End the ‘learning styles’ myth

It’s time to put the kibosh on The Myth of Learning Styles, writes Peter DeWitt in Education Week. A fan of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, he divided Friday class time into different learning styles. “Whether it was bodily kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, spatial or any of the others, we (co-teacher) and I would try to hit all of the intelligences that we could.” However, Gardner himself is trying to set the record straight: Multiple Intelligences Are Not Learning Styles, he wrote last year.

Perhaps it makes teachers feel that everyone can learn…which we know they can… but it also creates an easy fix for students who struggle. There really aren’t easy fixes. Students, whether they struggle or not, need a multi-modal approach.

Gardner wants teachers to individualize instruction as much as possible and “teach important materials in several ways, not just one (e.g. through stories, works of art, diagrams, role play).” However, he asks teachers to stop using “styles,” because “it will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.” Spread the word, writes DeWitt. Students learn in a variety of ways.

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  1. I teach high schoolers, and at some point, usually after somebody has commented on how I’m not using their style, I give a mini-lecture on the topic. I point out that, having talked to them, I know that student A recopies her notes, while student B records my lectures to listen to later. Student C said that using the feltboard for unit 3 was really helpful. Student D finds it helpful to read the information from the book and other sources. Student E really likes it when I mention the rhymes I use to keep the terms straight in my head.

    It is not my job to make sure that every piece of information is presented in every way, and your college professors will defnintely not do this. Now that you know what helps, it is YOUR responsibiltiy to take notes, read books, read into a recorder so that you can listen, make rhymes, build models, draw pictures, or work on a big whiteboard. I present the information in the way that I feel best helps most students to understand that particular idea, but if that method does not work for YOU, then YOU work on it in your preferred style. If you get stuck, I’ll help. When I give an assignment that says ‘Explain the X cycle, using a paragraph, drawing, model, or whatever helps’, this is your chance to work using your preferred method. If you choose to go with whatever is fastest, even if it doesn’t help, that’s not my problem.

    The idea that this is their responsibility is a new one for some of them, but the ones who take it to heart do well.

    • Your philosophy is why people homeschool. Why attend if the child gets nothing out of your class and has to teach himself?
      I had to teach math to my child in every year he was in an included class in elementary. Like many, he needed more than an auditory reading of flashcard facts to learn thematerial. Switching to Singapore Primary Math or to traditional classroom teaching … now called multisensory…provides him with enough for mastery.

      • Actually, I do homeschool, and the high schoolers I teach are in a co-op. I also taught college students. And I use Singapore Math. But, by the time that students are in high school and old enough to tell the teacher what their learning style is, they are old enough to use that information to help themselves. Part of why I help use the different approaches early in the semester is to give the students an idea of how to use each approach for my particular subject. They, when they say ‘Why didn’t you do approach X for this subject?’ I’m able to remind them that, since they know that approach will be helpful for them, it would be great if they used that approach to study. For every student who says ‘please give us more hands-on practice’ I have other students saying that the hands on work is a waste of time, since they can just read the description in the book. There’s no way that I can teach every single subject 5 different ways, but I can help them use the way that works best for them.

        • And really, by the time that students get to high school and college (the levels that I teach) they’re going to have to do a certain amount of teaching themselves. Maybe in a traditional high school there is time for them to use all approaches, but co-op and college students are with the instructor for 2-3 hours/week. There is no way to learn the material in such a short amount of time. I mainly introduce it, explain the tricky parts, and answer questions. The students are going to have to work with in the material over the course of several days, in their own way, before it really sinks in. I’ve never taught elementary students in a classroom setting, but with my own kids I ask if it would help to read about it, have me explain it, have them try to build/draw, etc. We can keep trying until they get it, but I’m trying to teach them the different approaches so that they have a lot of ways to approach problems by the time that they get to middle/high school.

  2. How, if Common Core is designed to foster “deep understanding” and “critical thinking” and “working with others to solve problems”, does watching YouTube videos qualify as the bestest most effective method of instruction?

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      Because it preserves the illusion that the inquiry-based, student-centered interpretations and implementation of Common Core standards are actually working.

  3. Jerry Doctor says:

    If you accept the idea that different people have different learning styles, then isn’t it reasonable to believe different people have different teaching styles? Doesn’t that imply requiring every teacher to follow the same “best practices” is as absurd as expecting every student to learn by watching You Tube?

  4. palisadesk says:

    “If you accept the idea that different people have different learning styles…”

    Very big “if.” The data do not support this hypothesis.

    Rather, the task to be done determines the “modalities” involved. Ask yourself why we never see “The Auditory Learners’ Driving School.”

  5. Right. The fact that different people use different strategies to reinforce the learning that must end up in one modality or another, does not mean that the essential learning can happen equally through any mode. To use your example a bit more: student drivers can rehearse driving skills by coaching themselves verbally as they drive (if that helps), by reading a driver’s manual, by using an in-school driving lab, etc. But in the end, the skills are visual and kinesthetic and there is no way around that.

  6. Jerry Doctor says:

    Actually, I don’t accept the “IF.” What I had hoped to show was that the premise of learning styles would apply to both student and teacher with contradictory implications.