Learning Styles are a contentious issue in education. Just read the room at any conference when some presenter brings them up as a good idea. Hostility and argument are sure to ensue in the Q&A time (if not sooner). Some people love Learning Styles, while others hate them.

Add to this this that too many people like to frame this debate as being between people who believe learning styles exist, and those that believe that learning styles do not exist. Unfortunately, this is not really true (even though there are many debates that seem to devolve into this argument).

Learning Style skeptics do not contend that “there are no learning styles.” We believe that there is no proof of the pre-dominant Learning Styles™ Industry claim that people learn better mostly or only in their preferred learning style. This is a huge difference.

But first, I want to back up and clarify why I say Learning Styles™ Industry. Some people like to clarify the difference between the Learning Styles™ Industry and the general idea of learning styles by calling the general idea things like “learning preferences” and “styles of learning.” If you haven’t ever been a teacher subjected to days of professional development seminars on Learning Styles™ and then unfairly reviewed based on your ability to implement Learning Styles™, let me explain what it is like for a minute.

Yes, in many schools across the nation, teachers are taught that there are three/four/six Learning Styles™ that all learners fall into, and the research proves they learn “best” in this style (visual, kinesthetic, etc.). Therefore, you must administer certain tests to help learners figure out which Style they are and create four-six different lessons for each class topic (the number of learning styles seems to vary from time to time; usually when sales slow, companies have to add or subtract some so they can go back and re-sell the training to everyone again). Then during evaluations, you would be rated based on how well you accomplished the implementation of your Learning Styles™ plan.

Of course when I was in school, learning styles were presented much, much differently. At most, there was a poster on the wall that told you to try different ways of learning beyond the regular “read and memorize” method. It was about exploring variety and find preferences for helping you to learn, not about re-writing lessons over and over again for each style. Somewhere between when I was teenager and when I went into teaching myself, there was a huge shift in what it looked like to implement learning styles in the classroom as Learning Styles™.

For people like me that always come out as different “styles” on different days – which one lesson Style does your instructor pick for you? Do they need to rate percentages of each and then make sure you get that exact mix throughout the year? Or does that mix need to happen daily? Do we keep re-testing kids for Learning Styles™ to see if they change?

Speaking of change, what about students that test as “auditory” learners and then suffer hearing damage? Will their grades suffer for the rest of their life because they can no longer hear?

How do we test learners with disabilities for Learning Styles™? (heaven forbid that we should recognize the ablest nature of Learning Styles™ to begin with….)

How do we know there are only three/four/five styles? Why can’t there be all kinds of weird and random styles?

The whole idea of Learning Styles™ really kind of falls apart when you really start examining the practical ways to implement them as an instructivist instructor (which is the context for many attempts). As I have learned from experience, you quickly run into situations like learners with sight issues that test as visual learners (it really did happen once). You start to wonder what kind of weird research went into this idea… until you find out that there was little research into the idea that students learn better in their Learning Style™. Opps.

Then there is the irony that so many “Learning Style™ Assessments” are completely text based…

FYI – I came out as a visual learner by the test above. Most of my answers to the questions were “it depends,” but because I am an artist and I do like to draw, I got Visual. But I hate most of the study tips they gave me.

Like many people, I like to do different things for learning different content at different times. If you wanted to say that there are learning preferences that 1) don’t follow rigid categories (Auditory, Tactile, etc), and 2) change for each learner depending on what/when/how they study – I would agree with that concept. The idea that there is one main Learning Style™ that each learner must figure out and then have every lesson tailored for them or by them to that style in order for them to learn best? I don’t see much evidence for that.

In order to become a self-determined learner, we all need to learn how the content is presented to us, and then tailor it to what we need at that moment. Learning Styles™ are just too rigid for that to happen – at least in the way they are most often implemented.

So if, you were to ask “what is the difference between Learning Styles and something like Universal Design for Learning?” For me, even when taking into account the less rigid version of learning styles from my youth, it is:

Learning Styles: People are different, so here are some easy boxes to keep them in and contain the complexity.

Universal Design for Learning: People are different, but its complicated, so let’s design something to release that complexity. Even if we don’t fully get it.

The idea of complex and changing learner preferences is why I continue work on self-mapped learning pathways (also known as “dual-layer” and “customizable pathways”). Getting locked into one “style” and then having that one style handed to you as a “personalized” lesson each day is just another form of instructivism that removes much of the need for self-regulation and all of the need for self-determination.

3 thoughts on “The Learning Styles™ Industry Versus Learning Preferences

  1. Matt,

    I really enjoyed how you differentiated between what you learned about learning styles in school vs the industry, I haven’t seen anyone else in this debate break it down that way. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a K12 classroom, but as far as I’m aware, teacher evaluations here aren’t tied to planning by learning styles. It’s hard for me to imaging school districts where that happens, but I get that it does in some countries.

    Nowadays I tend to avoid the flame wars between the two camps, and reflect on a piece by Mike Caulfield that really spoke to me, and I think gets at your point about UDL. “And this approach – multiple routes into the same concept for the learner – is supported by the research…[and] lost in the discussion about learning styles is the research base that shows that most students benefit from multiple approaches into a subject using a variety of styles. Segregating students into different style groups has no effect, but teaching in a variety of ways is quite effective.” I wrote a bit more about his piece and my past with learning styles here https://jrdingwall.ca/blogwall/where-do-you-stand-on-learning-styles/

  2. I probably should have clarified that Learning Styles were just a part of the overall evaluation, and typically only if there was a major training session on it close to evaluation time (administrators tend to have a short memory of trainings they want to see evaluated and added – luckily the session that taught us to turn all of our lessons into raps was at the beginning of the year and forgotten by evaluation time).

    The other thing I should add is that as states like Texas have taken a more top-down standardized approach to teacher evaluations, I haven’t heard much about Learning Styles being a part of the evaluation. I could just be missing it, but now it seems to based on more standardized factors. Which is a whole other pain in itself.

  3. Oh, and good blog post on learning styles. Gotta give a virtual high five for pulling out the ID Deep Dive with Smith and Ragan. Their text is one of the 4-5 on ID I keep in the office with me.

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