8 October 2009 01:41 PM

Are Learning Styles Bunk

by Dr. Rick

For over a generation we educators have heard much about students’ learning styles.  Some students are visual learners, some are auditory.  Others are kinesthetic, tactile, interpersonal, linguistic, or social.  There’s been research into these different ways of learning for years, and the works of Howard Gardner, for example, have changed the way teachers teach and schools are run.  They’ve become dogma.  (I’ve often poked fun at myself and my colleagues at education conferences that at the name of Gardner all knees should bow, to paraphrase the Epistle to the Philippians.)


There’s something intuitive about this research.  Every parent of more than one child knows that no two kids learn alike.  Teachers have known the same thing forever, and we’ve adjusted our lessons and approaches long before “learning styles” became a mantra in education circles.  (Why do you think teachers brought to class apple pies to cut into halves, quarters, and eighths to teach fractions?  They were adjusting their lessons for “visual learners” before the phrase was born.)  Common sense and daily practice told us that not all kids learn in the same way.


That same common sense and daily practice told us that not all kids learn on the same day.  We knew that some kids took longer to get to certain “benchmarks” than others, but eventually, with the right teaching and practices, kids could get there.  Patience and persistence have always been teachers’ best friends.

Learning style research and popular books were game-changers in schools.  Curricula and teaching centered around learning styles.  We even taught kids to “identify” their own “preferred learning style.”  Lots of kids can tell us their learning style, but they can’t add three digits, identify the three branches of government, or use an apostrophe correctly.  Maybe we went a little too far.


Now I read an opinion from University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in The Washington Post that “Student Learning Styles Theory is Bunk.”  (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/daniel-willingham/the-big-idea-behind-learning.html) He posits that “the theory of learning styles doesn’t really celebrate the differences among children.  On the contrary, the point is to categorize kids.”




Perhaps he’s right that “there just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.”


I’ll let the university researchers fight among themselves and conduct more research projects and gather more data and hold more symposia.


In the meantime, actual teachers in classrooms with actual children continue to recognize that children come to us with an infinite variety of interests, backgrounds (“prior knowledge”), needs, talents, and personalities.  Professor Willingham concedes that not all kids are the same, nor should they all be taught the same way.  So what does all this arguing tell me?


It tells me that we may not have all the “labels” correct, but the fundamental truth – not all kids learn in the same way or on the same day – is still evident every day.


It tells me that education research always has and always will continue to give us theories that we praise one day and debunk the next.  (I survived teaching in open classrooms.)


It tells me that if it’s a science at all, education is an inexact one.  Researchers like to think it’s a science, and they tell us that “data will make us free.”  But for us folks in the schools, it’s more an art.  In fact it seems the further you get from children, the less art and more science you encounter.


It tells me the truth lies somewhere in the middle, as always.  Teachers need to know the research to give them general guidance in their daily practice.  Researchers need to investigate what practices seem to work best.  But we all need to recognize that, because of childhood’s fleeting nature, our time with children is short.  It demands common sense, affection, a search for truth, and, yes, patience and persistence.


Be it ever thus.





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