Willingham on learning styles

Check out Dan Willingham’s article on learning styles in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet.”

Have you been told that you should teach to children’s individual learning styles? Well, research has not supported that theory.

The data are straightforward too: It doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work–not only for the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory, but for many other learning styles theories that have been proposed and tested since the 1940s.

Researchers have been conducting experiments on learning styles for 50 years. They’ve been tested with the sorts of materials that kids encounter in schools. They’ve been tested with kids diagnosed with a learning disability.

There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.

Willingham goes on to explain that children do learn differently, but those differences cannot be simply attributed to learning styles. They may have to do with a child’s “knowledge, interest, or other factors.”

Differentiating for learning styles “makes a teacher’s job much more difficult with no benefit to students,” he writes. “Yet teachers are still asked to do it.”

Let’s hope school districts start coming to their senses on this matter. It is silly, distracting, and taxing to differentiate instruction in so many ways at once–especially when it doesn’t work.


  1. Finally – one more senseless education fad that made some one a ton of money debunked…it is about time…

  2. This theory was debunked as early as 1980. Yet, I still have to spend time debunking it in college classrooms in 2009 because most of my Ph. D. colleagues teach it to prospective teachers and psychologists as a viable theory.

  3. The main points are made in this video by Willingham. I include this because some people are visual types and might want to see it, some are auditory types and would want to hear it. The kinesthetic types will have to do a little jig at their desks, but two out of three ain’t bad.

    It’s a good thing that this is an abstract idea – not auditory, visual or kinesthetic. That way everyone can learn it.

  4. Yes your right Anon, I remember learning this in my educ classes in college and thinking it made sense, and that it was a good Idea,…then when I started teaching I realized that there was just no way to accommodate this in all my lessons…. I agree there are differences in the way we learn, but they don’t fit into any cookie cutter format.

  5. Willingham is bigger question which is why nonsense like learning styles, and numerous other examples of edu-crap, afflict the public education system? What is it about the public education system that causes people who ought to have a sense of responsibility for the task they’ve been given and the lives which are entrusted to their care to suck up nonsense like learning styles like a dry sponge sucks up water?

  6. This is America. If somebody is not making money on education, then there’s no reason for it.

  7. Well I like knowing my own learning style. It explained to me why I had trouble with algebra but no problem with geometry.

    I keep it in mind while teaching and sometimes I use it to advantage.

  8. Richard,

    Your “learning style” has nothing to do with why you are poor at algebra and good at geometry. Aptitudes are responsible for your strengths and weaknesses. Aptitudes are not styles.

  9. Good topic, article, comments.

    I haven’t formed an opinion, but knowing the emperor as I do, I always suspected he was running around scantily dressed.

    At my school, I passed through an English class where all the students were listening to a story that was in the text. They weren’t following along; they were just listening. I asked the teacher why, and she said that many of her students were “auditory learners.”

    I found out some other teachers were doing the same. One said, “Many of my students are so low at reading that this is the only way we can get through the textbook.”

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    For a million years, kids learned one way and one way only. Listen to your parents or die.
    Funny that, since about 1950 half a dozen learning styles which have lain dormant for a million years suddenly surfaced.

  11. For a million years if you got a bacterial infection you had to rely on your immune system, or, if you were very lucky, that your local “doctor” knew something about mouldy bread and managed to pick the right mould. Since WWII we’ve had antibiotics.
    It doesn’t strike me as inherently unlikely that society could have made some impressive discoveries about learning styles since about 1950. People have been investigating better educational methods since a lot earlier than 1950s, take for example Molly Hughes “A London Girl of the 1880s”, in this autobiograph Molly Hughes describes first her own education and then her work teaching girls and then training new teachers. Of course from what Willingham says, learning styles in the sense meant aren’t supported by the empirical evidence. But then there have been plenty of medical hypotheses that have turned out to be bunk.

    Richard – is it possible that when it comes to geometry the difference is that you’re more experienced at drawing than at symbol manipulation?

  12. I just don’t do well with linear things such as algebra. I do much better visually. Geometry is visual, more to my strength. I can see the triangle and that’s the difference for me.

    I make a pretty good president but a lousy treasurer.

    As Dirty Harry said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations”.

  13. There may well be differences in individual preferred modalities–visual/auditory/kinesthetic or some other categorization–but many if most real-life jobs require a mix of these abilities. If you want to be an auto mechanic, kinesthetic skills are great, but you also have to read text and diagrams (visual) and listen to the customer explain his problem (auditory) and also listen to weird engine noises (also auditory).

    Seems like education should help people develop things they’re weak in, not just strengthen the areas in which they’re already strong.

  14. Allen asks:

    “Willingham is bigger question which is why nonsense like learning styles, and numerous other examples of edu-crap, afflict the public education system?”

    Because the schools of education and professors that teach there are shams. They’re con-men and women. They’re shysters. The reason we have a second rate k-12 public educational system in the US is because we’ve abdicated our responsibilites to experts that aren’t really experts.

