Question: The idea of learning styles is prevalent in some education circles and popular among the general public, despite lack of evidence. What do you say to an educator who says "Everyone learns differently!" without reinforcing the idea of learning styles?
Paula Clarke answered on 7 Mar 2018:
I would encourage them to unpack this claim. Specifically to make the distinction between learning processes and preferred learning styles (e.g. Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic etc.).
There is a considerable body of cognitive psychological research which evidences the commonalities in how human beings process, remember and learn. That being said there has been some research into cognitive (thinking) styles (for example in the field of autism) suggesting that some individuals may have distinct ways of learning. Importantly though this is not a preferred learning style but rather a difference in how they process information.
Individuals’ learning experiences will be distinct due to the unique histories on which they build their understandings and knowledge. People may also differ with regards their preferred learning styles, but it is important to question how stable these preferences are and therefore how valid it is to characterise someone has having a particular learning style. Reflecting on my own learning, my preferences change according to the task, the context and a whole range of other factors relating to my motivations and goals.
Courtney Pollack answered on 7 Mar 2018:
I agree that it would be helpful to unpack the claim along a couple different dimensions. The learning styles myth purports that students have a preferred learning style that students should be taught using that style, so I think there may be room to acknowledge variability in learning, but without the notion that it can be reduced to a small set of learning styles.
I find this post informative: https://ctl.yale.edu/LearningStylesMyth. It dovetails nicely with Paula’s points, provides helpful recommendations about how to convey the complexity inherent in the learning process, and speaks to variability without reducing it to learning styles. It also has links to additional primary sources in case you’d like to read more. I hope you find it useful!
Brian Butterworth answered on 7 Mar 2018:
Everyone will learn differently according to their cognitive capacities, life experiences, their inclinations and their relationship with formal and informal education. This does not mean everyone learns in one of a few ‘styles’ – visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. There is no good evidence for VAK, or indeed VARK.
How one learns will also depend on what one is learning. Learning maths is different from learning history. Diagrams may help one learner with maths but not with history; or vice versa.
Of course, the educational context should be adaptive to the learner’s current needs and abilities. Maths may be in the learner’s zone of proximal development, and may need slow incremental progress, while history could be racing ahead, and require a flow of new and exciting ideas. And, it could all change next year or next term.
Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel answered on 13 Mar 2018:
I would respond that when we look how memory works, we are all more similar than we think. Researchers have found that there are particular learning strategies that work for a wide range of people and that all strategies can be accommodated in a way to cater to individual differences that really matter, such as prior knowledge, for instance.
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