Every now and then, the noise surrounding Learning Styles reaches a fever pitch, and I feel the need to weigh in. For the first time, the louder cry is coming from my side of the argument, which is refreshing.
Nevertheless, a distressingly large number of teachers throughout the world—not least of all in my country, Indonesia—still believe very strongly in the now fully debunked theories of Learning Styles. In a room of 100 teachers, in my experience traveling the country and visiting various institutions, perhaps 60 will be proponents of Learning Styles, 20 will be indifferent, maybe 15 will have never heard of the concept but no more than a handful will confidently state that they believe Learning Styles to be an unreliable concept.
The fact is that for as long as Learning Styles theories have been around—and with popularity only increasing over time—they have never been supported by evidence. Many of the theories were either never even researched in the first place, or else any research conducted was methodologically unsound. Now, however, things are much worse for Learning Styles. As more and more research is conducted, papers and articles in all of the major journals—such as this one from Scientific American, which references a number of research examples—have shown that using Learning Styles in teaching approaches has either no noticeable effect or else is actually detrimental to learning.
So, why are they so popular?
It seems to be a combination of anecdotal support, a more valid theory of Learning Preferences and the basic benefit of coming first that has led to the ongoing popularity of Learning Styles.
First and foremost, it seems to make intuitive sense that Learning Styles are a real thing. Most people have a sense that are one type of learner or another. You’ll constantly hear people claim, “I’m such a Visual Learner”. In short, it is very believable.
Secondly, perhaps based on the first point but perhaps not, it is certainly the case that people have learning Preferences. Ask people how they prefer to learn, and they’ll more than likely have an answer that incorporates one or more Learning Styles theories. Even here though, the research has shown that a) most people when left to their own devices do not actually engage in learning activities that correlate with the preferences they claim, and b) when teachers do cater to students’ self-reported preferences, it either has no positive effect or else actually results in harm to learning outcomes.
Finally, I think it is quite likely that Learning Styles are popular simply because they were a new idea when introduced, such that there was no counter theory to believe instead. As time has passed, the theories have been developed and expanded on, appearing increasingly academic, and only recently has contradictory evidence begun to surface. For many, perhaps it is just too late. Not to mention that research into cognitive bias tells us that when a person is show evidence contrary to their established belief, it is actually likely to strengthen their belief rather than undermine it. It seems that this is either because the details are forgotten and later it is falsely remembered that the evidence was supporting rather than contradictory or because people are prone to growing defensive, double down on their false beliefs when they feel attacked.
It is this last point that has presented me with the greatest challenge in my career. On the one hand, I meet many teachers who believe not only that Learning Styles are real but moreover that they are important and should be an inherent consideration when planning lessons. On the other hand, I also know that trying to convince them otherwise might actually have the opposite effect of making them believe even more firmly.
So what to do?
In short, I don’t really know, and I’d love to hear what others think. However, I do believe in the power of evidence, and even though it might be too late to change the beliefs of certain individuals, I think that turning up the volume on the evidence will have an effect on new teachers coming into the profession. Where once the standard and unquestioned wisdom was that we should take Learning Styles seriously, we are finally nearing tipping point where evidence to the contrary is beginning to overpower the outdated traditions so that there will be no good reason for new teachers to ever believe in Learning Styles in the first place.