It’s common knowledge among today’s parents that different children have different learning styles. Many parents are even able to list the four styles—visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic (tactile) learning—and match one to their child.
What is less commonly known, is that the idea of learning styles has been the subject of much debate. For instance, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) refers to learning styles as a “neuromyth.” Their official verdict: “Even though this theory is quite plausible for laymen, experts do not accept this theory and its application in the classroom.”
The Case Against Learning Styles
Some of these experts include professors and neuroscience professionals in the UK, who co-signed an open letter on learning styles in 2017.
In it, they wrote that there has been “no coherent framework” for learning styles, and that students are usually categorised into a style based on self-reporting. This, they said, could lead to assumptions that learning is fixed, and impair one’s ability to adapt to different learning situations.
The letter also called into question the validity of learning styles research:
“[There] have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or ‘meshing’ material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment.”
The evidence supporting learning styles is thought—by some—to be weak because research has not conclusively shown that people learn better when taught in their preferred style. In several studies, different groups of learners responded well to the same style of teaching. In others, those who studied in their preferred style did not achieve a better grade.
“This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught—just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally,” says Christian Jarrett, who authored the book “Great Myths of the Brain.”
How Else Can We Approach Learning?
To help your child improve his or her learning ability, keep an eye out for evidence-based learning strategies, and try them out.
For instance, a group of 14-year-old German students performed better on a biology test when they were asked to draw the new concepts that they had learned about, prior to the test.
In another study, students who were given learning material—and told that they needed to teach the material to someone else—seemed to recall more information when tested.
Experimenting with different strategies is actually good for the brain, says Benedict Carey, science reporter and author of “How We Learn.”
“[The brain is] a restless, scattered learning instrument. Of course you need to do some concentrated study, but you in fact do better when you begin to incorporate a whole bunch of other learning strategies that make learning more efficient.”
It’s an approach paved with endless possibility, and some may find this more effective than being confined to one learning style.
“Everyone is able to think in words, everyone is able to think in mental images,” says psychologist Daniel Willingham, yet another learning styles sceptic. “It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?”