Learning styles are one of the most discussed pedagogical concepts. Theories of learning style posit that individual differences in learning can be accounted for by preferred modes of learning that vary from person to person. Perhaps the most common theory of learning style is the VAK theory proposed by Neil Fleming. He believed that individuals can be categorized as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners – meaning that some folks will learn better if the information is presented visually, others if the information is auditory, and others if they can physically manipulate something to learn.
The implication for pedagogy is that teachers, from kindergarten through graduate school, should assess the learning styles of each student and attempt to reach them via that mode. In recent years, theories of learning style have come under attack. For example, in Ben Ambridge’s TED talk called “10 Myths of Psychology Debunked”, he argues that the mode of learning is better associated with what is being taught rather than the individual learner. Some information is better presented in some ways than others. To illustrate, he says that you cannot tell someone how to drive a car. Driving is something that must be learned kinesthetically. You can’t hear a mathematical proof and understand it. You must see it written out.
Perhaps the most heated criticism of learning style theory comes from neurosocience. Neuroscientists believe that the human brain is designed to understand information in a variety of ways and it is indeed that variety that helps neurons connect across brain areas and facilitate deep learning. They fear that this ubiquitous classroom habit of “assessing” individual learning style and tailoring the teaching approach to that one “preferred” channel directly contradicts what we know in neuroscience. The more ways we learn information, the more neural connections we can make and the better, deeper, and more critically we learn. To subscribe to learning style theory, particularly in childhood education, is to cheat children out of the practice of depth of processing that is needed for adult success.
Susan Greenfield (2007) said it plainly when she said:
“Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together – the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person’s lips – that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart” (Henry, 2007, para. 7).
She and her colleagues also call attention to the weak validity of learning style theory itself as well as the assessments used to classify them. As of my last graduate class on human development and learning, learning style theories are still being taught as a preferred method of organizing one’s teaching approach. Some online teacher training courses still emphasize the value of taking the time to assess student learning style at the beginning of class.
What is your experience with learning style? Your opinion on its usefulness in the classroom? What do you think about neuroscientists’ argument? Please leave a comment below!
Henry, J. (2007). Professor pans learning style teaching method. The Telegraph (Online). Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1558822/Professor-pans-learning-style-teaching-method.html.