Carol Ann Tomlinson on Learning Styles

Post submitted by Carol Ann Tomlinson, ASCD author and expert on differentiated instruction.

Tomlinson_c120x148The term “learning style” is often used as a cover term for lots of things that are probably better called something else. I’ve used the term “learning profile” to include learning style, intelligence preference, culture-based learning approaches, and gender-based learning approaches. When looked at in this way, there is broader ground for conversation—to some degree because of research, and to some degree because of theory.

Dan Willingham, a fellow professor at the University of Virginia, has attempted to debunk the idea of learning styles and has used the issue to question education research.

I believe Willingham clumps several bodies of somewhat different work into what he refers to as “learning styles.” For example, Howard Gardner does not think he’s writing about learning styles when he talks about multiple intelligences, nor does Robert Sternberg when explaining his model of the triarchic mind. So, in my read, Willingham’s use of the term “learning styles” is not precise.

Further, he assumes a stance about what he calls learning styles that I don’t think many educators recommend: a test-and-label approach to the topic. Does it make sense to give kids a “learning style survey” and assume that our preferences for how to learn are fixed? Absolutely not. The same person will learn differently in varied contexts, and that should be a given in classrooms. The goal should not be to pigeonhole students, but rather to provide options for learning and to help students become increasingly aware of what supports their learning at a given time. (Thomas Armstrong addresses Willingham’s criticisms of Gardner’s model in Multiple Intelligences in the Classrooms, 3rd ed.)

Willingham feels the concept of learning styles is discredited (not solely by research, but also by knowledge of the brain) because he thinks learning styles theory suggests, for example, that people learn math through music. His read is that music engages a different part of the brain than math does, and that it’s not possible to learn math when the math part of the brain isn’t involved. That’s no doubt true, but that conclusion doesn’t discount the likelihood that people differ in their approaches to learning.

The consensus among many current scholars and authors is that there are indeed differences in how people learn. For instance, there is a broad consensus that males and females learn differently (as groups—not with the assumption that all males or all females learn alike). The open question is how much of that difference is caused by differences in the brain and how much by enculturation. That question aside, there seems to be agreement that—in general—males and females approach learning differently. In other words, their “styles of learning” are not alike. If that is the case, then it probably makes sense to create learning contexts in which there are varied approaches to learning.

Likewise, scholars like Shirley Brice Heath, whose research in Ways with Words is classic, argue strongly for culture-based differences in learning—meaning, again, that culture results in people having somewhat different styles of learning. Once again, then, it seems prudent to create classrooms that are friendly to varied approaches to learning.

There probably is room for other interpretations, too. It may be that allowing students more choice in how they learn is effective in supporting engagement and achievement. It may be that engaging students in something that seems comfortable to them allows students to feel more in charge of their learning. It may be that teachers who allow flexibility in the classroom have more motivating classrooms. It may be that teachers who include “kinesthetic” approaches to learning get better results from kids who can’t sit still for long periods without going a bit bonkers or do a better job of incorporating varied cultural needs into a learning environment. It may just be that classrooms with variety are more kid-friendly in general.

Bottom line: It’s highly likely that we learn differently as a result of gender, culture, perhaps neurological wiring, maybe just from a sort of learning preference or comfort zone, or a combination of those factors. Settings that support learning in a variety of ways are justified. And it’s highly likely that classrooms that make room for those differences are more hospitable to learning. We may not yet know all the ways that work or precisely how they work, but it does appear that making room for different approaches to learning is worth the effort.

Tomlinson will be presenting on differentiated instruction (DI) next week at ASCD’s Summer Conference. Catch updates about Tomlinson and other DI experts at Conference Daily.

Laura Varlas is an ASCD project manager in publishing, and a graduate student in the secondary education: English/language arts program at George Washington University.