The 'Learning Styles' Myth


If you are in education or corporate training circles then almost certainly someone will have mentioned to you the idea of learning styles and the need to build teaching systems around the preferred learning style of the student. It sounds so logical doesn’t it? Each of us learns in different ways and therefore it is only sensible that we should be taught in a way that matches our preferred learning style.

It sounds logical, but it isn’t.

The first clue that learning styles might be the latest piece of pseudoscience gobbledygook to work its way into the world of communication is that people are making money out of it. There are consultancies out there promising to measure the preferred learning styles of your people and then help you design training modules to match them. They usually cite what is called the VARK model designed by a guy called Fleming in 2001 who thinks that learning styles can be split into four basic types:

Visual - seeing something like PowerPoint

Aural - hearing something like a lecture

Reading/Writing - reading a book or writing things down

Kinesthetic - doing stuff, like an experiment

Unfortunately other people (Coffield and Martinez) have found, identified in the literature, as many as 70 different ways of getting information in or out of the brain which makes Flemings model look a little underdone. Either way the real problem here is that “preferred” learning style is measured by simply asking the subject what kind of learner they think they are. It’s the scientific equivalent of asking the fashion-challenged to look in the mirror and then decide what looks good on them. We have all seen the results of that on the street and we have all wondered exactly what it was these poor people thought they saw in the mirror. Same methodology being employed here and pretty much the same result. You are a Visual learner because you think you are; you are an Aural learner because you think you are and, like the fashion victim in the street, it is all in your head.

The reason it is all in your head is because regardless of what you think your preferred learning style is there are some subjects that are best taught in one particular way. If the subject is geography, for example, and I want to teach you the shapes of the countries then that is best done visually – end of story. If the subject is dance then we need to teach that kinetically and so on. Your preferred learning style is irrelevant!

The fact is learning styles are subject dependent, they are teacher dependent, they are temperature dependent, emotion dependent… in fact they are dependent on so many things that they just cannot be measured. It’s a good idea to recognize that we all learn in different ways for different subjects and try to vary our teaching to reflect that but the idea that we have one preferred learning style which must be matched to maximize our learning is a very bad one indeed.