This is a very trendy and topical question which has been making its way through schools in various guises for the last 10 years. Willingham however takes a very different approach to most by using his background as a cognitive scientist to look at what the evidence says about ‘Learning Styles’. It turns out that research into Learning Styles provides no consistent evidence that students learning styles have any significant impact upon student learning…
He talks about studies looking at visual and auditory learners, where groups of students where some are ‘visual learners’ and others are ‘auditory learners’ are given two lists of words to learn – one is written down and the other is read out to them… If the theory (as presented in most school) were true we would expect the visual students to do better on the words they had read and the auditory ones to do better on those they had heard, but this turns out not to be the case.
How can this be the case? It is certainly true (and Willingham goes in to this) that some students have better visual or auditory memories, so surely if a student has a better auditory memory then they should better remember the list of words that was read to them. But this misses the point completely! When we test the students recollection of the words we are not testing how they ‘sound’ (i.e. the tone of voice used etc), what we are testing is the meaning presented, the same is true for the students that read the words, they are not being tested on the visual image (the font, size etc) they are being tested on the meaning they inferred from the text.
Willingham present a very compelling case for why no credence should be paid to the Learning Styles debates in schools (and even goes on to talk about why people believe they are true – Confirmation Bias), and is also equally condemning of Gardiner’s famous theory of Multiple Intelligences.
He concludes the chapter with the following statement that should be shared with all teachers:
“If you have felt nagging guilt that you have not evaluated each of your students to assess their cognitive style, or if you think you know what their styles are and have not adjusted your teaching to them – don’t worry about it. There is no reason to think that doing so will help…” p166
Ultimately his point is that
Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn
I am really enjoying this thought provoking book, and would highly recommend it to anyone involved in teaching (in or out of schools!)