Classroom practice - Listen closely, learning styles are a lost cause

It's time to stop labelling pupils as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners. Research has consistently shown the theory to be false
21st November 2014, 12:00am
Daniel Willingham


Classroom practice - Listen closely, learning styles are a lost cause

Every teacher has to contend with an ethical dilemma: students each have one of a variety of learning styles, and to maximise learning the lesson should take these into consideration. To do this, however, the teacher has to conduct a lesson that is so multi-sensory as to require superhuman levels of planning. So what are they to do?

Most teachers try to find a happy medium, a sweet spot between doing nothing and doing everything, where visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (Vak) learning styles are catered for but do not dictate every aspect of the lesson.

This is the wrong approach. What they should do is relax. In reality, there is no dilemma: science has resolved this by proving that learning styles do not exist.

Facing the facts

In many schools - indeed, in some teacher training institutions - learning styles are treated as proven fact. And although some teachers have accepted that this faith is misguided, others fight the truth and vigorously defend the theory. A common argument is that their teaching has always been informed by learning styles and their experience bears out the theory's utility. The science, they say, must be wrong. I can assure you, it is not.

Most studies on the theory tend to test it as follows:

  • Step 1 - determine the "learning style" of, say, 100 people.
  • Step 2 - offer an experience that is consistent with the style of half the group and inconsistent with the style of the other half. For example, if you have 50 people with a "visual style", show 25 of them a silent film that depicts a story and make the other 25 listen to an audio version of the story. Then do the same for the 50 people with an auditory style: half experience the story in their preferred style (by listening) and half in their non-preferred style (by watching).
  • Step 3 - measure people's comprehension of the story or their memory of it some time later.
    • If learning styles existed, the people who had experienced the story in their preferred style would get more out of it. Unfortunately, all the studies show that this core prediction simply does not hold; not for children with typical development and not for children who have learning difficulties.

      Admittedly, many of the studies have taken place in laboratories. Some argue that Vak should be tested in the classroom, but as it is a theory about how the mind works, evidence of it should be visible in the lab. In fact, controlled conditions should make it easier to see, because the researchers running the experiments can better isolate the critical variables.

      These results should not be surprising. When we are learning, it often doesn't matter what things look or sound like. We are not asked to remember the sound of the voice that read the story - we are asked to remember the plot. Sure, sometimes you may need to appreciate the subtleties of an accent or, in the case of visual material, remember the shape of a continental coastline, but most of the time teachers care about meaning, not appearances, sounds or textures.

      Sense and sense ability

      So why do some teachers still insist that learning styles exist? First, people are confusing learning styles and ability. The former suggests that someone can learn better through a particular medium, the latter implies that they are better able to remember certain types of information.

      For example, if you are the sort of person who can remember a face after meeting someone only once, the chances are you have good visual abilities. Likewise, if you have a good ear for a tune, you are likely to have good auditory abilities.

      What the theory of learning styles states is that this ability transfers to how we learn. Therefore, if you are a "visual" learner, seeing information means you can understand it better. But while you might remember the information more easily if you are high in visual ability, there is a difference between remembering a face and understanding who that person is. There is simply no evidence that a visual learning style will help students in their understanding.

      The second reason that learning styles may seem valid to teachers is because they plan lessons with these styles in mind and the lessons are effective. But myriad other factors could be contributing to this success. It could be the teacher's enthusiasm or emotional sensitivity, for example. Or perhaps the focus on learning styles, although inaccurate, has prompted practices that are effective: if a teacher repeats key ideas several times in different ways (so as to include each "style"), it could be the repetition that leads to student success.

      But teachers primarily think these theories are right because everyone else believes them. Learning styles have become common knowledge, one of those scientific facts that "they" (the scientists) have figured out, so we have no more reason to question their validity than, say, that of atomic theory. A cornucopia of books, lesson plans and other teaching materials featuring learning styles constantly reinforce the myth. It may be persuasive, but none of it is true.

      Same difference

      I should stress that even though learning styles do not exist, this does not mean that all children are the same. We know that children differ, for example, in the knowledge that they bring to the classroom, in their interests and in their academic confidence. As far as they can, teachers should differentiate to account for these factors.

      But the theory of learning styles is an attempt by researchers to impose organisation on these differences. Instead of just saying that children are different, the intention is to categorise them: if you know that a child falls into the "holistic learner" category and not the "serial learner" category, so the theory goes, you can teach them more effectively. But you can't. It's a lie we need to stop telling.

      Daniel Willingham is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in the US and the author of Why Don't Students Like School?

      Tom Bennett on the `zombie' theories that should rest in peace

      Zombie ideas are popular beliefs that linger on long after they have been shown to have little or no evidence base. Some of the theories below have faded in popularity, some remain mainly in memory and others still terrorise children and teachers on a daily basis.

      Thinking hats

      At one point, not too long ago, there was a roaring trade in coloured caps, beanbags and wigs as children were encouraged to assume roles and unlock different chambers of their faculties. Unfortunately the evidence mainly consists of testimonials and painfully small studies.

      Bloom's Taxonomy

      Status: everywhere. Lesson plans hum with the sound of teachers fretting about how much of each layer they have delivered. But from base knowledge to the divine stratosphere of creation and criticism, it remains a highly contested model of thought, with worrying moral judgements inferred from its structure and order. That's not to say that teachers haven't found it useful, but this implies nothing about its veracity.

      Neurolinguistic programming

      This bundle of sunbeams seasoned with a soupon of science was all the rage in the last decade, even though questions were asked about its utility from the day it was born. It is a "science of success" that promises everything from the ability to detect lies to influencing the weak-minded. Sadly, the scientific backing is somewhat smaller than the hoopla surrounding it.

      Multiple intelligences

      Some people are mathematical thinkers. Some are musical. Some are good with nature. Hey, everyone's a genius at something! This speculative model of the mind uses the word "intelligence" in such an elastic manner that it could describe almost any aptitude. And it rests on very little tangible research that either points to its existence or its usefulness as a theory. This hasn't stopped a million websites trying to sell methods of magically assessing your intelligences.

      Three-part lessons

      Back in the days of England's national literacy and numeracy strategies, a fairly cautious piece of research suggested that one feature of some effective lessons was that they were often split into introductory, main and plenary segments, composed of sections that built upon one another. A frantic profession seized upon this guidance and deified it, until almost every school used the three-part structure. But they didn't know why and neither did the generations of teachers and trainers who perpetuated the dogma.

      Red ink implies negativity

      Oh, really? Someone had better tell Santa. And Coca-Cola. No research backs this up.

      Tom Bennett is author of Teacher Proof and director of the ResearchED conference. For more information, visit


      Coffield, F, Moseley, D, Hall, E et al (2004) Should We Be Using Learning Styles? What research has to say to practice, Learning and Skills Research Centre

      Arter, J A and Jenkins, J R (1979) "Differential diagnosis. prescriptive teaching: a critical appraisal", Review of Educational Research, 494: 517-55

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