Want Research-Based Teaching? Then Forget “Learning Styles”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 14th, 2009

Want to claim you support research-based methods of teaching?  Then stop demanding that teachers cater to children’s individual ”learning styles.”  There’s no research to support the idea that certain children learn best in certain ways, notes Dan Willingham who guest posts at The Answer Sheet Valerie Straus’ new education blog on the Washington Post’s recently revamped education page. 

“Learning styles has become unquestioned dogma among many educators, despite the utter lack of evidence to support it,” notes Willingham who calls out Washington, DC for becoming the latest to drink the learning styles Kool-Aid in Michelle Rhee’s new District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Teaching and Learning Framework:

In the framework, which lays out Michelle Rhee’s vision of what it means to be a good teacher, the fourth guideline in the “Teaching” section of the Framework suggests that teachers “target multiple learning styles” in order to “ensure all students have the opportunity to meet lesson objectives.” Teachers are encouraged to vary the content of lessons (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, interpersonal, linguistic, social).

Researchers have been conducting experiments on learning styles for fifty years, Willingham notes. “They’ve been tested with the sorts of materials that kids encounter in schools. They’ve been tested with kids diagnosed with a learning disability. There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.”  A lesson clicks or doesn’t, he writes, “because of the knowledge the child brought to the lesson, his interests, or other factors” not “because of an enduring bias or predisposition in the way the child learns.”

“Suggesting that teachers cater to learning styles—when teachers must already do some differentiation based on what students know—makes a teacher’s job much more difficult with no benefit to students,” he concludes.

Those who follow Willingham’s work will recall his YouTube video on learning styles.  

12 Comments »

  1. “[Catering] to learning styles…makes a teacher’s job much more difficult with no benefit to students,”

    Isn’t this what ed schools do? Invent (aka, pull out of their butts) complicated methods for teaching that do nothing to increase learning, but make life devilishly difficult and time-consuming for teachers. I’m serious.

    The complexity of teaching is becoming INSANE. For no good reason. Busy-ness, mostly in vain.

    I dream of a serene school where teachers plan brilliant lessons in a well-lit, aesthetically-appealing teachers’ work room, deliver lessons in spare-but-attractive, well-built classrooms leaving students stimulated and happy, and where the day ends at 1 pm –students going home to do homework; teachers having a chance to grade work and plan lessons before going home and having a life.

    Comment by Ben F — September 14, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  2. Ben, please start a school and offer me your first job.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 14, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

  3. I read Dr. Willingham’s book a few months ago and while overall I felt it was excellent, I was not convinced by his chapter on this topic. It just didn’t jibe with what I’ve observed.

    Take my younger brother and me for example. We tested the exact same for IQ and scored within 10 points of each other on the SAT so it’s reasonable to assume we are equally intelligent. We were raised in the same home, attended the same schools, and generally had similar life experiences as kids.

    If someone wanted my brother to perform an unfamiliar task, he would be most successful if given a visual diagram like those IKEA assembly instructions. In contrast, I would be most successful if given either oral instructions or written instructions that I would proceed to read aloud to myself.

    I just can’t believe that there’s no such things as “visual” and “auditory” learners because it’s the most logical explanation for the difference I’ve observed between my brother and myself. And it makes intuitive sense since we know from other brain research that males have superior spatial reasoning skills while females have superior verbal reasoning skills.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — September 15, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  4. I disagree only slightly after watching the video.

    I think kids do share something in particular as a bit of a uniform learning style.

    Call them “Well fed, loved, and not-exposed-to-extremes-of-temperature-and-weather” learners… ie, there are common initial conditions which would improve everyone’s learning experience.

    Crimson wife, the plurality of anecdotes may not be data, but I shall share an anecdote none the less;

    My girlfriend of 2 years and I are often better at eachother at tasks in a way that does not line up with me being a better visual/spatial reasoner and her better at verbal reasoning. Depending on the subject, our familiarity with it, how much we’ve tried to gain the skills, she can be better than me (sometimes very much) at visual/spatial tasks, and I can out-do her in some forms of verbal reasoning.

