Learning Styles

I confess that I have always been suspicious of the theory of learning styles. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: different people learn in different ways, generally designated “auditory,” “visual,” and “kinesthetic.” Apparently these three can overlap; here is a Venn diagram (helpfully labeled “Venn diagram”) illustrating this theory:

British Psychological Society.

The idea is that a teacher must differentiate her instruction in order to reach all of her charges, wherever they may be on the chart. So if you’re teaching (e.g.) math, you illustrate concepts with pictures for the visual learners, you make up a cutesy jingle about them for the auditory learners, and you come up with some actions to perform in the course of teaching about them, for the kinesthetic learners. Thus will everyone learn the concepts!

This sounds eminently reasonable. So why am I suspicious? Because it has always seemed to me that this theory is exactly what we want to believe, according to our liberal prejudices. That is, if a student isn’t doing well, it’s not the fault of the student, it’s the fault of the teacher, who is not teaching in the appropriate learning style. In other words, as far as academic ability goes, there is no vertical differentiation, only horizontal differentiation. Everyone is different in their own way, and ultimately no one is better than anyone else. (The Onion had an amusing story about this once: “Parents of nasal learners demand odor-based curriculum.”) But anyone who has spent any time at all in a classroom knows that some students are more intelligent and perform better than others, quite apart from any considerations of their unique learning style.

(This quite apart from the idea that I am teaching at a university, where it is not up to the professor to ensure that his students pass, but up to the students, who are legal adults, protected by FERPA, attending voluntarily, with at least twelve years of formal schooling already under their belts. Forcing them to take responsibility for their grades is itself a valuable life lesson! Alas, it is an occupational hazard of the caring professions – social work, nursing, teaching, religious ministry, etc. – to believe in their own indispensability, whose members will thus take on extra burdens for the sake of their own egos, even at the college level.*)

An article forwarded to me by Tim Furnish (from which the graphic above was taken) suggests that the reign of “learning styles” might be coming to an end, revealed to be just another educational fad based on wishful thinking and unreplicable research.

The idea that we learn better when taught via our preferred modality or “learning style” – such as visually, orally, or by doing – is not supported by evidence. Nonetheless the concept remains hugely popular, no doubt in part because learning via our preferred style can lead us to feel like we’ve learned more, even though we haven’t.

Some advocates of the learning styles approach argue that the reason for the lack of evidence to date is that students do so much of their learning outside of class. According to this view, psychologists have failed to find evidence for learning styles because they’ve focused too narrowly on whether it is beneficial to have congruence between teaching style and preferred learning style. Instead, they say psychologists should look for the beneficial effects of students studying outside of class in a manner that is consistent with their learning style.

For a new paper in Anatomical Sciences Education, a pair of researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine have conducted just such an investigation with hundreds of undergrads. Once again however the findings do not support the learning styles concept, reinforcing its reputation among mainstream psychologists as little more than a myth….

The results are bad news for advocates of the learning styles concept. Student grade performance was not correlated in any meaningful way with their dominant learning style or with any learning style(s) they scored highly on. Also, while most students (67 per cent) actually failed to study in a way consistent with their supposedly preferred learning style, those who did study in line with their dominant style did not achieve a better grade in their anatomy class than those who didn’t.

Charles Murray, in Real Education (2008), addressed the similar concept of multiple intelligences (29-30):

Empirically, it is not the case that we can expect a child who is below average in one ability to have a full and equal chance of being above average in the other abilities. Those chances are constrained by the observed relationship that links the abilities. In the case of bodily-kinesthetic and musical ability, those relationships are small enough that they don’t matter much. In the case of interpersonal and intrapersonal ability, the relationships are somewhat larger, and they have to be recognized. In the case of the three components of academic ability [spatial, logical-mathematical, and linguistic ability], the relationships are extremely close. It is a classic example of life not being fair. The child who knows all the answers in math class has a high probability of reading above grade level as well and what’s more, a higher than average chance of being industrious and determined.

That sounds about right, and it’s high time that we started talking again about differentiated ability in terms of how quickly, accurately, or creatively students can solve problems, not whether they do so through envisioning them, hearing them, or acting them out. We should also admit that, while intelligence is essential to academic success, it is not a moral quality, and you can lead a perfectly decent life with an IQ of less than 100, and no college degree. Alas, since we do think of it as a moral quality (“clever” as a term of praise; “stupid” as a grave insult) we don’t like talking about it, and are unwilling to acknowledge that some people have more of it through absolutely no merit of their own – and if they don’t have it, the solution is simply more education, in the hopes that they’ll acquire it eventually somehow. On the one level this keeps schools afloat, but on the other it is a profound waste of time and effort for everyone concerned.

* A priest friend of mine once wrote, in an exercise of self-examination:

It isn’t “love” which seeks to take on every problem… it’s ego. It’s ego that needs to be needed, thanked, and affirmed by all the people who are grateful for all that I’ve done for them. I will always have a “soft heart” that wants to do what it can to help. I like that about myself. But I need to start protecting that heart a bit more, so that it’s free to engage the people and problems it CAN help.

I do give a damn. That doesn’t always mean it’s my problem.