Learning Myth #1: Everyone has a set learning style

Learning Styles Are A Complete Myth

What are learning styles?

Learning styles refers to the theory that individuals will learn information best if it is presented through a particular or a preferred method. The best known classifications for learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic, and what this theory aims to account for is differences in learning between people. Some may say that they have trouble learning maths by solving equations because they prefer to discuss the work aloud, or others may find they are more engaged if the equation becomes a tactile and tangible activity.

At some point or another we have all found ourselves curiously investigating our “learning style”. There are quizzes nestled in teenage (and professional learning) magazines, the question of which style suits us best is posed on the schoolyard and in special semi-official classes whereby teachers and students work together to discover which tailored learning style benefits each individual. But it is a myth that has been circulating for a long time.

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What is the origin of the ‘Learning Style’ myth?

This is a great example of a scientific theory that has become warped through retelling in non-academic settings, the original message becoming lost in fiction.

In 1983, psychologist Howard Gardner published his book Frames of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences, which took the psychology and education world by storm. This book theorised that our intelligence went beyond the traditional idea of single processing thoughts, and instead intelligence came through multiple channels or as he called it, Multiple Intelligences. He theorised that there were 7 intelligence which worked together, a super-computer of thought that worked collaboratively to process information. The seven, he theorised, were: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal, and later he added an eighth: naturalist intelligence. The concept of learning styles is believed to have come as a misunderstanding of his theory. The new line of thought is that these intelligences are defined as isolated learning avenues and not, as Gardner theorised, a collective. Now a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Gardner has spoken of this misinterpretation of his theory, and the tendency of people to credit him with the “notion of ‘learning styles’ or to collapse ‘multiple intelligences’ with ‘learning styles.’”

“It’s high time”, he says “to relieve my pain and to set the record straight.”

What is the truth about this myth?

There is a little evidence to support the concept of learning styles, but this evidence is circumstantial and a little weak. In a 2008, the Journal of the Association for the Psychological Science explored the theory of learning styles and evidentiary support. After heavy research into learning styles, they concluded that “despite the vast size of the literature on learning styles and classroom instruction, we found only one study that could be described as even potentially meeting the criteria”.

Another recent and well-executed study, explored one group of people with a common preferred learning style and their ability to understand material better when it was presented in their style of choice, in this study visual vs. auditory. Another group with a different learning style were presented the material in their style of choice and their aptitude results were the same. The theory would have it that , these individuals learnt information best when it was presented in their own learning style, right?

Not quite.

It was concluded that “there was not strong support for the hypothesis that verbal learners and visual learners should be given different kinds of multimedia instruction”.

Studies have discovered that usually both groups perform better when taught by a similar style, regardless of the individual’s preferred style. Author of “Great Myths of the Brain” Christian Jarret says that “although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught”. For example, imagine trying to learn Spanish grammar but only using pictures, or how to play football by listening to a lecture. It doesn’t matter how auditorily focussed you think you may be, if you’ve never tried to bounce a football tangibly, then you’re not going to win Best On Ground.

So perhaps it’s really about the appropriateness of the style for that particular task?

Psychology Professor David Willingham at the University of Virginia has spent much of his career deciphering how this myth became so ingrained in education. He believes that the theory has become widely accepted because the idea itself is “appealing”.

He says “It predicts that a struggling student would find much of school work easier if we made a relatively minor change to lesson plans — ensure the auditory learners are listening, the visual learners are watching, and so on.”

The World Is Your Playground

What does this mean for us?

Instead of writing the learning styles myth off completely, we should be viewing it as a template to the different formats that we can share information with others. By approaching new information from different angles, we can gain a stronger understanding of the information.

Studies have found that students benefit best when learning new information in different ways: we learn to read by looking at pictures, saying the words aloud, and writing new words down. Imagine believing that as an auditory learner that the best way you will learn to spell is if someone reads the letters to you? Sooner or later, you are going to need to practice writing those words down.

Gardner says that the best way to teach is by pluralising your teaching, that is, teaching important material in several ways and not just one way.

He says that “by presenting materials in various ways, you convey what it means to understand something well. If you can only teach in one way, your own understanding is likely to be thin.” Although learning styles is a myth, we shouldn’t close the door on different learning methods entirely. Instead of locking down one particular avenue, we should instead use it as an example of the different ways we can present information.

For a summary of Professor David Willingham’s discussion on the Learning Styles myth, watch this video.

For Professor Howard Gardner's discussion of learning myths, click here.

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