Student “Learning Styles” Theory Is Bunk (Daniel Willingham)

U-Va. cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?.” This post appeared September 14, 2009.

 Since the publication of Howard GardnerFrames of Mind in the early 1980s in which he pointed out the many ways that children and adults learn, popularization of “multiple intelligences” in the early 1990s has fused multiple intelligences with teaching to different “learning styles.” Practitioners have glommed onto multiple intelligences and different learning styles. Schools have committed themselves to cultivating multiple learning styles such as the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis (IN). Willingham challenges the concept of varied learning styles and offers an alternative explanation for how and what children learn–their background, interests, aptitudes, and knowledge they bring to a topic–rather than “learning styles.”

The Big Idea behind learning styles is that kids vary in how they learn: Some learn best by looking (visual learners), some by listening (auditory learners), and some by manipulating things (kinesthetic learners).

According to the theory, if we know what sort of a learner a child is, we can optimize his or her learning by presenting material the way that they like.

The prediction is straightforward: Kids learn better when they are taught in a way that matches their learning style than when they are taught in a way that doesn’t.

That’s a straightforward prediction.

The data are straightforward too: It doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work–not only for the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory, but for many other learning styles theories that have been proposed and tested since the 1940s.

Researchers have been conducting experiments on learning styles for 50 years. They’ve been tested with the sorts of materials that kids encounter in schools. They’ve been tested with kids diagnosed with a learning disability.

There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.

This is not to say that all kids are the same, or that all kids should be taught the same way. But it does help us to understand what the source of these differences might be.

Consider this analogy. Watch kids on a museum field trip and you’ll notice that they stop to look at different paintings: some like cubism, some like impressionism, some like the Old Masters, and so on.

You would not conclude that these kids have different visual systems. You’d figure that these differences were due to the children’s backgrounds, their personalities, tastes, and so on.

The same seems to be true of learning.

Some lessons click with one child and not with another, but not because of an enduring bias or predisposition in the way the child learns. The lesson clicks or doesn’t because of the knowledge the child brought to the lesson, his interests, or other factors.

When you think about it, the theory of learning styles doesn’t really celebrate the differences among children: On the contrary, the point is to categorize kids.

Each child is to be categorized as one of three types of learners. Categorization might be worth it if the categories were accurate, and therefore provided information that would help teachers. But the categories are meaningless.

Suggesting that teachers cater to learning styles—when teachers must already do some differentiation based on what students know—makes a teacher’s job much more difficult with no benefit to students.

Yet teachers are still asked to do it.

The new District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Teaching and Learning Framework, for example, does….

[T]he framework … lays out …[a] vision of what it means to be a good teacher. [T]he fourth guideline in the “Teaching” section of the Framework suggests that teachers “target multiple learning styles” in order to “ensure all students have the opportunity to meet lesson objectives.” Teachers are encouraged to vary the content of lessons (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, interpersonal, linguistic, social).

The D.C. school system is not alone in this error, of course. Learning styles has become unquestioned dogma among many educators, despite the utter lack of evidence to support it.

But a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy….

It’s awfully common for districts to sound clarion calls (“All teachers must strive for excellence”) without getting to specifics. DCPS has put meaning into that banality.

Now they need to put similar effort into making another bromide meaningful: “Our decisions are research-based.”

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38 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

38 responses to “Student “Learning Styles” Theory Is Bunk (Daniel Willingham)

  1. Larry, thank you for sharing this post by Daniel Willingham. It confirms what I have long suspected, that the “Learning Styles” theory was at best unhelpful, and at worst baseless and false.

    My students, preservice teachers, know how to repeat the mantra “we need to cater for students’ different learning styles”, but I worry that they will go into classroom attempting to pigeon-hole students and to target certain teaching strategies at particular students, to no benefit. I would rather that they try to find as many engaging, diverse strategies and resources possible, that they might meet the learning needs of as many students as possible, by any means possible.

    Thank you again. I will point my students to this article, for their edification.

  2. Bob Calder

    Education must undergo the same revolution as medicine. Evidence based practice. This means well designed, double blind, AND peer reviewed. This won’t be a problem compared to the difficulty of roto-rooting the utterly destructive magical systems out of schools.

    Have you seen the Myth Busters episode where they learn to polish poop?

    • larrycuban

      I do believe that educational research has already moved somewhat in the direction you demand in randomized controlled studies. Yet the very nature of compulsory schooling of the young places ethical limits upon how far researchers can move in that direction. What too many people forget is that subjective decisions–the supposed bane of educational research studies–also get made even in the “gold standard” of medical clinical trials limiting the usefulness (and worth) of the findings from such studies.

    • Evidence and well designed research are not synonymous with double blind studies. I’m not sure why that qualifier is in there. Double blind studies in education can be abysmal and a lot of wonderful evidence has been generated via case studies and qualitative methods.

    • Aaron Ward

      Scientism in Education, Emery J. Hyslop-Margison & Ayaz Naseem

      Massive take down of the invalid nature of logical positivism in educational research. You can not apply the same methodological tech iques and assumptions to the social environment as you can to the natural sciences. The Scientific Method is a powerful tool for the study of the natural sciences but its power blinds us and encourages us to think it can be applied to our socially constructed environment. It can’t. It will always fail. Thus you advice for “scientific research” in education is the opposite of what we need. What we need is to teach all kids how to read and not simply decode text.

      The authors take down positivism from the perspective of the natural sciences, philosophy, and the social STUDIES. Its a dense read and quite expensive but worth the effort. If you have a local research library nearby you can read it relatively cheaply, either for free or the cost of a library card.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Aaron, for pointing out this book on “scientific research.”

      • Bob Calder

        It apparently lambastes high stakes testing as “Scientism”. Is 10 citations a good count for education research?

        I often see good research design come from the Linguistics field. They have a community that supports rigour.

        We pass lousy ideas down to injure children because we are too careful about our relationships up here. Does anybody honestly think that what has happened over the last ten years in K-12 has been something other than experimentation on a grand scale? But because it was initiated by politicians, we can look away from the wreckage and not take responsibility?

  3. I have a theory that there are two learning styles: engaging and not engaging. Nobody likes to learn from a teacher who is not engaging.

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  5. Martha F.

    As a trainer of adults, I’ve taken a different lesson from the idea of learning styles. That lesson is that I need to present information in multiple ways in the hopes that one or more of them will resonate with each learner. Thus, I might offer a graphic, describe the concept, and also ask my students to practice the activity involved. I don’t assume that each student will respond to only one of those methods, but instead I try to give them multiple ways of taking in the information. By varying the “learning style” of each repetition, it makes the lesson more engaging and enjoyable.

    • larrycuban

      But why, Martha, do you present lesson in multiple ways? Because students have different “learning styles” or, because,as Willingham argues, because they have different backgrounds, experiences, and interests?

  6. Gardner’s “theory” has never impressed me and people tend not to appreciate he is a psychologist…not a teacher, something I have heard him openly acknowledge himself. I think he may even be a little bemused at the way some educational ideologues have run with his theory in their zeal to level the playing field.

  7. I wish this post were a bit more “yes and” instead of just condemning learning style theory as “bunk.”

    I like the concept of this post, and agree with the concept of multiple teaching approaches to hit different tastes, backgrounds, and styles, as opposed to just “learning styles.” However, please let’s not make this a moment of: “that research is COMPLETELY wrong, now please everyone shift ENTIRELY a different direction.” Teachers desperately need to be told to vary their teaching styles, if only to get them away from their utter (and arguably lazy) reliance on auditory style. Extreme example: If I were an “always auditory” teacher, I might read this post and use it to justify remaining on lecture 24/7 while just making attempts to utilize different kinds/palettes of information. This doesn’t seem ideal either.

    A decade of my own practical experience (yes, not quite as substantive as a study), and some very concrete recent experience, put me firmly in Martha’s camp about how important it is to vary your delivery style as a teacher. I just finished 15 student fishbowls each in a different high school, where every group of youth responded to the question: “What makes learning engaging, and what would I like more of in the classroom?” with one of two responses–1) “more hands-on learning and projects” and 2) “more variety, not just doing the same thing every day”. These responses firm up the thesis of this blog posting, but also my own. In fact, even Gardner’s camp has come out with newer research that says, “Don’t target specific styles for specific students. Instead try to utilize multiple styles all the time since we all learn better when we have multiple opportunities to get the message.”

    I had an interesting experience with this concept while teaching dyslexic students to read. We taught them alternate systems for decoding, one using colors instead of letters, and another using how different sounds _felt_ (in their lips and tongue). (Lindamood Bell is the technique) Giving students multiple ways to process helped them shoot past their prior difficulties with (and low enthusiasm for) reading. I believe it’s the same for teaching students. Give them multiple ways to experience the content and they are more likely to engage with it and to attach to it. This goes for choices of content but also for the way it is delivered.

    So for now, I would recommend keeping the “diverse learning styles vs diverse content” conversation as a “Yes, and,” rather than throwing out something as “bunk.”

    • larrycuban

      Andy,
      I read the Willingham post as an affirmation of diversity in teaching approaches. He questions the rationale for “learning styles” as not inherent to individual students but to their backgrounds, interests, motivations. Like the examples you offer from student responses, teachers do need to vary what they do to connect with different students on different topics. The reasons teachers give–their theories of action–do make a difference in what they decide to do. Learning “style” theories take you in one direction in lessons; Willingham’s point take you in another direction. Thanks for the comment.

