Doubts About Learning Styles

by Robert Pondiscio
February 11th, 2010

Jay Mathews catches up with last December’s report from Psychological Science in the Public Interest thoroughly debunking the idea of “learning styles.”   But he misses, I think, an important DC angle in his piece. Not long ago, a local teacher gave Mathews a copy of his evaluation, in which he “got only 1 out of 4 points for not catering to multiple learning styles.” If there’s no scientific basis for belief in learning styles, how can it be justified as a means of evaluating teachers?  Why isn’t anyone calling out DCPS on this?

Old conventional wisdom: teachers must target students’ different learning styles.  New CW:  Teach like learning styles exist, even if they don’t.  Proposed improved CW:  Teach in a way that engages students and makes the lesson stick, and ignore pseudoscience.


  1. The problem is that the federal government has built its STEM program around the faulty concept that these learning styles do exist and that science and math needed to be changed to cater to the perceived learning styles of “nonAsian minorities and girls”.

    We are spending hundreds of millions to make math and science “inductive, intuitive, holistic, group-oriented, cooperative, and nonverbal”. Last week’s proposed federal budget increases the emphasis and funding for these programs.

    How do we get away from the fact that the US, unlike our foreign competitors like India and China is trying to change the nature of math to reflect these perceived affective-based learning styles?

    How do we move away from the learning styles pseudoscience so that American schools start treating math as deductive, analytical, and linear again?

    Comment by Student of History — February 11, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

  2. I was griped at by a student this morning, and he brought in his learning style. I understand his frustration. He was trying to do problems on a homework handout that I did not have to time to explain in class. He is a “visual learner”, he said. “I need to see it explained in class, then I will understand it.” He was frustrated, and he had a valid complaint, or at least a semi-valid complaint, for indeed I had run a little short of time and had not explained that particular problem.

    But does learning style really have anything to do with this situation? He thought it did. Being a “visual learner” seemed important to him. It explained, apparently, why it is hard for him to learn things out of the book. But it didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me. If he’s a visual learner, then why is not seeing it in the textbook a good way to learn? Why doesn’t he call himself an auditory learner, who needs to hear it explained?

    I explain this student’s difficulties in quite a different way. I turn to the “rule of thirds”. The rule of thirds I am talking about is this. About a third of any class will learn whether the teacher is good or bad. That’s the top third. Then there is the bottom third. They will learn little no matter what the teacher does. So both the upper third and the lower third will perform, or not, quite a bit independently of the teacher. But the middle third is more teacher dependent. They will learn pretty well with a good teacher, but will learn poorly with a bad teacher. My complaining student, I think, is in that middle third. A careful explanation in class of each topic or type of problem is important to him, and he knows it. I don’t think that has anything to do with visual or auditory learning styles.

    Does the idea of learning styles do more harm than good? Probably. Would it do me any good to argue with this student whether he really is, or is not, a “visual learner”? Probably not. I supposed we are going to be irritated by learning styles for quite some time to come.

    But to the essential concept of learning styles, I remain agnostic. The usual term, “bunk”, seems pretty appropriate. “Visual” and “auditory” seem pretty shallow, and “kinesthetic” seems laughable. But I keep an open mind that one of these days someone will describe something than really can be called learning styles. I just can’t imagine what it might turn out to be.

    Comment by Brian Rude — February 11, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

  3. Brian,
    Are you really saying that you expect a certain percentage of students (1/3 or some other portion) to not be able to learn “no matter what the teacher does”? I agree that there are kids who learn easily (no matter what the teacher does) and students who need more help and guidance. But I reject that notion that there is a significant number of students who cannot learn.

    Comment by Mia Munn — February 11, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

  4. There’s a difference between “cannot” and “will not.”

    Comment by Miss Eyre — February 11, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  5. I find Brian’s perspective sanity- and morale-protecting. And ultimately, wise. It is spirit-crushing for a teacher to direct a large part of his energies on students who do not provide positive reinforcement. Work hard for the students who will give something back, not for those who, for whatever reason, are beyond the teacher’s powers to rescue. It is not wrong to consider the teacher’s needs; he is not a font of infinite energy, time and spiritual resources. The United States, for all its wealth, does not try to rescue every one of the world’s nations from poverty. Doing so would be ruinous. We make an effort, but we recognize that we have limitations.

    Comment by Ben F — February 11, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

  6. Brian,

    We usually agree on a number of issues. However, the problem you described above appears to be teacher generated. “He was trying to do problems on a homework handout that I did not have to time to explain in class.” A math assignment not thoroughly explained can lead to untold problems and almost always comes back to haunt.

    Whether learning styles exist or not, to give an assignment, especially in a subject like math, without an accompanying prior explanation usually turns into a recipe for disaster.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 12, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  7. Ben: “It is spirit-crushing for a teacher to direct a large part of his energies on students who do not provide positive reinforcement. Work hard for the students who will give something back. It is not wrong to consider the teacher’s needs; he is not a font of infinite energy, time and spiritual resources.”

    Nancy: It is spirit-crushing for a student to direct a large part of her energies on a teacher who does not provide positive reinforcement. Students work hard for the teachers who give something back. It is not wrong to consider the students’ needs; they are not fonts of infinite energy, time or knowledge of their own learning preferences.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 12, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

  8. Paul,

    I agree with you 100% about the math and the disasters that are likely to result. Unfortunately the essential premise of the math programs I described at the beginning of this post is that there should be no prior explanations. Apparently they do not teach the Worked Example Effect in most ed school programs.

    The essence of inquiry, discovery or problem based math curricula is to be presented with a problem of a type not ever taught before. You are asked to experiment with solutions, perhaps as part of a group, and then to write up a brief explanation of the solutions. The idea is that this will result in authentic math learning and an engaged classroom. (this explanation comes from the Seattle briefs).

    It rarely works well in practice as lawsuits in Seattle, a test cheating scandal in Atlanta, and outraged parent groups scattered nationally seem to be proving at the moment.

    Comment by Student of History — February 12, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  9. Nancy,

    You clearly misunderstood my posting; perhaps I could have been clearer.
    What I’m talking about is the student who has suddenly become 100% interested in the opposite sex and who has mentally written-off academics for a year or two; or the gay student who has not yet accepted his orientation who attempts to subvert his openly gay teacher in order to visibly distance himself from homosexuality; or the low-performing boy whose dad is in jail who has rebuffed a teacher’s gentle efforts to get him on-track all year and who has now settled into a pattern of very disruptive clowning in class; or the boy with divorced parents who has a deep-seated passive-aggressive attitude toward all adults in his life and who smirks happily when he sees you’re upset about his not working; or the young man who demonstrates sociopathic (or worse) tendencies, whom other kids view as crazy and frightening…Would I like to rescue these kids? Yes. Have I tried? Yes. Do I continue to treat them with decency, fairness and respect? Yes. But should I redouble my efforts? These kids have been huge drains on my psychic energy. Should I just pour forth more energy upon them, siphoning this finite resource away from others who are much more receptive? My calculation is no: that I can do more good in the classroom if I husband my energies wisely. Would I jump with alacrity at a tiny bone of cooperation should any of them throw one? Of course. Do you still find this view wrong-headed?

    Comment by Ben F — February 12, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

  10. Ben,

    Tough decisions, indeed. Does your school offer ancillary services for any of these kids? Special education? School psychologists or social worker? Guidance counselors?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 12, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

  11. Ben,

    I don’t find anything you said wrong-headed. Have I experienced enormous frustration over the range and enormity of problems my students bring to class? Yes. Have I found myself tapped out–out of patience, out of creative instructional ideas, out of energy? All the time. I hear what you’re saying, clearly.

    The impetus of this discussion, however, was learning styles– which were dismissed as “pseudoscience,” followed by a round of comments about foolish students who think they know how they learn best, the large percentage of students who just can’t learn no matter what the teacher tries, and other opinion-not-fact bits like this:

    “How do we move away from the learning styles pseudoscience so that American schools start treating math as deductive, analytical, and linear again?” (Student of History)

    My first thought after reading that: well, now we know what Student of History’s learning style is.

    Look, the CKB tends to be a place where people following a constellation of traditional (for lack of a better word) educational beliefs and practices hangs out. Personally, I think that learning styles have been way oversold–another marginally useful “silver bullet.” One of the reasons I read the dialogue here is because I like hearing what traditionalists think, honing my own beliefs.

    Your post reminded me, however, that most conservative critics of public schooling repeat the nostrum that “policies made for adults, not students” are what’s ruining our schools (along with constructivism, cooperative learning and 21st century skills). So–let’s start thinking first about what’s best for students. All students. In spite of our own angst.

    I apologize for feeding your own words back to you. It was an overdose of snark. I read everything you write, and learn from you. Sorry, Ben.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 12, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

  12. I guess I had never thought very deeply about that rule of thirds. Certainly I am not suggesting that those three thirds are equal in number, or that there is any clear demarcation lines. I think I said the bottom third will learn “little” in spite of the best efforts of a good teacher. That is not the same thing as learning nothing. And perhaps the “little” learned under a good teacher might be a lot more than the “little” learned under a bad teacher. And I said that the upper third will learn in spite of a bad teacher. I think there’s a lot of truth there, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t learn a whole lot more with a good teacher.

    Learning “little”, in this situation, might be defined as not being enough to build on. My perspective here is that at each level of education we depend on what has been learned at the previous level. Every subject is cumulative, though some subjects are more cumulative than others. In math I think it is especially true that an inadequate preparation dooms future progress. I don’t know anything about teaching elementary school, but I would presume that any teacher by the end of the school year has a pretty good idea which students are well prepared to go into the next grade and which are not. The “bottom third”, in this context, might simply mean those who do not have even a minimum preparation to advance. In the freshman college algebra that I teach “little” would mean a base of knowledge that dooms one to failure in the next level math course. That is a subjective definition, of course, and very imprecise, but I think to at least some extent meaningful. And the perception by both students and teacher that the amount learned will be too little has to have some important consequences.

    Notice what the above two paragraphs do not say about this lower third, or about teaching and learning. They do not say anything at all about the amount of effort that should be expended by the teacher for these students, but that is a very important thing to think about. Teacher effort is not unlimited. Nor does they say anything at all about the value of that “little” that is learned, and that is also important to think about. Nor do they say anything about how it makes those students in the lower third feel.

    What those first two paragraphs do say, it seems to me, is that students are highly variable. No news there. And they say that academic ability in the general population varies widely. Again no news.

    Okay, so I still haven’t thought very much about that rule of thirds, but maybe it’s more worth thinking about than learning styles. It still seems sensible to me to think that the student who expressed his frustration to me is more teacher dependent than students of both high ability and students of low ability. He will do well with good teaching. He will do poorly with bad teaching. I think that is worth giving thought to.

    And if I may address another point – Student Of History, I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea that what Paul considers a moment of poor teaching is considered by some (NCTM) as the essence of good teaching. I’m with Paul, even if I’m the goat in the example. Math is best taught by careful, explicit, direct, guided instruction. I am not familiar with the “Worked Example Effect”, in capitol letters yet, but it does bring to mind an idea that I have worked on in the past. Why should we need examples if we explain an idea adequately. That’s a rhetorical question, perhaps, but it also has an answer. Here’s a link.

    Comment by Brian Rude — February 12, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

  13. Nancy,

    That’s what I’m doing as someone who does cleanup work on the effects of constructivist ideology. My concerns are in fact for all students, especially the ones whose parents can’t teach them the material or fund a tutor. I believe public school should raise you up beyond the circumstances you were born into.

    I don’t really have a problem with you being snarky. I am confused about what you want to say back to me. Go ahead. Be specific. I want to know where you think I’m off track in my concerns.

    Also what do you think my learning style is?

    Comment by Student of History — February 12, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  14. Oops! Forgot the link about why we need examples even if we explain. Here it is:

    Comment by Brian Rude — February 12, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  15. The Worked Example Effect term comes from John Sweller’s work looking at the empirical evidence of learning based on randomized, controlled experiments. He capitalized it too though.

    He has pointed out that good math and science textbooks are so important because “when dealing with novices in a domain, there are an overwhelming number of studies demonstrating that learners provided with worked examples to study learn more and perform better on tests than learners asked to solve equivalent problems”.

    He cites to Renkl who regards worked examples as being a primary driver of understanding because they can be the scaffolding that lets one see the overall principles and their application.

    That made perfect sense given the confusion I have seen from inquiry math as well as my own epiphanies from looking through the modeled solutions to Singapore math word problems.

    I like to think of Worked Examples as bridges that show a student how problems are alike and how they are different and what to do with the differences and why it matters. Used properly they prepare a student for all applications ( the part of inquiry I whole-heartedly agree with).

    Comment by Student of History — February 12, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

  16. @Student of History

    From the Jay Mathews column in question: “The four authors agree that ‘people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information.’”

    Student of History: “How do we move away from the learning styles pseudoscience so that American schools start treating math as deductive, analytical, and linear again?”

    SOH: “I’m…someone who does cleanup work on the effects of constructivist ideology.”

    Clearly, you’re a linear thinker (for lack of a better term)–a person who likes to see and follow a labeled series of specific steps in a worked example. You don’t like bumping around trying things out. You don’t need representational or verbal models, and would rather not manipulate objects. You have a specific preference for processing information.

    Guess what? Other people have different aptitudes and preferences for processing information. What seems so obvious and logical to you is murky to others. While the Learning Styles industry is mostly hooey, the fact remains: kids do have learning strengths and preferences.

    And that’s the great danger in spitting on the concept of learning styles–it lets teachers believe that there is one best way to teach, and one best way to learn: their way.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 13, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  17. Nancy,

    I would agree wholeheartedly with your next to last paragraph, but the STEM movement I described initially is the one that is really not allowing individual student’s strengths and weaknesses on learning to be considered. Dictating that math and science must be taught by inquiry learning and a problem based approach doing group work is not a flexible model geared to individual student needs. Project FollowThrough and much research indicates it’s not an effective model for many kids, especially those from a disadvantaged background.

    All the many students who need explicit, clear explanations to grasp new information or obtain new skills and clear models with an array of examples to learn math and science are being disregarded. Being engaged and part of a group is not enough for all students. What if their learning strengths and preferences are not to learn by doing and showing others their insights, correct or mistaken?

    I don’t understand what I wrote that constituted “spitting” on a concept. Having listened to a school district’s high school math director telling teachers that the district will be cracking down on any teacher who is showing sequential methods for math problem solving, it is hard to see the inquiry, discovery approach as giving teachers the ability to do as they think best based on individual needs.

    I can be a linear thinker but I am also known for creating original templates from disparate pieces of information and pulling it all together into a cohesive, replicable, adjustable model.

    I have copied your description of me though. It will bring a smile to the face of clients and colleagues.

    I think Jay Mathews’ quote above is consistent with allowing many students and teachers to still have the option of learning and teaching math and science as an analytical, deductive discipline. Are we changing the definition of learning in the US to only those ideas and methods accessible to all?

    Who is the one really advocating a limited view of how students can best learn?

    Comment by Student of History — February 13, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  18. Nancy: “While the Learning Styles industry is mostly hooey, the fact remains: kids do have learning strengths and preferences. ”

    This is exactly why I think this debate, and the research coming out now, is so important. But what I think is even more important is to get this information to as many teachers as possible and get them to do exactly what you said – what’s best for the students.

    Case-in-point: I’ve been working at my current school for 2 years now. The adjustment was painful and dismaying – it’s a very low-functioning clientele. A new teacher this year (20 years experience) came from a higher performing school than even the one I’d left, and her difficulties here were tremendous. She wanted her classes to make a family tree for the characters in a Greek play, but they weren’t able to do it – indicating they didn’t recognize the relationships. From my previous year’s experience I knew exactly what was happening. I told her they probably had never seen a family tree before, and didn’t know what information it was supposed to give them. I suggested she have them make their own family tree first, then have them re-do the other. She said it worked like a charm.

    I sometimes think it’s as if, as teachers, we have to let go of two things: 1) what makes us happy to teach, and 2) what we assume about who our students are and how they learn.

    Every teacher has their favorite lessons, and some of them have worked for years. But, like the teacher above, they may not be the best approach for all students. In my mind I often take liberties with Campbell’s quote “We have to let go of the life we’ve planned in order to have the one that is waiting for us.” (Especially when a lesson has crashed and burned.) Sometimes we have to let go of the lesson we planned, in order to have the one that will work. (Yes, I actually repeat this to myself constantly! I may like presenting the material one way, but is it going to work?)

    The argument I see most about letting go of the learning styles approach always seems to dive straight into the “So that means I have to just stand and lecture and let the students be bored,” when I don’t see that as the opposite at all. I see the opposite being to stop trying to diagnose our students based solely on the little time we are with them (especially with NO training and NO scientific support for how to “diagnose” their learning style), and use the method that is best for the lesson and the class.

    My discomfort comes with the idea that I, an untrained observer, can figure out in a brief amount of time specifically HOW a student learns best. After all, if I prepare a lesson with manipulatives, and a certain student is very enthusiastic about it, how do I know that isn’t just a sign that they’ve been having to sit all day and getting up and moving around is re-energizing them after lunch? I prefer what you’ve said. I know that students have their strengths and weaknesses, their preferences, and I design lessons (as appropriately as I can for the material) that addresses those preferences. But I also know that to decide they can only learn one way or another based on my unskilled assumptions and observations is to underestimate their potential to work hard and conquer new challenges.

    Comment by redkudu — February 13, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

  19. The conventional wisdom in ed schools that I’ve observed as an ed school student planning to teach math when I retire, is that providing worked examples and/or explicit instructions is “handing it to the student.” I think there are ways to guide students to make leaps–it’s called scaffolding. The math programs financed by grants from NSF-EHR and which have proliferated in schools across the U.S. embody the ed school ideology. Like Student of History, I have dealt with the casualty cases of such programs as a tutor. It leaves in its wake a body of profoundly confused students. Please see my article on good and bad approaches to discovery learning at:

    Comment by barry garelick — February 13, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

  20. [...] Robert Pondiscio (The Core Knowledge Blog) vraagt dit om een praktische en pragmatische [...]

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