Why you need to stop believing in learning styles

22nd November 2014 at 06:00

If you have just prepared a lovely lesson that caters specifically for your kinaesthetic, visual and auditory learners, then Daniel Willingham has some bad news for you.

“Learning styles do not exist,” says Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, US, and the author of Why Don’t Students Like School?. “Not for children with typical development and not for children who have learning difficulties.”

For many teachers, this will come as a shock. Writing in the 21 November issue of TES, Willingham explains that scientific studies have consistently found that there is no evidence for learning styles, but the theory nevertheless continues to be used by schools.

“In many schools – indeed, in some teacher training institutions – learning styles are treated as proven fact,” he says. “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.”

So why do some teachers still insist that learning styles exist?

Willingham says that people are confusing learning styles with ability. The former suggests that someone learns 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 that you have good visual abilities. But there is a difference between remembering a face and understanding who that person is.

Willingham adds that learning styles can also seem to work even when they are not.

“Teachers plan lessons with these styles in mind and the lessons are effective,” he says. “But myriad other factors could be contributing to this success. It could be the teacher’s enthusiasm or emotional sensitivity, for example.”

Willingham is keen to stress that he is not saying all students are the same, nor that differentiation should not occur. Rather, he stresses that learning styles are a false way of trying to organise that differentiation and this is ultimately damaging.

“It’s a lie we need to stop telling,” he says.

Read the full article in the 21 November edition of TES on your tablet or phone or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents

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