George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learning Styles--Real or Unreal?

Learning Styles--Real or Unreal?

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Learning styles? Something that didn’t even exist 25 years ago now seems to be a fixed part of American education. Do you ever suspect that maybe we’ve let this thing go too far? Teachers have to waste a lot of time trying to make what they are doing conform to the alleged differences in students. I suspect the kids are a lot more alike than not. I may get myself in trouble with some teachers but I’ve just written an article that challenges the importance of learning styles. The article starts from the fact that “reading readiness” was invented 50 years ago to hide the failure of Whole Word or Look-Say. When children couldn’t learn to read using this bogus technique, the schools would say, “Sorry, your child lacks reading readiness.” Some kids had it; some didn't. This supposed lack gave the schools an excuse for not doing a good job. So-called diverse learning styles are used the same way. For more discussion of "learning styles," please see "51: Learning Styles” on ( )

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Mark Pennington's picture
Mark Pennington
ELA teacher and educational author

Most teachers believe in some form of learning styles or multiple intelligences theories. The notion that each child learns differently, so we should adjust instruction accordingly (learning styles) justseems like such good old-fashion common sense. The theory that each child has different innate abilities (multiple intelligences) just seems to be confirmed by common experience. But common sense and experience are untrustworthy and unreliable guides to good teaching. Despite what the snake oil learning styles and multiple intelligences folk tell us, they are simply wrong. Here are five reasons why:

Larry's picture

We all learn better using especially a sense - which one(s) depends on the person. We often like to think that this is mainly how we learn so teachers think of teaching to a learning style.

Remember - students listen to teachers (auditory), write notes (kinesthetic) and see what teachers write on a board, pictures, graphs and images they use to make a point (visual). We all use our senses to learn, just some senses make more an impact for some than others. Our visual sense is the strongest sense in our brain.

Resent research makes the point that learning style specific presentations are not as affective as we think. Teaching to all senses, remembering some are affected by one sense more than the other, is what we already do but maybe we need to be more aware and structured in how we do it.

Some effective teachers teach to how the group of students responds to how they present and explain so they're more sensitive to reactions of the group of students rather than any one way of teaching with all groups. They adjust their approach as the situation calls for with the group or the individuals, having enough skills with enough approaches.

Jessica Piper's picture

This argument is meant to prop children up when they are lacking in a certain area. Of course we all learn differently; it's because we are stronger in some disciplines. If we had just read novels all day in math instead of doing Algebra, I probably would have passed. It certainly wasn't because I was an auditory learner and the teacher was visual--I just hated Math.

Too bad this argument wasn't around when I was in High School=)

Stephanie Davis's picture

Perhaps I am reading the research incorrectly, but a great deal of what is "reading readiness" is essentially determined by childhood exposure to language. A child growing up in an environment rich and diverse in vocabulary is better prepared for reading, comprehension, and student-teacher interaction. A significant part of that exposure is found through daily reading with an adult. Phonics can work- it does work for some- but it lacks the integration and relevancy that collaborative, early, whole language exposure imparts to young children and subsequently, older students; that is, a love of reading. The issue should not be approached symptomatically, but systemically. With older students, an insistence on frequent reading and writing in all content areas, and in all levels of "differentiated" competencies, can only help us recognize what our students are actually understanding and synthesizing, and whether or not they need additional help with reading and written expression: after school or during school. And "learning style"-why wouldn't a teacher want to present multiple opportunities for students with certain talents to shine? The rub here is that these opportunities are available, encouraged, and the student feels that effort will be rewarded. This is not the same as coddling. If your student is reading novels in class, walk over, take the novel until the end of class, hand her a book relevant to the content area (yes, even math!), and give her something to do- now. Be sure you know your students well enough to have them do things that are appropriately challenging, so they can move forward rather than flee.
Forgive me if I'm being too forward, but why do we always assume the WORST of differentiation? If students are engaged then it's a load of your back, too.

Selina Jackson's picture

I agree, Stephanie. In fact, learning styles has to do with so much more than just learning. They color how we perceive and represent the world. It's in the way we behave and it's even in the way we communicate. For example,a person who is processing visually says things like, "Oh, I see," "Look..." Or, "the picture is clear." If someone is thinking in the auditory system, you'll hear words like, "Talk to you later," Let's discuss this at another time." A dominant kinesthetic-who "feels" their way through the world says things like, "Let's keep in touch," or "That story made an impact on me." How does this cause problems in the classroom? If the teacher is using one system and the student is using another, then you have cross communication=disharmony. In fact, in my experience, I've discovered that this is one of the main reasons students misbehave and under-perform.

Sheldon H. Horowitz Ed.D.'s picture

This "learning styles" discussion is very relevant to the field of learning disabilities (LD).
Truth be told, learning disabilities (LD) are not easily explained. While they are "specific" to any number of areas of learning (such as reading, math, and writing) they are also often overlapping or co-occurring, meaning that individuals with LD can have significant challenges in more than one area of skill development and performance. Because learning doesn't take place in a vacuum, social-emotional and behavioral issues often mask or exacerbate the effects of LD. And as individuals are exposed to new information, gain new insights and experience, and build their own menus of strategies to overcome or work around their areas of struggle, the impact of their learning disabilities can change, for better or for worse. Add a person's overall personality and motivation and other factors like opportunities to expand one's repertoire of effective accommodations (trying things out and see if they work) to the mix, and it's clear that LD is not just one thing, is not easily captured in a simple explanation, and does not effect all individuals in the same way. Hence the appeal of talking about "learning styles" in the same breath.
read more at, and specifically at

Salzabar's picture
I teach middle school students Reading and English Language Development

I say yes to the question,"Should we use learning styles in our teaching?" I also believe our assessments must be differentiated as well.

Hannah's picture
Preschool Director

You negated your whole article when you labeled yourself as a visual learner. Hopefully those reading your article already have enough of a background in Multiple Intelligences, etc. to not put any importance into your theories.

Steve Sarmento's picture

The is no evidence to support a scientific learning styles theory. There is no research that definitively proves that some brains perform better at processing information when it is in a "preferred modality." This is not to say that different people don't have a favored format for handling information. I'm a writer. My wife is an artist. I was helping her with a project where she had to illustrate a song. We listened to the song. I generated a list of words and phrases from the song, she had a series of quick sketches. Does this prove that she's a visual learner and I'm not? No, it merely demonstrates that she is more comfortable handling visual information, and I'm more comfortable with words - perhaps because my drawing skills are weak. If she's a visual learner wouldn't this theory state that when we go grocery shopping she would generate a list comprised of images of the items we need to buy, rather than a list of words? But she doesn't. I don't know anyone that does, even those that may label themselves "visual learners". Biases towards particular modes of representing information is hardly evidence of a neurological condition dictating modes of presenting information.

for more on this I'd suggest a quick google search on Dan Willingham and learning styles.
This video is a great place to start:

shanebravo's picture
In the world the parent-child relationship is one of the longest lasting so

There is many of the above are views of intelligence. They are all popular at the moment. Added to this list could be Sternberg's work on suspicion and super brainpower, Handy on practical intelligence. The point is that each of the above is completely false because they make dreamlike distinction in the ways that people study. The authority of many popular styles is that they allow the general public to let go of IQ and other character test which are intensely engrained in our civilization. When I was in college, I used a tape recorder to tape lectures, and sometimes I read my notes into it. I listened while driving, and doing other things around the house. But when I tried to play them while I slept, it didn't help at all.

things to do with kids

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