Learning Styles: Myth or Fact?

In one of my previous blogs, I mentioned learning styles. This is one of the first learning theories I embraced and, as such, one of the hardest I’ve had to let go. I think it makes an excellent topic for my first in a series of myths and facts of music cognition and learning.

I love to follow Neurobollocks. This tweeter actively engages with other neuro-minded researchers to point out the fallacies, whether subtle or obvious, in neuroscience research.

Back in 2013, Neurobollocks retweeted a blog post on learning styles. The author of the blog had recently attended a neuroscience seminar and summarized his experiences. He also provided a link to a research study that not only debunks the educational practice of learning styles, first postulated by Howard Gardner, but also provides evidence that neuroscientists and educated educators need to continue spreading the word that the learning styles theory as a teaching method is a myth.

I’ll be using this research study article in this post.

So, let’s start with the basics for those of you unfamiliar with learning styles. Howard Gardner first postulated his theory that all individuals possess multiple intelligences and that some of those intelligences were stronger than others depending on the individual. From those seven multiple intelligences came three learning styles or strengths: Visual, Kinesthetic, and Auditory.

To further explain these three simple learning styles, consider a small child first learning about a wooden block that has letters or numbers etched on its sides.
The visual learner would only need to see the block and its various colored sides to understand this is a wooden block that has letters or numbers on it.
The auditory learner would perhaps better comprehend what this block was if he heard the thunk of the wood as the block hit the ground. Even more, if the teacher said each of the letters or numbers on the block, the child would learn that this is a block with letters and numbers.
Finally, the kinesthetic child would need to hold the block in his hands, feel the texture of the wood, the etchings on each side of the block, and the corners and points to best learn that this is a wooden block with numbers and letters.

The theory seems logical. Consider the fact that some students learn better than others. Think about how most instruction is presented – either aurally or visually. Could it be that the most successful learners are those that are auditory or visual learners and the ones that struggle the most are kinesthetic ones? I could follow that premise, and many teachers and parents have embraced the theory as well. Many college level courses for teachers instruct teachers to incorporate all three learning styles into their curriculum, and the US Department of Education talked about the theory's benefits during the last few years of the twentieth century and the first few years of this century; yet, this reform hasn’t really helped students.

It is important to understand that connecting neuroscience to education isn’t always a bad thing. However, neuroscientific research not successfully connecting to an educational setting doesn’t necessarily negate the truth of the research.

Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones, and Jolles (2012) write, “visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain” and “these separate structures in the brain are highly interconnected”.

While we may have preferences on how we’d like to learn, learning exclusively via those preferences doesn’t improve our comprehension. What this means is that education still needs to be presented to all senses, even those we think aren’t very strong.

For further reading:
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning. A Systematic and Critical Review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Dekker, S., Lee, N.C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in psychology, 3(429). 
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