A Note on Learning Styles

I want it to be clear that I do not think that I have the all the answers about learning styles theory and pedagogy. I wrote about this earlier in the year here. Learning styles theory is an extremely complex subject that covers psychology, sociology, neuroscience, epistemology, and pedagogy. Notice all the soft sciences in this list. That said, in my own practice in special education in the k-12 realm, my work as a tutor and tutor trainer, and as an English teacher has benefitted tremendously from these tools. I have seen students who were tested as auditory learners begin to use recorders in the classroom and I have watched their lives turn around, but that is not research. The learning styles theories as they stand cover too much ground and are too broad to determine (at this point in time) solid empirical testing. Many of the theories are too simplistic to cover the complexity of the human mind. The research questions in some cases have to be narrowed. Researchers have to continue to define and test the theory, and explore – there is a lot to be done. There have been numerous attempts – many, to my way of thinking, have been successful. What happens though is that contra learning styles educators simply change the definition of learning styles to dismiss the conclusions of the research or weaken the argument by narrowly define what the theory should predict.

An example of that is a video by Daniel Willingham that has gained some traction on YouTube that declares that learning styles is bunk. It is filled with lots of unsupported phrases like “that is not how the brain works” as if we had a really clear picture of how the brain works (never mind how we learn). The only thing that can be said definitively is that more research needs to be done. Another really big problem with the video is that it ignores any research that has been done and there is a lot of it out there. To say that there has not been any research that supports the idea of learning styles means that Willingham has not done a thorough review of the literature.

Willingham says that “lots of people have performed that test” as if there was one way to test learning styles. He also talks about “meaning based” as if we are meant to take it for granted that “meaning based” learning is the final obvious word in epistemology and language. That is just not the case. Willingham narrowly defines learning styles and what it “ought to predict” and then takes the theory (as if there were one) to task.
The claim, for instance, that teachers have to change how they teach is just wrong – not everyone who supports learning styles makes that claim. The idea is that yes, we can teach to a broader spectrum of learning modalities. But learning styles theory is there to help the students understand why they may not be getting it. There are good, solid criticisms of learning styles theory and this ain’t it.
Learning styles is still being defined as a theory. In this sense it is a lot like string theory – there is some decent math and models in there but a lot more work needs to be done and should be done. No one is going to through the theory out because it is accurately modeling what is happening in the real world. We don’t even know how many strings there are! I consider the learning styles to more of a model like string theory rather than a full blown theory yet. But we cannot just discount research that supports the theory out of hand.
Some References That Go Beyond Personal Beliefsd (even mine)

If you want to look at how complex this question is, check out this paper that is really critical of the theories and is in depth. (Notice that I don’t just choose research that supports my world-view or research bias.)
2. Christy Tucker’s blog has some excellent summary of the research.

6. Ability, Demography, Learning Style, and Personality Trait Correlates of Student Preference for Assessment Method
“More than 400 students from four universities in America and Britain completed measures of learning style preference, general knowledge (as a proxy for intelligence), and preference for examination method. Learning style was consistently associated with preferences…”

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