    The effect you are referring to is usually expressed as a few points here or there on average on an SAT test between the math/verbal. Without knowing better myself, i’d ask if the expected error (in the ability of the SAT to test, not error in its reporting) in the SAT is larger than that effect.

    Comment by John Lamb — September 15, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

  5. One of Willinghman’s points that I found interesting was that it was more helpful for a teacher to vary the approach depending on the material being presented than depending on the learner.

    But I’m also a little skeptical that there aren’t some real differences in how different people absorb information best — for example preferring written directions to maps (or vice versa) when going somewhere unfamiliar.

    Comment by Rachel — September 15, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  6. To use Rachel’s example: What I think Willingham is saying that we now call “learning styles” is really a preference based on content/task. For example, I prefer a map to turn-by-turn directions when driving somewhere; but when trying to absorb a story, I prefer words rather than pictures.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 15, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

  7. Rachel: In your skeptical paragraph, you are actually reinforcing one of Willingham’s ideas: that because people like, enjoy, or prefer to do something one way or another does not mean they are actually learning it differently.

    I might argue that if someone prefers to get directions written that they are actually missing an opportunity to improve their skills at 2D map use and orientation. My experience is that people default to doing things a certain way because it is easier, not because they learn better that way. Which is something else Willingham stresses: learning and thinking are hard.

    Comment by Matt — September 16, 2009 @ 7:47 am

  8. I find this blog intersting because it goes against everything I’m learning in my Atypical Human Growth and Learning class. I’m now concerned that we are being taught material that is irrelevant or unhelpful to our future students. Should colleges be looking into this and making changes?

    Comment by Heather — September 16, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  9. Science advances funeral by funeral, Max Planck observed. “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 16, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  10. Heather,

    Challenge your teachers. Even if you don’t convince them, you’ll be showing your classmates that alternative perspectives exist.

    Comment by Ben F — September 16, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  11. In dialogue with Dan Willingham, he was was perfectly willing to admit that individuals have different learning preferences and strengths. His problem with learning “styles” was the (admittedly inane) way the concept is used in classrooms–as if we could accurately diagnose every child’s “style” then prescribe the right way to teach them.

    That does not negate ingrained individual patterns and preferences. I loathe podcasts and books on disc. I need to see a map, rather than hear directions. Every learning styles test I ever took identifies me as a visual learner. And yet–I am a professional musician, and music teacher. My art and craft are centered on specificity and skills in sound. I had to work hard constantly to understand and affirm kids who learn music “by ear”–since my natural tendency is to read it accurately off the page.

    Labeling people with monolithic learning styles over-simplifies the complexity of learning and causes teachers to make correlating dumb, oversimplified instructional decisions. But–it can be extremely helpful for teachers to understand their *own* preferences, as counterweight to the tendency to present information or teach skills in the way they feel most comfortable. Sometimes, I believe the Math Wars are nothing more than a vicious battle between linear/abstract thinkers and kinesthetic/gestalt thinkers.

    Instead of challenging your teachers, Heather, why not use the opportunity to ask good questions about the validity of learning styles tests, and the research that shows how best to use information gained from the sorting mechanisms?

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — September 16, 2009 @ 10:54 pm

  12. As the mother of two very different daughters just 19 months apart, now, 24 and 23, I have a very hard time believing that the idea of learning styles is foolish nonsense. Raised in the same environment with the same parents, the same life experiences, and many of the same teachers through school, my daughters approach learning very differently. This was easy for me to see even before I knew there were any theories about learning styles!

    Both were very successful in school and college (between 3.9 and 4.0 GPAs). My oldest reads non-stop and learns visually in a research-style. My youngest can never learn that way. She learns when she can talk through things.

    This need to verbally talk through things was vividly illustrated when she was in high school. Her geometry teacher divided the class into small groups of three so they could talk and work together to understand the different concepts being taught. She flourished and was at the top of her class, so high that they recommended she take Honors Algebra the next year. The next teacher taught lecture style in a more traditional method. My daughter was struggling horribly until I started sitting with her each night while she did her homework. Most of the time, I read the lesson and we talked about it. Because she had the opportunity to verbally process what she was learning, she ended up with a high A in the class. For her talking through things is not just a preference, it’s a need.

    Comment by Maria Elkins — September 18, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

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