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The myth of learning styles

April 11, 2013

Three children doing group work together. Credit: Anthea Sieveking/ Wellcome Images

Before becoming a writer, I spent a year-and-a-half training as a science teacher and then working at a secondary school in Croydon. During my short stint in education, the biggest buzzword was “differentiation.” We were told that any given class contains pupils with a range of abilities, and that different children have different learning styles.

This second idea was drilled into us over and over again. Some children are visual learners, who acquire and process information best through images; others are auditory learners, who learn best by listening; and yet others are kinaesthetic learners, who learn best by doing physical activities. To be effective teachers, we had to try to establish each child’s preferred learning style, so that we could tailor our teaching style and materials accordingly.

The idea of learning styles is based on the theory of multiple of intelligences, developed in the early 1980s by psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Gardner claimed to have identified 7 distinct types of intelligences (visuo-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical), and that this “challenge[s] an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn from the same materials in the same way”.

Gardner has been expounding his theory, and pushing for educational reforms, ever since. He has been hugely successful: the learning styles approach became enshrined by educators, and was being promoted on the Department for Education website until as recently as 2007. Today, the concept is widely accepted, and is used in schools throughout the country.

It is, however, a myth.

There is no scientific evidence that children do indeed acquire information more effectively if it is presented to them in their preferred learning style. In fact, according to Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol, there is some evidence to the contrary. Speaking at a workshop about the impact of neuroscience on society at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience yesterday, he pointed out that some research actually suggests that children learn better when presented with information in a way that takes them out of their “comfort zone.”

Last year, Howard-Jones and his colleagues set out to investigate teachers’ general knowledge about neuroscience, and to determine the prevalence of myths and misconceptions about the brain in education. The researchers contacted 242 teachers in the UK and Holland, asking them to complete an online survey containing 32 statements about the brain, and to indicate whether each one was true or false.

They found that the concept of learning styles was the most prevalent misconception: 82% of the teachers in their sample believed that it is true, even though there’s no brain research to back it up, or classroom studies into the effectiveness, or otherwise, teaching tailored to pupils’ preferred learning style. The results also showed that belief in neuromyths was correlated positively with general knowledge about the brain – that is, the more general knowledge a teacher has the more likely they are to believe that myths and misconceptions about the brain are true.

This suggests that although teachers have a growing interest in neuroscience and how it might be applied to education, they have difficulty distinguishing between correct and incorrect information about the brain. This is concerning, because it means that schools are wasting time, money and effort to implement “brain-based” teaching methods based on misinformation about neuroscience.

Howard-Jones and his colleagues believe that the solution is to explicitly educate teachers about neuromyths and the lack of evidence for brain-based educational programs. They also urge researchers to explain clearly what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from their published studies, and to closely monitor media coverage of their work. Such collaborations would, they argue, reduce the prevalence of neuromyths, and prevent their continued proliferation in the classroom.

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