Dec
19
2009

by

Studies Find There’s No Such Thing as Learning Styles – As Teachers, Should We Care?

According to Psychcentral.com, “Learning Styles are being re-evaluated” and negated. This theory, according to a recently published journal article claims that there is really no research out there to prove that students learn differently from one another.

Shrug. Cue eye roll.

The article claims 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.”

Frankly, I’m not so sure I care about any of it.

Here’s what I do know…

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.

OK, so this isn’t the most scientifically based study in the world, but it’s the one that works in my current classroom. It’s the different learning styles in my class, as analyzed by me, and that’s all I really care about.

I’m not sure why standardization and individualization needs to be an oxymoron. 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?

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

And if that means having your kids stand on tables as 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?

Well, maybe that’s the issue. Maybe the real issue here is that not all teachers are teaching all students, or that they know how.

In this case it seems less of an issue of science then it does using common sense in teaching. When I think back at 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 ones that had me doing something out 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 to mix it up.

Talking about learning styles or multiple-intelligences or syn-naps or project learning or critical thinking or whatever is being tossed about, is about scaffolding how to teach in an engaging way in order to reach a wide variety of students.

When people get all up at arms about this research or that research being unsupported, I beg them to remember: some teachers must learn how NOT to be boring. They might be brilliant in their knowledge content, but that doesn’t mean they understand how to deliver or communicate that content, especially to kids who may not be their kind ‘o person.

So providing the theory that there are different learning styles, and categorizing those learners, helps those teachers to remember what they are charged to do: teach ALL students.

So why diss any theory that helps build a ladder up from our current descent into standardization? It seems to me that we aren’t doing students a disservice by thinking of themselves as individuals as long as we’re also preparing them for the shared world we live in.

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 forums, and they need to learn to listen and respond in many different formats. So you must deliver in many different ways. It’s the more difficult way to teach, but it’s the more effective way to reach the most students.

So when your students walk into your room, keep ‘em guessing as to what to expect. It keeps them awake, and it keeps your own professional doldrums at bay.

Common sense proves to me that there are different learning styles. And they don’t just break down into a few categories. This year I have 252 students. Thus, I have 252 learning styles.

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25 Comments »

  • Jesper says:

    Great post and I agree with you totally! Happy holidays!

  • Chris Wondra says:

    How appropriate. Bill Ferriter posted a related article at the Tempered Radical today about validating teacher research. http://bit.ly/5bbwh3 Hmmmm. Mashing these two blog posts together today provides a great deal of insight, and I think may spark a new level of discussion in regard to action research.

  • heather says:

    I’m a big Bill Ferriter fan too. Thanks for the link to his related article. I think the importance of research sometimes is about being able to justify why what you are doing is legit. For instance, I am a big believer of jumping from activity to activity, spur of the moment stuff. If something interesting comes in on the Twitter feed, I stop and we do a mini-lesson. It’s engaging and spontaneous. Little did I know that Judy Willis is all about these spontaneous “syn-naps,” allowing one part of your brain to stop and activating some other lobe to keep its juices pumping. Purdy cool, right?
    Thanks for commenting, and have a great holiday!
    -Heather
    aka Tweenteacher

  • Keith Schoch says:

    Like all else in research and theory, I’m sure this will swing back in the opposite direction in no time at all. And like you expressed, reagrdless of what research says, we know from classroom practice that some students respond better than others to different methods.

  • Good post and completely commonsensical. Teachers should use a variety of presentation modes, but it should be because it’s the best way to present the material, not because someone told them to assess and teach to their students individual learning styles. This may sound obvious, but the orthodoxy of learning styles truly gets in the way. I had an AP who insisted every lesson should be differentiated for all learning styles (I ignored her). More recently, Jay Mathews had a piece in the Washington Post about a teacher in Washington who received a bad evaluation in part because in his observation, he did not differentiate for his students learning style. So there are real consequences to this phony idea.

