Learning styles – getting beyond the myths

The common interpretation of “learning styles” is perhaps the greatest neuromyth in a packed field of misknowledge, and is a travesty to Howard Gardner’s research. Phrases like “I am an auditory learner” or “I am an kinesthetic learner” can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, and contribute to students having a “fixed mindset” in some key areas – this neuromyth does damage to students. And, shockingly, in one research study more than 94% of teachers incorrectly answered the survey question, “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic).” [1] How can we be so bad at this? How come this myth is so prevalent?

So I set myself this challenge, how hard is it to find the actual research on learning styles? It turns out, phenomenally easy. Much of Howard Gardner’s work is freely available, not behind must-pay firewalls. And, whilst it is technical, he has a wonderfully easy to  understand style. So it turns out that quality research is easy to get hold of and very accessible to read. So what intellectual laziness is at work here to prompt 94% of teachers to get this wrong?

More importantly, though, what should we do. A better way may be to think that each student has individual differences – current learning strengths and learning weaknesses. The key word is current. The brain has sufficient plasticity that by working hard and working smart (using strategies, using teachers, using feedback, using reflection, for example), students can rewire their brain to shift, to some degree, this their picture of strengths and weaknesses. So firstly, we must create school communities – teachers, students and parents – that do not force students to define themselves in narrow learning styles.

Secondly, what should teachers do? DO NOT TRY TO TEACH INDIVIDUAL LEARNING STYLE IN THE ROOM! Instead, research suggests that teachers should let the content they want to teach be the driver of what learning styles they stress. In the words of Professor Howard Gardner himself:

“It may seem that I am simply calling for the “smorgasbord” approach to education: throw enough of the proverbial matter at students and some of it will hit the mind/brain and stick. Nor do I think that this approach is without merit. However, the theory of multiple intelligences provides an opportunity, so to speak, to transcend mere variation and selection. It is possible to examine a topic in detail, to determine which intelligences, which analogies, and which examples, are most likely both to capture important aspects of the topic and to reach a significant number of students. We must acknowledge here the cottage industry aspect of pedagogy, a craft that cannot now and may never be susceptible to an algorithmic approach. It may also constitute the enjoyable part of teaching: the opportunity continually to revisit one’s topic and to consider fresh ways in which to convey its crucial components.” [2]

What teaching and assessing methods, each one emphasizing a different set of “learning styles” are going to work best here, for this topic? And how does this fit, perhaps, with the ones I have just place emphasis on and the ones I am about to next? And, maybe, are the “learning styles” I am stressing the most the ones that are truly, deeply germane to my subject? That is an interesting idea. It places a huge emphasis on knowing our subjects really, really well. It also serves as a reminder that, to work in the sphere of Mind, Brain and Education research informed teaching, we have to remember to work equally hard on knowing our subjects as implementing teaching strategies that enhance learning. But, most of all, please stop hurting our students with this!
[1] Dekker, Sanne, Nikki C. Lee, Paul Howard-Jones, and Jelle Jolles. “Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers.” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (October 18, 2012). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429.
[2] Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, Volume II. 1st edition. Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.   Also: https://goo.gl/PLJXsn

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