Research Myth 3: Learning Styles

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Have you succumbed to using Learning Styles?

 Zeitgeist bandwagons carrying magic beans, magic bullets and magic potions, in the form of educational research need to be given a wide berth.

Here is a classic.

Once upon a time, learning styles were all the rage.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear teachers pigeon-holing their students as ‘visual, auditory or kinaesthetic’ learners and organising classroom activities to match preferred learning styles.

But, “monsters never die” and the worrying thing is some teachers still do,  “a zombie theory, staggering from classroom to classroom, mauling lesson plans” (Bennett , 2013) but we need to stop propagating this myth (Kirschner, 2017).

It’s “a rusting can of worms” (Didau, 2011) that keeps on coming back at us.

An initial review of the huge research literature (by Pearson) on learning styles appears to support its efficacy, but a closer look shows that some articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals and “under the radar” of legitimate scholarly critique (Lilienfeld et al. 2009).

The learning styles approach been exposed and vacuumed up by eminent academics as a ‘neuromyth’ who say there is a shocking lack of evidence to support it.

They say that  there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles which is confusing classifying learners can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style. Take a look at the video from Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries and their brilliant exploration of neuromyths. The Educational Endowment Foundation supports this view saying:

There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of young people, and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style.

Although the use of learning styles has been challenged for years as a major myth, the evidence has had little impact on its continued practice.

Can we recommend learning styles as an effective strategy for improving outcomes? No, we’ve been VARKing up the wrong tree!

Willingham (2009) states, “Children are more alike than different in terms of the way they think and learn” and so let’s get this straight: “the myth is that our preferences for experiencing information presented in a particular mode, or style, leads to improved outcomes. It doesn’t.” (Didau, 2016)


Read the full Research Myths series.

4 thoughts on “Research Myth 3: Learning Styles

  1. It is satisfying to note that many are now acknowledge (preferred) learning styles as a myth.

    There is no authoritative or scholarly origin for VAK, let alone VARK. It is believed, but not substantiated, that VAK originates from USA Penal Reform in the 1920’s and Black Rights suppression. It sits along IQ tests of the same period designed to grade non-white lower class as uneducable savages fit for low grade employment or service. Hardly surprising, then, that it is difficult to find any true provenance of the origin of these educational practices which have become mainstream.

    It is so sad that much of our educational ideology is based thereon. It is even sadder, that, until recently, few have stood up to refute such practices, which they themselves upheld from their positions of privilege and responsibility.

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