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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/14/2009

Willingham: Student "Learning Styles" Theory Is Bunk

By Valerie Strauss

U-Va. cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of "Why Don't Students Like School?" is my guest today.

By Daniel Willingham

The Big Idea behind learning styles is that kids vary in how they learn: Some learn best by looking (visual learners), some by listening (auditory learners), and some by manipulating things (kinesthetic learners).

According to the theory, if we know what sort of a learner a child is, we can optimize his or her learning by presenting material the way that they like.

The prediction is straightforward: Kids learn better when they are taught in a way that matches their learning style than when they are taught in a way that doesn’t.

That’s a straightforward prediction.

The data are straightforward too: It doesn’t work.

It doesn't work--not only for the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory, but for many other learning styles theories that have been proposed and tested since the 1940s.

Researchers have been conducting experiments on learning styles for 50 years. They’ve been tested with the sorts of materials that kids encounter in schools. They’ve been tested with kids diagnosed with a learning disability.

There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.

This is not to say that all kids are the same, or that all kids should be taught the same way. But it does help us to understand what the source of these differences might be.

Consider this analogy. Watch kids on a museum field trip and you’ll notice that they stop to look at different paintings: some like cubism, some like impressionism, some like the Old Masters, and so on.

You would not conclude that these kids have different visual systems. You’d figure that these differences were due to the children’s backgrounds, their personalities, tastes, and so on.

The same seems to be true of learning.

Some lessons click with one child and not with another, but not because of an enduring bias or predisposition in the way the child learns. The lesson clicks or doesn’t because of the knowledge the child brought to the lesson, his interests, or other factors.

When you think about it, the theory of learning styles doesn’t really celebrate the differences among children: On the contrary, the point is to categorize kids.

Each child is to be categorized as one of three types of learners. Categorization might be worth it if the categories were accurate, and therefore provided information that would help teachers. But the categories are meaningless.

Suggesting that teachers cater to learning styles—when teachers must already do some differentiation based on what students know—makes a teacher’s job much more difficult with no benefit to students.

Yet teachers are still asked to do it.

The new District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Teaching and Learning Framework, for example, does.

In the framework, which lays out Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s vision of what it means to be a good teacher, the fourth guideline in the “Teaching” section of the Framework suggests that teachers “target multiple learning styles” in order to “ensure all students have the opportunity to meet lesson objectives.” Teachers are encouraged to vary the content of lessons (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, interpersonal, linguistic, social).

The D.C. school system is not alone in this error, of course. Learning styles has become unquestioned dogma among many educators, despite the utter lack of evidence to support it.

But a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.

I’m picking on DCPS for this error, but Rhee deserves credit for laying her cards on the table regarding her view of good teaching in such a concrete, clear manner.

It’s awfully common for districts to sound clarion calls (“All teachers must strive for excellence”) without getting to specifics. DCPS has put meaning into that banality.

Now they need to put similar effort into making another bromide meaningful: “Our decisions are research-based.”

You can read more from Willingham here on The Answer Sheet; he will be a repeat guest blogger. You can also read read other articles by him by clicking here.


By Valerie Strauss  | September 14, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, auditory learner, kinesthetic learner, learning styles, visual learner, visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory  
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Comments

Wait a minute -- ok, maybe it's preference vs. ingrained learning style. But how do you get from there to the conclusion that there is "no benefit" to varying lessons? To continue your analogy: maybe I prefer the Cubists because of my background, preferences, etc., and not because I am hard-wired to like Cubists. Wouldn't I still benefit from a class that included some Cubists in it, instead of being force-fed a daily diet of Old Masters?

The fact is, different kids do learn in different ways; what clicks with one kid may not click with another (Lord knows I see that enough with my own daughter; I can explain until I am blue in the face, then DH says three words and the light goes on). Whether it is nature or nuture, or whether you can categorize it in a nice neat biological box, really doesn't matter. What does matter is finding a way to reach each individual child. And the way to maximize your chances of doing that is to present the material in a variety of different ways.

Posted by: laura33 | September 14, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

From your column: "The lesson clicks or doesn’t because of the knowledge the child brought to the lesson, his interests, or other factors."

This statement seem contradictory to the overall message in the column. Nevertheless, I agree that it is too much to ask a teacher to teach many lessons according to many learning styles. There's only so much time in the day. It's also ridiculous to assume children only learn one way. I taught my preschoolers the alphabet using many tools, one of which was a smooth to rough model of letters for the kids to feel. Kids who were slower at understanding the objective of letters enjoyed it, but kids who were already reading thought it was silly--maybe I got to them too late.

