While nearly 90 percent of Americans think people have unique learning styles — the best known are labeled auditory, visual, and kinesthetic — cognitive research has steadily debunked the idea over time. To mark Brain Awareness Week this month, 30 internationally respected neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators issued a public letter asking teachers to stop wasting time with it.
Is there a way you’d prefer to learn? Sure. But the original Learning Styles theory was based upon the notion that Johnny learned using physical actions like dancing or creating, and Jaimie learned best by listening, while Jerome learned best by reading.
I doubted this was true but noted that there were no studies which proved it was true. That’s how science is supposed to work. Develop a theory, test it, and then apply it.
In teaching, we skipped the testing step. We do that a lot.
Of course the Learning Styles notion was useless for complex concepts like nouns, verbs, polynomials and just about everything.
A recent survey about education myths pins both teacher training and the media for popularizing “learning styles” memes, which include the concepts of “right brain versus left brain,” “multiple intelligences,” and “reasoning versus intuitive.” These all make for fun TV segments and lots of moolah for pop psychologists like Malcom Gladwell, yet not only do not benefit learners through opportunity cost they keep people from doing something more useful with their thoughts and bodies.
[FYI: I actually am a right brain learner, plus I favor my left ventricle, right testicle and large intestine. — Dave]
I know some people don’t like learning from a book, and others can’t stand lectures, and others like building and making things. Each of these strategies is task specific, in my opinion. I don’t want a surgeon who has only learned it all from a book, or a mechanic who only has read the manual. On the other hand, I don’t really want a doctor who has merely learned where and how to cut, but understands nothing of the why.
If your brain is so highly specialized that it cannot take in material at all in multiple ways, then congratulations. You’re autistic. Or disabled in some way. This is a really, really small percentage of people.
Update: The North Carolina teaching evaluation contains a requirement that teachers consider Learning Styles. In other words, pseudoscience: