CHICAGO – The education industry is nothing if not trend-driven, and sometimes fads manage to calcify into indisputable “facts” that spur backlash when challenged.
Take the minirevolt over the recent boomlet of myth-busting news articles about “learning styles,” the theory that some people learn better through movement, others through reading or listening and so on.
Just post links to Quartz’s “The concept of different ‘learning styles’ is one of the greatest neuroscience myths” or New York Magazine’s “One Reason the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth Persists” on your Facebook timeline and watch otherwise gentle, openhearted educators descend into bitter disputes about the challenges of being an auditory learner in a text-rich society.
My first brush with the “learning styles” credo was in a graduate-level education program that promoted it as an article of faith for any new teacher.
A decade later, not teaching for different learning styles is considered akin to educational malpractice. Some educators believe that not presenting every concept to students in each of the many styles – kinesthetic, visual, auditory – is nothing short of bigotry because it discriminates against those who don’t learn in “traditional” ways.
Students have internalized this responsibility-absolving mantra over the years. I spent this past fall semester in a music theory course at my local community college with young adults who unfailingly challenged our professor’s classroom instruction, homework and tests with “learning style” complaints.
If we were doing aural training, someone would whine about being a visual learner. The written tests were “too hard” for the kinesthetic learners because they weren’t good at writing on paper, and so on. It was ridiculous – we were, after all, in a music class where reading, writing and listening to music were required, and had been clearly articulated in the course description.
I’m too jaded about how tenaciously educators cling to their dogmas to believe that the overemphasis on differentiated learning styles will soon recede from practice. The “everybody’s special” ethos of teacher education tends to treat the “learning styles” theory as though a student’s preferred method of processing new information automatically makes him or her incapable of learning through any other means. It is heartening to see attempts at dismantling the legend.
“Over and over, researchers have failed to find any substantive evidence for the notion of learning styles, to the point where it’s been designated a ‘neuromyth’ by some education and psychology experts,” writes Jesse Singal in a recent issue of New York Magazine.
The reason the myth lives on, according to Christian Jarrett in Wired magazine, is the educational-industrial complex. “It is propagated not only in hundreds of popular books,” Jarrett wrote, “but also through international conferences and associations, by commercial companies who sell ways of measuring learning styles, and in teacher-training programs.”
Howard Gardner, who over 30 years ago did groundbreaking research on the notion of multiple intelligences – which include logical-mathematical, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal, spatial and others, which all work in concert – has gone out of his way to differentiate his work from the shorthand of “learning styles.”
On The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Gardner wrote, “If people want to talk about ‘an impulsive style’ or ‘a visual learner,’ that’s their prerogative. But they should recognize that these labels may be unhelpful, at best, and ill-conceived at worst.”
When I spoke to Gardner about the danger of using his research and the now-ubiquitous “learning styles” as a crutch for students or an excuse for teachers to not push students to perform up to their potential, he said, “I’m against uniform schools. And everybody’s got his or her own way of learning, but we’re not going to expect all schools to accommodate them all.
“There has to be a middle ground. We don’t want to make every student learn in the same way, but we also don’t want to encourage students to not have to stretch out of their comfort zone and show some grit. The way I would put it is that kids should get as much help as they need to learn, but not one whit more.”
Teachers are well-meaning, but buying into the “learning styles” myth has not been definitively shown to improve educational outcomes. So let it die already.
Rather than waste valuable time trying to cater to every possible learning preference, teachers would do better to help all students develop a full range of skills and competencies.
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