Why the Widespread Belief in ‘Learning Styles’ Is Not Just Wrong; It’s Also Dangerous
Earlier this year on this blog, we addressed the problem of neuromyths including the belief held by 93 percent of British teachers that “learning styles” exist. A new TED talk by Dr. Tesia Marshik, who is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, walks us through the extensive evidence that learning styles don’t exist, before looking at why the belief is so widespread and exploring how the belief can indeed be dangerous:
“When something is so pervasive it doesn’t even occur to people to challenge it. We need to be willing to critically reflect on beliefs even if they are commonly believed. Another reason why this persists is quite frankly: The idea of learning styles is sexy. It sounds good. It feels good. Saying that people have different learning styles is another way of acknowledging that people are different, and differences are important, especially when it comes to the classroom. But me saying that learning styles don’t exist is not saying people are the same. People do differ in many important ways; learning styles just isn’t one of them, and just because some ideas sound really good, just because we really want something to be true, doesn’t make it so….
Last but not least, another reason that this belief exists is confirmation bias, that natural tendency we have as humans that we want to be right — or we don’t want to be wrong. So when people have this belief, we tend to look for information that fits our beliefs and we ignore information that doesn’t fit our beliefs. We don’t very often try to prove ourselves wrong; more often than not we try to prove ourselves right. We look for evidence to support whatever it is that we think…
Why does it matter? Who cares? … Why not believe in learning styles? … I would argue that there are at least two important reasons why we need to stop believing this and stop spreading this idea…
1. We are wasting valuable time and resources … Teachers already have a momentous task of accommodating students of different backgrounds, of different ability levels, different disabilities, different interests and motivations — that’s not easy. The whole fact that learning styles doesn’t matter, to some extent should be a relief. Because it is one less thing that teachers have to worry about. At the very least, we can’t afford to be wasting our time and resources trying to promote learning styles when there is no evidence that it actually helps learning. Especially when there are research-supported strategies, things that we know we can do, that actually do impact learning.
2. Labeling yourself as a (specific type of) learner or labeling a student as a learner can not only be misleading, but it can be dangerous. If I as a teacher think that you have a particular learning style and that you only learn in one way, that might prevent me from trying other strategies that could otherwise help you learn the information better. Likewise if you as a student believe that you have a particular learning style, that could cause you to shut down or lose interest when a teacher isn’t teaching in a way that is consistent with your preferred style. That might actually perpetuate your failure but it’s not because you couldn’t learn that way; it’s because you gave up and you stopped trying. This whole idea that learning styles don’t exist in many ways should be further good news. It means all of us are capable of learning in a variety of ways. We are not as limited as sometimes we think we are.”
Watch the video in full below:
For an in depth look at evidence-based ways to improve learning that do actually work, see my breakdown of a meta-analysis of research into learning techniques.
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