Scientists: No evidence for learning styles

No evidence supports the idea that children learn more if teachers teach to their “learning styles,” concludes a study by a team of cognitive scientists published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Education Week summarizes:

Some children, for instance, may be visual learners, while others best absorb information by hearing it. Other theories categorize learners as “assimilators,” “divergers,” and who knows what else. A teacher’s job, according to this line of thinking, is to find out what students’ individual learning styles are and tailor instruction accordingly.

However, few studies have used an experimental method to test learning-style theory, the researchers found.  Among those that did, “several yielded results that contradicted the theory.”

. . . the report adds, the “widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.”

Of course, Dan Willingham has been debunking learning styles for awhile.

“Wagering is now open on how long it will take before this unsupported idea loosens its grip on education, writes Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge Blog. “The over/under is 2o years. I’ll take the over.”

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Comments

  1. I was always suspicious that this whole theory was a load of bull. I first started to question educational theory when I was in second grade, and was told to slant my paper the opposite way that the right-handed kids did (try it – it almost single-handedly accounts for the major backhand that many lefties have). As a result of that adherence to theorizing, my grade average took a major dive, and I had major handwriting difficulties for years.

    Yes, there is some educational research that makes sense. Most, however, test out their theories under optimal conditions (cushy suburbs, low numbers of students, lots of money to implement the change), and haven’t road-tested their pet solutions in real life. Then, it trickles down (just like certain bodily fluids), and teachers get ANOTHER darn thing to do in class, with all the free time they have.

    Individualizing is the biggest crock there is – IF someone can show me how to do it, WITHOUT spending another hour or two a day of prep time, and with no other person in the class to assist, sure. But, that’s not going to happen.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Another one bites the dust — educational fad/myth that is…how much money chased this myth that did NOT benefit the kids but only the maker of the myth — geez…

    Linda F — I am so sorry to hear about the hand writing challenges. I, too, am left handed as are my boys. Somehow or another I was left alone and did not develop the painful looking way so many lefties hold their pencils and pens. I always thought the challenge was writing around the rings in the three ring binders. I had no clue teachers were telling kids to slant their paper in a very awkward way…

  3. I seem to remember reading an article suggesting that most of the learning styles BS boiled down to kids not knowing how to read well enough to learn from reading. Not having sufficient background knowledge across the disciplines also was felt to be a handicap, since many kids lack any kind of foundation onto which new knowledge can be built.

    Maybe we could forget all the new fads and get back to what really works; teacher-center classroom, phonics, grammar, spelling, literature, science, history, geography etc. Maybe then we wouldn’t see so many “learning disabilities.” BTW, the Kitchen Table Math website has a good discussion on education-induced learning disabilities.

  4. Regarding learned disabilities/helplessness… wouldn’t that support the idea of tracking?
    After watching the video on Kitchen Table Math where the teacher induces helplessness after 5 minutes, a key component seems to be self-comparison by those who fail with those who have succeeded. In other words, seeing someone succeed easily makes an individual feel more helpless.

    I’ve long supported that the best use of “individualization” is in regards to the teacher and the content. Some teachers thrive teaching different ways and different material requires different teaching styles.

  5. Without some hypothesis to explain the rationale behind phenomena like learning styles, and I’d say there’s clearly a constellation of similar nonsense which I’ve sort of settled on calling “edu-crap”, an estimate of the longevity of this particular variation on the theme is uninformed guesswork.

    Whole word or whatever it’s currently being called, has been around, according to one source I read, since at least the 1930s and possibly as long ago as the 1890s. It’s still got stubborn adherents who are still trying to promote it having executed a strategic retreat into “balanced reading”. How long do you think whole language reading instruction’s going to be around?

    The problem isn’t a lack of evidence. The problem is an indifference to evidence although in general it can’t be put quite that bluntly but the evidence of the indifference to evidence is spread all over the field of education. That’s the force that drives the cornucopia of edu-crap and until that indifference to evidence is wrung from the K-12 education industry the supply of edu-crap will not diminish.

