Some time ago, a colleague of mine wrote a blog called Learning Myths: Debunked, in which he stated that learning styles is a myth. Having obtained a degree in Elementary Education, I was shocked and still skeptical that learning styles was indeed a myth. As a student, I was consistently challenged to find new ways to teach a subject based on learning styles. Ideas such as banging out rhythms to help memorize multiplication tables, or using Legos to teach fractions were applauded during college as the right way to reach all learners. So color me shocked to find scientific articles and peer reviewed sources that fully suggest “The concept of different ‘learning styles’ is one of the greatest neuroscience myths.” But how did colleges and countless academic resources get it so wrong?
As a background, learning styles refers to learning preferences for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic input, or those who learn by reading or watching, those who learn by hearing, and those who learn by doing. On the surface these seem to make sense. Why wouldn’t doing a science project to learn about a concept be more appealing and thus more effective than simply reading the chapter? Didn’t I learn the Preamble to the Constitution through School House Rock, suggesting a preference for auditory learning? And yet, Philip Newton, professor at Swansea University’s College of Medicine, states in his paper for Frontiers in Psychology that learning styles do not work, and could even have a negative impact on learners.
Newton’s assertions are further backed up by a 2008 study conducted by Harold Pashler, psychology professor at UC San Diego and his associates in which he writes:
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.
But how did educators around the world come to accept faulty information? According to a paper written by Paul Howard-Jones, Neuroscience and Education: Myths and Messages, published for Nature Reviews Neuroscience, it turns out we’ve simply misinterpreted scientific facts. Specifically, the fact that different regions of the cortex have different roles in visual, auditory, and sensory processing. Therefore, we presume that if one part of the brain functions better than the other, learners should learn differently. Howard-Jones, however, explains that “the brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound.”
So, if you’ve been wracking your brain to make training or continuing education courses appeal to different learning styles, it appears you’ve been bamboozled. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try new approaches to engage whomever you are teaching (our favorite is gamification), but you no longer need fret about whether they learn best by style.
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