Q: My son was doing poorly in one of his courses. I think it is because he is a visual learner, but his teacher mainly uses auditory methods. I finally enrolled him in an online course that caters more to his learning style and now he is doing well. Shouldn’t teachers use different strategies to accommodate the different ways students learn?
What you are advocating for here is the theory of “learning styles,” which basically says that students learn best when lessons are presented according to the students’ preferred learning method. In your son’s case, he says he learns “better” when information is presented visually versus aurally. It appears you agree. It sounds like a good theory. It’s all a lot of bunk.
Research over the last few years has concluded that the theory doesn’t hold water. From The Journal of Educational Psychology to The Journal of Neuroscience, recent published studies assert that there is no relationship between students’ learning-style preferences and their ability to comprehend. The Yale Center for Teaching and Learning calls the idea a “neuromyth.”
Still, a lot of people believe it. A recent survey published by Frontiers in Psychology showed that 93 percent of the public and 76 percent of educators endorse the idea.
That tide is turning. The theory of learning styles has been debunked so thoroughly that just last year a group of 30 scientists from some of the most prominent universities wrote a letter imploring schools to drop their adherence to it, calling the theory “detrimental.”
Your letter provides us a glimpse of why it can cause problems. It can lead to students alienating themselves from teaching methods they don’t prefer. This is among the theories behind such trendy (and failing) ideas as “personalized learning”: give students lessons targeted to their learning style and they’ll learn better.
Such isolation, however, can cripple efforts to become lifelong learners. It’s like a person who only wants to travel to places he can reach on his bicycle. What happens when the grocery store or hospital move way across town?
The 30 scientists note that “categorizing individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.” This is a big problem. Students are losing the ability to adjust to varying circumstances because all of their lives we have catered to their personal desires. They no longer have to problem solve, think critically, or figure a way out of a tough situation, and it is killing their ability to cope in a challenging world.
When the learning styles theory first burst on the scene, educational leaders slurped it up like Kool-Aid. It afforded them a “silver bullet” to explain why some students learn well and some students don’t. Plus, it was cheap. All you had to do to fix our problems in education was to convince teachers to start teaching in three different modes: auditory, kinesthetic, and visual. Thanks in part to teacher training programs that are more concerned with trendiness than quality, that was easy.
Parents, too, were eager to buy into the theory because it allowed them to blame someone else for their children’s perceived shortfalls. If little River was getting C’s in math, well, it had to be because that teacher didn’t teach to his “learning style.”
Plus, let’s admit, it sounds good. All of us have a preferred way of learning. It’s easy to make ourselves believe that since we prefer to learn by watching videos, we can’t learn by listening to a lecture. Yet that is precisely what is untrue about the whole theory.
The reality is that humans can learn in a variety of ways. If we 1) adjust our attitudes from an “I can’t” to an “I can and I will” perspective, and 2) train ourselves to use good focus and study strategies, we can learn no matter what kinds of lessons the teacher uses. Teachers of younger students should be focusing on coaching them in the use of these strategies rather than spending time adapting lessons to conform to an erroneous theory.
To answer your question, no, teachers should not use different strategies to accommodate their students’ learning styles. This has led to too much repetition and lots of wasted class time as students twiddle their thumbs waiting to have a lightweight learning standard drummed into their heads in three different ways.
Instead, teachers should use the best strategy available to them to teach a lesson efficiently and effectively. Maybe it’s lecture. Maybe it’s a video. Maybe it’s dressing up like a unicorn and squeezing vine-ripe tomatoes between their knees. Good teaching is good teaching, and all students can benefit from it, even if they’d prefer a different method.
Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992. He has served as Charleston County Teacher of the Year, Walmart Teacher of the Year, and CEA runner-up for National Educator of the Year. He currently teaches English at Moultrie Middle School and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification when new columns are posted, please email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. For easy sharing and notifications, follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook: facebook.com/teachertoparent.