  6. I hear the parental side of “learning styles.” I think for the parents, it’s a way to tell teachers, “What you’re doing isn’t working for my child.”

    It may be that “learning styles” seem to parents to work, because in order to make the determination that something works better for their child, they need to work individually with him. I think that individual, one-on-one teaching can be more effective than classroom instruction. By definition, of course, it can’t scale to a school.

  7. When I was in elementary school in the 1970s no one differentiated anything and we were all taught in that teacher-centered classroom that momof4 mentions. I was taught phonics. But my mind doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t. I wish it would. Around 4th grade I had learned enough words by sight to read fluently. But until then, I struggled, not just in reading, but in everything. I was convinced I was stupid, and I was pretty sure everyone else my class thought I was too. If my first grade teacher had cued into that and used other strategies rather than strictly phonics, I might have had a different school experience. She was already working with me and another child individually (we were so low we didn’t even make it to the lowest reading group), but she used the same strategies, just with easier words.

    I wonder how many of the folks that advocate the one-size-fits-all model have been one of the people that didn’t fit?

  8. Of course there are different learning styles. Some learners need a blackboard lecture reinforced by lots of repetition. Others need to work at a faster pace in order to avoid becoming irretrievably distracted, completely losing the continuity of the lesson, during “slack periods” when nothing new is being presented.

  9. The trouble is, “learning styles,” when implemented on a whole-class basis, fosters hopping from one method to another. On a class basis, any technique one chooses _is_ “one-size-fits-all.” As some approaches work well for most people, when teaching more than one student, the method which will reach the most people should be used.

    And, everyone who says “I learn differently,” has a very idiosyncratic definition of what works best for him. There is no basis to build a curriculum which can reach twenty to thirty children at a time. There is no reliable method to diagnose a child as an “auditory learner,” or whatnot.

    The demand that teachers provide classrooms of children individualized instruction is unfair to teachers. If you work out the time required, there isn’t enough time in the day for a teacher to determine each child’s learning style (difficult, as there’s no quick, easy, reliable test to determine said style), then determine if the current mode of instruction is working, then determine how instruction for that child should be modified, then determine if the modification is working, then refine as necessary. Multiply that by 30 for a classroom teacher, and, what? 120 to 150 for a subject specialist? And, of course, don’t forget to adjust the difficulty for each child individually as well, while keeping the bulletin boards colorful and upbeat!

    In my opinion, again, as used by parents, it is a plea for a teacher to pay attention to specific children who do not have diagnosed learning disabilities.

  10. It’s good to see that research is being respected and that we’re pulling back from the overemphasis on differentiation.

    As a 7th grade English teacher, I make only one differentiation and that’s for students who are still at the level of concrete operations and can’t yet form abstractions.

    There’s a major brain shift that takes place at that age. It doesn’t appear that teachers can do anything about it except wait and be patient and teach both sides of the divide.

    So, with literature in a 7th grade classroom we have two kinds of questions. 1. How could Poe’s character hear the beating heart of a dead man? 2. Where did he bury him?

    Those who can only answer #2 in October can usually answer both #1 and #2 by June.

    It’s a brain thing.

    Or at least, that’s been my observation–that Piaget makes some sense.

  11. Amazing story, indeed. So much in education has questionable science behind it…. I first heard about the research that is questioning ‘learning styles’ Oxford University’s Institute for the Future of the Mind. http://www.futuremind.ox.ac.uk/
    It has stuck with me and discussion of it made it into my new little flipbook, Fixing Special Education–12 Steps to Transform a Broken System…. Available at School Law Pro and http://www.parkplacepubs.com.

    Let’s hope that better ways of teaching filter into the special education world–so we can actually help students learn what they need to know and do.

