I have a confession.
Well, two confessions really.
First, I confess to being proud. Proud to be an educator; proud to lead a team that develops world class literacy materials; proud that the country I live in – New Zealand – has the greatest number of high achievers in literacy in the OECD.
Second, I confess to feeling ashamed. Ashamed to be an educator; ashamed that there is such a large gap (particularly in NZ) between those students who excel in literacy and those who are challenged and struggle – I'm going to call them 'underserved' students. Ashamed that for all my time in education (now into my 6th decade) we have not been able to close that gap.
How do these paradoxical confessions connect to learning styles? Hear me out.
As you'll know, learning styles is based on research which indicates that different parts of the brain handle different types of learning – for example, the temporal lobes process auditory and musical content. The theory of learning styles is that everyone has a mix of learning styles, but we’re often dominant in one or two areas.
Using learning styles is a noble and laudable attempt to match teaching to learning in a more individual way. It's that easy, right? We identify a student's learning style, then we match our teaching to that style.
The case against learning styles
Just like leveling, the learning styles method of teaching isn't as successful as it's been made out to be. In fact, it’s been dismissed by many academics and scientists.
Here’s the evidence: back in 2009, the Association for Psychological Science pointed out that it would require a very particular kind of study to confirm that instruction tailored to learning styles has any kind of advantage to learning – a study which has never been done. Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield went as far as saying that, from a neuroscientific point of view, the learning styles approach to teaching is "nonsense".
David A. Kolb, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Case Western Reserve University, is another in this camp. He began studying learning styles in the late 1960s and developed his own theory, but has since concluded that there simply isn’t enough evidence for teachers to adapt their instruction to a students' particular style of learning. Instead, he says teachers should lead their students through a full 'learning cycle', disregarding particular styles, because there are "practical and ethical problems of sorting people into groups and labeling them".
This is how I see learning styles, too.
I see the reasons why we, as teachers, want to personalize instruction. But not only is the science not there, there's a bigger issue – we run an unacceptable risk of consigning smart kids to the educational scrapheap because they are "kinaesthetic learners" (boys, anyone?) and "not suited to sitting down and working with text".
How can we personalize learning instead?
We want to acknowledge individuality in our students, but not stereotype them in ways that may inhibit their life chances. We want all of our students to be well-educated whatever their futures.
So what are we to do?
Well, I’m in the Kolb camp: expose all students to all styles.
Eric Jensen, world-leading author with expertise in neuroscience, agrees. This is his advice: Your learners are going to benefit most when information is presented to them in diverse ways that engage a number of senses. So continue to use a variety of teaching methods: combine visual with auditory, and add the tactile and action-based processes to learning.
But back to my confessions: As an educator and creator of literacy resources, I’ve been working on helping other teachers close the achievement gap for the last 10 years. And I know that the things we’ve discussed here (exposing all students to all styles, engaging students on a number of levels) are a key part of bringing students to competency.
It’s what we’ve done with CSI Literacy.
Our resources offer students diverse ways to learn that engage their senses. There is technology – texts offered digitally. There is interaction and discussion – teacher-student and peer-to-peer. There is analysis, thinking, talking, and writing in response to texts.
Your students’ engagement and learning doesn’t depend on one learning style, it depends all of them. The question is, how are you going to include more in your teaching?
About the author
Neale Pitches is the founder of CSI Literacy and a former teacher, principal and CEO of Learning Media.
Neale presents internationally on literacy and school leadership, and was honoured by the Queen in 2003 for his contributions to New Zealand education.