No, you aren't a 'visual' learner

It’s a damning indictment of our collective resistance to truth that the point of this article still has to be restated, yet again. Amazingly, 93% of the general public and 76% of educators still erroneously believe that we should be taught in ways that match our learning styles. I assume this is so in the US – unless things have changed recently, the percentages, for teachers at least, are even worse in some other countries where the idea has been pushed harder from the top down, such as the UK and Netherlands. To be quite clear: this belief is not supported by any compelling evidence at all.

The fact that it is false (or, at best, no more provable than, and just as likely as, astrology) doesn’t mean that designing for learning styles necessarily a terrible idea, inasmuch as it can encourage reflective practice on the part of teachers and can even result in quite useful outcomes. As the article puts it:

“If you’re trying to vary what you do in the classroom to respect different styles, variation in instruction is probably a good thing, anyway,” he says. But rather than formatting lessons differently for auditory, kinetic or visual learners, he and Macdonald suggest that teachers tweak their instruction based on content.

“I think it really depends on your objectives for the lesson,” Macdonald says. “Some types of content really lend themselves to visual presentation … if you’re teaching maps, that’s got to be visual. If you’re teaching music, those are [the] types of things that need to be auditory.

“But if your goal is to get a multifaceted exposure to certain content, it can be helpful to weave in all different types of modalities.”

That thinking about learning styles can be a useful design tool is a fair point, and one that I have often made myself (including in quite some detail in my first book), though it’s a happy side effect of a mistake, rather than a consequence of a good theory. Using star signs would probably work just as well.  I am not convinced that content should always lead design either: objectives-driven teaching is not the only fruit and, for some expansive subject areas and pedagogies, it is positively (positivistly?) harmful. But, notwithstanding its constraints and limitations, at least it is not based on a fiction.

There are many risks to using a false world model, even if it has some practical value or plausible results (pre-Copernican geocentric astronomy was better than Copernicus’s own theory at predicting movements of planets), not least of which being that it blinds us to real possibilities and leads us in worthless, wasteful, or even harmful directions. Even when the consequences include better teaching, it’s a terrible lesson to teach someone that they are a visual (or sensing, or whatever nonsense the particular theory suggests) learner. No they are not. They might have some habits, reinforced patterns, or preferences, sure. But that just means they need to try a bit harder to extend themselves and to learn to use some alternative approaches because they are definitely going to have to use them at some point when there’s no teacher in control of things but themselves, and nothing to fit their preferred style available. My learning style is and should be whatever the hell I need.

I’ve mentioned before that I believe a better (if less attractive) term would be ‘being-taught habits’ because one of the least savoury aspects of the whole learning styles gestalt is that it actually has little to do with learning, and everything to do with achieving better indoctrination; of asserting the power of the teacher (at least, it would if it worked). For that kind of thing, we’d learn more from the sciences and arts of the advertising industry than from any snake oil learning style theory. We might equally learn from preachers and religions: they are mostly pretty good at making people think and behave the way they wish.

There are other ways to gain the useful side-effects of designing for learning styles that do not rely on falsehoods, or that make no claims that they match reality one way or the other – de Bono’s Thinking Hats, for instance, or design-based research. And it doesn’t take much to make learning style theories less dumb. I am personally quite fond of Gordon Pask’s serialist/holist model, despite coming perilously close to a learning styles theory at times, because it describes a continuum of learning strategies, without suggesting too much (OK, fair enough, Pask slipped here and there) that such strategies be fixed, habitual, or generally preferred by particular learners.  They are simply perspectives we can choose as and when it is helpful to do so. However, if possible, when designing learning activities, we should use approaches that are based as much as we are able on how the world is, not how we think it should be. From that perspective, learning styles are a potentially dangerous and time-consuming dead end.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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