Throwing out the baby with the bathwater: The dangers of turning against "learning styles"

The pendulum always swings back in the other direction. When I was in high school, the fad for multiple intelligence and learning styles was at its peak. Today, we're seeing rumblings in the media that there are "no such thing as learning styles." Is there anything behind either position than just the same old pendulum of opinion, swinging away?

Self-disclosure: it is intuitively obvious to me that not everyone learns the same way. I know from experience that I understand what I learn better, and remember it better, when I'm given a big-picture "this is what we're learning it, why we're learning it, and how it relates to what we've already learned" blurb up front, before I have to learn the minutiae of how to do it. My theory is that the big-picture gives me a meaningful label that I can use to store the information and transfer it. This style seems to work for things like writing essays that make broad and unexpected connections (most recently, using the TRACE model of language learning as an example of the sort of processing that might occur in particularly low-IQ people with savant syndrome). Yet I've noticed that many of my classmates, or the people who work in my lab, seem to prefer very much the opposite. I seem to retain information the best when I can write it down, regardless of how it is presented in the first place. Not everyone I've spoken to seems to benefit from this, and a lot of people have more specific preferences in how material is presented than I do. My eyes glaze over, my brain shuts down, and I fall asleep when I read a textbook, yet my father loves them so much he collects them. I could go on for hours, and I'm sure you could, too.

It's equally obvious from such examples that we mean a lot of things by "learning style." It's a vague term, and we all have different examples. We have people who need the big picture first vs. people who need to deduce the picture from the small picture. We have people who benefit from different modalities of presentation. There are people who benefit from different methods of rehearsal, a separate issue than the original presentation. (A person with amusia--lack of ability to perceive music as anything other than noise--might be an "auditory learner," but setting material to music won't help him remember it). There are people who like to have information presented to them and people who like to jump right in and ask questions or do some hands-on project relating to it. There are people who think in a more linear way and people who think in a more associative way. We mean all these things--and more--when we talk about "learning styles." It's a confused mess.

I realized that the craze for multiple intelligences/learning styles was producing a confused mess back in high school. At that point, the term "learning styles" was used to mean a combination of three concepts: the modality through which students best take in information, the modality of the best techniques for them to study and remember it and/or the modality of the person's imagery; and the modality of the output in which they will be most successful. I.e., "auditory learners" are supposed to take in information best through listening, learn best when they use aural strategies to memorize, and perhaps learn well through discussion or answering in-class questions. What unifies this conception is the idea of sensory modality. This is a bit more coherent than "learning styles" can sometimes be, but there's a lot of vagueness here. For instance, what about visual learners who absorb information best through pictures vs. those who absorb more through print? What about "spatial" learners who think in terms of spatial relationships--these are abstractions drawn from a number of senses including auditory, visual, and kinesthetic, so does it make sense to lump them in with the visual learners? And why would the modality of the initial input have anything to do with the ideal modality for processing and output? And why would students fit into only one "learning style," anyway? To their credit, a lot of learning styles advocates, such as the Eides, were asking exactly these questions. They discussed learning styles in the broader sense, too, but their approach was always to break down the complexity (see this and this). And it was their discussion of these issues, and the complexity behind these seemingly simple categories, that got me interested in studying neuroscience.

But the Eides might be the exception to the rule, and even they don't draw fine distinctions as well as I would like. So, given all of this vagueness, when you see this quote from Professor Frank Coffield, you might think he has a point:

"Next time you see a learning styles questionnaire, burn it [we] produced two reports for the now defunct Learning and Skills Development Agency, which got cold feet and refused to launch them. It was afraid, as one of the government's "delivery partners", to back research it had itself funded, in case it upset the DfES.

Our reports reviewed, systematically, 13 models of learning styles and concluded that this area of research is theoretically incoherent and conceptually confused. I listed in the reports 30 dichotomies, such as "activists" versus "reflectors", "globalists" versus "analysts", and "left brainers" versus "right brainers". We should stop using these terms. There's no scientific justification for them.

We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context."

(The article I linked to links to the full report and a more manageable summary).

It's true that current models of learning styles are based on confused concepts without a lot of theoretical justification (even though there is plenty of educational research on the one hand and sensory processing and cognitive research on the other that could provide a good basis for such a theory). And Frank's last point is particularly thought-provoking: what happens when we believe, and tell our kids, that they have only one learning style, and it's set in stone?

I define intelligence as the ability to solve the problems one encounters--either academic or "real-world"--appropriately (i.e., in a way that gets you closer to your goals, assuming that you aren't self-destructive). Even in academic domains, the set of problems carved out by each discipline requires a different set of questions to ask about the material, and different criteria for a correct answer. When you take into account the real world, too, the number of productive thinking tools out there must be countless. It follows that an intelligent person is one who has the ability to learn and apply a lot of different thinking strategies (whether they actually choose to apply them, of course, is another matter). Everyone has a few natural ways their brain is predisposed to reason, but smarter people can break out of that and learn new ways. A not-so-intelligent person has only a hammer, and treats everything as a nail. An intelligent person has a whole toolbox. A learning disability is kind of like selective "stupidity" in a certain area: it makes your thinking inflexible and prevents you from learning thinking tools in a certain area. You might immediately think about the rigidity of autism. But a dyspraxic person also just doesn't build the knowledge structure everyone else does about how things work; her mind just won't go in that direction.

The goal should be to broaden students' learning styles so they can solve whatever unpredictable problems they'll need to in the future. Does that mean we should forget about learning styles? Well...no. For better or worse, students' brains entering school are the way they are. There are certain ways of learning that are effortless for them and others that don't seem to help no amount of effort the child expends. Any good teacher would tell you you have to meet the child where he or she is. If you know a child takes in information really well through print and pictures, is mediocre at auditory, and couldn't learn by doing if he did it for a year, that tells the teacher where to focus his or her attention. First, to maintain his great visual skills, the teacher should provide some opportunities for visual learning. For a large portion of the time, she should focus on developing auditory learning rather than kinesthetic, because that's where the greatest return for her effort will be. Later on, his kinesthetic abilities might have matured to the point where she can start targeting them as well.

So, yeah, anti learning styles people have a point that learning styles advocates are leaving all this out. But you know what? All these complaints are perfectly compatible with the observations we've all made that...everyone learns differently! It's a huge stretch to say that because of all these issues with learning style theory, learning styles must not exist and everyone must learn the same way. Come on now, can anyone really believe that?

But that's exactly what this blogger does. And while I could dismiss him as just another talking head on the internet, he provides endless links to important, credible people who are making these reasoning errors. The American public school system is inflexible and atherosclerotic, still operating based on models set up at the beginning of the 20th century to produce docile factory workers. It's centered on the interests of teachers, administrators, and interest groups, all of which pay lip service to the interest of students, but ignore them. (What school of education actually spends more than a token few minutes talking about the huge body of research out there about how children think and learn--or adults, for that matter?) Thanks to the frenzy over learning styles and multiple intelligences, we've finally gotten a little bit of flexibility into the classrooms. It's not always done well; the token visual-spatial and hands-on activities don't always actually teach the main concepts in the lesson, but at least baby steps are happening. Kids are occasionally actively involved in what they're learning. But all this progress is hard-won, incremental, and extremely fragile. If we take the advice of anti-learning-style advocates and stop "institutionalizing" learning styles, we'll undo all the progress we've made. Or is that, perhaps, the agenda?