The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope


“You don’t have to believe in learning styles theories to appreciate differences among kids, to hold an egalitarian attitude in the midst of such differences, and to try to foster such attitudes in students.” Daniel Willingham, Learning Styles FAQ

The Learning Styles myth, for those that aren’t already clear, is that by aligning teaching to a student’s preferred Learning Style, outcomes will improve. Despite lots of research into this claim – the so-called ‘meshing theory’ – no supporting evidence has turned up.

But who needs evidence? In a 2014 survey, 90% of teachers agreed with the claim, “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)”.

I’ve been frustrated by all this some time. Here’s a selection of posts I’ve written over the past few years:

But I needn’t have bothered. Here is that claim debunked on the back of an envelope tweeted by @doctorwhy of the rather excellent Learning Scientists team:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 16.29.02So, there you go. Adding modalities benefits some students without hurting any. But, labelling students in terms of how teachers think students think, and thus overlooking the fact that students can change, can learn new ways of thinking is harmful.

Hope that clears things up.


44 Responses to The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope

  1. But isn’t that (the formula on the envelope) what most teachers mean, when they say they agree with the idea of learning styles?

  2. Harvey Webb says:

    Received lesson feedback last week that included advice that I should have done more for the ‘visual learners’. I went ape. Sent them the research papers. You know, it’s the third ‘professional advisor’ to mention learning styles at our school this year? The myth is alive and well in the wider edu-world. Just shows what a distorted microcosm Twitter is that every teacher on there knows the real research.

  3. mrlock says:

    I’m totally confused. What is written on the back of that envelope was exactly what I believed back in about 2006 when I accepted Learning Styles as fact. It’s exactly the argument made by those who promoted ‘multiple intelligences’.

    So is this arguing that there *are* such things as learning styles?

    • David Didau says:

      No, it’s not. It’s saying we all have preferences. I have a preference for learning with coffee and dark chocolate. I feel I learn better if I have access to these commodities. Can I learn without them? Sure, but I’d prefer not to.

      There’s incontrovertible evidence that engaging visio-spatial memory and well as verbal memory helps by-pass some of the limits of working memory and help embed new knowledge in long-term memory. Using a variety of modalities is just good teaching. This does not require anyone to do bullshit with big paper and post-it notes.

      • mrlock says:

        But does offer an argument for those promoting multiple intelligences. We’re just calling them ‘visit-spatial’ and ‘verbal’ aren’t we?

        And if there is incontrovertible evidence, that’s helpful and *is* suggesting we should engage additional ‘modalities’ and engage learning ‘preferences’.

        • David Didau says:

          Have a look at this
          If you (or anyone) wants to pretend this means there’s evidence for multiple intelligences then they’re on pretty thin ice. We ALL possess brains which benefit from information being presented verbally & visually.

          • mrlock says:

            But some need “additional modalities” a lot more. I obviously have a problem with the suggestion that adding modalities doesn’t harm anyone as this ignores opportunity cost.

            What I’m saying is that this is exactly like the nuanced, researched case that led to multiple intelligences. We’ve just replaced the word with preferences.

            Ironically, your comment about dark chocolate and coffee reflects the sort of thing that really was done in the name of multiple intelligences – some prefer music, others prefer to move around etc.

            I’m not making a case for anything. I’m pointing out the similarities. This blogpost is exactly how VAK and learning styles was presented to me back in the mid-2000s.

        • This isn’t about multiple intelligences. This is about capitalizing on how the brain processes information that will enhance a learners’ ability to commit information into long term memory by using more than one mode of sensory perception (i.e. visual perception and aural/audio perception). Novice learners tend to learn better by visual representation of the concepts their learning coupled with an audio explanation of what they’re seeing. Expert learners don’t need those visual representations because they’ve already built their mental models about the concept and they are able to refine those models by adding new information to them through practice and problem solving.

          So, really, the “learning style” is more closely correlated with the level of a learner’s existing knowledge of a concept than it does with how that learner prefers to learn.

      • Megan Smith says:

        YES! This. Also, it is going to depend on the materials. Sometimes visual-spatial doesn’t help as much, but auditory will. It has nothing to do with the individual students’ learning style. It’s more about the materials and giving you a few ways of thinking about something. Also, interestingly, cognitive theory would argue that if you have a preference you will learn better if you force yourself to produce the material in a different modality. The difficulty of doing this, in addition to having to produce it yourself and really think through how to translate it to another modality should produce a lot of learning.

  4. David Didau says:

    Stuart – the opportunity cost would be in ignoring what we know about how children best encode new information.

