A New Approach to Learning Styles

For much of my educational life, I have heard a lot about learning styles, or learning modalities. “Modalities” is not a word we use a lot, so you may have forgotten its context within education. The term simply refers to being taught in the manner in which one learns best. The three most-referenced learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic…or see, hear, and do.

Photo by Stuart Miles | FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Photo by Stuart Miles | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It has been interesting to note that the notion of learning styles and its popularity is actually a theory that has been researched…and debunked. A 2010 article summarizes the research:

‘There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist,’ wrote University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and co-author Cedar Riener. While students do have preferences about how they learn, the evidence shows they absorb information just as well whether or not they encounter it in their preferred mode.

Now before you come away feeling deceived like this is some government-led educational sham, I would like to make a few comments to drive our thinking.

This is not a post against using learning styles…we should have varied ways in which to present material. But I like what Annie Murphy Paul referenced in her blog post about three different types of learners: the surface learners, whose goal is doing just what they can to get by; the strategic learners, who are more interested in good grades than in authentic understanding; and the deep learners, who are looking for the relationships among ideas and how they can be put to use for new thinking or behavior.

What I am learning as a teacher is that I need to be more concerned that I teach a concept visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically because it is the best way to create meaning. I need to be more concerned with creating additional deep learners than I am concerned about making sure that I teach in the correct modality in which a student learns best.

It really is a flipped mentality about learning and what makes it effective. Instead of presenting lessons in all of the various learning styles to ensure I meet the needs of those who must see, hear, or touch to learn, it is more profitable to spend a few minutes before each concept and ask, “what is going to be the most authentic manner in which this can be presented that will ensure the student can understand it, can teach it to others, and can create relationships to new ideas?” That is true learning.

I think it would be good for each of us to read the research and make certain that we are current on new thought about how we learn best. But don’t stumble over the details and miss what is easy for us as educators. Whatever I do or say and however I do or say it, the end game is meaning. It is not modality, it is not technique. It is meaning. Learning styles and techniques are spokes to the wheel of learning but they are not nor cannot be the hub. We teach so that students are transformed, in both thinking and action. And to get this principle out of order is costly for those whose lives we touch.



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