a hype, in your opinion and experience? Are there other factors that carry more weight than a learning preference? Is it possible that a certain type of content determines the method of its presentation to students?

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