However, we could be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Schools that have kids stand up throughout class and use technology for them to communicate with an instructor has got to be a dream come true for kinesthetic learners. Schools that lecture in no more than 15min blocks, followed by an activity, are on target for these same kids. I believe we should indeed work with the learning styles that are most polar to the traditional classroom approach.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 14, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Finally we have someone who is knowledgeable, bases decisions on scientific research, and is not fooled by fads writing for a major newspaper!

Posted by: Marvi | September 15, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

But this "learning style" thing is so ingrained in education that we need to really fight for this. If I present the material three different ways, people assume that the kid got it the third way, instead of getting it because they got the same information three times.

Logically take it two the extremes. The learing styles theory predicts that auditory learners would learn best about impressionism by describing it with words, visual learners would learn best about music by looking at the sheet music, and kinesthetic learners would learn best about history by walking in circles?

Posted by: someguy100 | September 15, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Time would be better spent on creating lessons that peak the interest of the learner regardless of the style in which they learn. Based on the articles inference this would be of greater benefit.

Posted by: ognam1 | September 15, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Cognitive neuroscientists have found that we tend to respond to a stimulus in the same modality in which it was originally encoded. That is, if we learned something auditorily, we tend to best be able to recall that information from an auditory prompt. But they have also found that the more ways in which information is encoded (taught), the deeper the learning tends to be and the more likely it is that the new information can be retrieved (remembered) and applied. Each modality encodes the information in a different part of the brain, and it is then those connections between all of them that make retrieval rapid and meaningful.

Therefore, if we teach ONLY to a child's perceived learning style, we end up handicapping that child, not enlightening him or her.

What we should do, instead, is to use multi-sensory strategies in EACH lesson, not vary from one to the other in different lessons, so that all children learn as effectively as possible. The International Dyslexia Association strongly recommends multi-sensory teaching and learning. Research on second-language acquisition likewise finds benefits. Multi-sensory strategies, therefore, make it possible for all kinds of learners to learn well in one setting.

Posted by: balesley | September 15, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I read Dr. Willingham’s book a few months ago and while overall I felt it was excellent, I was not convinced by his chapter on this topic. It just didn’t jibe with what I’ve observed.

Take my younger brother and me for example. We tested the exact same for IQ and scored within 10 points of each other on the SAT so it’s reasonable to assume we are equally intelligent. We were raised in the same home, attended the same schools, and generally had similar life experiences as kids.

If someone wanted my brother to perform an unfamiliar task, he would be most successful if given a visual diagram like those IKEA assembly instructions. In contrast, I would be most successful if given either oral instructions or written instructions that I would proceed to read aloud to myself.

I just can’t believe that there’s no such things as “visual” and “auditory” learners because it’s the most logical explanation for the difference I’ve observed between my brother and myself. And it makes intuitive sense since we know from other brain research that males have superior spatial reasoning skills while females have superior verbal reasoning skills.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | September 15, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Thanks to all for taking the time to read the post.
Laura33: the conclusion is not that there is no benefit to varying lessons. Surely there is benefit in having different experiences in the classroom. The conclusion is that varying lessons for individual students according to learning styles theories yields no benefit.
Someguy100: I agree. The reason that people proposed these theories over 50 years ago is exactly because they seem plausible from everyday experience. . .but what does one say about something that *seems* true, but disappears when we try to look at it experimentally?
CrimsonWife: but this is why we do experiments. You might have one experience that you are absolutely persuaded means X about learning and I have an experience that I am absolutely convinced means X is wrong. How do we reconcile them? That’s one motivation for the whole scientific enterprise. We plan an experiment that we agree with test our disagreement; you predict X will happen, and I predict not X. There is a sizable body of experiments on this topic, including some that use classroom materials, some that use kids diagnosed with one or another learning disability, some that just look at stated preferences of learning style. . .it just never pans out. My website has a list of review articles, if you’re interested.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 15, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

The human brain seeks novelty, new experiences. As a second grade teacher when I present a lesson in more than one way, students get the variety their brains crave and are more engaged in the subject matter. I feel I reach more students when I teach using more than one modality and the lessons "stick."

Posted by: ruthmanna | September 17, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I was originally trained as a special educator using the modality-based learning theories that Dan is talking about. the more I thought about it, the more I became confused. After all, just how does a visual learner learn to speak? the research refuting the modality-based learning styles theory in special education goes way back to the early 70's. Nobody reads it (they must be auditory learners) and so the argument continues. Dan's interpretation is rock-solid and in line with a substantial body of high-quality research.

