Letting Go of Learning StylesAs parents, we always want what’s best for our children. That’s why we search for the healthiest foods, the safest car seats and the cutest little kid outfits we can find.

It’s also why, when we hear about a super simple technique that promises to instantly improve our child’s learning skills, we jump all over it in a hurry.

What is this miracle technique, you may ask?

It’s a concept called “learning styles,” and it’s been tantalizing parents and educators alike for the past forty-plus years. According to the learning styles theory, kids learn better when you:

  1. figure out the one, single way that your child learns best, and
  2. customize all your teaching methods to match it.

So children who learn best by seeing would be Visual Learners, those who learn best by hearing would be Audio Learners, ones who learn best by doing would be Kinesthetic Learners, and so on.

At first blush, the idea that each person might have his or her own specific learning style is compelling. You may even identify with one of the styles yourself. For example, if you believe you might be a Visual Learner, you can probably recall several isolated examples of things that you have been able to learn visually throughout your life.

This concept gets even more exciting when you start thinking about your children’s lives—and how they could learn all sorts of lessons faster and more effectively if you simply taught them everything using their preferred method…

  • You could teach your Visual Learner to crawl by getting down on all fours and showing her your amazing technique!
  • You could teach your Audio Learner to use the potty by sitting him down and making fart noises with your armpit!
  • You could teach your Kinesthetic Learner the alphabet by contorting her body into the shapes of all 26 letters!

…and then just sit back and wait for all the academic scholarships to roll in.

There’s just one problem, as it turns out:

Learning styles are a complete and total myth.

Because learning styles seem so cool to anyone who hears about them, they’ve been the subject of tons and tons of research studies over the years. Institutions like the University of California, San Diego; Washington University; and the University of California, Los Angeles have all gotten in on the act.

Their results?

For every one piece of research that seems to support some usefulness of learning styles, there are dozens more that show no benefit whatsoever—despite researchers’ best attempts to find it. The overwhelming majority of the literature concludes the same thing: there is no proven benefit to matching a teacher’s instruction to a learner’s preferred style.

A More Effective Alternative to Learning Styles

Research may have crushed our dreams of learning styles leading to a lifetime of easy As, but it also offers plenty of suggestions for other techniques that can help our kids become star-studded studiers. Here are a few:

Focus on the Subject
Instead of customizing a lesson to a student’s particular learning style, it actually makes more sense to tailor it to the subject being learned. For example, learning to play the piano is best suited to kinesthetic learning. Students could listen all day to a lecture about how to sit at the piano, what keys to press in what order, and how soft or loud to play, but none of it would really stick until they actually got to practice tickling those ivories themselves.

Get Kids Out of Their Comfort Zones
Research from the University of Southern California shows that although people often enjoy a particular method of instruction, it may end up being the one that teaches them the least. That’s because learning can be hard—and sometimes we need to push past what’s easy and familiar to achieve real academic success.

Be a Flexible Instructor
When you’re teaching your child, closely monitor his progress. If he’s having trouble, don’t hesitate to switch up your style as needed. Because after all, there is no single style that is guaranteed to teach your child best.

Practice a Style Blitz
Take this idea a step further and plan on mixing up your teaching styles right from the start. Studies show that the more different ways children are exposed to a new concept, the more efficiently they’ll learn it. So instead of sticking to just one style, offer a combination of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning whenever possible.

Emphasize Effort
The research dispelling learning styles clearly communicates that in education there are no easy outs. So be sure to praise all your little learner’s efforts, helping her appreciate the value of working hard to accomplish her goals. When you tell your child how proud you are that she tried really hard and finished all of her work, she’ll be eager to make you (and herself) proud again!

Look at, listen to or act on all the evidence, and we think one lesson is clear: it’s time to lose learning styles for good!

Who’s with us?

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  • Paul Dufficy

    Maybe look at seating arrangements as a starter

  • Mermaid Warrior

    I knew it!

  • Airwin

    I can see how a mix of learning styles could be beneficial to all students, but frankly, I am more concerned about forcing introverted students to conform to extroverted teaching styles. And I say that as a parent and a student.

  • Suzanne M. Lambert

    Back in the day when I was an undergraduate in psychology, we learned that the best way to learn anything was to involve all of the senses — taking notes while listening to a lecture and then later doing a lab on that subject.

    Then “learning styles” came along, and said that we each only learn in one way — which, if you actually think about it, is obviously nonsense. As the article says, you can’t learn to play the piano by watching someone else play the piano, despite your preference for watching videos rather than listening to a lecture.

    But, we as a society are always looking for that single, simple miracle.

    • SandraandMichael Evans

      Actually, I taught and was taught that one had to grab a student’s attention…whether it was visually, kinesthetically, musically, etc. Then after the attention was gained the learning could commence…whether it was through lectures, lab, etc. The idea was to gain the learner’s attention…if you can’t do that then you don’t have learning. A learner has to want to learn. I can’t teach anyone to draw if they don’t want to…i can teach everyone to draw if they want to.

