Last month Raf Dolanowski (Raf Dolanowski Consulting) and I finally got together to record a podcast about Learning Styles. We’d had several exchanges on LinkedIn threads and decided to talk it out.

Raf was in Melbourne and I was in Christchurch in the UK.

The podcast is available on Anchor here and you can also find it on Spotify.

I don’t know how long we talked for, but I wanted to put some of the main points in a blog for those who don’t have time to listen, and I’m sure I wasn’t always clearly expressing myself. If you’d prefer to read about it. Here’s a write up of the main things we discussed.

What’s the problem?

In my experience when most people talk about ‘learning styles’, they’re referring to what’s known as the meshing (or matching) hypothesis. A common explanation of the meshing hypothesis is that teaching to a learner’s learning style, will improve learning’. In other words, conflating the idea of learning styles with the meshing hypothesis.

So when people say things like learning styles have been debunked, they’re a myth, what they actually mean is that the meshing hypothesis has been debunked. Two completely different things.

I used examples from an article in The Guardian in the podcast as it illustrates a lot of the issues.

Teachers must ditch ‘neuromyth’ of learning styles, say scientists

In the article Prof Bruce Hood, who organised a letter to The Guardian says, “most people believe they have a preferred learning style – either visual, auditory or kinesthetic – and teaching using a variety of these styles can be engaging.”

I don’t think ‘most people believe they have a preferred learning style’. I’m sure if I asked my friends about their preferred learning style, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

Visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (VAK). This is about how we receive information – through our senses and these three are often cited as the most important when it comes to learning. There are lots of other ideas around, but people tend to focus on these and refer to them almost exclusively in the meshing hypothesis.

Now this is the interesting bit, ‘and teaching using a variety of these styles can be engaging’. So why is that? It’s an important, but unanswered, question.

Geoff Barton also commented in the article.

“I think the fad about learning styles faded long ago, and I would be surprised if many schools continued to subscribe to the approach (so why did he feel there was a need to write to The Guardian about it? Just curious). That said, the notion of making teaching and learning more varied in classrooms is helpful and likely to motivate a wider range of students.”

Again, the questions for me would be why and how? Why would making teaching (and learning) more varied be helpful, and more importantly, why would it motivate a wider range of students?

One more thing from this article. “The group opposes the theory that learning is more effective if pupils are taught using an individual approach identified as their personal ‘learning style’. Some pupils, for example, are identified as having a ‘listening’ style and could therefore be taught with storytelling and discussion rather than written exercises.”

I don’t think they mean it’s individually personal – there’s no mention of that in the article – so we’re back to the meshing hypothesis again.

Furthermore, the last sentence I found to be far from any sort of reality I’ve been exposed to and is almost the exact opposite of what others say about learning styles – more below.

And from another Guardian article another example of learning styles being conflated with the meshing hypothesis.

“Finally, and most damning, is that there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or ‘meshing’ material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment.”

A persistent theme throughout this article and many more like it is that you have to ‘teach to a learning style’ – the meshing hypothesis. Worryingly, there’s no other perspective or insight offered.

The people who I’ve read, and my own perspective is very different. It is that you can use an understanding of the different ways people access and process information and learn to make teaching more inclusive. Or to paraphrase Geoff Barton, to make teaching and more varied (in a deliberate way i.e. not just randomly varied) to help and motivate a wider range of students.

Some perspective on learning styles

Here’s a quote from ‘Righting the Educational Conveyor Belt’ by Michael Grinder, 1991 (nearly 30 years ago!).

‘In a typical classroom of 30 students, there is an average of 22 students who have enough visual, auditory and kinesthetic capacities that the urge to pigeonhole them into VAK categories is senseless and impractical.’

Most critics of learning styles suggest it’s all about pigeon holing people. I don’t know anyone who suggests that so perhaps this is something of a strawman argument.

He explains that maybe 5-6 students in a class might not have the same capacities, as he puts it. However, the main point he is making is that children develop in these areas at different speeds. As children get older, the teaching styles they’re exposed to changes, for example by being more abstract, and some students fall behind, or as he puts it, fall off the educational conveyor belt. Broadly speaking his idea is for the teacher to understand the capacities of their students so that they are best able to cater for, and importantly develop these.

For example, later in the book he explains what he thinks makes different styles of writing more appealing to different students to read. There’s an activity in the book to help teacher find out what sort of reading (or movies if the student hasn’t done much reading) a student has enjoyed in the past so that the teacher can suggest some titles which the student might find appealing.

Of course, as soon as you mention someone like Michael Grinder people will come up with things like ‘NLP has been debunked’ and so on. I would encourage those who are inclined this way to go beyond the use of ad hominems and look at what he’s saying. You don’t have to agree with him, but a discussion around his thoughts and findings might be more useful.

The concept of learning styles, according to Grinder, has been round since the 1960s. ‘Rita Dunn has done the most to awaken the education community to the differences among students. Those that follow her guidelines are encouraged to individualize learning, which the elementary teachers with their self-contained classrooms (30 students) find palatable.’

I think individualised learning is now often referred to personalised learning.

There’s also an interesting book which I referred to in the podcast called Training with NLP Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour 1994). Again, rather than saying NLP is a neuromyth – the usual response – I’d say keep an open mind.

This is what is says about catering for people with different learning styles.

‘What you can do is please some of the people some of the time and make sure that the “some of the people” keeps changing so that all styles are catered for.’

Isn’t that more or less what Prof Bruce Hood and Geoff Barton were saying?

There are lots of other examples like this. I remember watching an online webinar where they had a little time left over. The host smirked as she said that perhaps they shouldn’t talk about learning styles (think meshing hypothesis) as they all knew better. Then one of the guests went on to say there was some interesting research about convergent and divergent thinkers. All the participants thought this sounded interesting.

Well, have a look at this from Training with NLP back in 1994.

‘Probably the most useful distinction in learning styles in the training context is between general and specific. General people are most comfortable dealing with large chunks of information. They pay little attention to detail. Specific people pay attention to detail and need small chunks in order to make sense of the bigger picture.’

Not exactly the same, but not a million miles away and certainly on the same track.

I’m sure there are some who are bundling people into groups and teaching to that style – or if not doing it, saying it’s a good idea. I’ve just never met anyone like that though. Whereas there are some who refer to learning styles as a myth, for me, the mythical creatures are the proponents of the meshing hypothesis.

Why does it continue to be a contentious issue?

For me it’s simple and goes back to the idea of people confusing the meshing hypothesis with learning styles. But there’s something else.

When I first started reading blogs about learning styles, I noticed this:

  • They all said the same thing
  • They all confused learning styles with the meshing hypothesis
  • There were no personal insights
  • There was nothing new or interesting
  • They were mostly, if not all, written by people who had no teaching background or experience.

I’m totally happy for people to have their opinions and write blogs on whatever the like. But I get agitated when they start telling others that they’re wrong referring to them as ‘believers’, or zombies, especially when they have no experience or insight in the area.

Some are so entrenched in the name calling I think it would be hard for them to now admit that they got it wrong.

One of the common, and incredibly patronising replies I get from these people is: ‘Ah I think you mean learning preferences?’ No I don’t. And I’ve not met anyone who can go one question deep on learning preferences.

When I’ve suggested articles and books which have a far deeper and better understanding of learning styles than they do, they never read them. It seems that they’re unwilling to consider any research that doesn’t support their ideas and will find excuses as to why it’s not valid.

When I suggested to one person on LinkedIn who has no teaching qualifications nor real teaching experience that perhaps Andria Zafirakou  (she won the best teacher in the world competition in 2018) knew it little bit more than they did, they were all for writing to her and telling her how she’d got it all wrong. I have no words!

If it’s not about teaching to a style, what’s the point?

Here’s an example of how I think learning styles can inform teaching using examples from three different areas which have a common idea running through them.

The first is from Earl Stevick’s Success with Foreign Languages

‘The learners we have met in this book often differ markedly with regard to what they consider to be ‘natural,’ and what they prefer to do or not to do. They differ

also with regard to the kinds of data they seem to hold onto best.’ He then gives examples including this one.

‘Ed, Eugene and some of the others want to understand the structure of things before they practice them’

Structure is important to some of the learners.

Let’s skip back to Training with NLP.

‘When learning new material, some people prefer to hear the concepts first. Concepts are the philosophy, theory and thinking behind the material. Others like to understand the structure first. Structure is to do with the organisation of the material, how the pieces fit together, Maps diagrams and how it all works. A third group likes to know what it is good for first, the uses and the practical applications. ‘

This is saying that concepts, structure and use are all important – and for some structure is the first thing they want.

Now let’s have a look at what Brian Vass has to say about teaching maths to his son Brian David who was doing very well at school – except in maths.

(From about 8:15) ‘… so I just started showing Brian David the course from the course developer’s perspective. When I teach math programmes, I simplify the content so that students can see the strands, know the strands, see the concept groups which are really the chapters, see the concepts, the skills the processes, and then the problems that are associated with it. I break it down to acceptable standard skills, and standard of excellence skills and once I do that, then students often say to me is that all there is to it. And that is all there is to it.’

Structure is very important to these kids who are struggling in maths.

In three very different examples, people have identified that structure is important for some learners, not so much for others. It appears that this insight has been gained more from the absence of structure than from the learners being consciously aware of what they need.

Perhaps an important thing to stress here is that structure doesn’t appear to be as important to everyone in these examples, but for some, understanding the structure, particularly at the beginning, is likely to lead to a better learning experience.

None of these people is talking about pigeon holing or putting people into different groups or teaching to a style.

Stevick makes this point from his research.

“Nevertheless, I think I see emerging out of all these contrasts and contradictions an overall pattern. Each of the learners I interviewed illustrates some parts of pattern; none of them illustrates the whole pattern; yet none of them seems to me really to contradict it.”

He then goes on to explain what these are and how these can help teacher to help their students.

I was first introduced to learning styles around 1989. A key point in that presentation was that learning styles wasn’t about labelling people, it’s about tendencies, making sure that people were included and not left out and inevitably behind.

I still believe that.

No one is claiming that there is one clear cut solution. As with most things in this field, it’s about shedding more light and developing more understanding rather than having definitive answers. I know some people find that hard.

We went through quite a few things in the podcast and there were a few examples such as the research from what was then the Department for Education and Skills: Gender and education: the evidence on pupils in England (14.4) which we didn’t have time to touch on.

The last question in the podcast was ‘What is one thing you’d like people to take away from the podcast?’ If you’ve got this far, I think you’ll know the answer.

Learning styles isn’t about the meshing hypothesis.

If you’re not interested in learning styles – fine. If you don’t see the value in learning styles – that’s ok. If you still think learning styles is about teaching to a style – that’s up to you. As one of my old teachers used to say: you can change your mind later.

I’m glad there are people like Brian Vass who are exploring and seeking out ways to help people learn, especially those who struggle in areas such as maths. I think the research that Earl Stevick did is relevant to any teacher/student and would help them gain insights into how people learn, and in particular how they learn foreign languages. And I think there’s a lot more we need to understand and learn but we can only do this if we let go of the widely held but erroneous beliefs about what learning styles are, and keep an open mind as to what benefits a greater understanding can bring.

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Prescription: Learning styles