Learning Styles: Detrimental or Useful?

Did you ever sit through a professional development workshop on learning styles? I have—at least twice. Once with the dreaded Outside Presenter (from a university that shall not be named), and once with a well-respected teacher in my building, both at least 20-25 years ago, when learning styles were a thing.

They’re not a thing anymore.

In fact, they’re ‘detrimental.’ According to a number of education psychology experts, learning styles themselves don’t exist, so actually it’s believing in them that’s detrimental. Detrimental to whom? Students. Teachers. Parents.

Shaylene Nancekivell, PhD, visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and lead researcher for a new study on the myth of learning styles, divides folks who believe in them–some 80%-95% of people across the globe, BTW—into two groups: Essentialists and Non-essentialists.

Psychological essentialism is the belief that certain categories of people have a true nature that is biologically based and highly predictive of many factors in their lives. People with essentialist opinions about learning styles may be more resistant to changing their strongly held views even when they learn that numerous studies have debunked the concept of learning styles.

Non-essentialists are ‘more flexible.’  The other group–those who understand that learning styles are myths that have been debunked by scientific research—doesn’t have a formal name. Let’s call them academic pedants.

And now you’ve just read the first reason why these cyclical pieces about how learning styles don’t exist drive me crazy: researchers set up experiments to examine a bit of ‘conventional wisdom’ that some (not all) teachers find useful–or have found useful at some point in their career.

They then inform teachers that their pet theories about teaching and learning are baloney. Next, they label them ‘essentialists’–and build straw teacher-men, speculating about how teachers use these silly, foolish ideas and, by the way, resist change.  Because, you know, they’re teachers.

Previous research has shown that the learning styles model can undermine education in many ways. Educators spend time and money tailoring lessons to certain learning styles for different students even though all students would benefit from learning through various methods. Students study in ways that match their perceived learning style even though it won’t help them succeed. Some teacher certification programs incorporate learning styles into their courses, which perpetuates the myth for the next generation of teachers. Academic support centers and a plethora of products also are focused on learning styles, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting them.

I certainly agree with the last sentence. The number of ‘educational’ products that are built on theoretical quicksand is legion. And I can list a dozen ongoing ‘wars’ around the best way to teach important content, each with its own ‘research base’ and, probably, a vocal advocacy group. The shelf life of an educational theory is often short.

But correctly identifying ‘best practice’ that will help all students succeed is, and always has been, a moving target. Stamping out a belief in learning styles is hardly going lead to an erasure of what Nancekivell calls ‘maladaptive practice.’

In a Facebook discussion on the referenced article, I was touched when a friend (Nate Smith-Tyge) said this:  I do think the learning styles beliefs come from a good place.

I think so, too. Teachers are trying to reach kids by trying different strategies and modalities. Some will work better than others. If paying attention to the easiest, most efficient and indelible way to teach something to an individual child means a teacher is dabbling in learning styles, so be it.

As a 30-year music educator who frequently got the kids who were misidentified as ‘kinesthetic learners,’ I can testify that there are undoubtedly preferences and natural tendencies in learning to play an instrument.

Some students learn to play by reading their beginners method books. They learn the note names and memorize the fingering chart. Their focus is on note-reading, counting and blowing or bowing at the same time. It’s a tricky, uncoordinated multi-task at first, but eventually, through persistence, they get the pieces put together. Instrumental music teachers love kids like this—some teachers won’t let students even pick up their instruments until the preliminary cognitive/visual material is mastered.

Other kids learn to play instruments by watching others and doing what their mouths, arms and fingers do. They couldn’t care less what’s in the book. They want to play! They come in the second day, saying see what I can do! (In my neck of the woods, that was usually ‘Let’s Go Blue!’) How did they learn this? From watching YouTube or maybe an older brother who told them what keys to press.

These kids make the first group, still playing whole notes, heads in their books, nuts.  I always had students who complained that other students were watching their fingers or slide positions—which felt, to the note-readers, like cheating.

Still other novice musicians fool around, trial and error, until they can repeat a sequence of sounds: a tune. Parents were constantly telling me about their amazing child who could pick out any tune on the piano, or saxophone or trombone, after hearing it a few times. It’s hardly an unusual trait—auditory memory—but it’s definitely a learning preference.

It’s also the way many rock, pop and country musicians learn—strictly by listening, and remembering. No paper involved. A friend who plays bass tells me that in a gig with a new group of musicians, he seldom tells folks that he reads music; some people find it off-putting.

The Suzuki method of teaching basic instrumental skills relies on watching and listening, mimicking, repeating and improvising, to a far greater degree than traditional American music pedagogy. Suzuki students learn to DO, and to listen, rather than read, for a long time.

If I believed in learning styles (ha), I would say that Suzuki students exercise and develop their auditory and kinesthetic modes first and save the visual/verbal symbolic interpretation skills until students are older. There’s a lesson there for American educators.

The point is: there are multiple ways to learn to play a musical instrument. All of them have value, and none of them is a ‘best practice’ or ‘maladaptive.’

Dan Willingham is the national guru on the myth of learning styles. I once wrote a blog entitled ‘I Believe in Learning Styles’ and he graciously commented and engaged in a lively discussion about the semantic differences between preferences, abilities and learning styles.

I came away feeling as I still do today: I get the yada-yada about theories of mind and theories of instruction. But I still feel as if teachers who have found benefits from addressing those learning preferences, abilities and styles are coming from a good place. Their observations and gathered evidence matter, too.

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2 Comments

  1. I definitely do not understand the frantic pile-on of researchers like Willingham on teachers who are constantly searching for ways to reach all their students. It just feels like hysterical punching downwards to no good end. Thanks for this thoughtful blog post.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

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