I was so excited to see a new study about “learning styles” reported here on PsychCentral on December 18 (see “Learning Styles Re-evaluated” by John Grohol).
The study concluded that “…psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.”
As an apprentice tutor in the mid 1970′s I was taught all about learning styles. I was told that some kids were visual learners, others auditory, still others tactile-kinesthetic. I was told that the method for addressing learning disabilities was to assess each child to discover her learning style and then design instruction that uses this modality. I remember doing things like writing sight words on fabric scraps and laying them out on the carpet for my student to hop on as she recited them.
These sorts of interventions were time-consuming to assemble, and, frankly, I never got the impression they helped. And the more graduate-level coursework I did on learning and education, the more skeptical I became. Learning styles “theories,” never grounded in any solid research, seemed more and more like folk-art and less and less like science.
Once I was tutoring on my own, I rapidly abandoned learning styles approaches. I found instead that the important elements of successful interventions were: 1. Teaching at the student’s appropriate instructional level 2. Keeping the student mentally engaged, and 3. Making sure he experienced enough success to keep him motivated.
I now see the learning styles model as one example of the kinds of misconceptions we still have about how learning happens. We still cling to an outdated notion of the brain as an empty vessel into which knowledge is poured. The learning styles theory assumes that some brains need the knowledge to be poured in through the eyes, other brains need it to be received through the ears, still others through the fingers and limbs.
Of course, this is not the way brains really work. Brains don’t receive knowledge, they build knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t exist …