Posted by: fbrigham | September 17, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Has the author checked with Howard Gardner? I'd like to be a fly on the wall for that exchange. Seems to me that Willingham is attempting to debunk a common theory to draw attention to himself. Boo to that. The larger argument is why teachers have lost control of creativity and lesson design. I've been in education for two decades and have witnessed the demise of creativity. PS I'm no cognitive scientist but I'll bet the people who read or respond to this post are skilled in reading and writing. Duh!

Posted by: reme1 | September 17, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I disagree that it is useless information about learning styles. When teachers are aware of the learners strengths they are better prepared to teach them because they understand and know what they need. It also allows teachers not to focus on their own learning style needs but on those of the students they teach. Research says we teach the way we like to learn. It is not just to teach to their style but it is to help students advocate for their own learning needs.

Posted by: theresa_staford | September 17, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

This guy is either crazy or just out of touch. First he mentions "learning styles"...only mentions 3-visual, auditory and kinesthetic. He then goes on to mention 3-4 more. Look at true cognitive science theories-there are up to 8 or 9 learning styles. In my personal experience, as a teacher, parent, mentor-I have found that we all have multiple learning styles and do best with multiple learning modes, based on our own learning style. One (or a combination of more than one)style may work in a particular "subject" area for a given student and may, in fact not work in another particular subject area for the same student...child or adult! Since when are we all supposed to be perfect in every subject area, given a standardized (one way of learning and assessment) criteria? Is there no such thing as INDIVIDUALISM? We are human beings, not robots pre-programmed with artificial intellegence...which is exactly what our government schools have become! We need to keep our children thinking...and thinking for themselves, with our support, not our "filling of their heads" with our predisposed notions!

Posted by: ccezrider65 | September 17, 2009 8:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see Professor Willingham gaining a broader audience via washingtonpost.com. His is a voice of informed sanity, a precious combination in education. In this field it isn't just the oddballs who promote groundless fads but mainstream organization like the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), which was a major promoter of "brain based" education and has now shifted to "differentiated instruction," which is essentially what Willingham is criticizing. But killing off such fads is really slaying the hydra. If the comments on Willingham's post are any indication, the next head of the hydra that needs lobbing off will be multisensory education. It rests on the same dubious basis as learning styles, but is enthusiastically taken up by people who buy Willingham's message about learning styles. "Teach it better," which I take to be Willingham's take-away message, simply doesn't resonate with educators the way all this "multi" stuff does, and that is sad.

Posted by: CarlosB1 | September 17, 2009 8:45 PM | Report abuse

Compounding the issue of differing learning styles is the fact that, at least in middle and high schools in this country, students encounter different teaching styles every period of the day as they learn each different subject from a new teacher. Even if each teacher tries to address the full range of learning styles, given the inclusive nature of public school classrooms, the teachers' own personalities, preparation and teaching experience, as well as the varied subject matter, mean that students encounter a wide range of inputs throughout the day. Adjusting to each new teacher and their differing expectations is very challenging for many students.

In homes where there are two parents, the consistency between those parents in their treatment and approach to their children is almost more important than the actual messages they deliver. If one parent tells their child to do their homework before dinner and the other tells them it is okay to go out and play while it is light, the child will choose the answer they want to hear or will at least be confused about what is expected of them and how to behave. The same is true at school. While the independence that teachers have in many school systems allows for some enrichment by teachers willing to put in the extra effort, more often than not it leads to inconsistencies in teaching style and content that greatly overshadow any benefits.

There are certainly benefits to devising lessons that allow students to access information in a variety of ways but students would get a much bigger benefit from teachers working more collaboratively, setting more consistent expectations and ultimately developing best practices that assure all students have the opportunity to learn what they need to learn in a predictable manner to which they can learn to adjust.

Posted by: dbjanda | September 18, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Just teaching to learning styles is not all it takes to being successful in teaching students.you state that learning styles are in three categories auditory, visual and kinesthetic. At Denver Academy we consider these to be modalities rather than learning styles. In other words, information is taken in auditory, visually or kinesthetically. Just because a person has a strong ability to listen, doesn't mean you can lecture for long periods of time and they will succeed in your class. We look at learning styles as having stronger tendencies for auditory visual or kinesthetic presentations. However,the environment in which learning takes place is crucial to success. Students need to feel safe physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. another huge factor for student success is the students motivation and the ability to be recognized and being graded in various ways besides just written work.

