Believing In Learning Styles Is Detrimental

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Learning Styles


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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What if I told you that teachers still believe in learning styles? Particularly at primary school level…

I have written about learning styles before and I suspect I will have to again, even after this post. New research published (again) by the brilliant American Psychological Association (ASA, May 2019) suggests ‘believing in the learning styles myth may be detrimental.

We have been conned …

This research is of particular interest because it comes from the USA, a place where the myth of learning styles is largely prevalent, particularly on blogs and on social media. However, what about ‘us educators’ here in the UK? Even 30 distinguished academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology signed a letter to the Guardian expressing their concern, announcing “We’ve been conned!” about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

In 2000 as a young middle leader, I remember our teacher training days at a school where we launched a campaign to have ‘learning styles’ feature in our lessons plans after we had conducted a survey to gather pupils’ learning preferences. Teachers then had to show this information on our lesson plans and adapt content accordingly – what a crime!

What does the research suggest?

The learning style myth asserts that students learn best when teacher instruction is delivered in this way. Typically, to their visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning style. This paper suggests that “Some people are more likely than others to view learning styles as a trait that students inherit from their parents and that affects their brain function.”

Important for teachers!

The researchers also “found that educators who work with younger children are more likely to hold this essentialist view of learning styles than others.”

There is no scientific evidence to support this view. None. Nada. Zilch.

ASA reports that the research trial consisted of “two online experiments with 668 participants, more than 90 percent of them believed people learn better if they are taught in their predominant learning style, whether that is visual, auditory or tactile. But those who believed in learning styles split evenly into an “essentialist” group, with more strongly held beliefs, and a “nonessentialist” group, with more flexible beliefs about learning styles.”

One of the academics Shaylene Nancekivell said:

Educator-Specific Factors

Learning Styles

The researchers were “interested in comparing the beliefs of educators with those of noneducators, given that educators’ beliefs potentially have direct consequences for their interactions with students.”

Digging deeper into the research and what it says about educators’ beliefs about learning styles, the research found that “beliefs about learning styles are highly similar across different populations.” Meaning, pre-school, elementary, middle and high school and then postsecondary education.

The study suggests that “being an educator, did not predict beliefs about learning styles”. However, one significant factor of learning style existed more than any other – the age of the population with whom the teacher worked with.

“Those who worked with younger children were more likely to interpret learning styles in an essentialist way.”

Those educating others “were just as likely as noneducators to engage in … incorrect thinking about the brain!”


The research concludes that “a promising area for future work will be examining whether interpreting learning styles in a more essentialist manner might lead people to be less receptive to debunking efforts … and that “prior work has found that some people are more reluctant than others to revise their beliefs about learning styles” (Macdonald, Germine, Anderson, Christodoulou, & McGrath, 2017).

The authors conclude that this is a “new starting point for research on learning styles and suggest that future research on neuroscience-based myths needs to move beyond merely assessing the rate at which they are endorsed.” You can download the 15-page research paper here.

Why does it take so long to debunk myths in teaching?

3 thoughts on “Believing In Learning Styles Is Detrimental

  1. Belief is an interesting concept, perhaps because we are trying to find an explanation for something we experience or don’t quite understand. Do beliefs cause harm, should they come with a government health warning? People tend to ‘get behind’ their beliefs and it can cause a division between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ each camp holding their view no matter what the research or ‘evidence’ suggests or even shows.

    In education, we can see why learning styles became popular for it offers an understanding of something we as teachers experience time and time again. We are bemused when some kids ‘get it’ and others don’t, when they are good at some subjects and not others, why they excel with some teachers and fail to make progress with others. We need an explanation, we need a way to ‘fix it’, system thinking is part of the education model and so a system has to be the solution.

    For me, who explored learning styles but who prefered ‘learning preferences’ (Barbara Prashnig), the benefit has always been that it actually started a dialogue about learning that was more than about behaviour and compliance in the classroom. So it is today – so long as we are talking about, and challenging, how people learn and what we can do to promote learning then all is good in the world of education. Finally – at least we have stopped recording those who enter our places of mental health care as “Born and idiot”!

    Here is my look at learning styles and the link to astrology (why not?):

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