Why teachers love a concept research has yet to embrace.
The concept of learning styles is an interesting educational phenomenon. That differences between students influence how they learn is tenaciously, often passionately, supported by many educators who base their beliefs on their day-to-day experience. School systems, professional organizations, and individual teachers spend significant sums every year for workshops and materials on implementing learning-styles concepts and strategies in classrooms. At the same time, however, others, primarily educational researchers, argue that the research on matching learning styles to teaching styles has produced inconclusive and contradictory results.
Why then do so many practitioners hold such strong beliefs in an instructional approach that is not well supported by research? Critics claim that teachers are simply being duped; they are succumbing to the “bandwagon effect” because the concept is so intuitively appealing. Our research, though, indicates that teachers’ interest in learning styles stems from a complex set of factors rooted, for the most part, in sound professional concerns.
Practitioners and researchers are interested, of course, in different questions and different evidence. Researchers investigate the absolute or comparative effects of matching learning styles or student aptitudes with teaching strategies. They look for evidence beyond chance that a performance difference exists. Practitioners, on the other hand, ask, “How can I better serve my students?” They are interested in having more options to promote student achievement. Thus, practitioners look for immediate benefits in terms of outcomes in their classrooms.
For example, teachers who attend conferences or workshops on learning styles are often seeking specific solutions for dealing with students who present problems, either in management or achievement. After all, the buck stops with classroom teachers. They must help all students learn. And teachers know that even with the most researched and validated reading (or math or writing) program, some students will fail, at least initially. Finding additional ways to help children who have confounded them is of sufficient value for teachers to consider the idea of learning styles and explore its associated classroom methods.
Teachers' interest stems from a complex set of factors rooted, for the most part, in sound professional concerns.
Having the opportunity to focus on and discuss learning styles also appears to boost teacher efficacy. Teachers intuitively perceive that students differ in how they learn, and that those differences are important to understand. Learning-styles models, in a sense, codify differences, providing a systematic way to discuss students’ different responses to instruction that teachers witness every day. After participating in learning-styles workshops, teachers report feeling better prepared to suggest alternative approaches for studying and learning to students who are having difficulty mastering material. To this end, teachers often employ learning-styles information to assist students in becoming more aware of their own learning patterns. As this process evolves, the teachers begin to perceive of themselves as facilitators who have a broader repertoire of teaching strategies.
This is not surprising, because learning-styles training almost always has a very utilitarian theme. Learning-styles approaches do vary—some advocate matching learner and teacher styles, others advocate stretching a student’s learning styles, and still others recommend providing student choice along learning-styles guidelines. But almost all of these kinds of training present teachers with specific, practical materials and strategies for systematically giving students more instructional choices in the classroom. The workshops are organized so that teachers take away products that can be tried immediately. Lesson plans, classroom materials, and outlines for student projects are usually created during the workshop or shared by consultants. Even those teachers who don’t accept all the tenets of a particular learning-styles model can leave workshops feeling positive because they depart toting a number of useful teaching materials.
Moreover, research indicates that learning-styles workshops encourage teachers to reflect on their assumptions about teaching and learning. Many report that exposure to learning-styles material prompted them to re-evaluate how they judge ability, as well as how they define problem students. After attending such training sessions, many teachers begin to re-evaluate the decisionmaking that goes into their instructional planning. They often realize they have been employing teaching strategies rather randomly. As one teacher put it: “I’ll tell you what. This whole thing [the workshop] made you really think through what you do, and why you do it, and for whom you do it.”
This critical self-inquiry is thought by many educators to be a key component in excellent teaching. Recent research on teacher-preparation programs, for example, has focused on the positive effects of self-reflection on teacher performance. Similarly, research on teacher efficacy indicates that teachers who are taught to be more self-reflective about their teaching prove to be more effective in the classroom.
It is ironic that teachers are attacked as uncritical consumers of learning-styles theory, because research shows that they rarely restructure their teaching completely based on these concepts. In fact, teachers often express doubts about swallowing whole hog the prescribed teaching strategies that accompany learning-styles models. Expressly rejecting a package deal, it is far more likely that teachers will adapt and adopt methods that fit the conditions of their own particular classrooms and the children they teach. In other words, they do what teachers do best: They make choices from many alternatives until they find something that works.
The strategies teachers gain from learning-styles workshops can and often do make a real difference in their practice.
Clearly, teachers appear to find practical help in learning-styles concepts and methodologies. The strategies they gain from learning-styles workshops can and often do make a real difference in their practice, and, as a result, a real difference for individual children’s achievement. Perhaps most significantly, thinking about the relationship between a teacher’s actions and choices and a student’s outcomes appears to energize the teacher’s sense of effectiveness.
Much of the debate around learning styles has focused on whether or not the concept can provide an effective template for instructional design. To date, research in this area has not been very fruitful. Perhaps what is needed is an analysis of what teachers actually are doing in their classrooms because of their awareness of learning styles. Even if the construct is not powerful enough to be the main consideration in instructional design, it may still be worthwhile as a problem-solving tool for teachers. We must be careful not to lose sight of a potentially valuable way of thinking about teaching and learning.
Army Maj. Lenna Ojure is the disabilities coordinator and an instructor in psychology and teacher preparation at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. Tom Sherman is a professor of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Learning Styles