Which Learning Style Fits Your Teen? The Answer May Surprise You

Which learning style best fits your teen? Actually, Open Doors intern Kate Boelkins makes a strong case for going beyond learning styles. Kate is studying to be a secondary education teacher at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  As part of her training, she has studied and critiqued the theory of learning styles. Read her insights below.

You know you’ve seen these kinds of quizzes before–maybe you’ve even taken one–but how accurate are they?

The definition of a learning style is actually fairly loose. Some educators may subscribe to the idea that students in their class will fall under the umbrella of three main learning styles – visual, auditory, and tactile. Some use the VARK modalities, categorizing learners as Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, or Kinesthetic. Others utilize educational psychologist Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, a much more detailed breakdown of various types of thinking:

  • Visual-Spatial
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Linguistic
  • Mathematical

Students in school are often tested for their learning style or preferred intelligence. This test or quiz is intended to make students more aware of their learning habits, as well as inform the teacher. This information is valuable, but there is a disconnect between this knowledge and how a teacher uses it to guide her instruction and assessment.

In order to appeal to “kinesthetic learners”, teachers have students get up and move around the room, or hop up and down while they read. “Musical learners” are told to compose songs or rhymes to aid them in remembering spelling words or mathematical equations. Diagrams on boards and sketches in notebooks are expected to be the means by which “visual-spatial learners” absorb information.

The learning style tests themselves do not prescribe one all-inclusive style to a student. For example, when I took a multiple intelligences quiz in my latest education class, I was an even mixture of intrapersonal, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic. I laughed the results off as inaccurate – clapping or tossing a ball does nothing to enhance my learning, and I need a lot of visuals when it comes to math. Here lies the essential problem with relying on learning styles – they are ineffective because students are fluid and ever-changing.

In a letter to the Washington Post, Howard Gardner himself rejects the idea of learning styles. His theory of Multiple Intelligences “assumes that we have a number of relatively autonomous computers—one that computes linguistic information, another spatial information, another musical information, another information about other people, and so on” (Strauss).

His Multiple Intelligences are not to be funneled into specific learning styles, but instead are intended to determine the way our flexible minds process information. To label a student as a “linguistic learner” and therefore use specific learning strategies with her is to do that student a disservice. A student may have strong linguistic preferences while reading and studying a book, but this does not automatically transfer to a math class. In this case, handing the student a math textbook and instructing her to read a chapter does not necessarily mean that her reading will ensure her comprehension of equations and problems.

So clearly, the interchangeability of Multiple Intelligences and learning styles in the classroom is misleading and inaccurate, according to the creator of Multiple Intelligences himself. But what about other types of learning styles, such as the VARK? Although success of teaching to learning styles is perpetuated in mainstream education, a 2008 study seems to disagree. The Department of Psychology at the University of California asserted “that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice” due to the fact there is little correlation between specific learning style instruction and success or failure (Pashler).

Question to ponder: why do schools use methods that are not proven to be effective?

Open Doors focuses on the student as not only a learner, but a human being as well. After all, the two are inextricably connected. Mentorship is key in the relationships we build with teens. With this mentorship comes the fostering of self-direction. Students unearth through experience what they love to learn, and how they learn best – not through an internet quiz that defines them and puts them in a specific category.

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Open Doors member gets a hands-on learning experience in the Wild Edibles class


Strauss, V., & Gardner, H. (2013, October 16). Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’. Retrieved October 10, 2014.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Riener, C., & Willinghm, D. (2010, September 1). The Myth of Learning Styles. Retrieved October 10, 2014.

This post is part of our “Your Life – Your Learning!” series, designed to help the Grand Rapids community rethink teen learning, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.

Early October at Open Doors

Have you ever wondered what goes on in some of the classes offered at Open Doors? Our teens are hard at work with some hands-on fun.

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The Mechanical Autopsy class practices picking locks on Open Doors’ front door.
The Mechanical Autopsy class dissects a broken well pump.
A power drill is also autopsied.
Teens take a break to enjoy the rain.
The Wild Edibles class visits a sustainable farm and tiny house in Saranac, MI.
Open Doors member proudly shows off her latest artwork.

Does this look unlike a classroom? Learning looks different here at Open Doors. We would love to show you more–come visit us at our monthly Open House.

Fun in Fall Classes

Fun in Fall Classes

Though our class offering is only a small part of the self-directed learning we facilitate at Open Doors, we often get questions about what our classes are like.  Here’s a small glimpse of the fun:

Waiting for Film Studies
Teens waiting for Film Studies and chatting … on the board are some Critical Thinking and Feeling notes to ponder as they wait …
Duct Tape Stash
Duct Tape Creations — the stash.
Duct Tape Creations
“Paper” airplanes and boats — made out of duct tape.
Lenny the Party Animal
“Lenny the Party Animal” — an eARTh hEaD class creation, using a recycled pinata.
Box Man
Box Man checks his iPod in Critical Thinking and Feeling class.

Learn more at Monday’s Open House at 12 noon — see you there!

What is keeping my teen from learning?

What is keeping my teen from learning?

“We teachers – perhaps all human beings – are in the grip of an astonishing delusion.”

Our astonishing delusion about education.

“We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into the mind of someone else.”

Trying to implant our knowledge in the brain of another.

“Perhaps once in a thousand times, when the explanation is extraordinary good, and the listener extraordinarily experienced and skillful at turning word strings into non-verbal reality, and when the explainer and listener share in common many of the experiences being talked about, the process may work, and some real meaning may be communicated.”

It’s easier to share knowledge when you’re in close relationship with a lot of non-verbal sharing.

“Most of the time, explaining does not increase understanding, and may even lessen it.”

– John Holt, (1923-1985) American Educator,  in How Children Learn

The more impersonal and disconnected the relationship, the harder it is to share knowledge.
Open Doors teens at the beach — because sharing real life experiences leads to sharing real life knowledge. (And it’s fun!)

This post is part of our “Your Life – Your Learning!” series, designed to help the Grand Rapids community rethink teen learning, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.  If your teen isn’t learning in the classroom, come find out more at our Open House on Monday, October 13 at 12 noon.