We have all heard the term “learning style” bandied about at conferences, in magazines and in conversation with educators of every stripe. It represents the idea that each student is “equal but different”, and needs to be taught in a way that accords to their unique minds.
The idea is massively popular among teachers, especially those who teach young adults and children. It’s completely understandable, since it aligns so well with a generally egalitarian stance. The truth is that, in general, teachers are just nice people who like to think the best of people. Sometimes this rosy view extends far enough to even make the most well-meaning people ignore the evidence in favor of something that feels good or aligns with their preconceived notions about the world.
There’s something politically incorrect about the idea that we aren’t all equal intellectually or in terms of ability. It sounds wonderful to think that the reason a student fails, or does poorly is simply because they haven’t been taught in a way that works with their special learning style.
Unfortunately, just because something would be nice if it were true, does not make it true.
It’s not the only educational myth that stubbornly stuck around in education. We have many to choose from. The theory of multiple intelligences, which ties in with learning styles, is another that empirical research simply does not support. Left- and right- brain theories of learning are also largely nonsense. Although it is true that some faculties are biased to one hemisphere or the other, there is no need for educational practices to change or do anything special to “facilitate communication” between the two hemispheres. Yet, for years, schools wasted large sums of money on programs to do just that.
So let’s have a look at some of the work that indicates learning styles are something that we should stop supporting.
Before we get into the long list of debunkings that the concept has undergone over the years, let’s clarify what exactly the research disagrees with. The central premise of learning styles is that there are individual differences in the ways students learn best. That’s not an unreasonable hypothesis and really it’s not possible to disprove this notion. It may very well be true that such systematic differences exist. Indeed educationalists have produced a great number of proposed models describing those differences. Those models are what we’re talking about here. When we say that learning styles are bunk, what we mean is that all of the proposed models have not held up to testing.
So it’s not that anyone is saying that learning styles of any nature are forever an impossibility, it’s just that there is no evidence to support the specific models that have been put forward. Whenever someone publishes a specific set of learning styles, it means we can test them. Positive claims can be tested in science,but we can never prove a negative. In other words, we can never prove that learning styles are not real, but in the absence of positive proof for their existence there is no reason to believe that they are real and, more importantly, no reason to act as if they are real.
In 2008 a team of well-respected researchers published a key paper on the issue of learning styles in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which is an APS (Association of Psychological Science) journal, detailing the state of learning style research.
The evidence presented in that review was not kind to the idea of learning styles. The team found that studies claiming to present evidence in support of learning styles failed to use the correct methodology in order to do so. There is a simple and straightforward experimental method that will clearly show whether a specific construct category of learning style correlates with anything in reality.
There have been at the very least 71 different learning styles proposed over the more than four years of academic writing in the field. Many, if not all, of these are mutually exclusive. Which is another way of saying that they can’t all be right. That does not mean however, that they can’t all be wrong.
What this all boils down to is that not one proposed model of “learning styles” have produced categories that stand up to scientifically valid testing and the studies that claim evidence for them are inevitable flawed and scientifically valid.
Perhaps one day someone will find “true” learning styles that can be experimentally verified, but for now it seems the sensible thing to do is close the book on learning styles and move on to something else.
When it comes to feel-good ideas like the notion of learning styles, there’s always a temptation to give educators who subscribe to it a free pass. After all, their hearts are in the right place, right? Like the mother who feeds her child chicken soup when they have a cold. She believes (incorrectly) that the soup is a cure for the cold, but the child benefits from good nutrition, attention and love. Since the cold will resolve itself anyway, what’s the harm, right?
On the other hand, when someone is shelling out a significant amount of money on homeopathic remedies to treat something that will also resolve itself, that line becomes much fuzzier. The ‘fake cure’ is hurting that person financially, even if they are still benefiting from some sort of placebo effect.
The situation with learning styles is much more like our second scenario. By investing time and money into anything related with the flawed idea of learning styles, learning institutions are wasting resources that could have gone to address real problems with evidence-based solutions. By wasting time and effort on learning style interventions we are actively harming students through indirect deprivation.
If you look at it that way, it becomes an ethical imperative to cull the use of this framework wherever we encounter it and not allow intuitive, emotional reasoning dictate to us what good teaching looks like. Wasteful, misapplied and incorrect models are something that ethical educators should always be vigilant against.