The myth of learning styles
Welcome to the first post of our series on learning and the brain! With the federal government’s recent commitments to early childhood education and a project to map the human brain, I can’t think of a better time to begin talking about brains, learning, and education, topics I’ve spent over half a decade researching.
Learning styles, a grand myth
This kick-off post talks about a grand NeuroMyth: learning styles. Familiar to anyone who has ever declared themselves to be a “visual learner,” “kinesthetic learner,” or “auditory learner,” the idea of learning styles is incredibly popular in education, with over 92% of teachers surveyed in Europe reportedly believing in learning styles. (I imagine the numbers are similar in the U.S.)
To get straight to the point, it turns out that despite their popularity, research has not shown that learning styles matter for learning. Reviews of the literature have either found no positive effects of learning styles, or results so mixed that they can only be considered inconclusive. In other words, there is no convincing evidence that visual learners learn better when seeing information than hearing it or enacting it, etc.
“Whaat?!” Your disbelief (and misbelief) is understandable. Since many companies base their survival on convincing us that learning styles are legit, we’ve been inundated with pro-learning styles messages. And more personally, it just feels good to categorize our own styles of learning. It makes us feel like we know a little more about that squishy, mysterious, powerful blob we call our brains. Unfortunately, our trust in learning styles is misplaced.
Where do we go from here? A different kind of customized learning
The learning styles myth has one good underlying assumption: Not all learning happens the same way, so nor should all teaching. This is absolutely true, and acknowledging it lets us create learning situations customized to children’s needs. The question is how.
Rather than thinking about customization based on learning styles, I prefer to ask, “Which learning techniques are best for which learning outcomes?” For example, the best method for learning a fact is usually different from the best method for learning a concept.
Two techniques to try at home
Here are two tips for customized learning from Professor Daniel Schwartz at Stanford, who also happens to be on Kidaptive’s advisory board and was my and Kidaptive Chief Learning Scientist Dylan Arena’s graduate advisor.
1) Use analogies to teach for understanding. To help someone understand a difficult concept, draw an analogy to something they already know. For example, you can explain migration to a preschooler by drawing an analogy to coming inside when it gets too cold outside. Analogies help learners use their existing knowledge to understand a new idea.
2) Use elaboration to teaching for memory. To help someone remember a piece of information, encourage them to use elaboration, which means expanding on an idea in one’s mind. For example, to remember the password you create for Kidaptive’s (soon-to-be-released!) Parent’s Pad — let’s say it’s “DeliciousChickenWings” — you can use elaboration by thinking,”Leo eats delicious chicken wings while wearing his flying wings.” This mentally connects your password to other Leo’s Pad knowledge, making it come to mind more readily whenever you think of Leo’s Pad. Elaboration is much more effective for memory than saying “delicious chicken wings” over and over again.
There’s a lot of research out there showing how to learn and teach effectively. Tailoring methods to different learning outcomes is just one way to approach it. Stay tuned for more ideas on learning, the brain, and customized learning experiences.