On a sunny hike along a Madeiran levada a couple of years ago, I got chatting to a retired school teacher and I told him about the brain myths book I was writing. An affable chap, he listened with interest about the 10 percent myth and other classic misconceptions, but his mood changed when I mentioned learning styles. This is the mistaken idea that we learn better when the instruction we receive is tailored to our preferred way of learning. The friendly teacher was passionate about the concept’s merit – his own preferred style, he said, was to learn “by doing” and no-one would ever convince him otherwise.
How widely believed is the myth?
The teacher I met in Madeira is far from alone in endorsing the myth. It is propagated not only in hundreds of popular books, but also through international conferences and associations, by commercial companies who sell ways of measuring learning styles, and in teacher training programs. The TeachingEnglish website published by the British Council and the BBC states boldly “Your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles” – this includes, they claim, being: right- or left-brained, analytic vs. dynamic, and visual vs. auditory. A recent international survey of teachers from the UK, China and elsewhere found that 96 percent believed in the idea of preferred learning styles.
Why is the idea so popular?
Parents, understandably, like to think that their children are receiving a tailored education. Teachers, also understandably, like to think that they are sensitive to each child’s needs and many are clearly motivated to find out more about how to fulfill this ideal. Also, no-one likes to think of themselves as low in ability. It’s more comforting to my ego to think that a class was difficult because of a teaching style I didn’t like than because I wasn’t concentrating or because I’m simply not clever or motivated enough.
Is there any evidence to support the learning styles concept?
Yes there is a little, but experts on the topic like Harold Pashler and Doug Rohrer point out that most of this evidence is weak. Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.
Read the article All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes here.