Question: Do you believe in learning styles?

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In my profession there’s a hot debate going on about “learning styles”. You know, finding out whether you are a visual learner and need to see things to understand them, or an auditory learner who prefers to hear things, or whether you are a kinethetic learner and have to do things to really get them. Those are just some of the more famous learning styles, there are many more (such as whether you learn more on your own or in a group, or whether you are more analytic or non-analytic.) I found a video by Professor Daniel Willingham who calls the whole idea of “learning styles” unscientific. I find it particularly interesting, as it got me thinking.

I also liked this response by New Zealand teacher Craig Hansen:

My opinion? If the idea of learning styles helps a student learn, I’ll run with it, whether it’s science or religion. Because, no matter what you call it, learning improves when you’re motivated, and finding out that your way of dealing with learning is taken seriously enough to actually have a name can be very motivating. Students start to learn better once you’ve given them some attention and looked at what they need to become better learners.

What about you, do you believe that we have learning styles? If so, does that knowledge help you learn?

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences.

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7 Responses

  1. Hi Anne,
    I’m with you on this one. I go with whatever works for me and my students. But perhaps the teachers’ style of presentation of the subject matter is key. How they raise curiosity, link to students’ present knowledge, adapt to situations on the fly and project a cheerful and caring personality (even on a wet, Novemebr Monday morning;-)). Thanks for the link to Daniel Willingham . I’ve just ordered his book “Why students don’t like school”. Should make interesting reading!

  2. Hi Anne,
    I really like DWillingham’s arguments. If I understand him correctly
    he’s saying that people do have tendencies to learn better visually, (as the other gentleman could prove re giving directions) auditorially (!) or kinesthetically, but it’s not just simply one or the other style isolated on its own which helps the learner. There are more factors involved. I know from my own experience in learning languages that hearing the language and imitating the sounds is essential for me. However, the visual aspect could also be almost more important for me to store the the language in my brain and then retrieve it on the spur of the moment.
    Working with engineers for example, we know that they thrive on producing ‘products’ / results with their hands. Does that make them more kinesthetic? I don’t think so because they’re usually very hung up on logic – seeing facts written down and applying logic – though of course all the factors are being processed in the brain.
    Just some thoughts,

  3. Great post!

    I’m with the Prof on this. I think it’s been massively over-simplified. Surely we all learn different things on different days in different ways. For example, take my phone number (which I’ve doctored a bit!). The first part is 0775. When I want to remember this I’m sure I hear it (oh double seven five) rather than see it. The next part is 300. This is certainly visual for me – I can see all those round bits. The last part, 1245, I imagine myself typing 12, then skipping the 3, and typing 45. Seems pretty kinaesthetic to me. So that’s 3 learning styles in one phone number.

    The reality should surely be to present and practise things all three ways for everyone. But some things lend themselves much more to one mode than another. I don’t think there are many people who would argue with Craig’s opinion that directions are better given visually. To me that doesn’t make him a visual learner, it makes understanding and remembering directions a largely visual skill.

    Thanks for the post – interesting!

  4. Carole, yep, I think curiosity and relating are key to pretty much everything to do with learning. Let me know how the book is! What classes do you teach?

    Joan, yep, he does acknowledge that some people have a stronger visual or auditory memory. I remember feeling soothed when I was told that not everyone remembers the same way, because my visual memory is so rotten, and thinking maybe I’ll find a better way to learn after all. For a while I was making all sorts of games and puzzles “for visual and kinesthetic learners”. The games are great when they suit the occasion and content, though not everyone seems to want or need them. I’ve learned that some of the puzzles and card games are simply too much for those engineering types, and it would be silly to force them on them. I often use the better games for a change of pace in long seminars, if nothing else, which is almost always welcome.

    Johanna, re giving directions, I’d definitely agree. Maps are clearly processed elsewhere in our brains than phrases like “turn right at the sign and go another three blocks before turning right again…” Just think how difficult it is to describe where things are in your living room just using words. Sit on your hands. I’m sitting here trying to do it, and keep wanting to use my hands ;). I like Prof. Willingham’s focus on concepts, on the message dictating the medium.

    Still, I’d champion giving what we’ve come to call “the kinesthetic learner” the opportunity to get up and move around and act those directions out if it helps, and making sure he knows that learning like that is completely legitimate, even if his neighbor thinks it’s a waste of time. If it makes him feel more competent to think of himself as a “kinesthetic learner”, so be it. There’s simply no replacing experience to figure out what works for whom.

    Thanks for your comments!

    PS: I’m still thinking about the New Zealand teacher’s comment “Listening drives me nuts.” When he gets additional information in a way he can’t process, it confuses him and actually keeps him from working with the information he already has. Food for thought!
    PPS: For me it means we have to choose very carefully which types of information to give geared to which of the senses. More is not more.

  5. Hi

    Interested to see debate on Learning Styles going on all over the place.

    I wrote a long-ish blog piece on it a couple weeks ago here:

    Daniel Willingham’s arguments (in the video at least) are largely about debunking the theories through logic. But there was a huge piece of research done in the UK on a whole range of Learning Styles theories. The findings are fascinating and worth a read.

    It’s also interesting to note that the findings were buried by the government department which commissioned them – the subject is a hot topic.

    The blog post tries to be dispassionate and I’m not sure my personal feelings come across.

    But basically, I think Learning Styles in the hands of practitioners is fine. But when it gets into the hands of institutions and government it’s a nightmare. There are teachers in the UK, for example, who are assessed on their ability to ‘use Learning Styles’. This is bonkers.

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