Learning Styles are dead – long live content!

Introduction

Learning styles are one of those topics we should no longer be spending time on – either writing or reading – very much like one would not spend time on an article about the flat earth. And yet, here we are – talking about “learning styles” once again?

For one, the term is still very much in use – not only by ‘education gurus’ (those selling books and tools that speak precisely to learners’ unique learning styles) but educators, principals and parents often still use the term when they talk about effective teaching and learning. Also, with the increasing focus on 21st-century teaching and learning it seems that many believe technology is the answer that will finally enable the differentiated teaching which the learning styles paradigm requires. Finally, if not focussing on student learning styles – is there something else teachers should focus on to improve efficacy?

Learning styles as common sense

On the face of it, the learning styles notion makes common sense – humans are all different with varying preferences in all areas of life. It therefore follows that in learning, we will also all have our own preferences in terms of how we learn. As a matter of fact, there are all kinds of tests and questionnaires which can be used to identify these individual learning preferences and styles. And from this follows that teaching which caters for these individual learning styles will be more effective than a “one size fits all” approach.

Now, apart from the fact that this sort of approach is virtually impossible in a typical classroom environment (imagine having to cater for auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners for each and every teaching unit in each and every subject – even with the help of technology) – there is a fundamental flaw in the learning styles paradigm – it simply does not work!

The learning styles premise (and why it does not hold)

So how do we know that teaching to “learning styles” does not work? The Cognitive Scientist, Daniel Willingham, summarises the issue as follows: “According to the theory, if we know what sort of a learner a child is, we can optimize his or her learning by presenting material the way that they like. The prediction is straightforward: Kids learn better when they are taught in a way that matches their learning style than when they are taught in a way that doesn’t. That’s a straightforward prediction. The data is straightforward too: It doesn’t work.”

So the bottom line is, that if one tests the premise of the learning styles paradigm – namely that teaching to students’ preferences will improve their academic performance – it fails. Students do not get better grades when they are taught according to their preferential style. There simply is no data to support this claim.

Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn (2014) make a similar point: “One of the more fruitless pursuits is labelling students with ‘learning styles’. This modern fad for learning styles… assumes that different students have differing preferences for particular ways of learning…. Often, the claim is that when teaching is aligned with the preferred or dominant learning style (for example, auditory , visual, tactile, or kinesthetic), then achievement is enhanced. While there can be many advantages by teaching content using many different methods (visual, spoken, movement), this must not be confused with thinking that students have differential strengths in thinking in these styles.”

Teaching – moving from student modality to content modality

So, if learning styles (student modality) do not really add any visible benefit to teaching, is there something else that teachers can do which will be effective? It turns out that a better focus is that of content modality. For example, when students have to master the location of cities – it makes sense to do this with a map (visual) rather than verbally trying to explain the locations (a great example of where the visual/auditory distinction is completely nonsensical). Similarly when they need to figure out how two different atoms will react, it makes sense for them to have some visual understanding of their structure, tied to a basic understanding of how and why atoms react. Visual representation makes sense because it is tied to meaning. Some content requires more than one modality to gain a full understanding. A poem has a structure which can be presented by visually connecting sentences, words, metaphors, etc, but a full appreciation also requires hearing it recited to get a sense of cadence. Once again, the nature of the content determines the best way to present the material.

Good, experienced teachers already know that their teaching benefits from using different modalities – luckily those modalities should not be determined by learning styles, but by the nature of the content and its meaning.


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