Thursday, September 15, 2011

Learning Styles - Really A Myth?

Are Learning Styles a Myth?

Do learning styles exist? Some people certainly seem to think so, and the notion of learning styles has been popular in education for many years. But the validity of the theory is now being challenged - read this blog entry to get a contrary view.

The Exploring Education blog links to a video you make have seen before, from Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia:

Once, I would have wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Willingham. When I first heard the theory of Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic modes many years ago, I was rather skeptical - it didn't seem to fit my own experience as a learner. But as I considered the plausibility of the theory in relation to my students, I recognised that it explained certain things about the difficulties some of my students seem to have, and could also explain certain aspects of my own learning patterns. One thing that occurred to me in reflecting on all of this, but which I cannot say I have seen mentioned often, is that one's preferred learning mode may also depend on context. I may well favour visual input in one situation but auditory input in others.

Still, does that mean that the theory is correct and Prof. Willingham is wrong? Of course not, but I'm not really convinced by Prof. Willingham's arguments. The experiment he refers to is about memorization, but in the classroom, memorization is not the main focus of what we do (at least, not in my classroom). Learning occurs where new material has meaning and is assimilated into what we already know. And it is on this point that I am inclined to think that students may well have a preferred mode of taking in new information, and their preference is for the way that is easiest for them to make the connections between the new material and what they already understand.

Why do I think this is the case? For a couple of reasons.

First, my own teaching experience - over the years I have worked with many students who have clearly shown a preferred mode for learning new material. I have had students who struggled to understand new material until you drew them a diagram showing how different ideas or components relate to each other. A few years ago I had a student who was very bright but who struggled with written material - unless you talked her through the ideas, she floundered. When I checked with her other teachers, I found they had observed the same pattern.

I've had students who needed things written down - verbal explanations got lost somewhere between ear and brain. I once had a student in Maths who struggled with understanding written material (but not because he had a reading problem) but who thrived on spacial and geometric work. If I could find a way to show him a concept geometrically or diagrammatically, he could cope. In the same class was a girl who struggled with diagrams, and wanted written explanations.

Theories about learning styles have come about precisely because teachers have noted time and time again that different students appear to cope differently with different ways of presenting lesson material. This is not some sort of collective illusion. Every experienced teacher I have ever discussed this with has been able to relate experiences like those I have given above.

My second reason for believing that students may well have a preferred mode of taking in new information is to do with my elder daughter. When she was very young and still learning to talk, we realised there was an issue - she wasn't following the typical pattern for language development. She had a large vocabulary, but wasn't putting words together in the normal way. There were more than a few tears in dealing with a child who clearly trying to tell us something, and who clearly knew the meaning of the words she was using, but who was not communicating effectively.

Fortunately, our family doctor and a very astute speech therapist also noticed that my daughter was highly tuned in to even very subtle visual cues. Eventually the therapist concluded that she was hyperlexic (which I had never heard of before) and through her visual responsiveness was able to work with her to catch up her language development. (Today, none of her peers and few of her teachers have any idea that she once had a difficulty with spoken language.)

Of course, anecdotal evidence proves nothing. But it can inform our ideas about what might or might not be true. Based on my own experience and what other teachers have to say, I am inclined to think that there may well be some validity to the idea of learning styles. And it's not about memory. It's about the assimilation of new concepts.

One of the consequences of the idea of learning styles, regardless of its validity, is that many teachers are now presenting their lessons in richer, more varied ways. It may well be that the true explanation for what teachers have been observing is connected to the format of presentation of new material, where variety and multiple media have a greater impact on understanding. Or maybe it's just less boring.

But until someone offers a better explanation, if subscribing to the idea of learning styles leads to more effective lessons, claiming that learning styles are a myth strikes me as less than helpful.

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