    • heather says:

      That story about the teacher in Washington has me thinking about teacher pay. OK, so if a teacher gets paid X amount of money to teach 36 kids the same way, maybe those DC teachers should be paid 36X that amount if they are expected to teach all kids in such an individuated manner.

      I totally think we should know kids for who they are, celebrate them, and engage them using different kinds of lessons. But common!

      Thanks for commenting, Robert. Happy holidays, and I look forward to more articles, links, and news from you too!

      -Heather
      aka Tweenteacher

  • [...] Coincidentally, another Teacher Leaders Network colleague, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, has written a post that also speaks directly to this issue. [...]

  • Parry says:

    I think teachers should care, for (at least) two reasons.

    First, you talk about learning style theory within the context of student engagement, pointing out (rightly, I believe) that various instructional approaches are more or less likely to connect with various students. And therefore, to maximize cognitive engagement across a classroom, teachers should weave together various approaches and activities. You even take it a step further, describing the extent to which you have identified effective strategies that work for the particular students in your own classroom.

    But my experience with learning style theory is that it is often described in terms of information presentation rather than student engagement. In other words, include some visual information, some auditory information, and some hands-on activities, and you’ve covered your bases, i.e., you’ve presented the information the way you’re supposed to.

    Your description is far more nuanced and complex, and far more likely (in my opinion) to lead to high levels of student learning. I think it’s important for teachers to care that learning styles has no basis in research, because it means “learning styles” can’t substitute as short-hand for engaging all of the students in your classroom, and I fear that it is often presented that way.

    The second reason I think teachers should care is because the prevalence of “learning styles” theory in education—as workshop topic, growth plan focus, observation criterion, etc.—speaks to our profession’s propensity to buy into unproven fads. Multiple intelligences in the classroom, brain-based teaching, learning styles: how much in the way of time, energy, and resources are devoted to topics that have no research basis in improving student learning?

    High-quality teaching is too difficult, too challenging, too complex to be wasting time on theoretical dead ends. You dismiss the research debunking learning styles theory because you already understand the deeper issues that “learning styles” superficially purports to address—you didn’t buy into the learning styles shorthand in the first place. But are you the exception or the rule?

    Parry

    • heather says:

      Perry,
      Thank you for such a well-thought comment that truly makes me think and ponder levels of my own analysis that I hadn’t considered. I guess here’s my confession: it’s not that I don’t buy the theory of learning styles, I just have apathy about the debate.

      I do not, however, have apathy about student engagement. If identifying categories aids teachers in scaffolding their own practice, then more power to it. But I shake my head at teachers who teach all one way for many reasons:

      1. It’s boring for me, and I like having fun in my job. Call me selfish.
      2. It’s boring for them, and that translates to poor student achievement. A kid drooling on the desk is clearly not “with you.”
      3. It’s professionally unethical not to be reaching out to as many students as we can.

      Having said that, however, I do not think (as I said in my post) that we do justice to students by claiming that they must be totally engaged in order to put in their utmost effort. They need to learn how to learn in many different ways, just as we need to learn how to teach in many different ways. But this doesn’t mean every lesson. This means over the course of a unit, a period, a week, whatever.

      I’m not dismissing any of the research. I’m saying I don’t need the research to tell me learning styles exist. I learn differently from others just as I teach differently then others. I’m a living example of my own learning style, just as you are.

      Perhaps the need for these labels existence stems from people’s need to know a scientific “Why” as to why certain students succeed and others do not. So they claim, Perhaps the teacher isn’t targeting their learning style? Perhaps the teacher isn’t aware of the student’s uniqueness?

      Or perhaps there’s been a broken covenant between the two parties: some teachers and some students alike.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for visiting Tweenteacher. Have a happy holiday, and I hope to hear from you again. Great pleasure.

      -Heather
      aka Tweenteacher

  • [...] the question veteran California middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron asks at her tweenteacher blog.  Her point is that as a practical matter, well, it doesn’t matter.  Research notwithstanding, [...]

