Skip to content

Learning Styles Don’t Exist; Options Do #openspokes

rhizomatic_learning_sreJeremy Inscho‬ in our Open Spokes Fellowship introduced us to Daniel Willingham‘s research that refutes the learning styles theories to which many of us may subscribe.

Dr. Willingham states “Students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning. As college educators, we should apply this to the classroom by continuing to present information in the most appropriate manner for our content and for the level of prior knowledge, ability, and interests of that particular set of students.”

I think teachers do present information in the best way for the content to be understood by the learner, not necessarily devising many ways to present the information to “catch” the learners’ styles.

However, in taking into account students’ “abilities, interests, and background knowledge,” we do provide in our lessons, through our understanding of our students, elements which provide background and  engage students.

Then, as students learn the concepts, we may differentiate the process by which students demonstrate their learning.  I wonder if perhaps it is not how we present the learning task, but rather how the learner expresses his or her understanding which requires a path that best resonates with that learner, at that time for that concept. We as teachers allow students to choose the path, rather than dictate one way.

I realize that Dr. Willingham has refuted the evidence for auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning, and all other learning styles. I am, however, drawn to the notion put forth by Dr. Robert Sternberg. He states that ” intelligent behavior arises from a balance between analytical, creative and practical abilities, and that these abilities function collectively to allow individuals to achieve success within particular sociocultural contexts.” He adds “Analytical abilities enable the individual to evaluate, analyze, compare and contrast information. Creative abilities generate invention, discovery, and other creative endeavors. Practical abilities tie everything together by allowing individuals to apply what they have learned in the appropriate setting. To be successful in life the individual must make the best use of his or her analytical, creative and practical strengths, while at the same time compensating for weaknesses in any of these areas.”

In my mind, that means that students use their abilities (how they think – analytical, creative, practical) and interests to be successful in what they do and how they solve problems. These categories help teachers to differentiate so students can demonstrate their learning through their strengths, and perhaps try another strategy to build strengths.

In today’s world of diverse modes of information our technology allows teachers to find the best presentation and resources for student learning, and the opportunity for students to best demonstrate the learning in a way that is best for both the student and the learning.

I have written about differentiation in a previous post and created a menu of possible learning options.

The idea is not to teach to learning styles, but to provide paths of choice for student demonstrations that build on thinking, interest, and engagement possibilities to encourage student success.

Conversations in education also consider “personalized” learning, whereby students have more input in the design and product of their goals. For this, students need to ask the questions that generate goals relevant to what is needed to learn. Again I see the abilities, interests, and background knowledge as factors in personalization. And again I see that students will tend to follow and choose that which they can do — the way they think, their interests, and their abilities. As teachers, we strive to guide students towards stretching their potential and expanding their repertoire of strategies.

Teaching and learning requires teachers to ask good questions, get to know our students, and to help students ask good questions. We guide through questions.

Learning ingredients include questioning, sharing, feedback, creation, and reflection. Teachers and students question. We share resources and trials. We provide feedback to each other. We create demonstrations of learning and solutions to problems. We reflect and revise and question again. We, teachers and learners.

I think I do agree with Dr. Willingham that learning styles don’t exist. But I do think we create and demonstrate learning in ways that fit how we think about our learning and in ways that demonstrate the learning from our interests and talents. Those ways will be different for different learners. If we are learning argument, some students will focus on the written text, some will include images and text bullets, some will prefer to speak, and still others will create a video with text, speech, and images. In accepting these, we now have different versions for feedback and analysis, to which students can see the effect of each and grow in that learning.

Background Knowledge
Habits of Mind

As educators, we hope to promote a development of each of these for our students. Our lessons incorporate strategies, processes, and opportunities for students to do so. We may not cater to “learning styles,” but we certainly offer options based on what we know about our students.


What is your thinking on this idea of learning styles, abilities, interests, options?

More info:

Dr. Daniel Willingham

Gardner and Sternberg: Differentiation

Personalization: Choose a goal; Receive guidance and feedback.

Coalition of Essential Schools

Sheri Edwards View All

Geeky Gramma ~~
Retired Middle School Language Arts/Media Teacher ~~
Writer and Thinker~~
Art from the Heart

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: