Is it true that individual learning styles don’t matter?

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Russ Mayne, teacher and tutor in EAP at the University of Leicester, investigates.

A popular notion in educational circles is that all students have their own personal learning styles and that if we tailor our lessons to these, we’ll get better results. The most popular of the learning-styles systems is VAK, which stands for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (gustatory and olfactory learners are generally ignored; it seems that you can’t actually learn through your nose after all).

The idea that students all have their own best way of learning is intuitive and attractive. Every teacher has probably been in that situation where you’re explaining something and there’s one student who doesn’t quite get it. Then, after you explain it in a different way, the student suddenly has an “a-ha!” moment. From that, we might assume that the student has a certain type of brain or a particular optimal way of learning. This is one reason that the notion of learning styles is so appealing.

The catalyst for the learning-styles movement seems to have been a reaction to traditional “one-size-fits-all” classrooms. Authors like husband-and-wife team Rita and Kenneth Dunn began promoting individualised learning methods in the ’70s, particularly for students with disabilities. These methods included such things as changing the class layout, classroom temperature or time of instruction. One change they proposed was the channel, or “modality,” in which the information was given. For reasons not always easy to ascertain, VAK was able to catch the public’s imagination and took on a life of its own.

Since then, the idea of students having their own learning style has become almost universally accepted. From Japanese primary school students to British nursing students, nowadays almost everyone at every level is tested for their preferred learning style. This has served to cement the myth to the extent that some students may even attribute their lack of academic success to being given material in the wrong modality.

Perhaps one of the reasons the idea of learning styles became so popular is that it was seen as a credible retort to the growing use of IQ testing in schools, which seemed to some to suggest that a student’s potential could be boiled down to a single number. According to learning-style theorists, it isn’t that slower learners are less capable, but rather that they aren’t being given information in the right way. This view certainly sits well with those who like to see everyone as being equally capable.

Obviously there have been some terrible historical examples of categorising people according to intelligence and discriminating accordingly (eugenics being a prime example), so it’s fair that people have been genuinely cautious about the notion of individual intelligence. However, the pendulum has swung too far in this case. Despite their good intentions and popularity, learning styles are a myth that needs to be debunked.

Problems with the learning-styles myth

One of the problems with the notion of learning styles is that the terminology is often not very well defined. For instance, the distinction between what could be called “study preferences” and “learning styles” is not always clear. Some people prefer studying at night or with music on, but this is a study preference rather than a learning style. It’s not that a person needs to study in this way, it’s just that they like to. Nonetheless, this is one area where the idea that “everyone learns in different ways” comes from, which is used to justify the notion that everyone has a dominant modality.

This is a misleading idea because actual “learning” (as opposed to studying) is about new information being stored in the brain, with new neural pathways created in the process. Because the brain stores information in exactly the same way for all of us, everyone actually “learns” in the same way. Graham Nuthall gives a good analogy of this process in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, in which he notes that everybody has food preferences, but we all digest our food in exactly the same way.

Another problem with VAK is that it misrepresents the way the brain works. We don’t store information according to a “dominant style”; we do it by storing it in the way it is presented to us. So, if you’re asked to remember a face, you will get a mental image of that face, and if you’re asked to remember a voice, you will hear that voice in your head, and so on. A so-called visual learner thinking about their favourite song won’t somehow see a mental picture of the song. They’ll hear the song in their mind like everyone else!

One of the major challenges in debunking the notion of learning styles is that people can feel that they have personally experienced improved learning by using a different style and that they are a “visual person”, for example. Pointing out that the research doesn’t back up their experience generally won’t make much difference. If somebody says, “I know that I’m a kinaesthetic learner,” it will be almost impossible to convince them otherwise.

 Download our Fact or Fiction report to find out how Russ delves even further into the “myth” of individual learning styles – plus much more about English language teaching!

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