Have you ever wondered how many times people search “learning styles” on Google? No need to think much about it. The answer is too many!
According to Google’s Keyword Planner (the thing marketers use to find the words you’re searching for), people search for the keyword "learning styles" on average 12K times a month. Let me repeat that, 12K every month! Just to put it in perspective, exactly the same audience, only searches for “L&D” on average 4.4K a month.
Although I was a bit scared of what I’d uncover, I decided to check what information somebody finds when searching for "learning styles" on Google. I read over 100 search results on the topic and I got sad, very sad.
Less than 10% of the results (eg. articles, videos) mention in any way that this theory is not backed by research. You might wonder: “Why should we even care about debunking the myth of learning styles, at a time when everyone is talking about how AI will revolutionize learning and L&D?” Read on to find out.
What is the learning styles theory?
The Learning Styles Theory has floated around educational circles for years, presenting a seemingly fascinating idea. At its core, it claims that each of us leans towards a particular mode of learning.
Some of us are drawn to visuals, soaking up charts, graphics, and written words. Others might resonate more with auditory cues, thriving in lecture-style environments or when plugged into a podcast. Yet, others may find they grasp concepts best when they're doing hands-on activities, immersing themselves in the physicality of learning.
However, the Learning Styles Theory goes beyond just identifying these preferences. It takes a bold step to claim that the secret to effective learning lies in tapping into these preferences. By aligning teaching techniques with individual learning styles, the theory promises enhanced comprehension and retention. It’s an enticing concept, and on the surface, it appears to offer a tailor-made solution to education.
However, here's where things get a bit tricky. If you pause and ponder the vast complexities of the human brain, it's challenging to accept the notion that our cognitive processes could fit neatly into a few categories. Can our diverse, adaptive, and evolving ways of understanding really be pigeonholed into just three or four styles? This foundational question pushes us to dig deeper and scrutinize the theory's underlying assumptions.
Learning styles vs. scientific research
When it comes to the Learning Styles Theory, it's got its charm. It's simple, straightforward, and offers a neat answer to the complex question of how people learn. On the other hand, scientific research doesn't always come in such an easy-to-digest package.
The idea behind learning styles is alluring.: people have specific ways they prefer to learn, so we should cater to those preferences. But as tempting as this concept is, the evidence backing it up is thin. Researchers like Pashler and Rohrer have explored this theory, and what they've found might surprise many. There's a big gap between the claims of the Learning Styles Theory and the actual evidence supporting it.
Yet, the theory persists. Why? Maybe because it's simple to understand. On the other hand, research papers, filled with data and detailed methodologies, can be tough to navigate. But just because something is simpler doesn't make it right. It's essential to weigh the charm of simplicity against the weight of evidence. And in this battle, evidence should come out on top.
Why should we question learning styles?
I didn’t decide to write about learning styles merely to oppose the theory. My intention is to highlight how this notion, while attractive, might be misleading us from the true essence of crafting meaningful learning experiences.
So, what are the reasons that prompt such skepticism?
- Lack of Concrete Evidence: The foundation of any educational theory should be rooted in strong research. Surprisingly, for something as widespread as the Learning Styles theory, the evidence is light. Numerous academic studies have delved into its claims. Still, a majority of them either find inconclusive results or can't find substantial support for the idea that teaching using a particular style offers any significant advantage.
- Over-Simplification of Human Nature: Claiming that each person has a fixed learning style might be doing a disservice to our complex cognitive nature. People are adaptable. Today's auditory learner might be tomorrow's kinesthetic enthusiast. By categorizing learners strictly, we're denying them the diverse experiences that stimulate comprehensive understanding.
- Potential for Bias and Stereotyping: There's danger in strict labels. Once a student is branded a "visual learner," there might be unconscious biases towards how they're taught. They could be unintentionally deprived of experiences that might be outside their 'label' but could lead to profound learning moments.
- Suppressing Growth and Adaptability: Solely relying on the learning styles theory can restrict innovation in learning design methods. Why? If we focus only on one perceived style, we might miss out on other equally, if not more, effective strategies that cater to a broader audience.
- The intricate fabric of life: Real-world scenarios rarely cater to our supposed learning preferences. Whether it's a job task, a DIY project, or just daily interactions, we're exposed to a blend of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli. Preparing learners in only one way could mean they're less equipped to handle diverse situations.
Based on the reasons above, it's my firm belief that it's time for us, as L&D professionals, to pivot away from the Learning Styles model. By recognizing its limitations, we can make room for more versatile and evidence-backed educational methodologies.
If we’re not using learning styles, then what: how to approach learning effectively
If we're moving away from the Learning Styles paradigm, the immediate question becomes: "Then what?" Fortunately, neuroscience provides us with a richer, more reliable compass for designing effective learning experiences.
Here's how to navigate.