Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Pitfalls of Learning Styles and How We Got Duped Into Believing in Them

Until about 10 years ago, I, like far too many educators, believed in learning styles, multiple intelligence theories and the like. Several scholarly articles and Daniel Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School (2009) enlightened me.

Today I cringe when my well-meaning peers talk about using—sometimes even paying for—learning style inventories, or developing lessons to account for students’ different learning styles or creating student profiles that travel with students from middle school to high school.

So why do so many educators continue to believe in the notion of learning styles?

We’re surrounded by “professional” resources
An entire industry has developed around learning styles instruction. We’ve seen the proliferation of professional articles and books, including those published by otherwise reputable companies/organizations like ASCD,  Phi Delta Kappan, and Edutopia. Teacher’s editions of textbooks frequently include strategies to reach visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic learners. Finally, we receive mailings inviting us to attend workshops and trainings guaranteed to improve student learning through learning styles.

Inherently learning styles makes sense
After attending one of these workshops about twenty years ago, I left feeling better prepared to teach. Learning styles seemingly offered a quick, simple solution. In implementing instruction based on learning styles, I could increase motivation, improve student attitudes toward learning and thus improve achievement.

For the next decade, I developed lessons based on learning styles. Students took learning style inventories. I differentiated instruction based on student strengths (wait a pain!). Yet, not a single study provides evidence that understanding students’ learning styles improves learning. How much time and energy did I waste? How much learning was lost by my naivety? 

The idea behind learning styles makes sense. People are different, so they must learn differently. Except we don’t.

OK, but what’s the danger in using learning styles?
This can best be answered with an example. John is a seventh-grader who struggles with reading and writing, but excels in art. John’s middle school teachers administer a learning styles inventory and not surprisingly, in regards to VAK (Visual-Auditory-Kinesthic), John is found to be a visual/spatial learner. Using this data, John’s teachers create lessons geared towards his “strength.” In history class, instead of writing, John draws cartoons. For English, instead of writing a book report, John creates a diorama. While giving John choices may increase his motivation, John is missing out on the opportunity to improve his writing skills.

John’s eighth grade teachers go a step further. Students are grouped according to their learning styles. Like many of his classmates, John is placed in the Visual/Spatial group. John’s teachers create lessons targeting his supposed strengths, instead of providing instruction to improve his reading and writing.

Upon entering high school, John lags behind many peers when it comes to reading and writing. When John’s English teacher requires him to write papers, he struggles mightily.   Poor grades follow. When his teacher approaches him about his struggles, John responds, “I’m not verbal/auditory learner. I do best with visuals.” 

John’s well-meaning teachers have labeled him. Now John has labeled himself.  Such labels shape expectations, lead to exaggerations and perpetuate the notion that a student is not capable—or not as capable—of success. Labeling students according to supposed preferred learning styles isn’t just unreliable and ineffective; it’s downright dangerous. 

For more information debunking the use of learning styles:

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