The Learning Curve: The (Sorta) Myth of Student Learning Styles

Education

The Learning Curve: The (Sorta) Myth of Student Learning Styles

Despite its popularity, there’s scant evidence to back up the idea that students learn most effectively when they’re taught in their preferred learning style.

The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

♦♦♦

I tell people that I was a teacher just long enough to understand how hard of a job it is to do well. It usually gets a laugh. But it’s true.

The year and half I spent teaching high school language arts has certainly informed my reporting, but I don’t write about it often. That’s partly due to the fact that, frankly, I wasn’t a very good teacher.

Learning Curve-01I didn’t do it for very long. And, like any profession, good teaching takes time and practice. I was also spending long nights boozing and carousing in those years, which took a great deal away from the time I spent on the students, who deserved more of my attention.

But the other piece, one that’s harder to imagine if you’ve never tried teaching, is how difficult a job it is to do well.

Teaching is about a lot more than knowing content. It’s also about making that material digestible, reading students’ faces when they don’t understand (or just don’t care). It’s about adjusting on the spot – disarming, with kindness and comedy, that kid who suddenly wants to punch your face – and still making it to the end of your very important lesson by the time the bell rings.

In short, teaching is as much a performance as it is about the science of learning.

That’s not to say I wasn’t offered any support from administrators. At least once a month, teachers filed into a stale conference room, where they could get training on the latest strategies to improve instruction.

We’d all sit politely while a principal or outside trainer would fill our brains with strategies and tips, after which we were expected to march forth into our classrooms and implement them immediately.

I’ve long since forgotten nearly all of it. One idea, though, stands out in my memory: that students have different learning styles – visual (learn by seeing), auditory (learn by hearing) and kinesthetic (learn by doing).

The idea here is that students can be divided fairly neatly according to their learning styles, and if teachers want to reach all students, they’ll tailor instruction to fit.

Understanding this element is especially important, the thinking went, because modern instruction is geared almost entirely toward auditory learners. A teacher gets up in front of class, spews information, and students absorb from their seats. Kinesthetic learners, those who are likely to want to work with their hands, miss out on important concepts and might be forced into low-paying jobs in the trades.

The thinking is pervasive in the education world. Wired writes:

It is propagated not only in hundreds of popular books, but also through international conferences and associations, by commercial companies who sell ways of measuring learning styles, and in teacher training programs. The TeachingEnglish website published by the British Council and the BBC states boldly “Your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles” – this includes, they claim, being: right- or left-brained, analytic vs. dynamic, and visual vs. auditory.

But recent articles put the entire idea of learning styles into question. Quartz went as far as to say “It’s all bunk” – little more than a kind of urban myth about how the brain works, similar to the idea that we only use 10 percent of our brain (although, I admit, Limitless was pretty convincing).

Still, the idea persists. So I wanted flesh out the concept and see where it came from. This week, I’m answering my own question.

Question: Is there any truth to the idea that students have different learning styles?

Despite its popularity, there’s scant evidence that students learn most effectively when they’re taught in their preferred learning style.

In a survey of 242 teachers from the UK and Netherlands, 93 percent of UK teachers and 96 percent of Dutch teachers believed this idea to be scientifically accurate.

Part of the problem relates to a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of well-intentioned educators who take learning styles – which essentially comes down to preferences – and conflate it with aptitudes, or students’ capacity for understanding information, said Hal Pashler, a psychology professor at UC San Diego.

In other words, it’s true that students might prefer a certain way of receiving information, but that doesn’t mean they actually learn more effectively in one set way.

Pashler also chalks the misunderstanding up to a lack of credible research on the topic. In a 2008 study, Pashler wrote:

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.* We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.

(*Meshing hypothesis is a fancy term for the assumption that teaching students in ways that match their preferences is most effective.)

In fact, Pashler suggests a belief in learning styles might actually hurt student learning by teaching to their strengths and not building up confidence in areas in which they’re struggling.

So where did this concept come from?

Gail Paradeza, a special education coordinator at the San Diego County Office of Education, said the concept is rooted in research about multiple intelligences – an idea put forward by Harvard professor Howard Gardner, who was trying to explain why a given student might excel in one area, like language, but struggle in math, for instance.

(For what it’s worth, even Gardner is annoyed that educators often conflate multiple intelligences with learning styles: “To be frank – it grates on me,” he wrote.)

As an outgrowth of Gardner’s idea, teachers began to think about how they could tailor instruction in ways that would register with certain students.

Intuitively, the idea makes sense. Because all students have different preferences, and specific aptitudes, teachers want to personalize the instruction as much as possible. Unfortunately, research just doesn’t support the assumption that this is most effective.

So does that mean teachers should abandon everything they know about learning styles?

Not necessarily, said Paradeza, who talks about learning styles in professional development sessions with local teachers.

Look at it this way: If a teacher gave students a survey to discover their preferred learning styles, divided the class by three groups, and taught each group according to their preferred style – that would be dumb. It wouldn’t be feasible or cost-effective because you’d need multiple teachers to pull it off. Besides, there’s nothing that says this approach would be any more effective than just teaching students in small groups.

But the way Paradeza sees it, the learning styles concept is less about a scripted approach to teaching and more about knowing all students, what things might help them understand a concept and coming up with a variety of ways to help them access that information.

If a teacher were to incorporate a class discussion, visual aids and a variety of ways for students to engage – that would certainly be in line with the learning styles concept. But it would also be good for all students.

“These are just good teaching strategies,” Paradeza said.

Students will also see more of this in the future. As teachers get deeper into Common Core instruction, they’ll be asked to become more fluent in multimedia learning aids to complement lessons.

Ed Reads of the Week

• What School Segregation Looks Like (Charlotte Magazine)

This is the story of a man who went to an integrated school and now teaches in a segregated one. More to the point, it’s about his frustration that black children are still largely kept separate from their white peers, in schools that are fundamentally worse than the ones white students attend.

He writes:

I stand as a personal testament: Although there is no cure-all for inequality, desegregation is a part of the solution. And study after study shows that the worst fears about negative effects on white and affluent students are overwhelmingly unfounded. These fears develop in the first place because we are segregated. When folks don’t live around different people, when they don’t go to school or have meaningful interactions with different groups, they will naturally slip into negative generalizations.

As San Diego Unified gets further into its plan to keep kids in their neighborhood schools, it will need to reckon with the uncomfortable possibility the new plan may make segregation worse.

• Lottery Won’t Be a Big Win for California Schools; Never Has, Never Will (Los Angeles Times)

It was a big week for dreamers. As the Powerball jackpot rose, otherwise rational people cast aside reason and clung to hopes they just might be the lucky person who brings home $1.6 billion.

Almost as unrealistic as thinking you’ll be the big winner, though, is expecting the lottery will be a boon to California schools. That’s never been the case.

“While the numbers fluctuate slightly, over time the California Lottery has provided slightly less than 2 cents of every dollar in what’s spent to operate K-12 schools,” reports the L.A. Times.

• Suspensions and Expulsions Decline as Districts Adopt Alternatives, State Says (EdSource)

Owing to changes in school discipline policies – both state- and districtwide – suspensions and expulsions continued to decline in 2014-2015.

That’s a win for both students and school districts. Students, you know, tend to learn more when they’re actually in school. And districts hang onto the per-pupil funding they miss out on when kids aren’t in attendance.

San Diego Unified, whose suspensions have also declined in recent years, has promoted its restorative justice approach, which entails trying to address the root causes of students’ misbehavior and focusing less on punishment as an end.

For that, the district might deserve a pat on the back. But what’s less-than-satisfying about the trend is that district officials haven’t said much about what the numbers are specifically attributable to. That is, do we chalk the decline in suspension up to strategies that led to improved behavior – or is related to simply keeping disruptive kids in school because policies make it harder to suspend them?

When the district first rolled out this approach, officials promised to be more transparent about their strategies. The public has been invited to celebrate the numbers, but transparency about the actual work has so far been lacking.

Show Comments
Loading