The ‘Learning Styles’ Myth

“Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence that they [learning styles] have any effect on outcomes, apparently almost 90 per cent of teachers believe that different people have different learning styles, and that if we want them to learn a thing we have to present it in the way they learn best.” (Didau, 2015, p. 42)

The above comes from David Didau’s book What if everything you knew about education was wrong? (well worth a read, by the way). When push comes to shove, it is not the preferences of an individual learner or a group of learners that determines how content is taught, it is the content itself. The visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) individual learning styles approach is just not helpful at all. There are certain things that are best taught a certain way, like reading (visually), or singing (aurally and orally) and using clay (kinaesthetically) to name but a few. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference if a learner has a preference for a particular ‘style’, it won’t make for effective teaching and learning if the content has to be presented in ways that doesn’t suit it. Let’s pretend for a moment that learning styles weren’t a myth – we’d immediately have problems in our teaching. I can’t effectively teach a child to sing a song kinaesthetically, can I? Tough break for the so-called kinaesthetic learners, I guess they’ll just never be singers.

The learning styles myth has annoyed me for quite some time, and I knew that I would eventually write something about it. I thought a lot about what element I’d focus on for this blog post, as others have written about it more eloquently than I ever could, so I decided that it would be a worthwhile endeavour to have a look at which organisations in Ireland are still clinging on to the myth.

The most efficient way for me to do this was to use Google. Below, I’ll list some of the results.

To start, I found a site belonging to the National Learning Network. They had a page dedicated to learning styles with links to learning styles questionnaires, as well as a number of PDFs dedicated to the idea of learning styles, packed with unsubstantiated claims.

The next one was an Irish Times article called Quick study guide: Study tools and different learning styles from November 2018. What bothered me most about this article was that the four authors associated with it either are or have been university lecturers, with one currently in an education department. I also disliked this particular quote “There’s plenty of evidence to show that the best lectures are tailored for the widest possible group of learners. These lectures will take into account the different learning styles…” (see above link). The article provided no reference to this evidence, therefore I deem it to be an unsubstantiated claim. I would suggest to the authors of that article that they distance themselves from any future association with the promotion of the learning styles myth.

Another one was from a website called Mummy Pages. They too had a page dedicated to learning styles. They made an unsubstantiated claim that “educational experts have grouped [learning styles] into three basic styles” (see page link). Their goal seemed to be to help parents to help children with their homework. A well-meaning goal, but unfortunately misinformed. I’d also wonder who those so-called educational experts are supposed to be.

Worryingly, I found a reference to a learning styles questionnaire on the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) website. I would expect the NCSE to be better informed than this.

Equally worrying was a document (no date available) titled Differentiation in action! that I found on the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) website. The reference to learning styles suggested that differentiation is effective when learning styles are taken into consideration. I respectfully disagree. A professional development service for teachers should know better.

The final one I’ll discuss is a document from 2017 from the Higher Education Colleges Association, hosted by the website of an initial teacher education (ITE) institution. It is called A Handbook and Tool Kit for Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Independent Higher Education Institutions in Ireland. The author is a sociologist, researcher and ‘educationalist’ (whatever that is) and has no formal teaching qualification (going by the biography in the linked document). This document loosely suggests that the so-called learning styles of all students in higher education institutions must be met. As it happens, that wouldn’t be helpful at all.

As teachers, we need to stay better informed. It’s forgivable (to an extent) if non-educational institutions are misinformed in terms of learning styles. Not so much when it comes from universities and ITE institutions.

For further information on the debunked learning styles myth, see David Didau’s book, Tom Bennett’s book and this wonderful podcast by The Learning Scientists.

1 thought on “The ‘Learning Styles’ Myth

  1. Interesting stuff. I’ve always thought of the learning styles as being more pertinent to the student than the teacher, in that they can help the student be more aware of their own ability to process or understanding things. I’m trying not to make it sound like there’s a theory behind it. I can certainly agree that regardless of your ‘learning style’ (real or not) you still have to be able to do the things you’re being taught (or so they say).

    Liked by 1 person

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