During teacher training, we were taught about different learning styles and how to best cater for our pupils whilst bearing those in mind. SEN intervention strategies focus on helping a child reach their maximum learning potential by catering to their individual needs and adapting teaching using: visual programs, coloured overlays, hands on practice and so on. Today, professional development for those teachers wishing to keep up to date with pedagogical ideas still refer to learning styles and adapting teaching to those, where needed.
In the TED talk below, Tesia Marshik turns the tables. After watching it a year ago, I became deeply troubled since it changed everything I had been exposed to as a teacher and what I’d seen in the classroom. It got me thinking about how humans actually learn, so I delved deeper. I read books about the brain and in particular books that related to neuroplasticity as well as learning in general, before I made up my own mind about learning styles. Trying to follow the best education practice isn’t easy as it constantly changes and in the last 20 years I’ve noticed that it tends to swing a bit like a pendulum. Everyone is keen to jump on a new bandwagon, as soon as it comes out. Read on to decide if you believe learning styles are true or false.
Let’s look at some of Tesia’s arguments from her TED talk, while I try to play the devil’s advocate.
In her TED Talk, Tesia Marshik talks about there being no or little evidence to base the learning style theory.
From what I’ve read and understood learning style ideas mainly grew out of classroom wisdom. Given any pedagogical effort, some students learn and some do not. Every teacher encounters students who seem to learn in unexpected ways and every student sometimes gets stumped by methods that work for everyone else. Thus years of self-serving replications and furious critiques make it very clear that people learn in different ways. Neuroscientists unanimously agree that every brain is unique. Couldn’t it be possible that a student doesn’t have just one learning style but many, at different points throughout their learning journey?
Styles don’t exist they are preferences, but preferences don’t enhance learning.
This baffles me. Wouldn’t one assume that someone would learn better if they approached learning in their preferred way?
According to the study carried out in the video, people were exposed to learning different words in a variety of ways. I personally view this as memorising. Is memorising the same as learning? According to Merriam-Webster, to memorise is “to commit to memory”, while to learn is to “to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience”. In this case then, I’m not too sure that these studies truly show learning sine they make no reference to meaning or experience.
Matching teaching styles to supposed learning styles or preferences doesn’t make a difference to children’s learning.
My understanding of this is that there is no need to try and match a teaching style to a learning style because it will not make a difference to children’s learning. This is great news for my planning time, because if this is the case then I need not plan with a variety of learning styles in mind, which means my teaching can be either solely visual or auditory or hands on. All children will learn the same…right? Or maybe not. I cannot imagine that all students will learn to their full capacity if they are just spoken to, or if they are just shown something. I think a meaningful learning experience requires all learning styles: visual, auditory and hands-on.
If you believe in learning styles you are wrong.
If learning styles truly don’t exist then teaching has suddenly become a whole lot easier! No more trying to figure out how a child learns best, and no more exposing them to different forms of teaching, since they will learn what they learn no matter how they’re exposed to it. Really?
It is true that some people have better visual memories or auditory processing skills compared to other people.
Tesia, continues on to say that this might be advantageous for different types of tasks. So wouldn’t this also mean that it’s advantageous for different types of learning? If, for example, a student is better with their visual memory, could that make them a better visual speller? Thus by teaching spelling in a more visual way, might that not help the student learn the spelling than if they just heard it?
The best way to learn or teach something depends on the content itself.
I couldn’t agree more with this. Your teaching content should be what determines how you teach something to the majority of your students. That is not to say though that adapting how you teach something to someone’s specific needs or preferences should be regarded as wrong. For example, if you take the bird example in the video, about trying to teach what the birds look like but say you have a visually impaired student. Just showing them wouldn’t suffice. Your teaching would have to be modified and you may have to approach it in an auditory way for that student to understand and learn.
These are just some of the questions and thoughts that this TED Talk raised for me.
Personally, I won’t be so quick to jump on the bandwagon that learning styles don’t exist. It could be that we are just playing with words and that learning styles don’t exist if you try to learn by using solely one given style. It can’t be denied though, that learning takes place through tactile, auditory and visual experience and that students will learn best by being exposed to all styles. That’s my own personal opinion, which may of course be wrong.
Watch the rest of the video and form your own conclusion.
What’s yours? I’m curious!
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Till next time…
Like you, I was quite interested in the work of Howard Gardner. Like you, I’ve since learned that his theories were based on faulty or inadequate research. But, also like you, I observe what happens in my classroom and adjust programs to what I consider to be student needs. Sometimes I think the research should be more about what happens in the classroom than in controlled experiments. There’s not too much controlled in a classroom. It’s an organic experience. Teachers are involved in action research on a daily basis, trying, testing and adjusting practice to enhance student learning.
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Thanks so much for your comment, Norah! I couldn’t agree with you more. How can it all just so easily be dismissed when the daily evidence in the classroom suggests otherwise?
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Sadly, researches don’t always give credibility to teacher experience and observations. How crazy is that?
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