August 21, 2008

Learning Styles Are Bunk

Dan Willingham has another video out on the non-existence of learning styles.

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.


Redkudu said...

Aw, geez...and I just spent the last two days of professional development learning how to teach high school English Language Learners how to draw lots of pictures, and how to "transition" every ten minutes (with mime!) to pander to their "hyper-multi-tasking" capabilities, to help them learn English quicker.

That was mandated by the state, too. Probably the worst example of "learning modalities" (as they're calling it) combined with a Crayola curriculum I've ever seen.

I haven't yet found one other person in education who knows who Willingham is when I mention him.

Independent George said...

As a visual learner, I really appreciate those slides. They really helped me understand the material.

Anonymous said...

I am an olfactory learner and I DEMAND a nasal curriculum!

Anonymous said...

My son is on the Aspergers side of the autistic spectrum. He's not a poor reader in the sense that he can read and understand all the words really well. However, he can't abide sitting down and reading silently - he gets distracted too easily. What does work for him is to listen to the book being read while following along.

Still, I'm with Willingham. This doesn't mean that my son is an auditory learner. Having the auditory cue along with the visual just helps him keep on task.

You wouldn't believe the look on his teacher's face when I told her in conference that I didn't agree with her assessment of my son's learning style. Something like "What planet did you come from...?"

Anonymous said...

shape of Algeria

Uh, that nation south of Libya is Chad...

Except for being the trans-Saharan recipient of refuges from the Darfur crisis, it pretty much looks like all the other nations on that continent.*

But then again, I'm not a visual learner.

* Satire Alert! Decide for yourselves who is the target of this mocking satire.

Anonymous said...

(Now that the shock has subsided, and the stupid-meter isn't blaring...)

Two options:
1. fix the map
2. Append: "One last thing: Algeria is a Saharan nation with a Mediterranean coast which once headquartered the French Foreign Legion. The landlocked trans-Saharan nation positioned to receive Sudanese refugees from Darfur is Chad. Knowing this will help compensate for poor visual memory."

Dan Willingham said...

You can imagine how stupid I felt when someone pointed out that I got the map wrong. I would love to fix the map, quietly scuttle away and pretend it never happened. . . but unfortunately I would have to post it as a new vid, and all links on blogs and stuff would be dead. Ah well, I deserve the lumps for such a stupid mistake.

Anonymous said...

"Uh, that nation south of Libya is Chad..."

This being Africa can't we just wait for them to be renamed?

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

You can imagine how stupid I felt...

But what were you thinking (from a nonjudgmental/clinical perspective)? Was this a "satisficing" sort of booboo, a lack of automaticity with world geography, or a flat out boneheaded blunder?

You're a bright guy making Nobel-caliber research available to a key audience of educators. Mistakes happen, but your audience deserves something more than "stuff happens! Imagine how I feel!"

My Governor is promoting individualized learning, but I'd be reluctant to recommend your (99% excellent) video to all the folks on his individualized learning/learning styles bandwagon.

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Mr. Willingham. Anyone with that kind of humility gets extra credit, and achieving that in spite of being a professor puts you in the stellar class, in my book. The world needs more like you.

The video is very good, I think I need to watch it a few more times to be able to follow the logic enough to argue the position. In the English teaching community in Japan, Learning Styles is very popular and rarely questioned.

One point bothers me. Language is a spoken dynamic, and reading is (I believe) a process of A) Decoding, B) Identifying by sound resonance, C) analyzing to comprehension. I see text as a phonic code, not a meaning code, and reading as initially an aural (heard) process. In the (brief) video, teaching reading was mentioned as teaching 'meaning', which I hope is just a simplification due to the time and topic limitations of the production.

I may have also simply misunderstood the passage, and will watch it again. The basic point that I got from the first viewing is that the mode of the lesson should be appropriate to the subject, not adjusted to the student.

Thank you Dr. Willingham and Ken DeRosa for your excellent work and outreach.

Best regards, Peter Warner.
Nagoya, Japan.

Linda Seebach said...

And the name of that kind of dog is spelled German Shepherd.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between thinking that learning styles must drive every aspect of teaching and accepting that they exist and are useful.

