Skepticism about Learning Styles

How much should we tailor a child’s instruction to the child’s preferred learning “style”? I was surprised when someone I know from the field of education, Kevin Currie-Knight, suggested that learning styles aren’t too meaningful. Currie-Knight suggested a couple of starter articles: “Learning Styles as a Myth” from Yale’s Poorvu Center and “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’” by Olga Khazan. (See also my podcasts with Currie-Knight.)

The Poorvu article begins, “Learning Styles refer to the idea that students learn best when course content is pitched to match students’ self-reported media preferences. Endless potential frameworks for categorizing learning styles exist, but the most popular one divides students into three types: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. . . . Yet the overwhelming consensus among scholars is that no scientific evidence backs this ‘matching’ hypothesis of learning styles. . . . While all learners can develop subjective preferences for studying or digesting material, studies deny that students learn better through a self-reported learning style.”

The article does not deny that there are such things as learning styles. Instead, it suggests, “Students benefit when instruction provides various ways to enter into learning. . . . Instructors can incorporate active learning, group work, and inclusive teaching strategies to invite students to engage their full faculties and experience peer learning. . . . Research shows . . . that students learn more deeply from words and visuals than from words alone.”

Khazan goes through some of history and research surrounding learning styles. She summarizes, “A lot of evidence suggests that people aren’t really one certain kind of learner or another.” Moreover, according to one study she cites, “continually accommodating [an] auditory learning style” may actually do a disservice to some students by not sufficiently “strengthening their visual word skills.”

I appreciate psychologist Daniel Willingham’s advice (as Khazan quotes): “It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?”

How does all this square with my personal experiences? I guess I took it for granted that different students have different learning styles, but it doesn’t especially surprise me that “the literature” seems not to support tailoring instruction to a learning style.

I continue to think it is obvious that it really matters that parents and teachers take into account a student’s particular needs. For example, some students enjoy (or at least tolerate) sitting for hours with a book or workbook, whereas other students find that difficult or distressing. Some children need more physical activity than others. Some children need more time to socialize than others. At a broader level, then, different students have different educational needs.

I do very much like an integrative approach. Especially younger children need to manipulate things with their hands, which is why I like things such as counting blocks and beads. I think all of us benefit from a combination of written text (once we can read), conversation, and visual displays when learning most new things. Especially when children engage with STEAM fields, hands-on activities, such as recreating simple science experiments, are essential. Although I’ve always been a bit skeptical of some of what passes for “kinesthetic learning,” I see a role for drama and role-playing and the like. Especially younger children learn an extraordinary amount simply through creative play. And of course physical exercise is valuable in its own right.

Generally, I think attentive parents and teachers remain aware of what works and what doesn’t work for a given child and continually adjust their approach accordingly.

Image: Alice Keeler