  12. Teachers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but the shackles of pseudoscience.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Learning-Styles-Debunked/367898565544?ref=nf

  13. Scrooge McDuck says:

    So, with literature in a 7th grade classroom we have two kinds of questions. 1. How could Poe’s character hear the beating heart of a dead man? 2. Where did he bury him?

    Those who can only answer #2 in October can usually answer both #1 and #2 by June.

    Or at least, that’s been my observation–that Piaget makes some sense.

    Just curious. Do you discuss question no. 1 in class? If so, do students who couldn’t answer that question gain an understanding from the discussion? Or do they simply not understand the discussion?

  14. As a teacher, I’ve always suspected differentiating according to learning styles was bunk.

  15. Mr McDuck asks”

    “Do you discuss question no. 1 in class? If so, do students who couldn’t answer that question gain an understanding from the discussion? Or do they simply not understand the discussion?”

    Good question.

    Yes, I discuss number 1 in class, the higher level question.

    Do the students still at concrete operations gain an understanding from the discussion?

    I wish I could say yes, but I’m afraid the answer is no. Not even a little bit.

  16. @Rob’t Wright…

    Your point about abstract brain capability makes perfect sense to me. I think my 7th grade English teacher might have wanted to beat her head against a wall when trying to teach me Haiku (or maybe she wanted to beat MY head against a wall)… anyway, she explained that haiku had the 5-7-5 format, and a common theme, and I turned in things like:

    Dogs
    Afghan, beagle, chow,
    doberman, whippet, bulldog,
    weimeraner pups

    It looked great to me… 5-7-5, with a common theme of dogs.

    We won’t talk about what happened when my Math teacher asked me what a+b+c equaled…I could not fathom how it was possible to add letters together.

  17. “The problem isn’t a lack of evidence. The problem is an indifference to evidence although in general it can’t be put quite that bluntly but the evidence of the indifference to evidence is spread all over the field of education.”

    Well put, Allen.

    We have known about the evidence that fails to support LS since the 1980s. But, here we are in 2009 wailing and gnashing our teeth about how evidence does not support LS. Willful and arrogant indifference on the part of the education (and special education) field is the only explanation. The type of nonsense characteristic of the LS concept will continue unchecked until education decides to become a mature field that adjudicates its disputes on the basis of science, not belief.

  18. As a science teacher with a neuro background, I can say that for the most part, yes, students do learn the same way. Surprisingly, so do slugs, fish, and other primates. The key lies in repetition and mastery of basic skills before learning more advanced skills.

    As for the anecdotal “The system failed me” comments, there are many differences between individuals, but usually those differences involve variations in cognitive development that teachers really have few ways to cope with. Its not a question of what the school can do to guarantee the same level of academic success, but when (or if) the student will become cognitively mature enough to learn the material.

    Either way, while it makes district’s feel good that they are “helping” those who need it, they really are just wasting resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.

  19. Rachel L, your experience doesn’t point to a variety of “learning styles,” so much as a specific learning disability, a weakness in the ability to firmly connect sounds and letters. It sounds as if you were particularly strong in recognizing whole words by sight. I have a friend who is the reverse. He can never recognize words by sight, but must always (except for the very short, very common words, like “the” and “but”) sound them out. Your first grade teacher should have seen that your weakness in phonetic decoding could be compensated for by letting you learn words by sight. And of course she and your later teachers needed to continue to encourage you to learn phonics, so that you could read words you’d never seen before.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    Other than selling materials on differential learning styles, what was the benefit to the proponents?

  21. You mean besides the admiration of the soft-brained, for whom this theory *sounds* good? You mean besides standing in front of rooms of paying customers and getting all those understanding nods? You mean besides getting to feel like you’re “making a difference” in the lives of children? You mean besides getting to feel like you’re on the leading edge of an educational revolution?

    Notice what all those things above have in common–feeling over thought.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    Darren.
    And probably a good living.

  23. Gardner probably got tenure.

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