I hold the latter view and find it very helpful in both teaching and tutoring. At the same time, I disapprove of teaching to different learning styles.

Anonymous said...

Linda, good point (typo at 90 seconds).

Fortunately, NASA didn't have to do anything special for Shepard's ears.

As for you, Mark Roulo, I doubt you live within 100 miles of an HBCU, so we'll leave it the the resptectable and mainstream black socialists at your local state university ed school to administer the "sensitivity training" you deserve.

Do be sure to tell us all (especially Dan) how it feels.

Anonymous said...

For those who trust their intuition more than scientific evidence, learning styles are alive and well. I'll stick with the evidence, and over on Teach Effectively I'll post a graph of how much of a bounce basing reading instruction on modality differences provides. (Hint: 'Tain't much.)

On another topic: I'm pretty sure that virtually all of us who have reservations about adapting instruction on the basis of personologic variables actually favor adapting instruction for individual learners. Doubting learning styles is not the equivalent of saying "one size fits all." It's just that we're pretty sure the adaptations won't be the seductive pop-psych kind. Instead, they'll be such mundane things as adjusting the pace of instruction (e.g., number of repetitions to mastery), modifying schedules of reinforcement, altering the range of examples demonstrating concepts, using more precise corrective feedback, and such.

TurbineGuy said...

"adjusting the pace of instruction (e.g., number of repetitions to mastery), modifying schedules of reinforcement, altering the range of examples demonstrating concepts, using more precise corrective feedback, and such."

So in other words, common sense teaching.

Anonymous said...


I love your blog, but I caution you about the sentiment of your post to an untrained observer.

There is nothing "common sense" about varying reinforcement schedules, adding repetitions, etc. These are elements of instruction that only highly trained/skilled teachers can use.

If I came to this blog, I might take your comment to mean that teaching is common sense . . . and its not. Effective instruction is a very sophisticated combination of items to work.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the last sentence.

It should read "Effective instruction is very sophisticated and requires a lot of items working together (i.e., effective curriculum, trained teachers, proper scheduling, etc.)"

TangoMan said...

There is nothing "common sense" about varying reinforcement schedules, adding repetitions, etc. These are elements of instruction that only highly trained/skilled teachers can use.

And parents who are teaching their children to ride bikes, to walk, to master certain aspects of particular sports, to play the piano, etc. Thankfully, they're all "highly trained/skilled" parents.

KDeRosa said...

A proviso is needed.

If you want to accelerate learning, then you will likely require a highly trained/skilled teacher.

Otherwise it is true that many kids can learn skills from untrained, poorly trained, and semi-trained parents and teachers.

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly convinced by Winningham's arguments that the nature of the content determines the proper modality for teaching it (viz., teaching geometry to a so-called "auditory learner" by singing him songs cannot be more effective than showing him line drawings of triangles, rectangles, etc.)

Thus, I would agree that "learning styles" do not exist in the pure cognitive sense.

But what if we took "learning style" to mean "preference for certain type(s) of sensory inputs" and looked at it from the angle of interest and motivation for learning ?

The line of thinking goes: If Johnny loves music, by adding music to a learning exercise for geometry that involves visual graphs, would he not be more inclined to be paying attention to the visual stuff, even if he is not a "visual" learner but an "auditory" one?

I'm not very familiar with the research on "Multiple Intelligences". Would any of you knowledgeable folks care to advise on whether the literature on the topic clearly draws the distinction between (a)learning style as a cognitive mechanism and
(b)learning style as mere preference for certain type(s) of sensory inputs? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not very familiar with the research on 'Multiple Intelligences'."

To the best of my knowledge, there isn't very much research on Multiple Intelligences. As in controlled, double-blind, etc. experiments that appear in peer reviewed journals (NOTE: I can see how it might be very difficult to conduct a double-blind experiment for something like this ... even the rest appears to be thin or non-existent).

Part of the problem is that Gardener intentionally used the word "intelligence" instead of "skill." If he has suggested that some people are better athletes than others because they are more skilled in using their bodies, there would have been no interest. Instead, he calls athletic skill a form of intelligence ... which then led to the notion that people who are very good at running would learn math differently than people who are very good at thinking abstractly about symbols.

