Learning Abilities, Not Learning Styles (Apparently)

After stumbling upon a great TED talk about Debunking Psychology Myths, one struck me. Ben Ambridge, author of Psy-Q, gives a fly-by of 10 myths surrounding how our brains work, and covers “learning styles” (visual, auditory, tactile or kinesthetic learning preferences) as a myth.  “Hold on just one cotton pickin’ minute!” was my first thought, I must admit.

“Learning styles are not supported by scientific evidence.” He claims that it is obvious that this is true, because we use all of the various learning styles to learn most content (i.e., he gives examples by asking “Could you learn to drive a car with only auditory input if you are an auditory learner?).

Well, poppycock, says I! Learning styles are not about learning by only using input from your preferred style, but by using the style that helps you to make the most connections in your brain. At least, that is what I thought that I knew! While I didn’t like his examples to support the myth claim, I do like them in his explanation of a new understanding- that learning modalities must match the content being delivered to be most effective. I think that this is the foregone conclusion that he actually claimed to be obvious, and while it explains his examples, it is an entirely different conversation from the one that began with “Do learning styles exist or are they a myth?”

If you cant’ tell from the title, the research I’ve recently found on learning styles or modalities had to drag me across the finish line of acceptance. I had many questions about the quality and aim of the research, the semantics and semantic distinctions, but I finally conceded the point, in my mind that this is a serious line of questioning. If you feel the same nagging reluctance, read through this FAQ by researcher and professor Daniel Willingham. His cognitive psychology research, mostly on skill acquisition, has taken a turn towards how we can improve teaching and learning in American education. And, yes, he is a major voice in this debate as the researcher behind these changes that rocked my fragile little world for a while.

Here is his summary of what the current research can conclude: “People do learn differently, but I think it is very important to say exactly how they learn differently, and focus our attention on those differences that really matter. If learning styles were obviously right it would be easy to observe evidence for them in experiments. Yet there is no supporting evidence.  There are differences among kids that both seem obvious to us and for which evidence is easily obtained in experiments, e.g., that people differ in their interests, that students vary in how much they think of schoolwork as part of their identity (“I’m the kind of kid who works hard in school”) and that kids differ in what they already know at the start of a lesson.  All three of these have sizable, easily observed effects on learning. I think that often when people believe that they observe obvious evidence for learning styles, they are mistaking it for ability.”

He claims that learning styles do not exist, but are simply misplaced ideas with no scientific evidence to back them. In a podcast interview, the interviewer asks if there is a confirmation bias (i.e. something like a placebo effect, wherein you focus on the learning that is in line with whatever learning style with which you associate), and he agrees that there most likely is.

“There is no evidence that learning actually happens through various styles.” “Yes, [focusing on matching learning styles to individual students] is a waste of time.”(Daniel Willingham, PsychFiles Podcast, March 2009)

2009?! And I’m just now hearing about this?! Now this all might be really cute to those who work in theory, those for whom catering to a learner’s preferred modes of learning is only a matter of find new ways of reaching a few students not achieving to their full potential. But, to an educator of students with complex learning needs, this is a big deal. Our entire careers are spent attempting to cater our instruction to suit the needs of the individuals in the classroom in front of us. And my experience does not jive with these findings. Or does it?

He is suggesting that what we are calling “styles” is actually just varying levels of learning ability. In other words, catering to various “learning styles” might actually be what most people call “catering to your strengths”. So, a rose, by any other name, turns out to be a rose. This wisdom from yet another influential Willie.

Dr. Willingham doesn’t stop there; he goes on to discuss these ideas and more in a variety of formats, but circles back to reiterate that there could be something beyond simply differing levels of ability; we just don’t have evidence for it yet:

“I suggest that there are two important points to keep in mind when evidence for a theory is lacking: (1) it’s absolutely true that we could find out tomorrow that there are learning styles after all. Someone could propose a new theory, or we might realize that there is a different, better way to test the old theories. Note this is always the case–you can’t absolutely prove a theory untrue. But as things stand, there’s no scientific reason to think that the theories that have been proposed are correct; (2) the fact that we haven’t definitively proven a theory wrong seems like a poor reason to advocate using the theory in classrooms. To the extent that teachers use scientific theories about the mind to inform their practice, doesn’t it make sense to use theories that scientists are pretty sure are right?” 

Can I ask this question: Almost everyone is convinced that learning styles do exist, and they confirm this with evidence from their own experience, so is there not evidence enough that there are certainly learning preferences that impact an individuals learning in some way (whether it is impacting their measurable learning outcomes or not)? There must be an explanation for this discrepancy, and a better description of what is happening with our learning preferences (beyond the suggested placebo effect). There must be a reason why this “myth” is so widely and easily perpetuated.

I know that in my experience, so many of our learners with complex needs seem to demonstrate more progress when presented new information in a visually-based format. My colleagues and I, have experienced great success with learners engaging in auditory learning tasks with more success when paired with visual presentations. That is why these studies hit me right in the heart; they suggest that while my teaching with visual literacy strategies still holds value, that the value is based on an incorrect set of premises.

Many of you may have come to this a while ago, and have been waiting patiently for me to catch up, so thank you, but we must consider the possibility that the evidence from my experience is simply another form of confirmation bias. Maybe, what our students need is not a visual presentation at all, but presentations from many different aspects. Maybe, by thinking that we must add a visual presentation, we are simply covering the material more thoroughly, thus providing our students more opportunities to retain the content.

And to delve completely into the sea of speculation, it is also possible that the existence of “learning styles” is simply perpetuated by our desire to justify our weaknesses. For example”Its not that I’m bad at math, I just don’t think that way.” It’s not me, its my brain!

I think that Dr. Willingham might roll his eyes at me, and remind me that because our perception of style so closely correlates with ability, that it is easy for us to translate evidence from our personal experience with one as evidence for the perceived existence of the other. All right, all right. So “poppycock” was a bit strong. I’m finally coming around.

Where do we go from here? Dr. Willingham leads us to this research, which may provide some insight:

The Neural Correlates of Visual and Verbal Cognitive Styles
David J. M. Kraemer, Lauren M. Rosenberg, and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill
J. Neurosci. 2009, a study showing that individuals stating a learning preference will,  “given the chance people will translate from the less- preferred to the more preferred representation.” In other words, learners are demonstrating learning preference, even if the use of that preferred style does not translate into differences in learning ability. But why?

This is all so very interesting to me, and I have many more questions along this line of inquiry. While it would seem true that learning styles would correlate with ability, are there other factors to consider and causal relationships, and if so, what are they? If we are unable to measure sizable differences in our learning style outcomes as these studies suggest, is it possible that our learning preferences need to be measured more subtly or specifically? Can we design a study that might evaluate the quality of that new knowledge (does it afford us more connections, how long can we retain it, or does it become easier to generalize the knowledge through a preferred learning style?)

I have a feeling that many of my questions will be answered through the literature reviews, and maybe you are interested enough to wade through this with me. Hopefully, I will have more to share on this subject very soon, and I’m sure to share it right here. To be continued!

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