Are Learning Styles Bunk?

May 2004

May 2004

A few weeks back, The New York Times ran an opinion piece titled Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. In it, the author takes aim at “psychological witchcraft” — educational theories that “developed in part because of sketchy education research that doesn’t offer clear guidance.”

One such example of a misguided theory was that of learning styles. According to the article:

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Needless to say, this got my attention. “Lack of credible evidence” for learning styles? Really?

Looking for more information, I clicked over to the study abstract, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, published in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And yup, there it was. The conclusion that learning styles currently have no basis in science.

We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number.

They did caveat it a bit:

However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.

Ok. So it is more that the appropriate experiments have not been done, rather than the science has shown learning styles to not be effective. But that leads to the question of how to perform the research “appropriately”. The authors of the study are very clear on how this would be done:

We concluded that any credible validation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding with several necessary criteria. First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style. In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.

In other words, in order for research to be considered credible, the same information must be taught to groups of students and the ones taught according to their learning style must show better results.

And herein lies the problem. While I understand why this would make for a better scientific study, I am having trouble figuring out exactly what this would prove as far as learning styles.  Learning styles look at the child as a whole…how they learn, what their strengths are, and when they are developmentally ready.

If you change the approach without changing the expectations (what is being taught and when), you miss the point.

Kids are not “empty buckets” waiting for us to figure out how best to fill them and learning styles are not (or should not be) just another another way of “getting information into kids.” Learning is much more complicated than that.

Part of the problem may be that schools do not have the flexibility to implement learning styles in a way other than as a “technique” that gives them a different way of teaching the same information to the same kids. Especially now with the focus on “standards”…kids must be at certain levels and know certain things by certain times. The trouble is that kids don’t learn in this way…learning is not always linear and learning does not happen at the same time for all kids.

In my opinion, learning styles are just too holistic of an idea to be broken down into something easily testable. In order to see whether it “works”, you would have to take do a very long term study and provide children with the freedom which you just can not find in school.

As a homeschooler, I have the flexibility I need to create a learning environment which honors and values my kids learning styles — all aspects of their learning style. One that values their need for approaches which use their strengths rather than their weaknesses, that understands their normal developmental timetable and that values their natural interests.

Understanding right-brained learners takes into account how they learn (globally, holistically, visually, creatively), when they are ready to learn (they develop 3-D visualization skills first, then their 2-D sequential skills, reading and writing will often come “late”) and what their natural strengths are (mechanical, artistic, creative, imaginative). It is not about making all kids strong in all areas. Or making right-brained kids better at left-brained tasks.

It is about realizing that when traditional approaches are not working, it is because the approach is wrong, not because our kids are broken.

It is about seeing our kids for the incredible learners that they are and not trying to make them “fit” into a school model that does not work for them.

So no, learning styles are not bunk. It is a shame that the article did not give the full picture and that people will get the wrong idea that there is nothing of value to learn from them.