What's your learning style? Never mind

Steve’s seventh-grade son came home with a list of the seven styles of learning: linguistic, logical/mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.  He’s supposed to draw pictures of science definitions, design a book dust cover for language arts and make a diorama for social studies. “Only in math does he have regular homework,” Steve writes on Kitchen Table Math.

Did you ever notice that they don’t let kids decide on and use whichever style works best for them. Everyone has to do the artwork. Everybody has to work in groups. What about the poor intrapersonal learner who is no good in art and likes to work by himself? Tough s***. What about my son, who is extremely good in music. What the heck does that mean?

Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist at University of Virginia, says the student’s preferred learning style doesn’t matter. What counts is what modality matches the content of what the teacher is trying to teach.

About Joanne


  1. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I’m not a fan of Gardiner, but two things are supposed to happen with learning styles (whatever inventory one uses — I like the personality array and Sternberg better): to give students a choice to learn material in their preferred mode; and to give students more flexibility by asking them to learn in weaker modes. Toward the end of one’s K-12 career, most individuals are strong across the board.

    It also does NOT mean one draws pictures instead of writing in English class. One may slant a paper topic toward a preferred mode, but one still learns how to WRITE not DRAW. I am a big fan of getting kids up and moving and talking to each other, though. After all, they are the young and energic ones in the room; I’m just old and tired.

    A teacher who is not offering choice based on these inventories is not differentiating; she is just mixing up her lesson plans a bit.

  2. Does this sort of thing actually mean enough that it’s worth trying to get the kids to learn about it? That is, is ‘learning modality’ as significant a classification system as, say, states of matter or parts of speech? (My answer is a resounding ‘NO!’, but I’m no expert.) If not, then don’t bother the students with it. If they need to draw a picture for something, tell them to draw the picture, don’t silt their heads up with ‘spatial modalities’. This smacks of trying to impress the parents. Wow, they’ve got jargon, which will change in a few years, at most…

  3. That was my reaction. Why was the teacher explaining these things to my son’s class? It must be a response to all of the complaints.

    There are two ways to look at all of this; do you believe in the theory or not, and is it implemented well.

    In our case, it’s not implemented well at all. That was my main point. They go through some of the motions, but they lose track of the goal, which is to learn science definitions. In addition, my son is going to spend much of his weekend finishing a social studies diorama that will probably still look very bad and add nothing to his understanding of the material. My son says that the project will be graded on “quality”, not art, but what does that mean when the project is 95% art? It’s as if teachers are applying (by rote!) what they learned in ed school.

    When the teachers get together a few ideas seem to drive all changes: full-inlcusion, mixed-ability group work in class, thematic learning, and different approaches to understanding. Rather than tackle specific problems directly, they approach them from a top-down, ideological standpoint.

    One of the big ideas is writing across the curriculum. Unfortunately, the kids are graded on their writing skills in each class. If you are not good at writing (or haven’t been taught properly), then all of your grades are going to suffer. In social studies, my son has to write paragraphs on a variety of subjects. It’s very difficult to write a paragraph well, especially if it has to fit a rubric that is more appropriate for a long article. If you aren’t good in writing or art in social studies, you’re in big trouble. If the school really wants to write across the curriculum, they should have the language arts teacher assign and grade writing for other subjects. Instead, my son has to write about contrived topics in band and chorus to be graded by the music teacher. What kind of critical thinking went into this decision?

    The other big theme is a visual approach to learning. This is probably the biggest learning modality (outside of group work) they push. Like writing, they want to see it in all classes. But they miss the point of learning modalities. They expect all kids to do the same thing. They are given no option, and the teachers don’t try different approaches. Once again, this is a rote, ideological approach to problems they can’t or won’t define clearly.

    So, the argument isn’t whether there is a shred of truth to learning styles. It’s like constructivism. They can’t or won’t identify problems and try to solve them from the bottom-up in a pragmatic fashion. They apply their ed school ideology by rote from the top-down. I suppose this is the guess and check form of critical thinking they love so much. Then, if something doesn’t work well, (like Everyday Math), they can blame teacher training, not their beloved ideology.

  4. It actually sounds a little worse even than Steve thought, because the teachers has confused Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences with learning styles. They aren’t the same thing. Intelligences are abilities. It’s always better to have more of an intelligence than less. Learning styles are supposed to be value-free. A visual learner may be better at some tasks and an auditory learner at others, but overall, they can both get to the same intellectual goal. It’s sort of like two basketball players who are equally good, but one has a conservative style of play whereas the other is a risk-taker.

    Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence is not taken very seriously by other intelligence researchers. It has lots of problems. But to his credit, most of the wackiness that goes on in schools in his name is stuff that he has explicitly said is a bad idea.

  5. Isn’t the point of knowing your learning style to help you know how best to help yourself learn the material? When my cc students ask how to study for a test, I offer suggestions but I can’t tell them what will help…recopy notes, read them out loud, study while pacing, draw a picture/flowchart/model, study alone vs in a group, etc. They need to figure out what works for them and then use that to actually learn the content.

  6. It’s always seemed to me that the concept of learning styles is valid, but horribly misapplied. In real life, people need to be able to pick up information in a variety of ways, because the real world doesn’t stop itself to adapt to one’s preferred learning style. If one is stuck in a mode or two, to the exclusion of the others, one misses out on a big chunk of the world, often to his detriment.

    Coupling this with Dan Willingham’s observation that information has a natural mode of presentation, it seems the more logical implementation of learning styles would be to construct the curriculum in such a way that students encounter information in all the various learning styles to gain facility with them.

    Note that this isn’t the same thing as shoe-horning content into certain modalities, as seen in Steve’s writing in band and chorus example. (Ack!!) Band and chorus already mix auditory, kinesthetic, visual, spatial, and in the case of chorus, linguistic information in building musical skill. Only an ignoramus would take time away from that for more writing. But then, we’re talking about ed-school minted administrators, so I repeat myself.

    Seriously though, this taking a valid concept and turning into a counterproductive edu-fad seems to happen time and time again. It makes me wonder just what is wrong in the field of education to allow this to happen.

  7. “But to his credit, most of the wackiness that goes on in schools in his name is stuff that he has explicitly said is a bad idea.”

    I was trying to describe the “wackiness” even when you leave out questions of theory. When you view it through Dan’s rational approach, it gets even wackier. I like Joanne’s succinct title: “What’s your learning style? Never mind”.

    So, how do parents raise questions about wackiness in a constructive way? How can it be constructive when you are raising issues of competence? How can you have a rational discussion when decisions are based on ideology or opinion? How can you at least get to the point where schools admit that parents can have a valid, and substantially different, idea of what constitutes a quality education?

  8. I think there’s some merit to the learning style literature, but like most things in education, let’s not make everything run through only one filter. Instead, take the approach with a grain of salt and make sure that the individual student doesn’t get lost in the filter and the terminology.

    Besides, this isn’t a new fad: it’s been around for more than 10 years and it’s probably becoming an issue in this instance because it’s being taught to pre-service teachers (heck, I had a graduate class in this in 1998…interesting, but not earth-shaking).

    I guess I would ask that this instance not be the “freak out” alarm of generalizations. Also, I agree with Dan Willingham in that there are differences between the “styles.” If anything, let’s not kids nor adults use these as an excuse for not trying something new (which can be a by-product of a label).

  9. The idea that children should be able to toss about pedagogical terms is curious, but alas not rare. Students at my elementary school would raise their hands and volunteer “text to text connections” during book conversations instead of merely saying “this reminds me of another book we read,” which is how most people talk. As teachers we would smile knowingly to hear our terms of art repeated, even if it meant less focus on the depth or validity of the observation being made.

    Dan Willingham has a video on learning styles up on You Tube that’s worth watching:

  10. I don’t think the goal is for students to “toss about pedagogical terms” — but to be able to make decisions about what works for them. I recently put up a link on my homework website for the mpg3 file for A Tale of Two Cities. My kids were very confident about knowing whether or not that was going to help them get through the novel. That’s the only point — fwiw, none of them uttered the phrase “auditory learner.”

    I always tell the students why I am doing what I am doing. I figure they have the right to know. And, as I tell them, if I can’t justify it, I have no business assigning it.

  11. Miller Smith says:

    As a profession teachers are at the bottom of the SAT/ACT barrel. The other departments in every university in the nation heaps major disrespect and scorn on their departments of education. No wonder the graduates of these “colleges” will believe anything you tell them comes from an expert.

    Press any teacher for the scientific evidence for what they profess and you will find that not only will they give you what is not scientific, but they won’t even be able to tell you the standards of scientific evidence. They couldn’t tell you how to interpret a confidence interval or the philosophical basis for the null hypothesis. You will even hear teachers talk about scientific theories with dismissive remarks such as, “It’s only a theory!”

