Why I hate learning styles and why you should too

Photo courtesy of Flickr user skpy

If you were a student or teacher in the past 30 years, you’ve likely heard about learning styles. In case you haven’t, here’s the basic theory:

Every brain has different strengths and weaknesses in how it encodes new information. If we map these strengths and weaknesses, we can detect that brain’s bias and learn that person’s particular learning style, the way that his/her brain prefers to learn. Learners can take advantage of knowing their own biases by changing how they study. Because everyone has a different learning style, teachers should present material in diverse ways appealing to many different learning styles to best serve all their students. 

The whole idea that we can somehow learn better by understanding our brain better is appealing, and the concept of learning styles seems so intuitively correct, that many people have made it a central tenant of their teaching philosophies without any further research. That further research suggests that learning styles are a myth. What’s more, we need to be cautious of the unintended consequences the learning style myth.

Learning styles have passionate supporters in their ranks, and I can already sense their hackles raising. They preach the miracles they’ve seen when a student whose eyes glaze over during physics lectures suddenly comes alive when its time to construct and test out catapults. “That student,” they say, “Is a kinesthetic learner. He needs to learn by doing.”

Despite tons of anecdotal evidence for learning styles, no credible studies have shown that they actually exist. At least, not anywhere close to the way that fans say that they do. Experiments have tried to test whether a learners’ preferences actually helped them learn material, and no evidence suggests that they provide any aid.  If you’re still not convinced or you’d like more information, check out Cedar Reiner and Daniel Willingham’s 2010 article from Change Magazine to get an overview.

As far as the anecdotal evidence goes, I can understand how exhilarating it can feel for a teacher after a change in their approach suddenly enlivens a student who looked comatose during previous explanations. That teacher has the right to feel satisfied with a job well done. It does not mean, however, that the student who came alive when the catapult experiment started was doing so because the teacher suddenly tapped into his kinesthetic learning style. Interest and engagement are necessary parts of the learning process, but they do not guarantee learning. That teacher still has no idea if the student is engaged with the physics or if he just likes flinging projectiles at his friends. And even if the student can correctly answer a problem relating to the ideas behind the experiment on the next test, there’s no telling whether he learned it from doing the experiment or if he learned it from hearing an explanation after the fact.

Let me be clear. There are lots of benefits from thinking about the variety of ways that the brain thinks, and the lack of credible evidence for learning styles does not suggest that every brain learns in the same way.  In recent years, we’ve come to understand intelligence very differently thanks to Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, which suggests that we see intelligence not as one single entity but  as a collection of different types of intelligence. Each type refers to a way of thinking about the world. Some of these types, linguistic, spatial, and logical-mathematical intelligences, are very familiar to educators. Others, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences, were not frequently thought of as types of intelligences until Gardner’s book, Frames of Mind came along. Gardner argues that each intelligence is distinct, and adeptness in one area does not necessarily correlate to adeptness in all other areas.

Gardner’s theory looks like it would support different learning styles, but the details of the theory are key in distinguishing between the two. First, Gardner’s intentions were not focused on a practice of how we should develop the brain, but instead were targeted at getting us to reconsider how we think about and measure intelligence because IQ tests only test the more traditional logical-mathematical, linguistic, and spatial intelligences. The idea of multiple intelligences encourages us to be cautious in the judgments we make about a person’s overall intelligence. Second, Gardner’s theory argues that while we may be stronger in some areas than others at particular times, those strengths are connected to both genetic and experiential causes, which suggests that with additional practice in some areas, we may develop adeptness in intelligences that we seem inept in.

I should also stress that bringing diverse ways of presenting material into teaching is still a good idea. Many great teachers, including some I know, diversify their teaching practices because they passionately believe in teaching styles. These teachers should be commended and admired for their creativity and dedication to their task. They are helping out their students, even if they are successful just because they are giving them multiple ways to encode the information in the lesson and not because they are tapping into students’ different learning styles. They are good teachers, and though I believe they should stop believing in teaching styles, they should not change their methods.

I don’t mind people doing the right things for the wrong reasons, but I still hate learning styles, especially when they become an explanation for a learner’s success or failure.

Here’s why you should hate learning styles as well. The following is a scenario that I’ve encountered several times: A student comes to see me desperate to pass his writing class, yet despite this desperation, he has put in almost no extra effort to work on his writing. The feedback that his professor has given on past papers was ignored or looked at superficially. When I question him more, he say that he’s just not skilled at writing because he is a “kinesthetic learner,” which means,  he thinks, that he learns best when he can do something physically active and since he can’t “do” an English essay, he’s always going to be bad at writing. (Side note: My use of pronouns attempts to be as gender-neutral as possible; here it’s not. It’s almost always a male in these cases. More on that later.)

Somewhere along the line, one of the persons trying to educate this student wanted to give him a break. They saw him succeeding in a physics experiment and struggling to read his textbook, and they gleaned that he’s a kinesthetic learner. That fact got encoded into the idea that he has less control over his own learning when he finds a topic that he can’t learn kinesthetically. The student learned to be helpless when it comes to writing and now gives up at the first sign of struggle. That teacher meant well and might have been a great teacher. Getting a student who would not normally be engaged by science to be interested and curious is indeed a great feat. However, they unintentionally taught that student that he was bad at writing and reading before the student really put in the practice to know how skilled he was. Because of that, the student stopped caring and stopped trying.

I understand that’s not the intent of learning styles at all, but it’s often the result. When I quiz students on where they found about learning styles, it often comes down to an explanation why one technique for studying a topic worked better for them than another. Their story may be true, but it is not evidence that this is the way that that student’s brain prefers to learn in every situation. Educators and learners extrapolate one particular learning experience out into a fundamental attribute of that person’s brain by calling it a learning style.

I mentioned earlier that the “kinesthetic learners” I see are almost always young men. While I don’t have any evidence to know whether men are more likely to be stronger kinesthetic thinkers, I’m almost certain that the number of young men who are labeled as kinesthetic thinkers is an overrepresentation that can be explained by the fact that young boys are often more hyperactive in school and that gets related to them as an attribute of their learning style.

Those types of fundamental attribution errors have terrifically bad consequences, even if they are meant to be encouragements. How many years did educators steer young women away from math, engineering, or science into some subject they were “more suited for?” How many others heard about those myths and gave up way to early in the process of learning math when things started to get challenging?

That’s why I hate this myth of learning styles. Just like the myth of girls being bad at math, it tell students that their abilities are fixed and teach them artificial limits on their abilities way before they can really know their own limits. Learning styles tell students that they have some bias beyond their own control that is going to determine how successful they’re going to be at learning any task. That’s an invitation to most learners to give up.

We’ve seen the troubles that spreading myths about fundamental attributes has caused in the past. Let’s not perpetuate them anymore.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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