Learning styles

How many times have you been told that everybody has a different style of learning? Most professional ‘train the trainer’ courses will have as part of their syllabus, ‘understanding learning styles’.  

Would it surprise you to learn that there is no good evidence for the learning styles theory, despite the fact it seems to be mainstream in education and is a commonly held belief?  The theory was proposed in the 1970s and, despite its lack of evidence, became popular as it appeals to the human desire to think of ourselves as being unique (which you are incidentally, which is actually why categorising you is a mistake).  

The only problem is there is no good evidence to suggest it is a thing or makes learning and development anymore effective.  To be brutally harsh, it’s only helpful when you’re looking for excuses as to why you haven’t performed that well.

 What we do know from extensive research into cognitive science is that human brains learn things in much the same way.  A very simple way to think of how our brains learn is as follows -

You have a working memory, the conscious you, which is stimulated by your environment and all the things external to you. When your attention is drawn to something specific and you are forced to think hard about it to make sense of it, you then start to move those deeper thoughts into your long-term memory.

Once in the long-term memory, two scenarios occur. You either remember them and they go back into conscious working memory and back around the same loop, strengthening them, or you forget them, and they are lost (professional amnesia!).  

 There are two main ways we remember things:

 1.   We deliberately recall the memory (revision, repetition)

 2.  We receive the same or similar outside stimulus that grabs our attention and prompts us to remember.

The stronger the connection to the stimulus the more we remember, which explains why ‘learning styles’ seems to make sense. Your attention to a stimulus is influenced by your preferences and experiences, which are the things which make you uniquely you.You don’t necessarily have a learning style; you just have things that turn you on and things that don’t.  The things that you find dull you will struggle to remember; the things that turn you on will stick in your mind.  

Professor Daniel Willingham*, a cognitive scientist from Virginia University, points out that the thoughts that fill our mind are key. He said:

 ‘Memory is the residue of thought’


 ‘Understanding is remembering in disguise’

For example, if you like music and you associate some music to a concept you are probably more likely to remember it. You probably remember singing times tables, colours of the rainbow etc.  The ‘learning styles’ model would suggest you are an auditory learner, but that’s not the case at all.  All that happened was the extra association with the music grabbed your attention, deepening your thought which made you remember. You probably also found the process of singing the songs enjoyable, so you were happy to repeat them regularly.

 Why is it important to debunk this myth? Because you need to adopt learning strategies that work and aren’t a waste of money. It’s an appealing notion to students that the reason they found leaning something difficult, was because it wasn’t presented in their learning style. What they really mean is the training bored them and didn’t grab their attention.

 We have solid research from cognitive scientists, such as the previously mentioned Professor Daniel Willingham, into learning - and he not only debunked many of the previously held ideas about learning styles, but went on to find, create and suggest strategies that demonstrably work.  

 He has conducted and continues to conduct robust scientific trials in a variety of environments to try and get to the root of what works. Do a quick internet search for Professor Willingham or go to his website www.danielwillngham.com and you can see for yourself why we can use his work to inform better professional learning. In fact, there are too many fantastic strategies to include in this book.  

 The point is, that the educator (teacher, trainer, coach, mentor) needs to find ways and strategies to grab the learner's attention and stimulate deeper thought. That might include colour, music, games, writing, practice, whatever, but it’s nonsense to put people into categories of learning styles.

 Think of it this way: imagine you are at a sales conference, and you have some outside trainers delivering a training session to 100 people.  If you adhered to the learning styles theory, how would you even start to plan to cater for all the different learning styles in that room? Would you get some to write an essay, some to perform a drama, some paint a picture? Maybe, but that’s a recipe for chaos!

 For a start how would you accurately assess which learning style each delegate is (personality tests probably aren’t the answer, more on that later)? What if you got it wrong and accidentally assigned a kinaesthetic learner to the auditory learner group? And then how on earth do you make any meaningful assessments of how effective the learning has been?

Think about the most memorable training and coaching session you have experienced. What were the key features? Why did it pique your interest? You’ll probably find many of the other delegates that attended that session have a similar experience, because it wasn’t about a learning style, it was just good teaching.

 The 360° Group is dedicated to using the most up-to-date evidence informed learning strategies to teach and coach but also to pass on that information to your teachers and coaches because that is when you will start to see real positive change and effective learning.

 *Willingham, D,T ‘Why don’t students like school, published by Jossey-Bas, San Francisco, US