The theory of learning styles sounds so good: What if you could tailor each lesson to the way each student learns best? An auditory learner might prefer a recorded lecture, while others might prefer a visual representation or a physical demonstration. It’s one of the most pervasive concepts in education and there are dozens of books and articles on the subject. Everything from teacher training textbooks to university websites and even state-issued teacher certification materials endorse the idea.
But as many teachers know, research has failed to find any evidence that teaching to learning styles actually works. Top education researchers, including Carol Dweck, John Hattie, and Daniel Willingham have all debunked the concept, pointing to studies showing the strategy does not improve learning. The theory is riddled with internal inconsistencies. Movies, for example, which are often considered a kind of “visual curricula,” actually involve multiple layers of auditory, visual, and verbal stimuli. Meanwhile, our evolving model of cognition suggests that learning involves whole-brain processes—not just visual or auditory centers working in isolation.
For students, a reliance on learning styles can be limiting rather than enriching: The researchers often say that students who come to believe they can only learn in one style may actually end up limiting their own learning by not considering other avenues.
A better technique is to focus more on the commonalities that students share, rather than their differences, according to the authors of Why Are We Still Doing That?: Positive Alternatives to Problematic Teaching Practices, the latest book from ASCD authors Bill and Pérsida Himmele, a husband and wife team who work as education professors at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. In their newest work, they seek to explain why “ineffective or inadvertently damaging” classroom practices persist despite better alternatives.
Multimodal learning, which combines words, images, and demonstrations into a single lesson, activates multiple sensory systems, creating more tightly integrated networks of memory and meaning. Thus, young students learning how to count can listen to the teacher explain the concept, watch her group items together, and handle manipulatives on their own.
“Why do instructional assessment, and classroom management practices that we know to be counterproductive nevertheless stay in place year after year,” the authors ask in the book’s introduction, sometimes cycling back into fashion years after they fell out of favor?
The answer might be a surprisingly simple one: Teachers are human like everyone else, and they often work within systems which demand fealty to older traditions around homework and discipline. Quoting the British researcher Dylan William in a 2006 paper on assessment, they note, “Teachers learn most of what they know about teaching before they are 18 years old.” Breaking these habits is difficult for even the most well intentioned teacher or teacher prep programs.
But just because we’re inclined to favor the same scripts doesn’t mean change is impossible, the authors write. Drawing mostly on the past two decades of education research, the Himmeles deconstruct practices across the pedagogical spectrum (instruction, assessment, lesson design, and classroom management), and present viable alternatives.
The point, the author’s write, is not to chastise teachers or administrators for not keeping up with the latest research or using strategies they enjoy, but rather to spark discussion and critical self-reflection.
Here are four more practices identified in the book, along with improvements that may yield better results.
Assigning Homework Every Night (at Every Grade Level)
The past few years have seen a renewed push to limit or abolish nightly homework as a practice across grade levels, particularly for younger students. But unlike other practices addressed in the book, there is no blanket consensus on whether or not homework is effective.
The short answer is that it often depends—on the nature of the assignment, the grade level, and the amount of homework given. Some research has found it helpful for middle school and high school students, but research has failed to find a relationship between homework and responsibility or self discipline—which are frequently cited as rationales for the practice. Other research suggests that regular completion of homework is more of an indicator of socio-economic status and family support than of skill or even intrinsic persistence.
Researchers agree it’s even less appropriate for younger students, given that it does not appear to improve their comprehension or their test scores. Even when it is effective, it often comes at a high cost, contributing to higher family stress, less sleep, and poorer school-life balance for students of all ages.
Instead of defaulting to nightly homework, Why Are We Still Doing That suggests asking whether assignments are necessary, as well as what to do when students cannot complete their homework. Less is more—up to a maximum of two hours for 12th graders (that’s way too much on most nights) and much less for younger students (or none at all). The most useful assignments involve “practice, rehearsal, and application of basic skills in fresh contexts, rather than deeper or high-level conceptual thinking, which benefits from the guiding presence of a teacher.”
