learning styles, individual differences, and responsibility

Recently, I came across this video: “Learning Styles Don’t Exist,” by psychologist Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia. Willingham argues that learning style theories fail to predict the differences in learning that we would expect to see if they were correct (you should go watch, he explains it better than I could). Learning styles theories entail that teachers should figure out students’ learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc) and modify their teaching methods to fit them. If learning styles don’t exist, then demanding that teachers do this doesn’t make sense.

There’s also an important followup to the first video: “Re: Learning Styles Don’t Exist.” Here, Willingham emphasizes that there are in fact plenty of individual differences that are relevant to education, such as differences in students’ interests and motivation. Teachers can and should take these legitimate differences into account, just not the mythical “learning style.”

But why do so many people think that there are learning styles, when there aren’t?  First of all, the theory has popular opinion on its side. Willingham reports that 90% of University of Virginia students believe that they exist, for instance. Second, although the theory’s applications to the classroom are misguided in the way the first video suggests, it’s actually true that people can learn things in different ways. Third, and maybe most importantly, confirmation bias leads us to inappropriately interpret ambiguous education situations as confirming the theory.

I’m interested in two further reasons why learning styles theory may have become so popular:

  1. It could allow students to deny the existence of genuine individual differences in intelligence ;
  2. It could allow students to externalize responsibility for learning failures.

Sometimes teaching is described as if, were the teacher to say or do something magical, it would unleash the immense learning potential of even the least apparently intelligent student. This student allegedly just has some special, particular learning style, a style that is not currently being acknowledged by the teacher. But all this is wrong. Sometimes people are just not good at certain types of activities or at learning certain types of content (we can leave open whether the cause of these differences is nature or nurture).

For example, I am pretty good at learning content from lectures (in fact, I often ignore talk handouts, which I often find distracting). I am not so good at spatial tasks (maps & directions). It is not the case that, had only my geography teachers verbally described the maps to me, I would have learned that spatial information more easily. Rather, there is a genuine individual difference between me and my classmate who has great spatial skills.

But who really wants to hear that they are just kind of bad at something? It can be psychologically more comfortable for a student to externalize responsibility for failures in learning and blame the teacher instead. Learning styles theory facilitates this, because it purports to provide a scientific basis to justify the demand that we receive an education customized just for us. When no such custom education is forthcoming, we can point to learning style theory and complain that the system has failed us.

These are not good reasons to accept learning style theory. Like it or not, there are cognitive individual differences. Like it or not, some of the responsibility for learning lies with you. Learning style theory fails, in that it represents not only apparently sketchy science but also a reification of wishful thinking.

PS – It seems that I have  a bad habit of titling posts with a three word list. I have decided not to resist this tendency, and to add an Oxford comma. I hope I don’t lose readers over this :-)

2 Comments

  • There are certainly times when something visual, or something textual, or something auditory was what made a particular concept click in my head, but yeah, I find it plausible that the idea of visual/textual/auditory “learners” is bogus.

    And of course I want to externalize my failings. But that’s only because it’s usually everyone’s fault but mine! :D

  • Nice discussion, Pamela. I agree with you.

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