    Your other concerns seem like a needless distraction: my preference for chocolate can and should be ignored by anyone other than me. If that’s really how VAK was presented to you then there was probably little wrong with it. It certainly wasn’t presented to me in that way.

    • mrlock says:

      But you appear to be defining that where the back of an envelope explicitly says that some people need additional modalities, this must be something that can be ignored by others, whereas adding additional modalities in the classroom is unlikely to be able to to do this.

      You also appear to me to be suggesting then, that the problem with VAK was either the ‘K’ or the way it was presented to teachers. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      Which is exactly what some of the defenders of learning styles do currently. Which goes back to my original point – the envelope doesn’t ‘debunk the myth’, it makes an argument that a version of learning styles, or ‘preferences’ (which to me look like learning styles, but not wanting to be labelled as such because of the backlash).

      I’m not trying to be awkward. I’m trying to establish if this is your argument because I want to understand it.

      • David Didau says:

        I don’t think you’re being awkward Stuart – it’s important to understand the subtleties. The reason so many people believe the myth is that it’s actually not too far away from what science tells us. This makes it easy for LS & MI bullshit questionnaires to worm their way in.

        The myth is that presenting information in a students’ preferred style will improve their learning. There is, as you know, no evidence for this.

        Basically, the finding is that combining graphics with words taps into two different processing areas and means that we can handle more in working memory and form more schematic connections between new information and old information. This is, and has always been, of benefit to all students.

        Modalities = ways of presenting information.

        Preferences are real but utterly irrelevant (except, perhaps, for motivational reasons.)

        If I’m still not managing to explain myself then check out Willingham’s FAQ

    • mrlock says:

      Also David where can I find the incontrovertible evidence? Is that what’s linked to in the liminality post?

        • David Didau says:

          Stuart, I honestly have no idea what you mean when you say “Same difference.” It’s a world of difference. At no point in this discussion has anyone said teachers should pander to students’ ‘preferred modalities’. All the envelope says is that encountering information via a modality that isn’t one you prefer is not a problem. That really is very different from the inference you seem to be making.

  5. I think that there is truth in mrlock’s words. If everyone learns better when a combination of methodologies are used (e.g. words and graphics), but some benefit more then others under these circumstances, then it is easy to stretch this to ‘preferences’ and then ‘styles’.

    “But Sir, I find it so much easier to understand when you include a graphic with the written/spoken explanation.”

    I can see, though, that this does not constitute Learning Styles, in that individuals do not have Styes through which they learn better or worse (although they might think they do when they have coffee and dark chocolate – the research says they don’t).

    • David Didau says:

      That’s exactly it, although I’m struggling to see why any of this leads to a belief in the need to cater for particular preferences, styles or whatever you want to call them.

      The kid who says, “But Sir, I find it so much easier to understand when you include a graphic with the written/spoken explanation” is speaking for every child.

  6. Love – I recon we should grab and do a series of these….

  7. Mikhal Stone says:

    This is coming across as a difference in semantics to me. What is important is that teachers offer variety to accommodate difference – whether you call it learning styles / modalities / preferences is irrelevant. Insisting that learning styles is bunkum risks teachers throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  8. thecttl says:

    Apologies for length in advance, but following is a nice quote from Professor Howard Gardner himself on how multiple intelligences might be used. And from all the research I have read, David is spot on. “It may seem that I am simply calling for the “smorgasbord” approach to education: throw enough of the proverbial matter at students and some of it will hit the mind/brain and stick. Nor do I think that this approach is without merit. However, the theory of multiple intelligences provides an opportunity, so to speak, to transcend mere variation and selection. It is possible to examine a topic in detail, to determine which intelligences, which analogies, and which examples, are most likely both to capture important aspects of the topic and to reach a significant number of students. We must acknowledge here the cottage industry aspect of pedagogy, a craft that cannot now and may never be susceptible to an algorithmic approach. It may also constitute the enjoyable part of teaching: the opportunity continually to revisit one’s topic and to consider fresh ways in which to convey its crucial components.”

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Gardner argues that intelligences are independent, when the data seems to indicate they are not. He seems to argue that most cognitivists and psychometricians see intelligence as unitary, when most cognitivsts seem to see intelligence as both hierarcrhical and relational, with relations between aligned intelligences being supported by data.

