Learning Styles: The Fad That Just Won’t Go Away

September 23, 2019 Updated: September 24, 2019

To understand this article, make sure you use your preferred learning style.

If you are a visual learner, look closely at the words. If you are an auditory learner, ask someone to read it to you. If you are a tactile-kinaesthetic learner, use Lego blocks to plot out the main idea.

Hopefully you realize that this advice is nonsense. Newspapers are meant to be read to oneself. No matter how much you might like working with your hands, you are far more likely to understand this article if you read it word by word.

There are, however, times when working with your hands is a much better way to learn. For example, when learning how to change a tire for the first time, manually going through the steps is going to help a lot more than reading directions in a manual. At other times, listening is the best approach. For example, if you want to learn about the music of Beethoven or Bach, listening to their symphonies is probably more effective than reading something about their use of musical theory.

My point is that instead of classifying people according to so-called learning styles, we should recognize that the subject matter itself substantially determines the best way to learn about that subject. Sometimes looking at a picture is best, sometimes hearing it explained is best, and sometimes constructing a representative model is best. For many topics covered in school, the optimal approach is to do all of the above—something good teachers do.

For example, a grade 3 teacher who wants her students to learn about the planets in our solar system will probably show pictures, provide accurate verbal descriptions, and give students an opportunity to work with models of the planets. There is no need to categorize students into so-called learning styles and to teach them all differently. Rather, excellent teachers use a variety of teaching strategies with the whole class of students.

Unfortunately, the misguided notion that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and some are tactile-kinaesthetic learners, just won’t go away. In fact, recently the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) of Ontario released a report on student voice. Among other things, the report revealed that students want their teachers to know whether they are visual, auditory, or tactile-kinaesthetic learners.

Instead of correcting this misconception, EQAO validated it with a tweet that read, “What do you want next year’s teacher to know about you? I want my teacher to know that I’m an auditory learner.” Even though many experts challenged EQAO for promoting the learning styles fallacy, neither the tweet nor the report it came from has been revised or retracted. Learning styles lives on despite no empirical evidence supporting the idea.

This error is even more concerning when we consider that EQAO is responsible for assessing math and literacy skills of Ontario students. It begs the question of why Ontarians should trust the validity of EQAO’s assessment instruments and its analysis of the data. Sadly, EQAO is far from the only promoter of the learning styles fad. Across Canada, provincial education departments, faculties of education, and education consultants regularly encourage teachers to take students’ individual learning styles into account when designing their lessons.

One of the main reasons this fad persists is because so many people believe in it even though there is no good empirical evidence it exists. According to a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), surveys show that more than 80 percent of people believe in learning styles. As a result, learning styles assessments have become popularized in a variety of professional settings outside of elementary and secondary schools.

However, there is no excuse for this ignorance—not when the truth is so widely available. Within seconds, one can easily find articles on the APA website that debunk the learning styles fad. In addition, some of the world’s best-known education researchers, such as Dr. John Hattie and Dr. Daniel Willingham, have long pointed out that there is no evidence to support individual learning styles. In this case, not only does the emperor not have any clothes on, he never had any clothes in the first place.

While some might argue that learning styles is a harmless myth, the reality is that this fad has caused significant damage to students. Far too often, instead of providing well-designed whole class lessons, teachers waste vast amounts of time trying to adapt to the so-called learning styles of each of their students. It gets worse when school administrators and consultants push teachers to go even further in this direction. The result is that teachers end up working harder, getting worse results, and burning themselves out.

Rejecting the individual learning styles fad does not mean teachers must teach all students exactly the same way. Rather, it empowers teachers to use their professional judgment and their common sense to determine the best way to help students master the curriculum.

No matter whether you look at this issue visually, auditorily, or kinaesthetically, the conclusion is the same; educators should reject the learning styles fad.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.