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  10. I really do not think this is all “bunk”. I for one find it much easier learning using visual techniques

  11. Steve Davis

    The idea of multiple learning styles is an oversimplified, reductionist reaction to the variation present in a population’s ability to receive, store, and recall culturally significant data. In the multi-media era, visual learning has come to mean, for me, passive reception of video/audio via some sort of screen and speakers.

    I used to think of myself as a visual learner, but what does that mean? Does it mean that I need to see pictures or will any visual input do? Most people are going to be able to learn more from a bar graph that represents a complicated concept, like income inequality, than they would be able to learn from a jargon filled paragraph on the subject, although both of those learning transactions require visual processing.

    Is reading a visual activity? Well, yes and no. Reading requires visual input which is decoded as sounds, processed and then encoded in images, sounds, etc. Students with auditory processing deficits (the most common type of specific learning disability in our public schools) have a hard time reading (visual learning) because of their auditory deficit. If learning styles are rigid, then you are left pegging these students as kinesthetic learners, which leaves few true ways of accessing core academic content. While kinesthetic learning is helpful (in note taking for example), the abstractions of academia require students to use all available modes of input.

    The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Steve, for raising questions about “learning styles” that have not been made in previous comments. You got me thinking.

  12. jeni Sykes

    From many years working as a preschool , primary school and tertiary teacher, I think that the key to successful learning is about motivation of the individual to participate . When working with children as young as 4, developing a curriculum around things that were of specific interest and importance to the children resulted in success. The environment was manipulated to enhance engagement and to reduce negative influences . At the other end of the age spectrum, working with people between 25 and 60 years, the majority chose to be there . They invested time and money to attend classes and had a goal. Delivery and assessment options always included meaningful choices to encourage ownership and responsibility. By providing choices, people naturally align with things that motivate or appeal to them. Often there are patterns that reflect a particular learning style or blend of learning styles . At other times, access to resources such as time, people, opportunity and materials will influence the learner. I believe that people come to education with values, beliefs, experiences and expectations. If passionate teachers provide a rich environment where willing individuals are encouraged and supported to seek, explore and follow their interests, the labels attached to learning style and learning theories become irrelevant.

    • larrycuban

      Jeni,
      Thanks for your extracting from your experiences these thoughtful comments on teaching young children and adults.

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  14. It is interesting to combine the thoughts in this column with those of the next about charter schools and their “unvarnished” task of making their students college ready. What is wrong with making students ready to be auto mechanics, electricians or beauticians? I’ve worked as a social worker with kids K-12 in Special Education for many years. It is very difficult to get students who read with difficulty motivated to engage in reading and writing practice day after day. If the opportunity presents (and often it does not in elementary school), I try to point out situations in which they do learn and persevere. Sometimes these situations are “kinesthetic” (sports and building), sometimes “visual” and sometimes another mode of gaining information and using it for learning. In the semi-rural system in which I work, kids see many examples of adults with success in “kenesthetic” endeavors such as auto repair and contructions of different types. They get “jazzed” by these areas of learning but not those involved primarily in gianing information by the written word. Incidently, learning to read is a very complex visual and auditory process. Often I find that it is not until middle school when kids brains take a jump in their ability to cogitate that I can have a meaningful discussion with a student about learning, competence, motivation and effort.

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  16. Show me a tedious, lackluster, non-perplexing image and I’ll deny that I’m a visual learner. Read me “The Grapes of Wrath” in a monotonous voice and I’ll deny that I’m an auditory learner. Offer me a naked mole rat to play with and I’ll deny that I’m a kinesthetic learner.

    Thank you so much, Larry, for posting Willingham’s take on learning styles. Our learning styles aren’t really that unique from one another. We hear what we WANT to hear, touch what we WANT to touch, and see what we WANT to see. (Brad Pitt could read the phone book to me and I’d be hooked.) Maybe it’s not all that simple. But why do we want to complicate the teaching profession with jargons and asking teachers to do the impossible?

    Reading this post made me happy. Thank you!

    • larrycuban

      And thank you, Fawn, for taking the time to comment and give such vivid examples.

    • Bob Calder

      Awesome point. Observing human variation leads us to common sense conclusions that are simply wrong until the sample gets big enough to reveal the amazing variety of responses to any stimulus.

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  19. RClariana

    What I have learned from learning styles investigations that I did in the 1980s is that (a) learning style has a small effect (es = .10) so it is weak and very difficult to obtain significance with typical sample sizes, (b) it is more of a state than trait variable, students vary their style to accommodate the setting, but superior students change style far more quickly (a few days) in a new setting than do less able students (a few months). Perhaps today, we call this shift “self-regulated learning” or “learning meta-strategies”.

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