Different people have different styles of learning and it’s incumbent on teachers to be sensitive to this. What could be nicer? Learning style theory respects everyone’s abilities on their own terms, and recognizes our differences not as strengths and weakness, but as simple differences, like height or foot size.
Let’s assume for the moment that the basic premise is correct, that individuals bring individual style to learning. And let’s assume for the moment that the various theorists (more on this later) are correct in their assumption that these individual styles fall into a number of reasonably well-defined categories. What’s the next step? Let’s think of a concrete example, and then see if we can push the boundaries of the ideas a bit.
One group of Learning Styles theories argues that some people are “visual learners”, others are “auditory learners” others are “tactile learners”, and others are “kinesthetic learners”. The argument is that some people (for reasons that never seem to be explored) “learn better” (whatever that means) by mobilizing their sense of sight, some with the sense of hearing, some with the sense of touch, and some by moving their bodies in space. So, of course, tests are developed to find out what kind of learner you are. Following our generous assumption, let’s suppose that these styles really are typical of people, and that the test truly does identify who is who. Now what?
If I’m a kinesthetic learner what should I do? Should I try to make all my learning kinesthetic? Or should I now focus on the other three? Or do I just say, “cool” and get back to business? Not surprisingly, the advocates of learning styles disagree at this point.
If, continuing to follow our assumptions, we discover this fact about ourselves, how does it help us to learn to play the trumpet? To solve quadratic equations? To interpret a passage from The Iliad? Frankly, I can so no way that this fact is of any use to the student or teacher. My learning style is irrelevant to my performance of non-trivial tasks. I might prefer listening to reading, but that doesn’t help me to be better at either one of them, nor does it help me to deploy my existing skill to perform other tasks. As poor Oedipus said, “How horrible truth can be when there’s no help in truth.”
So learning styles, while attractive, don’t appear to be particularly useful. This in itself should be reason for educators to be cautious. But the problem is even worse than that: the empirical evidence counts strongly against the differences that the theory takes as a matter of faith. Sadly, the evidence just isn’t there. A single meta-analysis (Lovelace, 2005) seems to indicate that one model of learning-style preference and teaching strategy brought positive results, but the Lovelace study was convincingly shown to be problematic in 2007 by Kavale and LeFever.
I’m not saying that learners don’t have preferences. And I’m not saying that these preferences can be mobilized to benefit. And I’m not saying that preferences may indicate areas for remediation. What I am saying is that the preliminary case for learning style assessments and subsequent interventions is very weak, both from the analytic point of view I sketched above, and from the currently sorry state of empirical research.
Learning styles theory is “nice” but right now it appears to offer nothing of practical value to education.
Kavale, K. A., & LeFever, G. B. (2007). Dunn and Dunn model of learning-style preferences: Critique of Lovelace meta-analysis. The Journal of Educational Research, 101, 94-97.
Lovelace, MK (2005). Meta-Analysis of Experimental Research Based on the Dunn and Dunn Model. Journal of Educational Research, 98: 176-183.