http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/September-October%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html The Myth of Learning Styles
by Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham
There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist. While we will elaborate on this assertion, it is important to counteract the real harm that may be done by equivocating on the matter. In what follows, we will begin by defining “learning styles”; then we will address the claims made by those who believe that they exist, in the process acknowledging what we consider the valid claims of learning-styles theorists. But in separating the wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff in learning-styles theory, we will make clear that the wheat is contained in other educational approaches as well. A belief in learning styles is not necessary to incorporating useful knowledge about learning into one's teaching. We will then discuss the reasons why learning styles beliefs are so prevalent. Finally, we will offer suggestions about collegiate pedagogy, given that we have no evidence learning styles do not exist. What is a Learning Style?
The claim at the center of learning-styles theory is this: Different students have different modes of learning, and their learning could be improved by matching one's teaching with that preferred learning mode. The way theorists have defined “modes of learning” has changed over the more than 50 years that this concept has been in vogue. Proposed modes have included dichotomies such as linear vs. holistic, impulsive vs. reflective, reasoning vs. insight, and visual vs. verbal. The most popular current conception of learning styles equates style with the preferred bodily sense through which one receives information, whether it be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (for some reason, no one claims that there are tactile or olfactory learners). We use this sensory definition of learning styles in the examples below, but our conclusions apply equally to other definitions. As you will see, the claim that the mode of presentation should match the preferred mode of learning subsumes several other claims, and it is worth unpacking the learning-styles concept in order to consider its constituent subclaims separately. Which Claims of Learning-Styles Theorists are Correct?
We believe that some general assertions of learning-styles proponents have nearly universal consensus, based on a wealth of evidence. We begin by acknowledging the truth of these claims in order to differentiate them from other ones without support. The first claim is this: Learners are different from each other, these differences affect their performance, and teachers should take these differences into account. This is true and recognized by educators and cognitive scientists alike. While many of those scientists seek to discover general principles of learning, we all acknowledge that there are differences among students. Understanding these differences and applying that understanding in the classroom can improve everyone's education. We can find further agreement on some of the differences that matter for learning. First, whether we call it talent, ability, or intelligence, people vary in their capacity to learn different areas of content. One of the authors (Riener) has fraternal twin sons, and despite having most of the same experiences, one has learned to read earlier and the other is a better basketball player. This is clearly due to genetic differences in talent rather than a bizarre experiment in which the parents decided that one would be a basketball player and the other a professor. With educators under 6 feet tall for both parents and grandparents, they are both probably doomed to proceed to graduate school rather than to the NBA. Second, and often intertwined with ability, students differ in their interests. If a student loves the piano, or basketball, or chess, or the biology of frogs, that student will no doubt learn material...
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