Many years ago during graduation season, I saw a commencement speech on YouTube from one of my favorite comedians, Tim Minchin. Nested between digs at old teachers and jokes aimed at philosophy graduates is a line that has stayed with me all these years later. “Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn, and [spread] it.”
Whether we realize it or not, each of us is a teacher. We shape minds and influence the actions of those around us daily. It’s a great responsibility to be a teacher, and it’s worthwhile to question how we make the most of the time we spend teaching. How we choose to teach matters. With that in mind, I’ll argue against a widely-held belief in unique learning styles within teaching (and learning) that really doesn’t help anyone do either.
Debunking the Myth of Learning Styles
The theory behind learning styles or preferences is that an individual has a specific mode of instruction that allows them to efficiently ingest and retain information. The idea is that we should identify our preferred learning style, and instructors should tailor the delivery of materials to that style to ensure the best outcome for the learner.
The most common learning styles are categorized into four groups:
- Visual – learning through seeing
- Auditory – learning through hearing
- Kinesthetic – learning through movement and hands-on activity
- Reading/Writing – learning through seeing new information in writing
You are likely already very familiar with the idea of learning styles. You may even have identified one for yourself. It might surprise you to learn of the well-documented and plentiful studies that fail to find statistically-significant evidence to support the theory. In fact, evidence shows learning preferences do not enhance learning.
If you’re curious about my sources I highly recommend the following studies:
Alternatives to Learning Styles
Why does it matter? This popularly-held belief creates a harmful approach to teaching and learning. There is no evidence that learning styles actually help learners, and we waste valuable time and resources when we refuse to acknowledge this point. There are, however, research-supported alternatives that might prove helpful the next time you find yourself in a teaching position. Here are just a few:
- Dual Coding Theory – Posits that learning is enhanced when information is presented both verbally and non-verbally, such as visual and auditory.
- Social Constructivism – Emphasizes the importance of social interactions in the learning process. Suggests that knowledge is constructed through interactions with others
- Cognitive Load Theory – Proposes that the amount of information you can process at one time is limited. Teachers should design instructional strategies to reduce extraneous cognitive load
For Those Among Us Who Teach
Proceed with caution when asked to match a preferred learning style. Utilize your resources and reach out to the community to see how others might approach teaching a similar subject matter if you find yourself with questions. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. Different methodologies may be more appropriate for different subjects. The alternatives above are a great launching point to begin thinking about how you might approach a certain concept.
For Those Among Us Who Learn
Do not limit yourself to one mode of learning. When we do this, we prevent teachers from engaging with us using other strategies. And, maybe after reading this you still believe you have a preferred learning style. Don’t withdraw when a teacher doesn’t cater to that style. Show up, ask questions, and be present and curious.