Yesterday I was chatting with my Dad. We have lots in common to talk about, and our conversations often flow seamlessly from one topic to another. I am certain that left uninterrupted, our chat could go on forever, like the internet.
At one point in the conversation the topic turned to training. My Dad is a great explainer, and is often asked to become a trainer in his field. He made a comment about accounting for learning styles, and I helpfully said, “Oh, you know those have been debunked, right?”
This wasn’t the first time I’d been a little too eager to tell someone that learning styles were a myth. About three years ago a colleague told me learning styles had been debunked, and even then I was a few years late to the party. In my excitement to learn such game-changing news, I immediately went in to my manager’s office and indelicately dropped the bomb.
She was skeptical. “But, I know I have a learning style.”
To be fair, the research doesn’t say that learning styles absolutely don’t exist, only that the research repeatedly used to support the theory is flawed, and that we should stop wasting valuable educational resources trying to cater to them.
But if the research is questionable, why can’t we let go of learning styles?
For one, its longevity. The idea of learning styles has been around for about forty years of so. For some people in the learning profession, myself included, that’s as long as they’ve been alive. I grew up in a learning styles culture, and for a long time, it was just part of my world view.
Another reason learning styles tend to hit a nerve is because it directly addresses a way that people self-identify. It’s like introversion/extroversion and type-A personalities. Telling someone that there’s no scientific proof for learning styles is an affront to who they are, and it will come across like an attack.
In my personal experience, I have found that learning styles are also used to explain one’s successes and failures in learning. All my life I’ve identified as a kinesthetic learner – I learn by doing. So when orbital mechanics kicked my butt in college, I had an easy explanation: Since I couldn’t get in a rocket ship and fly it around Saturn, I obviously was never going to learn how a rocket orbits a body in space. The theoretical stuff was never going to sink in, because I was a kinesthetic learner.
But if I am really honest with myself, I’m not a kinesthetic learner. I like learning by doing, but in a field like physics, who wouldn’t? It’s certainly more fun to pounce on a stomp rocket to learn about trajectory than to look at a diagram on a page. But if I think about the learning that comes easiest to me, and in theory could be considered the most effective for me, I do most of my learning by reading. I can recall many facts and figures I’ve read once for lengthy periods of time. (I’m killer at pub trivia.) So even if we ever conclusively prove that learning styles exist, how do we test for it? Self-identification is unreliable, and how do you test multiple instructional methods if the first one teaches the test subject? You can’t make the subject un-learn it, so the test runs a high risk of producing unreliable results.
So apologies to anyone I may have offended by saying learning styles don’t exist. They very well may. Here’s some additional information. I’ll let you draw conclusions for yourself.