It is hard to fault educators and schools for jumping on the learning style train, which seemed to be heading in the right direction. It just made sense. Everyone knows children are different. Some are great at drawing. Some can see a diagram and quickly construct a model. Others seem to have an intuitive grasp of mathematics. Still other children have a gift with words and the verbal concepts, which may be analyzed in-depth. But the scientific evidence for learning styles is not there.
Four scientists were engaged to study the widespread practice of teaching by emphasizing learning styles. They published their findings in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
The idea of learning styles generally means that children learn better when teachers match their mode of instruction to the child's learning style. The idea is that children may learn best by emphasizing some specific auditory, visual, or kinesthetic modality. Schools can evaluate a child's learning style then match a teaching style to a learning style. Thus the idea of learning styles also includes an idea about assessment. That is, a belief that it is possible to use a set of questions to determine a child's learning style. For example, if a child is a visual learner then the child will learn best when instructions are presented visually.
Fortunately, Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork reviewed the research and published the summary I mentioned above. Despite a comprehensive review, they did not find evidence supporting the value of teaching according to supposed learning styles.
There is reasonable evidence that people, including children, have different intellectual strengths or abilities. We have some 80 years of evidence identifying different abilities. And there is evidence that these abilities are usually intercorrelated suggesting an overall general ability. But this correlation does not undermine the evidence for distinct patterns of strength. For example, some have greater verbal abilities than quantitative abilities. But here's the rub. Having different abilities does not mean people learn differently or that different teaching styles are required for those with different abilities to learn the same concepts.
Different Teaching Methods
If the learning styles idea is a good one then there ought to be an interaction such that visual learners would excel using teaching methods matched to their visual style and auditory learners ought to learn best when taught using an auditory teaching method. You can imagine the converse. You would not expect great results if you taught visual learners using auditory teaching methods. Unfortunately, as sensible as this teaching-learning style match sounds, the research does not support the idea.
Different Personality Factors
An interesting aside is a finding that the personality dimension called locus-of-control seems to be relevant to learning. Those with a high external locus of control do better with highly structured learning activities and those with high inner locus of control do better with less structured learning activities. Locus of control refers to core beliefs about how much a person controls their life outcomes. Those with a higher inner locus of control have a strong belief in their responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The science behind locus of control is based on work by Rotter (1966).
Different Content Requires Different Teaching
Although beliefs in learning styles and beliefs about matching teaching to learning styles lacks supportive evidence, we should not confuse these beliefs with beliefs about teaching different content.
Let's be clear. If you want to teach a child to solve a geometry problem you will use verbal instructions and visual materials rather than rely on speech or text alone. If telling a child to hang up her clothes when she gets home from school does not work (i.e., has not been learned) then you might want to try another approach for behavioral learning such as having her perform the task while you provide feedback. Similarly, teaching children how to pass a soccer ball is best done on a field rather than by showing a video.
We do, however, need research on matching different teaching methods to different content.
In Discipline with Respect, I focus on ways to help children learn respectful behavior that will help them become responsible adults. My point in taking up the topic of learning styles in this blog is to help parents and teachers avoid mythology surrounding the education of children. Discipline is education. Different discipline methods work with different children. But for most parents, discipline strategies based on solid principles will work with most children. As with learning in school, learning behavior will sometimes require specialized instruction.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 106-119.
Rotter, J.B. (1966). Generalized expectancies of internal versus external control of reinforcements. Psychological Monographs, 80, (Whole no. 609).