It’s How You Teach, Not Learning Styles

Teaching Methods

One of my jobs at Acumen Consulting is being a technical trainer. It’s the thing that until recently has made up the backbone of my work for the last fifteen plus years.

There’s a very interesting article in Scientific American about something called Learning Styles. I’ve always been skeptical of learning styles in general but this article confirmed my doubts. The article attempts to be even-handed, so much so that I think it bends over backwards to soothe those who believe in Learning Styles.

I imagine this post of mine will generate some anger from those who believe in Learning Styles, we’ll see.

The idea behind Learning Styles is that students best learn in different ways and that educators need to take advantage of this. That some students learn by listening, some by watching, and some by doing. That those who learn in particular ways should be taught in that way.

There is no empirical evidence that this is true. It sounds true and that is what makes it attractive to people. We like things that have the ring-of-truth to them. Often times those sort of things are in actuality true. However, just because something sounds like it is true doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be experimentation to prove it.

In this case they’ve finally done some studies and no one has found any connection between a Learning Style and learning faster.

What they’ve found, and what my own experience tells me, is that good teaching methods yield more learning. Period.

I was taught what is called the three-step method. Tell people what you’re going to do, do it, ask them what you’ve just done. It works.

The more senses you get involved in learning the better you are. If you show them that’s a start. If they do it, that’s even better, if they talk about what they just did that’s best. If you are studying don’t use the highlighter. Get a notepad and write down what you would have highlighted, say it out loud as you are writing it.

In the article they mention the type of learner makes no difference when teaching geography. A learner who does best by listening? Bunk. Show them a map and they’ll learn more than if you describe the shape and size of the great state of Missouri. It’s how we teach, not how we learn, if there is even a real “learning style” which I doubt.

Some people are smarter than other people and there are those with severe mental disabilities but if we eliminate those at the ends of the Bell Curve I think it’s more than possible to teach almost everyone critical thinking and analysis. Teach them useful skills so that they can enter adulthood with the ability to work and earn a living. With a population schooled in these tools we can build a better society.

There are good teachers, great teachers, and those less talented. Hopefully you had a great one somewhere along the line. The odds are whatever that great teacher taught is what you are now doing as a career. That’s how important teachers are in the world and our lives. Great teacher inspire us and change us.

So, don’t fall back on the excuse that you’re a visual learner and that’s why you failed to understand something. Ask your teacher to explain it better. You can learn it, you can do it.

Tom Liberman

7 thoughts on “It’s How You Teach, Not Learning Styles

  1. Actually there are learning styles, there are also teaching styles. It is up to the teacher to teach to all of his/her students. Nick has been very fortunate that he has had excellent teachers while growing up. He has also had some flops, but we were able to deal with them. As a teacher I taught in a way that covered all types of learning. I worked to get the kids engaged, and to keep them that way. I often went off book to get across ideas. Many districts are using set programs that try and herd everybody into a certain style of learning and teaching. They do not allow for individuality, or creativity. While teaching math using one program I was told I had to use the book in the classroom. I used it as a doorstop. My principal was fine with this because the methods I used, while old school, did the job. If the program had done this I would have used it. It did’t so I didn’t.

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    • Hello Knolster,

      Thank you for the comment. I suspected that this blog would cause a little controversy! 🙂

      For you and Alex both; I do think that people learn at different rates and in different ways but, in my opinion, the primary factor in a good education is proper teaching methodology.

      I understand you disagree but rather than just telling me that Learning Styles are a major factor in education, bring on the evidence! The article I originally read included scientific studies.

      If you bring me evidence to the contrary I’m more than happy to listen and change my opinion.

      Thanks again. Come back anytime.

      Tom

  3. “There are good teachers, great teachers, and those less talented. Hopefully you had a great one somewhere along the line.”

    Is the same not true for learners? I actually did have a great teacher once, who happened to teach me about learning styles. She objectively discussed the arguments against them, but provided information and experiments on learning styles as well. I experienced and witnessed these firsthand, and I can say without doubt that learning styles are not fallacy. Just as a teacher may have different ways of presenting information to a class, students ultimately vary in how they perceive information. One of the beautiful things about humanity is the fact that not all brains are wired exactly alike; if this were the case, no diversity of thought or perspectives would exist.

    “Ask your teacher to explain it better. You can learn it, you can do it.” How will they learn it though? THAT is the issue at hand. You can’t just throw information at people and expect it all to stick. I understand that you have outlined methods of teaching; but still, a teacher can only teach as much as the learner can learn. Herein lies my main issue with this post: Your three-step method can be applied to different learning styles.

    I feel that your information and presentation are skewed (also, your English and grammar usage could use some work). If anything, this article is more a representation of your personal learning style than an argument against learning styles in general.

  4. Tom, I have years of teaching under my belt dealing with the different learning styles. I have had to broaden the way I teach to reach every child in my classrooms. I also have had to learn how to help my child who has a much different style of learning compared to me. I have worked with gifted kids, mediocre kids, kids with disabilities, and “normal” children. You can not have one way of teaching, as that does not fit all students. I have anecdotal records based on my years of teaching that back this. I also have had parents tell me that they have seen a great change in their child’s education. By teaching using Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences I can teach all the kids. I can give you an example: Teaching the difference between revolving and rotating planets. The students first read about the subject. We then discuss the subject. Students then get up and act as the planets revolving and rotating. They then write about the subject, either in a group or by themselves. For the musically inclined I have been known to sing songs that are related to the subject. I read the writing that your article is based on. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf In it they say that the big problem is having to test each child, group them with students of a like nature, and then make special lesson plans for each group. This is not the case. If a teacher gets to know their students, plans lessons that touch on each of the intelligences, and executes said lessons well, then they should be able to help all their students learn. By the way Nick was able to understand the charts without any effort, while I got a headache. Two different learning styles at work.

    • So what you’re saying, Alex, is that if the teacher uses a good methodology the student’s “learning style” doesn’t matter.

      That good teaching methodology works for all the students in the class? That a broad method that teaches to all the supposed “learning styles” is best?

      That separating the students by learning style, as is strongly advocated by “learning style” promulgators, is a mistake?

      By golly, I’m glad you totally and completely agree with me because, as you know I have a lot of years of teaching experience as well.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Tom

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