A curve traced out by a point that moves so that its distance from a given point is constant

Are you confused by the title? Bear with me..

I’ve been working with my colleagues to write a series of online modules aimed at teachers in Ghana. When signing up to become an ‘ICT in Education Advisor’, I never expected to be helping to author courses dealing with practical topics such as ‘classroom management’, ‘getting to know your pupils’ and ‘lesson planning’. But it’s what needs to be done so I’ve researched, learnt and worked on training that explores the best approaches to educating children. And I’ve found that maybe coming from a different background and not having the preconceptions of someone with a history of working in this area, might have helped. The theories that claim to backup successful education approaches are naturally areas of great interest to teachers, parents, researchers and just about anyone. Some theories can become so widely accepted, that casting a critical eye on them can be surprisingly emotive. I recently became embroiled in a debate over whether the theory of individual learning styles is a useful way to describe how we absorb information. This came up when we were developing the course focused on  ‘getting to know your pupils’ and my colleagues wanted to include videos about learning styles in the module.

If you are unfamiliar with learning styles, it is a theory that states we each have a preferred sensory mode when it comes to taking in information. Some flavours of the theory are complex, but the most popular and simple version is that there are 3 main types of learner: audial, visual and kinaesthetic. So, an audial learner prefers to learn by listening; a visual learner prefers visual styles of information delivery; and a kinaesthetic learner likes to touch things and ‘learn by doing’. The critical part of the theory, from the perspective of an educator, states that if you can deliver information that targets an individual’s preferred sensory mode, he or she will learn faster than if you target other senses.

I’m a learning styles sceptic for three main reasons: there isn’t much evidence that it works, I don’t think there is an adequate method to determine a person’s preferred sensory mode and finally, I’m not sure it makes intuitive sense (more about that later). It turned out my colleagues were not sceptics – far from it: they passionately defended learning styles. In fact, I was at risk of offending them when they started to cite their personal experiences as teachers and parents.

I started to realise that this ‘belief’ in learning styles might be a wider problem in the education field. Indeed, a bit more googling, and it turned out there were whole TEDx talks, articles and blog posts dedicated to both questioning learning styles as a theory and providing ways to sensitively broaching the topic with die-hard adherents. Clearly this theory is incredibly appealing to lots of people – but why do people love it so much?

One reason might be that learning styles seems to make ‘intuitive sense’ to them – unfortunately, whenever anything makes intuitive sense, I think that alarms bells should start to ring, because it means you may well skip an important step – demanding and examining the available evidence. As I said, the evidence is almost non-existent. That is reason enough for scepticism, but I don’t think it does make intuitive sense.

My take on learning styles is that selecting which ‘sensory modes’ to target is far more dependent on the information you are trying to communicate than the individual you are communicating with. For example, what did I describe in the title of this blog? ‘A curve traced out by a point that moves so that its distance from a given point is constant.’ Get someone else to read the words out loud – does that help? I’m sure most people will get it, but it would have been faster if I’d just drawn a circle. That’s not because you are a poor audial learner, it’s because some types of information are slower to process when described than when visualised.

The exception is when communicating with someone who has impairment in one or more of their senses – then of course some modes may be inappropriate.

Ultimately, although I failed to convince my colleagues that learning styles theory may not be as helpful to an educator as many people believe, I was able to convince them to drop all mention of it in the module and instead focus on the importance of getting to know your pupils on an individual level with respect to their motivations, interests and personality.

I’m still pretty new to all of these education theories so I’d be interested to hear from anybody with strong views or experiences to share. What’s your take on learning styles?


Links to other articles, talks and blogs:

Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection | Tesia Marshik | TEDxUWLaCrosse

All you need know about the learning styles myth in two minutes

The concept of learning styles is one of the great neuroscience myths – QZ

Can neuroscientists dispel the myth that children have different learning styles

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