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The Bunk of Debunking Learning Styles

By Heather Wolpert-Gawron — February 17, 2010 6 min read
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What if research debunks your own findings as a classroom teacher? Do you cease to use the strategies that you’ve come to know and trust?

According to an article on Psychcentral.com, learning Styles are being re-evaluated and even negated. This research summary, reported in a recently published journal article, claims that there is really no proof that one kid learns differently from another.

The article declares that:

“The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and that others will learn better when the material is presented verbally, or even in some other way, is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools.

“But does scientific research really support the existence of different learning styles, or the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style?

“Unfortunately, the answer is no.”

Shrug. Cue eye roll. I don’t know what students they studied, but I politely dispute the dispute.

The article reads that, “For decades, educators have harped on the necessity of a variety of teaching methods to accommodate the particular learning styles of students.” (Notice the word “harped.” How’s that for loaded reporting?) There’s no mention of the nearly 40 years of research at Harvard and elsewhere that pushed these ideas into the teaching mainstream. There’s also no mention of research on the alternative —that of teaching all students the same way.

If you read the article closely, it basically says “Nobody’s proved this scientifically.” But I have—through observation.

I’ve conducted my own field studies of students in their natural habitat—my own classroom. And despite what this study claims, I have found that these individuals do learn differently from one another.

It’s true that I’m not set up in some scientific lab here at school (although I would welcome a large grant to get that going). But I am available to share my knowledge. I am, after all, a classroom teacher, and pretty savvy about how kids learn. I’ve taught over 2500 of them in my 11-year career, and I’m not so sure these scientists can boast the same depth of knowledge about their test subjects.

In case the research folks don’t have time to drop by, I’ll share some observations from my own classroom here. Maybe they can form a few hypotheses to test out. For example, I know that:

• Neil learns better if I’m teaching with the interactive board and totally phases out when we’re reading.

• Desiree phases out when we’re reading, but as long as someone’s talking about the material, she’s in.

• Tien thrives in the computer lab.

• The entire class wakes up if they stand up.

• Seth has to be doing three things at once or he can’t pay attention at all.

• Armando needs everything to relate to him or he goes over to the Dark Side.

• Jenny will do anything academic I ask of her as long as I allow her to use a pink pen.

• Brandon will never be given the time of day, and nobody will love his writing like I do, unless he learns to type.

• Every student loves coming in to find the room looking different.

• Sarah will only work with Angy, but Fabiola can’t work with Sarah.

• Tin will function in a small group, but only one consisting of young ladies.

I live with these kids in a day-to-day setting, studying and reflecting how to best reach out to them. So what if I can’t fit them into neat little categories assigned by the scientific community? These are the practices that work in my current classroom. I’ve analyzed the different learning styles in my class, and that’s all I really care about.

Engaging All Students

That said, I’m not sure why standardization and individualization need to be completely at odds. I mean, each student is different, yet each must learn to function in the same world; so maybe there’s a place for it all. Why can’t we teach in such a way that all students are engaged, are learning the same skills, and can be appreciated for who they are as individuals?

Why can’t they be asked to bubble and paint?

Why can’t they be asked to listen and observe?

Why can’t they be asked to move and stay still?

The important thing here is not whether science can back up different learning styles with research, but really whether or not teachers (regardless of research) do what they find is necessary to engage all students.

And if that means having your kids stand on tables to represent a main topic sentence; or instructing a student to run around with the sign “Rome” on his or her chest slaying other countries until they’ve conquered the classroom; or delivering material via online survey, essay, scene study, or quick draw...well, then, so be it. Who needs the research to tell you how to reach your students, if indeed, you can prove that you are striving to engage them all and mostly succeeding?

Maybe the real dilemma here is not in the research, but in the teaching strategies. Maybe the heart of the matter is that not all teachers are teaching all students, or that they know how to. If so, that’s probably less an issue of science than of using common sense in teaching—observing and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

When I think back on the lessons that I loved as a student, the ones that stayed with me, they were the ones that asked me to solve authentic problems. They were the lessons that asked me to challenge myself outside of my comfort zone. They were the ones that allowed me to strut myself in my comfort zone. In all, they were the lessons that shook up the norm. But not all teachers naturally know how to mix it up.

Whether the current talk is about learning styles or multiple-intelligences or synapses or project learning or critical thinking or whatever, teaching is always about scaffolding—about how to teach in an engaging way in order to reach a wide variety of students.

But let’s face it. Some teachers must learn how not to be boring. They might be brilliant in their knowledge of content, but that doesn’t mean they understand how to deliver or communicate that content to every kind of kid. So why diss any theory that helps liven up learning?

I do think that teachers get bogged down with the unrealistic goal of trying to deliver the same lesson in different ways. I don’t think that benefits any learner. Students need to know how to compete in many different settings, after all, and they need to learn to listen and respond in many different formats. So we mix up our menu from day to day, but we don’t have to prepare every meal seven different ways.

Some naysayers who dismiss the legitimacy of learning styles don’t seem to realize that it’s more difficult to teach this way. Others may realize it but fight it because it IS more difficult. But it’s undeniably (at least in my classroom) the more effective way to reach the most students.

Common sense and long experience proves to me that there are different learning styles.

Just how many styles are present in your classroom will change from year to year. I would be as foolish to say that there are only so many learning styles as I would be to say that there are none at all.

This year I have 252 students. Does that mean that I have 252 different learning styles? Well, that’s what I spend the year working to find out.


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