The idea that we have a learning ‘style’ is a myth; let’s stop perpetuating it and engage learners instead.
While I was teaching in a program for young social entrepreneurs one of the learners approach me and said they were struggling with some of the reading materials and discussions because they were a ‘visual learner.’
The course, which already used a variety of instructional approaches already employed images, videos, diagrams, physical ‘system maps’ and infographics that were highly ‘visual’ tools for learning so I asked this individual what else could I could do to help them. The response was: “I don’t know, I just know that I am a visual learner.“
This stuck with me.
Like many others, this young person had gone through their formal education believing a myth: that they had a learning style. After much follow-up conversation, I sensed that they weren’t engaged in the program and even less about the materials. This learner expressed frustration that too many aspects of the educational program didn’t fit their learning style. What they really meant was that they weren’t engaged.
In over 20 years of teaching I’ve seen and heard arguments for these learning styles or preferences (made increasingly so in recent years), yet there remains no evidence that such styles exist. Such myths end up frustrating students and teachers and might mean we miss a far more significant problem.
Un-learning the Neuromyths of Learning
The idea of a ‘learning style’ is an attractive one. Canvas any post-secondary classroom full of students and you’ll find those that love (or dread) different forms of learning — group work, interactive games, lectures, videos and more — but while there may be personal preferences for these methods, they are as much to do with personality and circumstance than some neuropsychological property. As a teacher, I’ve come to realize the power of using mixed formats in my courses wherever possible to stimulate different ways of thinking about a problem, situation and context.
There is a difference between enjoyment of a learning experience and actual learning. Burning my hand on the hot stove as a kid was unpleasant beyond measure, but I learned some valuable lessons about stoves, heat, climbing around our family kitchen, and my skin that day. When I am honest about what I’ve learned from my education, there is little correlation between the course style and my learning. What mattered was the way I encoded and recalled the material later on and how I was able to apply what I learned to my life and career. Lectures, projects, community engagement — all of these worked well when there was alignment between the material, the purpose, and the teaching/instruction/support method.
The Educational Foundation in the UK has come out to challenge the idea of ‘learning styles’ saying that they have little scientific evidence to support their use. Psychologist Luc Rosseau points to the way our beliefs in these styles are subject to enormous confirmation biases where we see what we expect to see (and miss what we don’t) that reinforces the myth.
This makes teasing apart the myth of learning styles from the evidence difficult to do and the matter of evidence we draw from the results is a challenge. However, there is one more obvious ‘measure’ that we might consider, particularly in a time when self-directed, online learning is playing a more significant role in our lives — whether as children, post-secondary students, or adult learners: Engagement.
The Power of Full Engagement
In the book by the same name as above, Tony Schwartz and psychologist Jim Loehr outline their theory of how people learn, perform, and excel by focusing on engagement and energy’s role in shaping our learning and behaviour. What they (and others) have found is focused energy on a task or mission, which often comes from enjoyment, attention, and deliberative practice, and managing that energy is vital.
Engagement is about stimulating interest through a variety of means. It can be about facts (evidence) and content, it might have an emotional appeal, or it could relate to a pending threat or opportunity. Engagement involves anchoring the content and experience of learning to the needs, wants, and situations facing the learner. Rather than challenge educators to provide learning experiences to suit learning styles, such experiences should be designed to facilitate engagement.
Design Thinking for Learning
Education and learning are design challenges. Just as designers focus on the user, educational design must focus on the learner (and that includes the teacher-as-learner). It is, as mentioned before, about systems. The idea of applying design thinking to the classroom and learning environments is something that has attracted the interest of my colleague John Nash. He (literally) wrote the book on design thinking in schools and has found that employing design thinking naturally fits with educators’ orientation toward learning, growth, and transformation.
This positive orientation toward change is what can also break that connection between the myth of learner styles.
Instead, through approaches like design thinking, we might be better able to put learners at the centre and determine what engages them and design our lessons, courses, classrooms, and learning institutions to foster real learning, not leave students looking only for things that fit their perceived style (and the myths surrounding it).