Learning styles – Being a heretic and mastering the myth!


I read with interest that ‘learning styles’ are now seen as a myth – there is little or no evidence to say it made any difference (Jarrett) and in fact it causes harm as it, “encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses.” I could not agree more! But should we throw it out with the bath water?

As a teacher I was introduced to the concept of learning styles many years ago – the thinking went, by knowing the preferred learning style of your pupils you can tailor your teaching to ensure you involve all pupils, the VAK approach.  I must admit that as an education consultant I did buy into this particularly as it was the prescribed doctrine of the National Strategy at the time and did seem ‘right’, you were not supposed to challenge the wisdom given from above. I was however always somewhat skeptical on focusing solely on pupils preferred learning styles, what about the teacher?

One school I went to for an interview as a prospective Assistant Headteacher had taken learning styles to the logical conclusion and were assessing all pupils and grouping/teaching them by their preferred learning style. I was seen as a heretic for challenging the wisdom of this ‘inspired’ approach as I tried to argue that the brain is like a set of muscles which all need to be exercised to maximise performance, not just the strongest one.  I of course did not get the job, the school was in special measures and remained so for years.

I have also come across learning styles as a paddling coach – it is advocated that you should teach paddling in the preferred learning style of your participants; which seems rather silly considering paddling is inherently kinaesthetic in nature; it is still an essential element of training for new coaches. And again I remember being a lone ‘heretic’ voice when I had the audacity to challenge the wisdom of this approach.

Jesse Singal (link) suggests that if you do a web search you will find that the vast majority of links presented are very positive about learning styles – it has over the last 10-20 years grown into a massive business and been accepted across the education piste. Have a go and see for yourself, few dissenting voices out there. However Wikipedia does give a more balanced view! Clearly this ‘myth’ persists. So should we actively discard learning styles completely? It is now seen as a myth, there is no evidence and it is discredited.

As an educational adviser working with school leaders and teachers I have always taken a pragmatic or somewhat ‘heretical’ view of learning styles, I have always argued that if learning styles was to be believed it is the preferred learning style/approach of the teacher that greatly impacts on the way they teach. Hence it is the teacher that needs to know their preferred approach and develop strengths in the other areas to ensure we reach all pupils using a diverse array of approaches – making learning fun and engaging. I challenge any paddling coach to teach forward paddling or teacher teaching fractional distillation successfully through auditory means alone.

So as a ‘heretic’ I don’t think that we should totally discard learning styles as a myth but we do need to master it by perhaps re-phase what it is and what we do with it. Perhaps ‘learning approaches’  to better reflect how understanding how different styles of teaching can influence learning.

As a pragmatist we need to learn from this ‘myth’ rather than discard it. I believe that as educators we need to understand ourselves first, how we learn, then how others learn and use this as a foundation for teaching/coaching but more importantly growing our repertoire of teaching styles and approaches so that we:

  • Individualise teaching/coaching – try to understand our students, what motivates, interests and challenges them – in ways that make them comfortable and confident learners.
  • Adapt our teaching/coaching – deliver our material in different ways to reach pupils who learn in different ways – make it fun, memorable and engaging
  • Understand our material as a teacher/coach – so that you can present it in a variety of ways and convey what it means to understand something well.

“If a child cannot learn in the way we teach, we must adapt the way we teach to ensure the child can learn”

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