      He doesn’t use data, or provide an empirical basis for his theories. He argues that he’s not a learning styles advocate, and suggests that the appropriate intelligence needs to be deployed to get the relevant topic and that they are not interchangeable. But he lauds people who suggest we teach spelling kinaestheically. He argues that his theory shouldn’t be used to shape curriculum, or to shape pedagogy. But he lauds people who use his theory to shape curriculum and to design and shape pedagogy.

      And he suggests that we should label these as intelligences or as talents. Which does two things. It muddies the water and makes it difficult to take aim. And it makes the theory something profoundly not new. If we are talking about talents, which we can see as skills, or abilities, then the idea that different people have different skills and abilities is about as novel, groundbreaking and innovative as the idea that in France lots of people speak French. Kid A is great at sports. Kid B is great at cooking. I see. Let the revolution commence.

      People, have different skills. Or abilitie (Stop the press!) Which are independent to each other. Despite all the evidence. Which shouldn’t shape curriculum or pedagogy. Well. That;s useful when you are designing for learning. Except sometimes they should. Which seems completely arbitrary. And we need to ensure the right ability is used to understand the right topic. Which seems to be a “shooting at a barn door while standing on the elephant on the room juggling chainsaws while singing Yankee Doodle Dandy” level of obvious. Except of course, when it’s ok to teach spelling kinaesthectically and ignore that last bit completely. Which is nothing like learning styles at all. No sir. If it looks, walks and quacks like a kinaesthetic duck, we should probably ignore it.

      I like reading Gardner. He’s warm, funny, human and concerned. But heckofathing if he isn’t confusing.

  9. Hugo Kerr says:

    people show learning styles, or preferences, and people at both ends of the classroom believe deeply in them. But…

    The practical question is whether a ‘style’ is innate or learned. If it is innate, we should teach to it, but if it has been learned we should teach other styles as a matter of urgency. SP comes to mind. (Any kind of P, actually, will make a good example.)

  10. wiltwhatman says:

    I’d add one more thing onto your envelope from Willingham.

    The best way. to learn the shape of a country is to look at a map, regardless of learner style preference. Cooking by eating and doing. Carpentry by hammering and sawing. Dancing by moving and watching. Singijng verbally and by listening. What you are learning, not who is learning, has a bigger effect on the mode.

  11. […] its pitiful misery, it lurches horribly back to life. For a moment I almost believed my last post, The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope might have done the trick. Sadly not. If anything, all I succeeded in doing was opening up a new […]

    • thecttl says:

      I know what you mean – it reminds me of the climate change “debate” here in the US. The furore of the debate is focused on entirely the wrong thing. You just want to shout “That question has been answered already!” It distracts from the very real questions around how to actually best put things into practice. Howard Gardner moved on to other great academic pursuits, but unfortunately this tangled misinterpretation of learning styles seems to have been left in his wake. Its like the “Follow the gourd! No, follow the shoe!” scene in The Life of Brian.

  12. […] “You don’t have to believe in learning styles theories to appreciate differences among kids, to hold an egalitarian attitude in the midst of such differences, and to try to foster such attitudes in students.” Daniel Willingham, Learning Styles FAQ The Learning Styles myth, for those that aren’t already clear, is that by aligning teaching to  […]

  13. […] The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope […]

  14. […] how does this apply to learning styles? Some people misunderstood my envelope because I used the words “preferences” and “modalities” seemingly interchangeably. Some […]

  15. Alex says:

    What about individuals with sensory processing and integration issues for whom sensory hyperarousal impact’s on their comprehension of task and ability to undertake it. As an example, you may choose to teach from the back of the class for children with Fragile X syndrome so they can hear your voice without the visual distraction of having to look at you.

  16. Vic says:

    Learning Styles is predicated on the notion that we have individual and preferred modes of learning interaction, which can be optimally matched to particular teaching materials in a particular learning environment. Teaching how to teach by learning style is big business; the grandiose declaration “we teach to the individual needs of each child” appears in all Ministries’ of Education literature. Marie Carbo, who runs the Learning Styles Institute, offers seminars, conferences and teacher training on the subject. The notion has reached such a level of inveterate folklore and fireside acceptance that any arguments as to its falsity will fall on ears deafened to reason.

    Stahl (2002) Different Strokes for Different Folks stated that “There has been utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any affect on learning.”

    And more recently in the Times Educational supplement, Susan Greenfield stated, “…from a neuro-scientific point of view the learning styles approach to reading is nonsense.”

  17. […] The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope A four-step debunking of the Learning Styles myth. […]

  18. […] take a look at Adult Learning Australia’s web page on Learning Styles. Learning Styles are simply a myth for which there is no credible supporting […]

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