A few years ago, some math teachers were discussing a book on twitter. The book had made the case that the existence of “learning styles” for kids is a myth. To some of the teachers in this discussion, this was very surprising.
Shouldn’t it be? We’ve all seen kids that seem stuck on an activity…until we present the material in some new way. Note-taking leads to learning for some kids, but not others. Other kids seem to lose track of an explanation halfway through, but thrive when given a chance to read it instead. And we’ve also all taught kids who seem to think through movement — these are kids who seem to be intellectually confined when physically constrained.
This is a tricky question, and I’m familiar with the anti-learning styles studies.
I don’t think the big issue with learning styles is that there’s no evidence for it, though. On its own, that’s only a bit troubling to me. Instead, I think there’s a risk that our learning styles work will go against our efforts to promote a growth mindset about intelligence.
The growth mindset literature encourages us to help kids see intelligence as plastic; their smarts can grow with effort. We would never tell kids that they just aren’t smart enough to understand a verbal explanation. How much different is it to tell them they’re a “visual learner,” and therefore less likely to understand that same verbal explanation?
This all comes from the best of intentions, of course. We want to make sure that different kids get their different needs met. But we have to be very careful not to do this in a way that encourages kids to identify with what they’re naturally better or worse at. We need to give that individual help in a way that sends the message that through hard work and the aid of teachers, learning will happen.
As I was discussing this on twitter, another educator mentioned that we also risk lowering expectations for students, either implicitly or explicitly, when we start designing tasks that seem to avoid areas where they’re perceived to be weak. That’s rough for a kid, and probably not what’s best for the class.
That’s my case against learning styles.