    There are many well-meaning, hard working, thoughtful people working to educate our kids, but they’re all being undermined by the stupidity that passes for pedagogy in our ed schools. Too many professional teachers sign on to this stupidity as well.

  15. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    I wonder what would have happened if the ancient Chinese, Romans, and every other civilization that developed a writing system had said “Hey! This whole writing thing doesn’t seem to suit anyone’s learning style, so maybe we should just bag it.”

    Even if learning styles existed all these students will soon enter a world in which no one cares about their learning styles, so how are they being prepared for their futures?

    When my colleagues and I were attending all these silly inservices we would often muse about interrupting the speaker claiming that our learning styles (olfactory/visual/kinesthetic/you name it) weren’t being addressed and demanding that the presenter repeat the info in yet another way. I suspect that if all these honchos had to do this crap for adult teachers they themselves would get sick of it and abandon the whole idea.

  16. For a million years, kids learned one way and one way only. Listen to your parents or die.

    No.. they learned a number of different ways. They watched their parents. They listened to their parents. They copied their parents.

    The message of learning styles CAN be useful, but only in a common sense application, namely, do not make your lessons boring and repetitive. Do not lecture for the full hour. Do not make the kids watch something for the full hour. Do not make them do an activity for the full hour. Mix up your lessons, make them interesting. But then, that would not make me a few hundred thousand pounds in seminars, would it?

    Also, BRAIN GYM!!!!!!!!!

  17. “For a million years, kids learned one way and one way only. Listen to your parents or die.”

    “No.. they learned a number of different ways. They watched their parents. They listened to their parents. They copied their parents.”

    Perhaps the important word(s) in that sentence aren’t watched, listened, or copied, perhaps it’s PARENTS.

  18. Stacey writes:

    “Because the schools of education and professors that teach there are shams. They’re con-men and women. They’re shysters.”

    And the reason for this state of affairs is….?

    When education matters in the public education system, when good teachers are rewarded for being good and lousy teachers tread softly lest they be identified, then schools of education will teach teaching. Until that time, why should they?

    There’s no demand for the skill from the true customers of the ed schools, the people who do the hiring, so it’s really immaterial what the ed students want.

    Since the HR departments, representative of the administrators and school boards, are the true customers of the ed schools the ed schools produce what their customers want. One of the products for which ed schools find a ready market is edu-crap – jargon-heavy but educationally valueless ideas which create the impression of cutting-edge modernity without any of the efficiency increases or cost reductions that’s the hallmark of worthwhile innovation.

    School board members have what they consider to be a claim to concern for the education of the kids and administrators are pedagogically fashionable.

    Everybody who matters wins.

  19. What Willingham says is if a concept is most effectively taught by incorporating hearing or seeing or touching into a lesson, this is best way for *all* students to learn the material. In other words, the modality — or style — should be adjusted to the content, not the student.

    I write more about this from a lay-person’s perspective here:

  20. Once again this year, my son’s school sent a form home we had to fill out about his learning styles. Unfortunately, “fast” wasn’t one of the choices.

    It’s all a deception. No matter what I put in there, my son still has to learn in groups and draw pictures of vocabulary words. Nobody allows kids to adapt classwork or homework to meet their learning style. My son takes forever to do art work, but he still has to do the dioramas and paper models in social studies.

    Blah, blah, woof, woof.

  21. Richard, I’m still wondering if it’s a matter of experience when it comes to geometry versus algebra, if you’ve just had more experience interpreting diagrams, not if it’s something innate.

    Richard, Donalbrain, Stacy, what’s the evidence that for milions of years kids learned only from their parents? The obvious disadvantage of this system is that you only learn what your parents know. When I think back through recorded history, I don’t see this. I think of Socrates’ teaching in Athens (and his criticism of other, poorly taught, teachers), followed by the export of Greek teachers across the Roman Empire, the universities in the Middle East that kept Roman books, the start of the old universities in Paris, Cambridge, Oxford, the apprenticeship system in medieval Europe, the teachings of Buddhist monks, the reports in the Bible of people flocking to learn from Jesus, the tradition of study of the Koran, Confuscius’s teachings in Ancient China. And in hunter-gatherer groups I thought learning was general. The more I think about it, the more skeptical I am getting of the claim that children “learned one way and one way only. Listen to your parents…”

  22. If the discussion is about human children, then the time scale is not “millions of years.” Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged as a species not much earlier than 100,000 years ago, and evidence for anything we would recognize as spoken language existed earlier is scant. Cultural transmission existed, yes, as it does in chimps (and other species) today.

  23. Tracy, could be the quality of algebra teachers I had, unfortunately.

    There are lots of avenues into the brain and my most successful lessons touch as many of them as possible. Fortunately I teach science, so hitting three or four of them is pretty easy.

