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 Gardner‘ Frames 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.”