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.
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:
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).
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.
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.