    Oh,…and they will insist that they are “professionals.” And they have incredible trouble with the Praxis tests and cry about how it doesn’t predict if someone is a good teacher. We just flushed a load of education GRADUATES from a Title 1 school becuase they couldn’t pass the math portion of the Praxis-after multiple tries.

    I just had the pleasure of seeing a woman on that crazy show Are You Smarter Than a First Grader who missed the very first question which was 1st grade math. The question (anyone else see this?) was “The sum of the digits in the number 768 is 22. True of False?” She guessed. That’s right-guessed. She said true. She didn’t know the meaning of the word “sum.” Besides being Ms. Plus America did you get what she said she did for a living? Yep. Education.

    God help us.

  12. “Press any teacher for the scientific evidence for what they profess and you will find that not only will they give you what is not scientific, but they won’t even be able to tell you the standards of scientific evidence.”

    Miller Smith, there is a growing number of teachers who could, in fact, intelligently and knowledgeably discuss these topics – if you looked hard enough. I suspect it might have to be a thorough search though. Many of them choose to work silently in their classrooms – as has been my experience – because the penalty for questioning district policies (and the learning fads that come with them) is being targeted for “growth plans” or outright hostility from admin.

    While concern for teacher ability level is certainly worthwhile, it seems strange to me to use the example of one person proven to be seeking media attention (by participating in pageants and television shows) as any representation of all teachers in the profession and their ability levels. Much of the really good teaching is done subversively, and not on prime time.

  13. lightlyseasoned said:

    I always tell the students why I am doing what I am doing. I figure they have the right to know. And, as I tell them, if I can’t justify it, I have no business assigning it.

    That is the way it should be. Though I’d imagine you’re able to do so because the actions you describe can be told to someone in plain English (or German or Swahili) without being revealed as pure silliness.

    Educators who fall back on edubabble can do no such thing to explain their actions. They use empty words to describe an action that makes no sense when stated plainly because they do not understand what they’re doing. Those who use the concept of learning styles to justify busywork like art projects or the dreaded diorama instead of taking a disciplined, logical, efficient approach to the content are guilty of just this; as are those who totally misapply learning styles to convince people that the can only learn certain ways.

    The always insightful Brian Rude commented on a previous post here that teachers lack a common language. Having worked in software design these last few years, I’ve come to understand the power of good jargon. When a group of professionals has a language that reflects common understandings of the profession without having to restate them, it great aids in the speed and accuracy of communication. This is good jargon. Education lacks this, I believe, because the people controlling the theory side (ed schools and ed professors) do not take into account the experiences of the people actually dealing with the kids.

    SteveH called this applying “their ed school ideology by rote from the top-down.” That’s a great characterization of what happens when people buy into the beliefs pushed by the ed schools. They get caught up in the ideas and blame reality when the idea fails. This happens in other areas of life, too, like the few people who still believe communism would work “if only we had the right people in charge.” Neither group will admit the idea is flawed and needs to be adapted or abandoned.

    This ideological impediment kills any flexibility in dealing with actual student needs and difficulties. One of the groups I feel most strongly for is the teacher who knows what works because of a keen mix of intellect and experience, yet has to kowtow to whatever fad is being pushed down on him by the district administration. The thought of being put on a “growth plan” for doing what I know to work is stomach-turning, and one of the primary reasons I’ve turned away from education as a career.

    Until education develops a bottom-up, reality-based set of core ideas about what works, like those that have developed for everything from auto-manufacture to space flight to IT to plumbing to medicine and beyond, it will be mired in the swamp of intellectual rot that manifests itself as fads and edubabble. The shame of it all is that all the good teachers who know what’s right and manage to help kids will never get the credit they deserve while the bad ones continue to miseducate kids with the full support of the edu-theory community.

  14. This is not strictly about learning styles. It’s about theory versus reality. It’s about competence. I could say the same things about constructivism and differentiated instruction. I don’t want to argue over whether there is a grain of truth or not in the theory. I want to talk about what I see in the classroom. What I see has little to do with the theory, even if you believe in the theory.

    It’s also about what constitutes a proper education. Many years ago, I told a couple of school committee members that they should hand out Hirsch’s Core Knowledge series of books and tell parents that this is NOT the education their kids will receive. There is no “best practices” when it comes to opinion and expectations. It’s more than just hoping that educators will approach the problem from the bottom-up with pragmatism. A good process is no good if you’re going in the wrong direction. This is about defining the problem in the first place. I don’t want to talk about theory when the real issue is parental choice and control.