  24. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tracy. I’m not talking about discovering previously unknown learning styles. I’m talking about the (non)-existence of the other half dozen.
    Linda. Sorry to have afforded you the opportunity to be overly literal as if it were an actual argument.
    Many animals lack any kind of verbal speech at all yet teach their offspring.
    So the million years still counts. The anatomically modern humans, at least 150K YA, descended from less anatomically modern humans. Not from nothing. Unless you want to insist Ergaster and Erectus were into learning styles, their kids learned to listen to their parents (not merely SVO sentences) or die.
    When I was in the Army, Infantry trainees got about four hours worth of radio procedures, about the same of calling for supporting fires, (both of which were presumed to be the responsibility of sergeants and officers)and a day of map reading and land navigation. You’d think they knew nothing.
    Yet the war in Viet Nam was replete with stories of these kids, seventeen weeks’ training from draft to Viet Nam, and three months, say, in country, getting on the radio and calling in artillery and working tac air like pros. The sergeants and officers being dead.
    Maybe they’d watched.
    Point is, we taught them by lecture, followed by example, followed by them each taking a turn followed by a test.
    Oh, yeah. And the implicit caveat, learn or die.
    Of course, we had the top half of the nation’s kids, the other half being mentally, morally, or physically ineligible.
    Then there are expectations. Saw a Civil War recruting poster which said, in big type, “The Goths and Vandals are at the gates of the Federal City!”
    The target audience was adventurous farm boys and mill hands in their late teens. Who could be expected to get the allusion, even though it was a slur on the Confederate army, and feel compelled to enlist. Today? Heavy metal concert.
    Ever read a McGuffey Reader?

  25. Richard, yes, I got that the learning styles don’t appear to exist in the way that Dan Willingham talked about. But just because a hypothesis wasn’t proved before 1950 doesn’t mean that the hypothesis is necessarily wrong.

    As for your example of the recruits to Vietnam, how many of them were being trained by their parents in radio procedures and navigation? And even if all the Vietnam recruits were all trained by their parents in radio procedures and navigation, this is not enough to support your assertion that for millions of years children only learned by being trained by their parents.

    Nor does parental training limit itself to things that you need to know or die. Parents and other adults often teach cultural matters, like songs, dancing, how to paint, etc. Parents may also teach skills that are useful in their own lives but are not useful in where their children wind up, for example Maori had to abandon many traditional Pacific island crops as they settled into NZ because the climate didn’t support them. To take a military example, the settled tactics of 19th century warfare turned out to often be fatal when faced with machine guns, it was a case where learning from the previous generation of soldiers was a good way to die.

  26. Kirk Parker says:

    how many of them were being trained by their parents in radio procedures

    Effectively zero.

  27. Even after all of these many years, it’s sad that so many “educators” personalize knowledge and steadfastly refuse to learn from the results of scientific research.

  28. Richard Aubrey says:

    Linda. Trained by their parents in radio procedures…?
    Excuse me. Does this have anything to do with the issue?
    Point is, we taught each of these kids the exact same way, from Ft. Jackson to Ft. Dix to Ft. Benning. From one year to the next. And they all learned.
    Different learning styles were irrelevant.
    Kirk. Yes. Which makes it an even more useful demonstration since even WW II vet parents had little to teach, the procedures being different. It was the military’s business from start to finish.
    As to machine guns, etc. see Keegan on WW I and The Face of Battle. For various technical reasons, the defense, including the machine gun (“concentrated essence of Infantry”) ruled. Not a matter of being ignorant. In fact, the British and French officers had had their combat experience, to the extent they had any, in the colonies where, as with the Boer War, the battlefield was fluid and manuver was king.
    Not a matter of ignorance, but of weapons and terrain that made the Western Front such a horror.
    Anyway, the point is that the idea of learning styles is hokum.
    I guess, come to think of it, I gave you another opportunity to take me extremely literally as if you had an argument. Let me try this again: There is one way to learn. Listen, watch, be concerned that if you don’t, you’ll die. Try. Even if it’s not the parents doing it.

  29. Does this mean that what I’m doing wrong is not killing them if they don’t learn what a direct object is?

  30. Richard Aubrey says:

    Lightly. I think the knowledge that one is to be hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully.
    Consequences do matter, especially when, as with grammar, the subject has no intrinsic interest.
    But, yeah, if that were the situation, I think you’d have a fair amount of luck.
    However, boards of ed being what they are, the consequences you can deploy aren’t particularly motivating to a significant proportion of the students.
    WHich, I expect, is clear to you.
    However, in the million years, it isn’t the parents doing the killing, it’s the situation the kid failed to learn about.
    You know that the lessons about drunk driving in driver ed are gory for a reason.

  31. I believe the correct formulation is that you’re hampering they’re learning by not putting them in a situation where they will be killed if they don’t know what a direct object is. Obviously, killing them yourself would be very harmful for the student teacher relationship.

  32. Now that would be some real high stakes testing.