Education Opinion


By Nancy Flanagan — February 14, 2010 2 min read
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The Great Learning Styles Controversy is alive, well and now starring at the Washington Post. Jay Mathews advises us that, based on recent research, experts report that the widely accepted notion that students have specific learning styles is--not to put too fine a point on it--baloney. From there, the Core Knowledge Blog calls out the D.C. Schools for evaluating teachers on whether they address diverse learning styles when designing instruction, since we now have scientific evidence that learning styles are hooey.

This isn’t the first time this battle has been fought. I’ve been a skeptic about those cheesy 20-question quizzes that allegedly determine one’s inherent learning style since my middle school spent a half day testing each child--then divided students into style-alike groups to talk about knowing your strengths as a learner. The chief thing I learned from that experience was that about 90% of 7th grade boys believe they are kinesthetic learners. Either that, or they’d rather be shooting baskets than bubbling in a scantron sheet.

However. There are at least two important reasons that this discussion should continue:

#1) Even if students cannot be neatly divided into groups--visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners--all human beings have learning preferences and strengths, our go-to modes. From the WaPo column: “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.’” Anyone who’s ever noticed that they remember more of what they read than what they hear--or vice versa--gets that. Any math student who’s ever shuddered at seeing a page of what used to be called story problems gets it, too.

Plus--every teacher who keeps awareness of multiple paths to “processing information” in mind when creating lessons is closer to enhancing comprehension for a range of learners. I’d even argue that the most important outcome for teachers studying learning styles is identifying their own personal preferences--then understanding that their “best” (read: easiest) way to learn a subject may apply to only a subset of students. (More on that in a subsequent blog...)

#2) Much of the conversation about learning styles has been colored by what can only be called dismissal, even derision, part of the movement to label certain pedagogical tools, concepts and strategies “soft"--and subject to prevailing ed-school philosophy.

Studies that claimed certain learning styles benefited from similar teaching styles were not rigorously randomized. Many of us find the theory irresistible because we like "to be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals." When study areas differ, learning-styles theory has merit. "For instance, the optimal curriculum for a writing course probably includes a heavy verbal emphasis, whereas the most efficient and effective method of teaching geometry obviously requires visual-spatial materials."

Ah. Research trials were not scrupulously randomized--but we shouldn’t trust the experience of millions of teachers who have found information on learning preferences useful in their teaching craft? Because it’s just a function of their foolish desire to treat students as individuals? And that last sentence--well it just kind of speaks for itself, regarding the value of investigative research in illuminating practice, doesn’t it?

I don’t want to see school districts wasting money on bogus Learning Styles materials. But let’s listen to what teachers, who have spent years observing how students learn, have to say, too.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.