  • Paul Hoss says:

    Heather,

    Isn’t it almost a given as a teacher to question the authenticity/validity/reliability of social science research? To call into question whether the researcher had any pre-determined biases about what they were intending to prove/disprove? It almost seems like second nature for an individual, even at the university level, to prove something to his/her colleagues or the general public.

    At least to a certain degree, common sense must be what drives the practice of most classroom teachers. After awhile we figure out what does and doesn’t work in our classrooms.

  • Dan says:

    A thoughtful and thought provoking post. I was just re-reading a Jim Delisle piece about his beef with multiple intelligences and your post strikes me in a similar way. Labels be damned, know your kids and engage them in ways most appropriate. Thanks for a good read.

  • Sherman Dorn says:

    Heather,

    I know a number of teachers who would agree with you, but since I have also heard teachers who slip from “this is a broad repertoire of approaches” to “oh, Child X is an Auditory Learner, so I can’t expect her/him to read,” then I worry that fallacious categories become actively harmful. In the history of schooling, there are too many examples of stereotypes based on pseudoscience.

  • Your article was most tweeted by Education Technology experts in the Twitterverse…

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  • One more bit of grit to add to the argument:

    http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/teacher_in_a_strange_land/2008/09/the-audio-visua.html

    BTW, I recently joined the FB group “Learning Styles Debunked,” just to eavesdrop on the rampant teacher-critiquing. I was more than a little upset to read the Core Knowledge Blog comments–i.e., “the problem with teachers like Ms. Wolpert-Gawron”–accusing you of the very crime they were committing: jumping to conclusions. Your piece was nuanced and written from the standpoint of practice.

    You go, Heather.

  • Just to add on to Nancy’s comments, I agree that Heather’s post was nuanced and informed by practice. Where I think we part company is on whether or not it matters. Phony orthodoxies (or fads, if you prefer) exact a heavy toll on education, and especially on our more vulnerable students. Bad schools in particular are quite vulnerable to the latest quick fix and then aggressively implementing then as a form of accountability, often through no fault of their own, i.e., “the district said we should differentiate for learning styles and we did what they said, so it’s not our fault test scores didn’t go up.” In the panic-driven responses to accountability, the mindset is ready, fire, aim.

    In short, I don’t blame teachers, either. But one of the great impediments to good teaching is the relentless pursuit of the Shiny New Thing. The degree to which we are able to debunk and set them aside, I think, is the degree to which smart, capable teachers will be set free to do their work, rather than be hounded by pointless orthodoxies and mandates about what is and is not good teaching.

  • Cedar says:

    While I agree with many of your points, I think there are some very critical misconceptions here about the science of psychology, about learning styles, and about the case that the cognitive psychologists who wrote the article are making.
    First, debunking learning styles is NOT equivalent to saying that all students are the same. The four researchers who conducted the study have done hundreds of others documenting that “students learn differently from one another.” The point of the cognitive psychology of learning is not that we should either respect individuality and differentiating instruction, or treat all kids as cogs in a big machine, but that we should use the scientific method to identify which dimensions are most relevant to differentiate instruction? What role does background knowledge and ability play in learning? What role does student engagement play?
    The tragedy of learning styles is that it provides an irrelevant dimension upon which to differentiate instruction. Perhaps experienced teachers like yourself (and many of your readers) are able to ignore the silly categories and concentrate on those that matter for student engagement. Bu this is not the case for all teachers, and when learning styles appear on state standards, they do not merely urge teachers to engage all students, but propose that they do so in a specific way that has not been shown to engage students, ignoring many dimensions which have been.
    I don’t really believe that you think categories of any sort are meaningless and that you simply have 252 kinds of learners. Your experience and training allows you to identify some dimensions of individual difference as more relevant than others. I agree that student engagement is key, and there are perhaps different ways of engaging each student. But you don’t spend your time finding which color pen each student prefers, rather you spend it making your lessons (and your persona) engaging to all 252 of your students, who are more similar than they are different. I bet you find it more relevant that one is an English language learner, or one had two parents who are college professors. The point of the research in cognitive psychology is to help you identify which dimensions are relevant, since common sense and intuition are notoriously unreliable in such complex cases. History shows many cases of people using similar logic to yours (years of experience, thousands of cases) to support many questionable practices. Science may not be perfect, but it is better than relying solely on intuition. If you throw out the science that doesn’t agree with your intuition, then you are indeed relying on intuition.
    I also agree with Perry that the problem here is not necessarily the scientists (at least in the way you think it is). It is not “science” who relentlessly sells the learning styles theory, but education marketers. In my mind, the cognitive scientists should be doing a better job of indicating to educators like yourself which popular conceptions of learning are pseudoscience and which aren’t. Some are, like Daniel Willingham or the authors of the paper you cite, but you shouldn’t roll your eyes at them, but rather thank them for trying to make their science applicable to problems in the classroom, rather than leaving that to the publishing companies and educational consultants, who don’t always have either science or practice in mind.
    I would add that letting science in to education can be empowering, rather than undermining to your professional expertise. If you assert that the science of learning can be ignored, essentially what you are saying is that teaching is an art, that no objective pattern exists. If this is the case, there is really no reason for education schools, or even for the expertise in teaching itself. If there are no general patterns to be discovered, then what does experience get you? Teaching is not really a profession, if one doesn’t improve with experience. However, if you allow that science can tell you about some general patterns (like, say, in medicine) but that diagnostic expertise is still relevant, then you are on a much firmer ground as a profession.

  • Tweenteacher says:

    Thank you, Cedar, for your thoughtful response. I just wanted to let you know that I agree with much of what you say. I recently posted a response to the corresponding Teacher Magazine article based on this post. I posted the following:

    I want to continue to reiterate that true, accurate research can be found in many sources. It is dangerous to take scientific research to heart as 100% accurate because there are always studies that maintain with as much vehemence and research the flip side to any study. It is also dangerous to teach only based on “anecdotal” evidence (as Dr. Clement warns) without scientific evidence to back up your practice.

    It is the swinging pendulum of extremes in research findings that becomes so frustrating. We can’t toss out the baby with the bathwater with each study that is published. And it is reckless of a study to be published with no flip side acknowledged.

    My article is meant to be a cautionary one and one to help bolster the spirits of those who might feel as if they have invested in a philosophy that had been found to be bunk. The fact is: if it works, it isn’t. And if the philosophy of learning styles has improved your teaching and your craft, then more power to you.

    This study is not the end-all, end-all. It is just that, a study. And studies are always a work in progress, just one more piece of evidence for one side of the argument or another. But remember, there is always research to back up what you know to work in your own classroom.

    But keep in mind, if we only practiced one way or another, it would be detrimental to the evolution of our own practice. So remain open to studies as they come in, take them with a grain of salt, and be open to what you can learn from them all.

    Thanks again for your time and thoughtful comments. It’s a pleasure hearing from you.

    -Heather Wolpert-Gawron
    aka Tweenteacher

  • Cedar says:

    Thanks for the response. I am new to the blog (and new to world of education research and practice) but very interested. I am a college teacher (of cognitive psychology), but my wife has been a middle and high school teacher, my dad is a high school teacher, and my mom is a nursery school teacher, so you could say I have more contact with K-12 than your average Ivory tower academic. (I also have twin 1st graders).
    I wanted to respond to a few things you said, because I think they contribute to an anti-scientific trend in our culture, and I think they are not accurate about how science works.

    “I want to continue to reiterate that true, accurate research can be found in many sources. It is dangerous to take scientific research to heart as 100% accurate because there are always studies that maintain with as much vehemence and research the flip side to any study”

    It is of course dangerous to take any scientific study as the ground truth (even gravity, as many physicists found). But that does not mean that there is always an equal “flipside.”
    Not all studies are created equal. It is not just he said /she said, but a complicated network of knowledge in which some facts (studies) fit well into a theory based on other facts (studies) and there is no ground truth, but some studies hang together better than others. Unfortunately, most popular science writing fails to convey this basic fact of science. By reporting on the bleeding edge of science, and often justifiably noting that the results are tentative, this reporting casts all science as equally tentative. This is not the case.

