Willingham goes into much more detail on learning styles in his Summer 2005 American Educator article: Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?
Vicki Snyder also makes a similar point in Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching: What Really Happens in the Classroom. Learning styles are presented as the fifth myth of teaching. (I reviewed the book here.):
Myth #5: the myth of learning styles refers to the popular idea that teaching methods should be matched to students' unique characteristics. Although individualization is desirable, learning style assumes that certain learner characteristics are intrinsic when they may in fact be the result of experiential factors that are amenable to instruction. As a result, teachers may inadvertently deny low-performing students opportunities to learn.
The myth of learning styles is based on three faulty premises: learning styles are intrinsic, learning styles can be assessed, learning styles can be matched to instructional styles. Snyder points out that all three premises are untrue.
In any event, as far as teaching goes, we only really care about the differences and similarities that influence learning and instruction. Of course, the vast majority of differences between children have little or nothing to do with how kids learn. Often these differences are expressed in terms of "learning styles and modalities," "multiple intelligences," and "differing interests." All of these so-called differences are similar in that none has any empirical support nor has any been shown to have an effect on learning or instruction.
This is because the content of instruction dictates about 90% of what has to be taught:
Content, and the nature of content, doesn't change according to the interests of children, nor according to any other characteristic of children. If we were trying to teach a gorilla to read, the nature of reading wouldn't change. Obviously, when it comes to the nature of content, differences among learners don't have much to do with anything.
Learning style differences are usually assessed informally through teacher observation. Teachers, however, often know little about inducing real learning. These learning styles are often expressed as superficial external traits like visual, auditory, tactile or kinesthetic which mask the underlying complex cognitive traits. For example, children cope with their inability to read in ways that might superficially seem like a learning style, but that actually reflect poor reading skills. It's easy to misinterpret certain behaviors.
Consider the following examples.
- Sometimes elementary teachers say that poor readers are auditory learners because they can't track words with their fingers. It's more likely that they can't read the words. Usually these auditory learners can keep their eyes riveted to a television or video game screen for hours.
- Sometimes elementary teachers say that poor readers are visual learners because they memorize and rely on picture clues rather than sounding out words. It's more likely that they revert to visual clues because they can't read the words. Without knowledge of the underlying sound structure of language, they have little choice but to rely on memorization and guessing.
- Sometimes high school teachers say that poor readers are auditory learners because they need the text read aloud or explained to them.
Sometimes high school teachers say that poor readers are visual learners because they need pictures, graphics, and visual displays to explain the text to them.
- When students are labeled tactile/kinesthetic learners, they often need hands-on experience, group work, and activities to learn, not because of their learning style but because they need structure, assistance, and feedback on difficult or unfamiliar tasks.
In all of these examples, the source of the observed behavior is poor reading skills. To ignore the basic problem in no way benefits the students.
The point is that all kids (and humans) share some characteristics that are useful for learning, and, therefore, instruction has to accommodate those samenesses among learners, rather than the many differences among them. Learning styles and "intelligences" and student interests and modalities couldn't possibly have too much influence on learning, not when the nature of content doesn't vary among learners, and not when some of those things that make us all human are so central to learning.Efficient instructional programs make every effort to communicate the essential nature of content to all learners (because it is the same for all learners), and they make every effort to take full advantage of the ways all humans generalize more accurately and efficiently. What is the same about children is their innate capacity for language, to learn to read and think inductively and deductively. What is the same about all children is that they will learn if given appropriate instruction. They may learn at different rates and may need different amounts of structure and practice to master academic skills and concepts, but they can learn.