What we’re reading: The stubborn myth of “learning styles”

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It's the education myth that just won't die.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience research have definitively debunked the idea that different students have different "learning styles" (i.e. that there are visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, etc.). The truth is that matching instruction to students' preferred learning styles does not promote learning. Some excellent recent research and analysis from William Furey and Education Next delves into the topic and exposes that more than half of states continue to endorse learning styles by including them in licensure tests for aspiring elementary teachers.

Dr. Furey states:

It seems harmless enough, but when teachers work to accommodate learning styles, which have no empirical support, they divert attention and effort away from instructional strategies that are supported by a substantial body of research. There are principles of instruction and strategies for effective learning that are supported by converging empirical evidence from multiple fields—practical knowledge teachers ought to have upon entering their first classroom. When training programs spend time discussing learning styles, that's time not spent discussing proven practices to enhance student learning.

Unfortunately, state licensure tests continue to support the idea of learning styles. Dr. Furey continues:

There is no evidence that designing lessons that appeal to different learning styles accelerates student learning. Yet teacher candidates are consistently directed to keep these pseudoscientific style categories in mind. The idea of "learning styles" is persistent and popular in the field, in part because many teachers don't know the science that disproves it. Education and teacher preparation are better when they are informed by empirical evidence than when they operate in disregard of it. It is important to ensure that educators are prepared with accurate insights into learning, instead of with myths...

Nonetheless, starting with their training, teachers are steeped in the lore of learning styles. A 2016 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 67 percent of teacher-preparation programs required students to incorporate learning styles into lesson-planning assignments, and 59 percent of textbooks advised taking students' learning styles into account. Those lessons appear to stick: a 2017 study examining the prevalence of neuromyths found that, of the 598 educators surveyed, 76 percent agreed that "individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style," and 71 percent agreed that "children have learning styles that are dominated by particular senses."

Is it any surprise, then, that Dr. Furey's review of free, publicly available test-preparation materials for computer-based standardized exams that test knowledge of elementary instructional methods in 34 states and the District of Columbia found that nearly all of those materials advocate for modifying instruction to accommodate learning styles?

Read the full piece from Education Next to learn more.

To learn more about the six identified proven practices that promote learning for all students, regardless of grade or subject, and that are especially potent with struggling students, check out the 2016 NCTQ report Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know. The report also looks at the prevalence of "learning styles" in teacher preparation.