Preferred Ways to Learn, Not Learning Styles
There are theories about learning that we all wish were true and learning styles is one of them. Imagine each child has their own particular way to learn more effectively. If they are not learning it is because they are not being taught the way they should be. This is very comforting to teachers and parents that are willing to experiment. The solution would be to present the information to each child in a way that is adapted for their style of learning. Thus, there would be children that require a more visual approach and others more auditory. But one of the problems with this theory is that it leaves the door open for dozens of styles.
In the United Kingdom, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has a bank of educational practices that is very useful because it explains the evidence of their effectiveness and the possible costs of implementing them. In the case of the theory about learning styles, they point out that there is no evidence to support it. Even goes so far as to explain that it can be harmful if used at very early ages since it would give children an excuse not to try to learn in other ways.
Daniel Willingham is one of the most reputable educational psychologists. In an interview with Tom Bennet, director of ResearchEd, he addressed the matter. According to Willingham, the theory of learning styles has a status that most people will not question. ”They directly assume that it is the truth,” and continues by saying ”this occurs because there is no authority in the world of education that can say, without a shadow of a doubt, what functions or not.” Furthermore, this is an attractive theory for parents and teachers that can also be based on real observations: for example, that there are children that seem to learn more when the learning focus is more visual.
In one of Pedro De Bruyckere’s articles on ResearchED, he talks about the $5000 prize that Will Talheimer offered to teachers if they could demonstrate that their students actually grasped information better if it was presented in the style which they believed they learned better in. Until now, no teacher has won the prize but De Bruyckere admits that the theory carries a bit of truth: it is true that there are people who think they learn better in a certain way. These are their preferences and it is confirmed in this study where a group of students was asked if they believe they learn better visually or written. The results demonstrated that their choice was the way they liked, or preferred, learning when compared to the other, but not because it helped them remember things better.
Additionally, this questionnaire by Daniel Willingham is possibly the most didactic about learning styles. In it the psychologist explains that no one can argue that there are children with different abilities, however, this does not mean that they should learn differently.
In this article from the Atlantic about how fast the theory of learning styles expanded, it explains that it happened coincidentally at the same time as the self-esteem movement, considering that each student was special and had to be encouraged at all times. If students did not progress as planned, it made sense to think that perhaps they were not being taught in the style which was best for them to learn.
At Smartick something we do have clear is that each child learns at their own pace. The evidence that we gather every day shows us that some students progress quickly, while others need more time to master concepts. That is why children feel secure and confident doing our exercises because we present them with challenges that we know they are capable of.
Therefore, if you hear talk about learning styles, it is best to take it with a grain of salt. If your children say they like to study better with diagrams, visualizations, stories, or speaking aloud, these are good for them as long as they study. But know that this is a preference, not a theory to label children according to learning style.