The problem is that while it may be reasonable to use a person's preference for listening vs. looking to *memorize* something (e.g. the list of US presidents), this doesn't help much (or at all) when one is trying to learn to manipulate symbols.

My guess is that there isn't much research on this because the people who would be inclined to do research have a hard time coming up with an experimental design that doesn't sound insane.

This would then leave us with some people can remember US presidents (or word spellings, or ...) better if they hear them and some people remember better if they see a printed list. This is probably true, but doesn't seem to lead anywhere interesting.

-Mark Roulo

palisadesk said...

A problem with "learning styles" that no one has brought up so far is the potential for racism and pejorative labeling of children. We don't allow other labels -- for example, "intellectual deficiency" or even "ADHD" or "conduct disorder" -- to be attached to a child on the basis of nothing but a teacher's opinion. The "diagnosis" has to be made by the appropriate professional -- psychologist, medical doctor -- before these descriptors can be formally used in evaluation, planning and reporting on individual children.

Leaving aside the question, for the moment, on whether "learning styles" are a valid construct, the practice in the schools is NOT to rely on any of the diagnostic devices (such as those devised by Dunn & Dunn) to assess "learning styles," but simply to have teachers classify children as "auditory learners," "kinesthetic learners," or what have you. At IEP meetings and other situations where these "diagnoses" come up, I invariably ask for the data on which this "diagnosis" was based. There isn't any.

Disproportionately, black children, especially boys, are labeled "kinesthetic learners" and I will hear that "he loves Lego," or "he behaves better in math when he has manipulatives." At no time has evidence ever been brought forward that the student LEARNS more or better when a particular "learning style" is emphasized. It is always a matter either of student preference or of teacher perception as to what the child is good at (or less troublesome at). Asian kids are likely to be classified as "visual learners."

Now, what difference does this make? I suggest it matters a great deal. For one thing, the empirical evidence is that certain domains require a certain modality -- preferred or not (did you ever see "The Auditory Learner's Driving School?"), and also that individuals' "preferred modality" varies according the task and also changes with growth and skill development. Being labeled a "kinesthetic learner" is likely -- if taken seriously -- to close many doors to students. How can the "kinesthetic learner" succeed at higher mathematics, particle physics, philosophy, literary criticism, foreign languages? He (it's usually a he) had better stuck to sweeping floors and fixing cars. Being labeled an "auditory learner" may dissuade a student interested in visual arts or mathematics. Or, being "labeled" in such a way may persuade a student that the normal difficulty he experiences with challenging curricula or new learning is due to an immutable "learning style" and encourage him to give up too soon.

All these categories are the more to be eschewed because they are generally based on nothing more than uninformed opinion -- exactly as racist, classist and other pejorative stereotypes in the past have been. If we are going to use "learning styles," let us have valid and empirically proven means of assessing same.

Dr. Kwame M. Brown said...

Where is the evidence that those tagged as auditory learners actually HAVE poor reading skills?

Has this study been done? If so, does anyone have the citation.

Personal example: I have always (since childhood) read above level, and performed well on all standardized verbal tests. To this day, I still learn better by seeing diagrams, and by forming pictures / cartoons in my head.

How would you explain that?

My point is, that there are likely many subtle differences in how people learn. The take home lesson here, is to not separate kids based on a perceived difference in learning style; but to instead approach the issue via cross-modal stimulation (auditory through discussion, visual through pictures and demonstrations, and tactile through motor learrning paradigms). This will likely promote more efficient learning in ALL subjects.

Sometimes, it is more important to recognize the potential for differences rather than program or separate based on an assumption. We want all children to be able to learn in different ways.

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Anonymous said...

yeah i agree learning styles are bunk.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher.I agree with your learning style.But one thing is important.If teacher teach the student according to their mental approach then learning can be improve.Suppose in the class one student is slow learner and second is fast learner,teacher should think how to manage both.

Anonymous said...

That is your great effort.I don't know why people hesitate to share their information.During my student life i adopted different way to learn.I read the things two to four time.I also make practice again and again.