The learning styles myth perpetuates a falsehood about how students learn
Are you a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a tactile-kinaesthetic learner? If you think this is a valid question, then you, like many others, have fallen for one of the most pervasive education myths out there.
It’s not hard to test this claim out. Take a large group of people and divide them according to their supposed learning styles. Let half of them experience a story through their preferred learning style while the other half experience the same story in a different way. Each group then takes a test to find out how much they remember.
This experiment has been carried out multiple times and the results are always the same. There’s no statistically significant difference between the people who learned something according to their so-called learning style versus those who did not. The individual learning styles theory is little more than an urban legend – again, a myth.
Importantly, the learning styles myth is far from harmless because it perpetuates a falsehood about how students learn. Categorizing students as visual, auditory, or tactile-kinaesthetic learners is a surefire way to make it harder for students to learn things in different ways. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that tends to come true in the end.
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For example, someone who believes they’re a visual learner now has a ready-made excuse for why they cannot pay attention during lectures and don’t do well on tests in lecture courses. Similarly, those who think they are tactile-kinaesthetic learners (i.e. they need to physically touch or try something in order to learn the concept best) quickly come to believe they cannot learn new things unless they’re working with their hands.
In addition, trying to plan for each student’s so-called learning style creates an unnecessary burden for teachers. Instead of creating one lesson for the entire class, teachers must come up with at least three – sometimes even more – lessons.
Interestingly, professional psychologists have, for years, made significant efforts to correct public misconceptions about learning styles. The American Psychological Association’s website, for instance, provides links to several articles debunking this theory.
However, rejecting the learning styles myth doesn’t mean teachers should teach everything exactly the same way. While people do not have individual learning styles, some topics are better suited for certain methods than others.
For example, a good teacher will probably use plenty of pictures and models when teaching young students about shapes and patterns. For other topics, such as learning to pronounce certain words, the teacher will provide plenty of verbal instruction and practice. Meanwhile, some cases are best taught with a variety of strategies.
When teaching about the solar system, for example, it makes sense to give students pictures of the planets, provide a detailed verbal description, and let them work with an accurate physical model of the solar system. This makes far more sense than pigeonholing students into individual learning styles.
Simply put, teachers should be encouraged to provide whole-class lessons to the greatest extent possible. The nature of the content being taught would largely determine the delivery method for each lesson. Not only would this be a more efficient use of teacher time, but it would also help students learn more effectively.
It’s time we recognize that there are no visual learners, auditory learners or tactile-kinaesthetic learners. There are only learners. The learning styles myth needs to be rejected once and for all.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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