Where do you stand on learning styles?

May 2, 2019 Off By JR

McGill’s teaching and learning centre has an active blogging presence and share lots of great resources and interviews with instructors regularly. Today I came across a post by the same title as this post. It’s a short post by Carolyn Samuel highlighting work by Kirschner et al., who, if you follow the learning styles debate (debate might not be true right term here) are front and centre in debunking learning styles.

When I was in teachers college, learning styles was part of the curriculum, although it wasn’t central to planning lessons as I understand some teacher programs have it. I was not assessed on my planning for visual learners vs. Auditory learners, learning styles were more like a footnote or a passing note. Multiple intelligences (via Gardner), but I won’t get into that much here.

Fast forward to when I worked in medical education, we had a small group that regularly shared education research for group discussion (it was actually a really neat cpd group and I hope they’ve continued with it). When it was my turn to pick an article, Urban Legend in Education by kirschner et al (2013 ish) had just been published. They write in a very compelling way, and the style of writing you can see across learning styles debunking articles all around. One of my favourite push backs against styles are from Smith and Ragan 2003 along the lines of “the horizontal learner learns best while laying down, regardless of the learning task”.

Throughout instructional design work, you encounter loads of folks that seem to use learning styles for justifying all kinds of things. A common one is to include lots of images to learning materials because “visual learners”, but in reality many images are strictly decorative. Overtime you can get tired of this debate though, the two sides endlessly critiquing one another saying they’re the ones actually supported by research (although citations to systematic reviews etc are pretty rare while screaming on Twitter).

Starting in 2014 I started paying a lot of attention to Mike Caulfield’s work. Before the web literacy and digipo work, Mike blogged a lot about federated wiki and choral explanations, something I’m still quite fascinated by. The wikity project, which was a WordPress theme that enabled a federated wiki style environment driven by a familiar tool (WP), is an idea I just can’t seem to get out of my head. Anyway, in the writing about fedwiki and later choral explanations, Mike made a passing comment about learning styles that has stuck with me since 2016:

And this approach – multiple routes into the same concept for the learner – is supported by the research. There are no “learning styles”, as we know – no “kinesthetic learners”. But lost in the discussion about learning styles is the research base that shows that most students benefit from multiple approaches into a subject using a variety of styles. Segregating students into different style groups has no effect, but teaching in a variety of ways is quite effective.Mike Caulfied

I recommend reading his whole post, and he links to additional research. Since then my general approach has been to not even bother with the learning styles discussion and focus on multiple modes of representation.