The Layered Trouble with Learning Styles

I’ve written many times about the problem of learning styles, but today I want to examine a new wrinkle in the old problem.

1. Learning Styles as an approach to teaching has been thoroughly disproven and debunked. Yet still somewhere between 50 and 80% of teachers believe that it is real and should form the basis of an approach to teaching. This is what I have written about before.

2. In my own observations, I have noticed that most teachers, though they claim to believe in the importance of Learning styles, are not actually implementing anything like a learning-styles informed approach. They are not capable of differentiating in class, nor of planning and organising such a lesson, even if they profess its importance.

3. This is a good thing then, right? They say it’s important, but they don’t actually follow through, so their belief in a bad theory is not making any contact with the students. No harm done. Right?

4. Wrong. Many teachers I have worked with actually feel they are underperforming by not implementing a learning-styles approach. They “know” it is important, but they don’t know how to do it, so they feel incompetent. They devalue themselves as teachers, feeling that they’re not doing enough for their students, even though they’re actually doing right. Even though—by the way—the other teachers that make them feel this way probably aren’t doing it either. (Which is actually a good thing; keep up!)

5. And it’s not just the self-esteem cost. A certain subset of these teachers invest time in trying to learn how to use learning styles in their classroom, joining webinars, reading tutorials and so on. (Let’s not mention for now how many people are out there actually producing this content, promoting Learning Styles!!) This, of course, is time that could be better spent developing their classroom competence in more useful ways. So there is an opportunity cost as well.

The cost of perpetuating Learning Styles as an approach to teaching is a complex one. If you’ve been caught up in some part of the landscape I have described above, consider some of the following ideas/approaches which share some similarities with the idea of Learning Styles, but actually have more benefit:

• Learner-centred Learning

• Meta-learning

• Differentiated Instruction

• Dual Coding / Multi-modal Input

• Visualisation

• Peer-learning

And if you’d like any tips or ideas on any of these, let me know in the comments.

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