NeuroNonsense: Experts Seek to Debunk ‘Learning Style’ Myth

July 14, 2017

by Mitch Ziems

In the 1920s, a group of psychologists came together to discuss the ways people learned.

The result of their talks was the VAK – Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic – model. You almost definitely know it. You may even know which group you belong to.

What you may not know are the other 70+ learning styles that have been promoted by psychologists, scientists, and teachers in the century since: left brain vs right brain, holistic vs analytic, assimilator vs explorer, initiator vs analyst vs reasoner vs implementor, and on, and on.

All these theories have been proposed with a claim that knowing how best a student learns makes it easier for teachers to create the most beneficial educational content possible.

The problem? Not a single one of them is based on proof.

“Just a minute!” I hear you cry. “The test I took in fourth grade said I was a kinaesthetic learner, and that’s what I know I am.”

Good. Because it’s not the notion that people prefer to learn in certain ways that experts are refuting. It’s the notion that content must be formatted a particular way for it to be of use.

“Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style,” explains Professor Bruce Hood, one of 30 educators who wrote an open letter to The Guardian this year on the topic.

Hood and his peers are concerned by statistics that show over 85% of senior, independent teachers in the UK believe in the science of learning styles, 76% tailor their content accordingly, and 6% have spent up to £30,000 a year on courses and external consultation to gauge the effectiveness of their work.

Worse still are cases in which students admit to disengaging from lessons because they believe they are only capable of learning in particular ways.

Fortunately, organisations are mobilising to counter this neuromyth.

As part of Brain Awareness Week in March, academic speaker database Speakezee sent Hood into 25 schools across the country to speak with both students and teachers to discuss the benefits of neuroscience, while also offering a warning to follow the research, and converse with experts to avoid wasting precious resources on speculation.

In doing so, they may break free of fixed approaches, and develop the kind of fluidity and mindfulness to treat students as individuals rather than members of a meaningless category.

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