Posted by: dloan | September 18, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Ruthmanna: Agreed, absolutely. This is not differentiating for learning styles. This is ensuring engagement.
Reme1: Gardner’s theory is one of abilities, not styles. Very different idea. Anyone would like to have more ability, but styles are supposed to be different ways that people get to the same learning goal. Overall, it’s not supposed to be better to be a visual learner or an auditory learner. (If you don’t separate styles and ability, you might as well say “Sorry, mathematical thinking is not my style.”)
Theresa_staford: “When teachers are aware of the learners strengths they are better prepared to teach them because they understand and know what they need.” If you mean strengths and weaknesses, then I agree. This is different than styles.
Ccezrider65: I’m not sure what “true cognitive science” theories you’re talking about. If you (or anyone else ) are interested in reading some review articles that sizes up this research, I reference some on my web page here: http://www.danielwillingham.com/learningstylescitationspage. The choice is really not between believing in learning styles or believing that we’re all pre-programmed robots. Really. It’s not.
Dbjanda : I think that there are lots of ways to be a good teacher. I’m not sure why it would be a problem for a student to encounter different sorts of teachers throughout the day. Far from being confusing, I would think a student might find it energizing.
Dloan: what I said about modality theory of learning styles (the most commonly accepted version) is equally true for the many other varieties of l.s. theories. When they have been carefully tested, there is no support for the predictions. I think it’s noncontroversial that students need to feel safe and motivated.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 18, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

If you are going to publish your opinions in a forum read by people who are inexperienced in the subject area it is irresponsible to leave out the research on which your opinions are based. There is some research (scientific or anecdotal) that shows success with changing instructional methods to accommodate learning styles, and there may be other research showing that there is no effect. If you want to inform parents who are unfamiliar with the topic, you should give them ideas of where they can go for more information including definitions of the terms.

Posted by: klasher321 | September 19, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Some of these comments exemplify precisely the reason our nation is falling so far behind in education: The dig-in-the-heels refusal of people to go by the data and evidence, rather than what "feels" or "sounds" right to them.

As a college professor, I deal with this nonsense every semester--students who believe their "learning styles" require a certain kind of teaching, and administrators who are willing to cater to students because of some misguided notion that students are "customers" (I wonder when we'll finally tell the truth about this mindset and simply start charging for grades). Semester after semester, we see no evidence to support the idea of "learning styles," but by clinging to the idea that they exist, students can comfort themselves for their subpar performance by saying, "Well, I'm a visual learner and they didn't teach that way," and administrators can wax eloquent about how "student centered" we are by demanding we integrate a "variety of learning styles" into our courses.

Clinging to ideas unsupported by evidence is not only unfair to students, but is dangerous to their--and our nation's--success in a highly competitive world. The most brilliant intellects in our history were not catered to based on their "learning styles"--they were taught in nearly identical fashion. The only way education in our nation is going to succeed is if we begin unflinchingly telling ourselves the truth.

Posted by: LadyVA | September 19, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Dr. Willingham's thesis would be more believable if he provided one, just one single study, survey or piece of empirical evidence to support his statement! He claims there is no evidence to support the use of learning styles - but he provides none to refute the use - only a poorly reasoned analogy about preferences in art. The work of Howard Gardner and others in the field of multiple intelligence has overwhelmingly provided evidence that also supports attention tolearning style theory. Where is your evidence Dr. Willingham???? It isn't in your article.

Posted by: sam31750 | September 21, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

sam31750
these are review articles:
Kavale, K. A. and Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228-239.

Stahl, S. (1999). Different Strokes for different folks, American Educator, Fall, 1-5.

Reynolds, M. (1997). Learning styles: A critique. Management Learning, 28, 115-133.

Coffield, F. (2004). Learning Styles: What do we know? Available on line at http://www.lsda.org.uk/files/PDF/Unplearnstylespost16.pdf.

Sharp, J. G., Bowker, R., & Byrne, J.
(2008). VAK or VAK-uous? Towards the trivialisation of learning and the death of scholarship. Research Papers in Education, 23, 293-314.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research, 50, 123-133.

The Multiple Intelligences theory is *not* a learning styles theory. From Gardner's (2006)"Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons" (p. 65) ". . .style and intelligence are really fundamentally different psychological constructs. Style refers to the customary way in which an individual approaches a range of materials. [sic].Intelligence refers to the computational power of a mental system."

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 21, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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