  • Amanda Brendtro

    I don’t know one teacher that focuses solely on one learning style, not one. It might be helpful if the authors actually visited a classroom or school. This was written in such a trite and glib manner that it’s hard to take seriously.

    • Shawn Peters

      It doesn’t sound like you even read the article, let alone understood it. The teaching should match the subject, not the learner. Some topics are better hands-on, others might be better in other modalities. So you’ve seen teachers switch it up because it is better that information enter through multiple senses rather than one. But the idea that some students are better suited for learning through one sense than others is pseudoscience.

  • J. Strauss

    I find this article very bizarre. Are these people really researchers? I am well read on this subject and know of not one single study that says people learn in one way only. In fact those who write about everything from multiple intelligences to learning styles to personality styles all say there are dominant styles or intelligences but that there is no one single entity alone.

    • Lara Entzian Bruner

      For example, people claim that they are a visual learner, kinesthetic learner, etc. This is not supported in the research. The big take-away of learning research is that no person has a learning style- an individual learns better if you combine the senses/”learning styles”, actively engage in the material, use what best fits the content, connect it to prior knowledge, and have a growth mindset.

    • Shawn Peters

      Actually, pretty much all the research shows that the best approach works best for people of all learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Check out the meta-analysis by the APS.

  • Rachael Maher

    I feel that your article is misleading. Learning styles are not a myth. You yourself state there is equal evidence for and against. I feel it would be much more accurate to state that often times people may rely too much on a particular strategy and want one way to help their children. I read your bio, which states you develop programs to design effective teaching programs for teachers. When designing your programs are you looking at how teachers need to present materials in multiple modalities? Yes praising effort and challenging children are all part of a well-designed approach to education as are looking at weaknesses and strengths of the learner. Where a child may be missing connections and how the neural pathways of learning needs to be nourished in multiple ways is another. I disagree that we need to ditch learning styles. I believe that Howard Gardner’s book Five Minds of the Future is a far better approach to addressing the issue we have in education, a deeper understanding with the ability to use knowledge skills and strategies in a variety of learning situations. I am not sure where you are going with this article perhaps to relay the message that there is not one thing that will
    work for all children should be the message and that there is not one method that guarantees success for all children. I feel stating learning styles is a myth is a poor approach to the broader message that needs to be addressed.

    • john hark

      Learning styles in terms of teaching to one modality to unlock a kid’s potential is a myth and it’s dangerous to continue to push that idea. Presenting in different/more than one modality is not about learning styles…it’s about improving engagement. There’s a good podcast by about learning styles from The Psych Files that is a good listen.

      Gardner’s theory is not learning styles…people have blended the two and misconstrued his original theory.

    • Shawn Peters

      There is NOT an equal amount of evidence for and against learning styles. Check out the meta-analysis by the Association for Psychological Science. Only 20 studies actually checked the meshing hypothesis, 17 out of the 20 turned up negative, 3 of the 20 did not even report the size of the effect they claimed to find (which is shady if you actually found something meaningful).

  • Tech_Prof

    A nice summary of several opinions on the topic: http://www.slideshare.net/hodgesc/learning-styles-18939517

  • Sharon Tong

    I think it’s super important to note that each teacher has a teaching style. Many times, the strength of the teacher plays a crucial role in how well the students learn. I would much rather have pre-developed classroom plans and activities that come packaged for the teacher to carry out. A more experienced teacher could guide the newer teacher on which plan to use based on the strengths of the newer teacher. I wonder if that would allow teachers to develop their skills over time and become better teachers. As for learning styles, that need would have been addressed by the pre-developed plans to include the similar info several times in different format; thus allowing students to gradually learn the material.

    • Joyce Oxfeld

      That’s already what is expected during student teaching , or supervised teaching final semester.

  • john hark

    It comes down to engagement. If you engage students, learning improves.

  • Joyce Oxfeld

    I’ve always been a ‘slow’ learner and had to self teach myself many things. I am over sixty now and my always touchy memory problems have become stickier. I played the violin for many years , then was hampered by tremor that was later diagnosed as ‘essential tremor’, and I am still afraid to pick up the violin after three years of dropping things, tripping, and spilling things. My natural ability to do art work has suffered too. I have trouble with handwriting , pouring water or liquids or powders. I have a lot of trouble with anxiety and depression. I don’t know, honestly , which learning styles would have benefitted me more growing up, or what still will.

  • Mary Keating

    I was reading a website today on Home Schooling. As it asserted the ideas of “learning styles” so vigorously, I decided to update myself on current views. I’m relieved to hear that the opposing voice is now being being heard. An interesting article and comments. I have just launched my website http://www.tutoringprimary.com (from Australia); uploaded a lot of my literacy materials – all of these are purely words. My purpose: to teach to the subject. Diagrams and pictures are both expensive and can be counterproductive to the objective of teaching primary school children the skills of reading. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with your site.