Reflections on Learning Styles as Myth
I’ve been guilty of this for many years: advocating for and teaching, training and trying to implement in the classroom this concept of “Learning Styles” – that concept that students have preferred learning styles, typically in the form of visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning preferences, and that we as teachers must match their learning styles with appropriate delivery of instruction in order to optimize learning.
When I worked in Turkey at a private school back in the early 2000’s, the school was all in a rage about Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Workshops were organized around it, principals demanded curriculum alignment to differentiate classroom teaching based on the visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical intelligences that certain students were supposed to be prone to being better at then others.
As it turns out, there is cognitive psychologist Josh Cuevas, in his article “Brain-Based Learning, Myth versus Reality: Testing Learning Styles and Dual Coding“, there is virtually no research to support the claims of the “Learning Style” hypothesis. Instead, he proposes a better way of looking at learning in terms of “dual coding”, which Cuevas explains as follows:
“The basic idea is that there are two separate pathways for encoding information into memory, one verbal and one visual. Unlike learning styles, dual coding has real potential to impact learning because it goes to the core of how humans remember things.”
In my own words and what I “learned” from the article is that the brain seems to have two paths to absorbing content – linguistic and visio-spatial. So if you were wanting to do a presentation to a class and wanted them to absorb maximum content, you would have slides containing only pictures, and you would speak over them, much in the way you do a Pecha Kucha 20 x 20 slide presentation. People listening to you can absorb both what you’re saying and what they are seeing on the screen, and the two reinforce themselves.
What is totally not recommended to do considering the theory of dual coding, is to speak over slides that also have words/text on them, because what happens is the brain’s language processing goes into overload and starts dumping information like mad, because it simply can’t process it. No wonder why people’s eyes tend to role whenever someone is presenting and has a slide full of text they’re trying to speak over, and yes I have been guilty of that myself. Can anyone else relate?
What I find fascinating about Cuevas’ article is that it offers a much more inclusive and well-rounded view of learning, as he proposes that “Humans learn in a variety of different ways. We are all visual learners. We are all auditory learners. We are all kinesthetic learners.” What that means for me is that it confirms what I had been feeling all along in interaction with students and with my own self-directed learning. That is, that we are all capable of learning in a variety of ways – we all have eyes on our head and ears to hear, and hands to move. Why shouldn’t we learn with all of those tools. They are in essence tools for us to use. It would be a shame for a teacher to limit visual learning for what they deem a “kinaesthetic” child, or isolate only auditory material for an supposed “auditory” learning style kid and remove all visual stimulus.
As it turns out, in reflection on my teaching of Grade 1 students at Enka Schools, I used to use a variety of learning style approaches in the classroom – music, visuals on the digital projector, hand movements during singing, etc, in the hopes of “reaching those children with tendencies towards those intelligences or learning styles” or so I was encouraged/trained to believe. In hindsight it looks like I was benefitting all the students with all those approaches. All were benefiting from the richness of content presented to them in a variety of ways.
So in summary, three reasons why Learning Styles are a myth, according to Josh Cuevas:
- No evidence confirming the validity of the learning styles hypothesis
- Rapidly mounting evidence that learning styles instruction is ineffectual and actually a waste of instructor time
- Dual coding theory promises much more solid evidence on how students actually learn.
What’s your opinion on learning styles, are they relevant or not for teaching today? Write your comments below.