If your homework assignment won’t hit all those notes, consider not assigning anything. In place of specific tasks, teachers might consider motivating students to read more in their spare time, not through reading logs or other punitive measures, but by encouraging students to share at school and with their families.
A final, crucial practice is to try to understand the constraints in your students’ lives. Ask them directly about how homework and outside readings makes them feel and affects their lives, and make adjustments: Do they have access to WiFi networks at home? When does homework work best for them? Have they ever particularly liked or disliked a take-home assignment? What general advice would they give to teachers about homework assignments?
Asking: Does Everybody Understand?
Formative assessment is a powerfully effective teaching practice, and with good reason: It helps teachers gauge students’ learning in real time and can lead to important course corrections or reteaching. Virtually every teacher at some point has tried to leverage this strategy by asking the question, “Does everybody understand?”
But that question requires students who are confused to risk academic embarrassment, and fails to give students enough time and space to share effective feedback about the lesson. Even if a few students respond, it doesn’t help teachers differentiate between kids who partially understand and others who are completely lost.
Instead, the authors suggest a few simple adjustments so teachers can hear from all students. One teacher told the authors that at the end of lessons he asks students to “give me two questions,” a simple tweak to language which often leads to more substantive student inquiries and improves whole-class instruction.
Observing students in small groups as they discuss material among themselves can also prove helpful, as are classic formative assessment strategies such as quick student polls, exit tickets, or jotting down takeaways in a shared online space. Ask students to identify the most confusing part of the lesson—often referred to as “the muddiest point.” Students who are not participating or who are fumbling with concepts might need to be pulled aside for further instruction.
Behavior Charts and Data Walls
Behavior charts are public displays of how students are behaving, and are primarily used in elementary school classrooms. Each student might get a color-coded card or clothespin that changes with infractions or kind deeds. Data walls work similarly, but track academic progress: student names or an ID number are displayed next to math or reading proficiency, typically in ranked order.
But these rankings do little to foster good behavior or academic improvement, the authors write. Conversely, it works as a kind of public shaming as they “visually stratify students according to their test scores” or their behavior. Often, the same students find themselves at the lower end of these rankings, and research suggests these students can feel “mocked or derided” by the public display. Similarly, if the objective of behavior charts is to motivate recalcitrant students—to improve engagement and rule-following—the opposite effect is too often achieved. Some kids end up settling into destructive patterns that the charts then publicly enshrine.
Shaming students has been linked in research to increased aggression, school violence, and self-destructive behaviors. It can also lead to harmful spikes in anxiety, even among kids who rarely commit infractions, which can hamper learning.
But research into the harms of shaming in schools finds that teachers who individualize discipline—i.e., by taking conversations about behavior private—foster more self-reflection among students and build trust, which helps them better understand how to take responsibility for wrongdoings. That extends similarly to academic performance. As the authors write, “for the sake of creating a culture of learning that is motivating, that is compassionate, and that fosters collaboration toward everyone’s growth, keep student and teacher data private.”
In the same vein, the authors note that they’ve seen recess yards full of children playing, with a handful of kids sitting off to the side, looking deflated, often sitting out recess as punishment for their in-class behavior.
“We believe this to be a mistake,” they write, “and the research supports us.” The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, calls recess “crucial and necessary” for a child’s development and states that it should never be withheld as punishment. Other research suggests that daily recess improves academic achievement, focus, and physical health. As sociologist Rebecca London notes, withholding it is actually “counterintuitive because the students who have trouble sitting still or being quiet are often the ones who would benefit the most from some free time to move around and regain their focus.”
There is no quick fix to improving student behavior by substituting one immediate punishment for another. Research suggests that playing the long game by building strong relationships with students is the far more effective strategy—an approach that takes significant investment by teachers and school leaders.
Simple relationship-building techniques, such as greeting students at the door and regularly checking in with students throughout the school year—through 1:1s, surveys, morning meetings, and temperature checks, for example—can significantly improve behavior at all age levels.
As the authors of the 2015 book Better Than Carrots or Sticks explain, “Simply said, it’s harder for students to act defiantly or disrespectfully toward adults who clearly care about them and their future.” That mindset can make a big difference in students’ lives across the board.