    I appreciate that you are applying your attitude (of science constantly reversing itself, and not having a monopoly on truth) and using it to encourage a broader definition of knowledge, or “true, accurate studies,” including more of the people who are actually involved in the behavior that the scientists seek to explain. But this attitude misunderstands how science works, and is corrosive to valuing of science in other contexts.
    I don’t know where you stand on evolution, but a very similar argument could be made for evolution being false, or just a theory. Learning styles is “just a theory”, and those who debunk learning style have “just one study.” The problem is that, as one famous paper puts it “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” Similarly, if learning styles exist but our methods to find it are somehow deficient, we would have to dismiss thousands and thousands of studies on learning and memory. Science does compare studies on a scale, but most people’s understanding of the scale is distorted. It is not one study vs. another, but a really large set of interconnected studies, fit together in a very complicated way, compared with the results of one study, which may fit into that complicated set, or not.

    Anyways, I hope this doesn’t make me seem like an elitist scientist (I am sure that I sound like that sometimes), but part of being a scientist is understanding how much you don’t know, and how different the complex network of facts is in different fields. We in cognitive psychology may not have a theory of evolution, or gravity, or a periodic table, but we still have some studies which matter more than others, some evidence is better. And yes, to me as a scientist, your experience in the classroom is just as useless as my own, unless I can use it to measure something in a controlled manner (whether by lab or by statistics) that other people can observe by themselves.
    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t practice what works, but that we should also be aware how limited we are in determining what really works. For much of human history there have been “doctors” telling us they knew what worked about the human body, but only very recently has science informed us what actually works. The same is true for the explanation of physics and chemistry. Our confidence in something (experts or layman) is only a very small indicator of its truth.

  • [...] inspired Cedar’s article in response), you can read it on her blog, sans subscription, at TweenTeacher.com. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Do learning styles really exist? Pashler et al. [...]

  • Krista says:

    This was a fun post for me to read. I believe that like most theories out there, there is bound to be other studies done that may or may not debunk long held ideas. I do believe that individuals have certain learning styles, but I also believe that each student is unique and his or her learning style may not fit into a specific category, such as ‘auditory learner’ or ‘kinesthetic learner’.

  • strumpfhosen says:

    My feeling is that “learning styles” are more a matter of preferences for certain kinds of activities – and that if there is a difference in learning outcomes (which apparently has not been shown) it is only because motivated, interested people learn better (which has been shown, btw). So if a particular kind of activity engages a particular learner more (because he enjoys it), then he may learn more, or learn more deeply and richly – for the simple reason that he’s paying closer attention.

    On the other hand, not all material is equally suited to all different kinds of activities. Sometimes, you just have to read something. Or listen to a speaker.

    BUT if you have intellectual curiosity and discipline, you should be able to learn the material no matter the delivery style of the instructor.

    I am a teacher myself, and while I admit I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the whole learning styles business, I will say that attempting to integrate different kinds of activities that stimulate different senses into classes does make me a better teacher. It forces me to think outside of routine and come up with fresh ideas. And it makes the class more interesting. So at least in that respect, the discussion of learning styles – whether scientifically valid or not – has still yielded some positive results in my classroom.

  • Dan says:

    This is a great post, and I appreciate the comments as well–particularly Parry’s. I’ve had too many people ask me about “different learning styles” or claim that if their child isn’t presented material in exactly the right way, then they won’t be able to learn it. For me, the danger of this kind of research—-or, to be fair, the faddish way that it is consumed by our education system and our culture–is that it muddies the waters. This post, with its emphasis on the reality of teaching, did a good job of unmuddying things.

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