The Myths Of Learning Styles

I am often asked by parents and teachers about children’s learning styles. This often comes together with a question, “is this child a visual or auditory learner?”, and the more sophisticated versions include sensory and kinesthetic options or a “left brained-child” or “right-brained-child”.

Learning styles: fact or fiction?

The simple answer to the question is that “learning styles” don’t really exist. For the last several decades, researchers have tried in vain to identify particular learning styles in which to group children to be able to make education more differentiated. Throughout this research, children generally perform well when they were given multiple forms of learning opportunities, regardless of their particular “learning style”.

Teachers who are more attentive to children, more structured in their teaching methods, better at managing classroom discipline, and more engaging in general have better outcomes than other teachers, regardless of how much they vary the teaching method to match specific students. In the end, good teaching is vastly more important than any particular teaching format in order to improve educational outcomes.

Despite the overwhelming research that has been repeated since the early 2000’s, 80-90% of parents and educators still consider learning styles to be valid, which is why so many ask me about it when they come into the office.

For example, let’s consider two children who struggle with math. Both children often answer math questions with wildly erroneous responses, showing that they clearly do not understand the material and need additional help. The best way to help them is to find out what their root cause of their math problem is. For example, one child may have significant working memory difficulty whereby they are unable to keep information in their head for an extended period. This causes them to make mistakes as they’re working through a math problem because they cannot remember what steps they need to do or what numbers they calculated. A second child might lack “number sense”, in which they have a limited grasp over the concept of numbers as amounts of things which can be manipulated mathematically.

For the first child, the main help would be to assist them in writing down the steps for math problems and giving strategies to ensure that they are following all of the steps. Or, in other words, providing support for their working memory deficit. For the other child, this approach would be somewhat helpful, but they still would struggle because it doesn’t address the main issue, the lack of number sense.

For the second child, then would need instruction with physical size, volume, weight, or length to appreciate the “meaning” of numbers and to be able to manipulate that understanding. This is much more than a learning style and requires a deep understanding of the child’s pattern of strengths and weaknesses, as well as the origin of their problem.

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