  15. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Ah, SteveH — then the bandwagon you want your district on is backwards design.

    But, if the purpose of school is to prepare the future workforce, then you have to admit pointless assignments are great training tools for corporate management!

  16. Quincy & Chris: the learning style concept is not scientifically valid. It’s been exhaustively studied, and there’s no support for it. And it’s MUCH older than 10 years. Learning style proposals started in the 40s and 50s. Most serious research stopped in the 70’s, however, because researchers conlcuded that there was nothing there.
    Miller Smith: Teachers are not at the bottom of the SAt barrel. That’s a common myth. Elem teachers are slightly below the mean of college students how continue their education, Secondary teachers around the mean or a little higher.

    Also worth nothing that learning styles appears in none of the general ed psych textbook I’ve read that are designed for future teachers. So I’m not so sure that teachers are picking this up in Ed schools. It seems more likely to me that it’s bogus professional development sessions.
    SteveH: Have you tried talking (in a friendly, open way, of course) to the teacher?

  17. I discovered long ago that most ideas about learning styles go no deeper than “visual or auditory”. I quickly concluded that leads nowhere. The normal person can get information either way. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from written words or spoken words. However a little reflection led me to realize there is more to it than that, at least sometimes, in some ways. Not everyone is normal.

    I know a person for whom the spoken word is slippery, impermanent, always morphing, not dependably retrievable. If this person says “I’ll meet you at K-Mart”, she might mean Wal Mart. If she says I’m going to Wolsey today, she might be going to Wessington, Wessington Springs, or Woonsocket. If she says “I bought it at Prairie Market.” she must mean Marketplace, as Prairie Market was where we lived two decades ago. And if she says “Af-ah-gan-stan” yet again, I may or may not remind her that it’s “af-gan-i-stan”. However the written word, either in print or her own handwriting, is not subject to these difficulties. Of course she learned many years ago to write things down if she wants to learn or remember them.

    I know another person with a different difficulty. When he was in fourth grade (if I remember right) the school speech therapist discovered that his memory for digits or syllables was three. The average person, I understand, can repeat back seven digits with little difficulty – hence our custom for phone numbers. The speech therapist was going to do some exercises to increase his memory to six or seven digits by the end of that school year. I was skeptical, and right, as it turns out. He stayed at three and probably remains there today. How, we wondered, can he ever learn to spell with this difficulty? But how, we should ask, can anyone learn to spell “encyclopedia”, or “counterrevolutionary” if we can remember only three, or maybe six or seven digits at a time?

    The short answer to this question, and similar questions, is that we employ compensations for our limitations. Some of these compensations can be very well hidden, so deeply hidden that we are totally unaware of them.

    So I think the general theory of learning styles may best be considered unfounded and ill advised (okay, bunk), but the idea that there can be specific deficiencies or limitations that are well hidden but important should always be considered.

  18. Dan Willingham,

    I can give you a perfect example (though in fiction) that illustrates that what you say is so, so true: Observing the characters Jin and Mugen on the show “Samurai Champloo”. (It’s a good show… Check it out! You can find wisdom in all sorts of places.)

    While their martial arts styles are 100% different, they are equally deadly, and only one man in Japan is able to beat either one of them – and he has yet another, totally different, style of martial arts. 🙂

  19. “SteveH: Have you tried talking (in a friendly, open way, of course) to the teacher?”

    Golly, is that all it takes?

    Actually, I get along very well with the teachers and the principal. I’m quite friendly with them. I’m involved with after-school projects. Last year I talked with my son’s science teacher about all of the artwork. She was surprised about the amount of time he was taking to complete the pictures. I told her that he doesn’t need to draw pictures to learn science terms. She went to art school for two years. She’s been having kids draw these pictures for 20+ years. She thinks it’s great. So much for friendly.

    How far do you really think I would get suggesting to the social studies teacher that a diorama might not be the best use of my son’s time? I really don’t want to get another condescending lecture about education theory. I already suffered through one about scaffolding; scaffolding of process, but not of content. I tried to tell her that the kids don’t have the background knowledge to do the homework, but it went in one ear and out the other. How friendly would it be to describe learning styles as “bogus”?

    This is a systemic problem, not a problem to be solved with a friendly talk with one or two teachers.

    Friendly is not a process. What comes after friendly? Potential retaliation against my son. I know my limits. They know it too.