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The Myth of Learning Styles

To be honest, I flirted with the idea of not writing this blog. What's the old saying? "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." The reality is that I spent years thinking there were learning styles.

As a teacher I was highly influenced by Howard Gardner, and spent a great deal of time matching up students to how I thought they learned best. It gave me hope that all students can learn as long as we find ways to introduce information to them in a way that works for them. I blindly moved forward thinking that I was finding each student's learning style.

I was wrong.

On Fridays, we use to divide the day up into the different Multiple Intelligences. Whether it was bodily kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, spatial or any of the others, we (co-teacher) and I would try to hit all of the intelligences that we could.

To be clear, I did not do damage to the students. I didn't stand in front of the room next to my chalkboard saying, "No Tommy. Your brain doesn't learn that way. Howard Gardner says you learn this way." I didn't tie one child to an intelligence and tell their parent that was the only way they learned. However, I did strongly believe that each student had a learning style.

After all....I'm a visual learner.

Ok...apparently, I'm not. Last year, Howard Gardner wrote a guest blog for Valerie Strauss called Multiple Intelligences Are Not Learning Styles. In the blog, Dr. Gardner wrote,

"one unanticipated consequence has driven me to distraction--and that's the tendency of many people, including persons whom I cherish, to credit me with the notion of 'learning styles' or to collapse 'multiple intelligences' with 'learning styles.' It's high time to relieve my pain and to set the record straight."

So why the blog? After all, Howard Gardner posted this last year.

The reality is that learning styles is still a widely held belief in schools. Perhaps it makes teachers feel that everyone can learn...which we know they can... but it also creates an easy fix for students who struggle. There really aren't easy fixes. Students, whether they struggle or not, need a multi-modal approach.

The Science of How We Learn

Enter John Hattie and Gregory Yates. In their new book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014), Hattie and Yates go further to debunk the learning styles myth. Hattie and Yates wrote, "We are all visual learners, and we all are auditory learners, not just some of us. Laboratory studies reveal that we all learn when the inputs we experience are multi-modal or conveyed through different media."

Hattie and Yates go on to write,

"Claims such that 'some students learn from words, but others from images' are incorrect, as all students learn most effectively through linking images with words. These effects become especially strong when the words and images are made meaningful through accessing prior knowledge. Differences between students in learning are determined strongly by their prior knowledge, by the patterns they can recognise, and not by their learning style"

In the end

In his guest blog, Howard Gardner went on to offer some better suggestions as we all move forward away from the learning style approach. He wrote,

  • Individualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead of "one size fits all," learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively. Of course this is easier to accomplish with smaller classes. But 'apps' make it possible to individualize for everyone.
  • Pluralize your teaching. Teach important materials in several ways, not just one (e.g. through stories, works of art, diagrams, role play). In this way you can reach students who learn in different ways. Also, by presenting materials in various ways, you convey what it means to understand something well. If you can only teach in one way, your own understanding is likely to be thin.
  • Drop the term "styles" It will confuse others and it won't help either you or your students.

For many years, educators, including me, were under the false notion that there were learning styles. It's harmful if we box students into one way of learning, because that creates a one-size-fits-all mentality. However, offering different ways of learning is really helpful to students because they need to take in information in a variety of ways. 

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