A co-educational private school for Preschool–Grade Eight

Learning Styles: Accurate or Neuromyth?

The field of education has changed dramatically over the last decade. The evolution of technology combined with emerging neuroscience and cognitive psychology research means that educators are armed with more tools than ever before. However, this has also given rise to information that is, shall we say, less than accurate. One such inaccuracy involves how the brain learns best. This is just one example of what has been dubbed a “neuromyth” by our friends at the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL)*. 

Before I lift the lid on this popular “neuromyth,” let me start by telling you a story about myself that, even today, makes me cringe. 

After college, my first teaching job was in a third-grade class. Being a rookie teacher brings many challenges; however, I started to find my groove after a few months. I attended a workshop designed for newly qualified teachers, and in it, the speaker presented about different learning styles in a typical classroom. The speaker discussed how some of us are visual learners while others can only learn when the information is presented in an auditory form—and don’t forget about those of us who need experiential learning or kinesthetic learners. As educators, we should be integrating these learning styles into our lessons and working to make sure that every lesson supports these styles. I was hooked! How had I never heard this before, and, more importantly, why wasn’t everyone doing this? I researched more information about learning styles and found a quick, easy method that helped identify an individual’s learning style. The next day, as a class, we tried this out, and within minutes everyone knew their learning style! Genius! 

Fast forward several years later, and I’m sitting in the CTTL’s summer academy completing their neuromyth activity. The question of learning styles came up, and a group of us had to decide if it was accurate or a “neuromyth.” I confidently tell my fellow attendees that learning styles are absolutely accurate! I attended a workshop on it, and I could not be more confident. We put it in the truth pile, and at the end of the activity, we flipped over the cards and found out if we were correct. Can you see where this story is going? That’s right…the back of the card read “FALSE.”

Now, imagine the look of embarrassment on my face when I discover that learning styles are one of the most common neuromyths out there! There are countless businesses, articles, advertisements, and even educational institutions that talk about learning styles and how it is research-based! No significant body of research gives credence to the idea that we are innately born as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. In fact, these labels can be harmful to learners as they become self-fulfilling prophecies. People hear that they are visual learners and believe that any auditory weakness results from being born that way. We see a similar phenomenon occur with those who think they are innately “math people.” For some, the topic of learning styles is controversial and often debated in the “edu-sphere.” I admit I was unsettled when I first heard about it, but let me give you a concrete example of how learning styles play out in the real world. 

Take the experience of learning how to drive. Theoretically, you can enter a classroom and learn about driving a car. Your teacher is profoundly knowledgeable and has done an excellent job ensuring that all of the content is presented in a visual format because that is your preferred learning style. You get a detailed analysis of the internal combustion system, specific details on how much pressure must be applied when braking, and other essential aspects of driving a car. The entire process has been personalized to meet your needs as a visual learner. You go straight from the classroom and take your test, having never gotten behind the wheel of a vehicle. Now, how much success do you think you will have? 

Many education products, often marketed as personalized toward an individual’s learning style, promise the world to teachers, parents, and, most importantly, students. While it all sounds appealing, the reality is that there is no scientific basis for these statements. So, naturally, the question comes: “How do we support students with our instruction?” It is suggested from the current research that teaching students in various modalities is more beneficial to learning. That means there is a time to present information in a visual medium, a time for auditory, and a time for that hands-on kinesthetic experience. Take the example of learning to drive a car. Building knowledge is essential and can be hugely beneficial to my understanding of driving; however, if I never get behind the steering wheel, my application of the knowledge will be limited and my growth stunted. As educators, we must be aware of an individual's strengths and weaknesses. However, if we tailor instruction to just the strengths, we avoid seeking to improve a weakness, thus exacerbating the issue. 

The same is true in our classrooms. In Grade 4, our social studies curriculum takes an inquiry approach on such topics as Indigenous people and the American Revolution. Like the instructor in the car example, we build students' content knowledge with articles, informative videos, primary sources, and textbooks. However, if we never find ways to integrate other modalities, students are limited in their understanding. We, as educators, must find ways to get our students behind the metaphorical wheel of their learning. In our classrooms, this means discussing what it might feel like to be a colonist when King George imposed new taxes, visiting learning centers like Liberty Hall to bring colonial living to life and connect with prior learning, and listening to presenters play songs from Native American culture. These other modalities enable students to see the origins of traditions still present today. If we alway personalize lessons to an individual's perceived learning style, we limit the scope of what they learn.

But why does understanding more about learning styles matter? As our friend Glenn Whitman says, “Each and every day, every student will bring his/her brain to the classroom.” No one can argue with that! So, isn’t it important for us to understand the factors that impact learning and use that to inform our lessons? I am a better educator today than when I taught that third-grade class. Of course, I have more experience, and I have learned from making countless mistakes. But I also know more today than I did back then! Instead of tailoring a lesson to an individual learning style, I make it my mission to understand the strengths and weaknesses of every student. And the reason why I’m better today is that I can use that knowledge to better serve the students that I teach each and every day.  

 

Footnote

The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL)* 

The Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning (CTTL) is the leading pre-collegiate, school-based research center in the United States, designing and delivering Mind Brain Education (MBE) science research-informed professional development programming worldwide. Founded in 2011, it serves teachers and school leaders in public, charter, international, private schools, and Teach for America (DC Region). 

 

For more than five years, Far Hills Country Day School has partnered with the CTTL. Far Hills Country Day School is committed to an intensive professional development track for all full-time faculty members through this partnership. Based on this research, they learn how students’ brains learn and reimagine teaching strategies and practices in the classroom. The result is a transformative experience for both teacher and student.

 

Last year, Far Hills Country Day School received recognition for being the first independent Preschool-Grade 8 school in the United States to achieve Level 1 certification in Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) Science through Neuroteach Global, an interactive online program offered by the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, MD. Level 1 focuses on the learning environment. Core topics include embracing the role of teachers as “brain changers,” reimagining classroom design and layout, and ensuring that classroom culture provides psychological and emotional safety for all learners.