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.


  1. Carol, you put this nicely. Willingham’s book has wonderful information for many educators’ roles in our school buildings, and I’m sure has been helpful to many of us in the profession already, but he distorts the meaning of differentiation in his book significantly, simplifying and generalizing it so much that what he declares about it is actually incorrect. It’s not clear he has fully explored what is and is not differentiation prior to writing.
    As you’ve helped us understand in the past few decades, differentiated instruction is whatever we do to maximize learning, i.e. is developmentally appropriate, for an individual or sub-group within our class when the whole group approach isn’t what’s needed. If I use a baseball scoring analogy with a student learning statistics, for example, such as in your cultural reference above, and he recognizes the clear application of seemingly unrelated school topic, and in that connection, understands and remembers the concepts better as a result, that’s successful differentiation.
    This in no way declares that we must use baseball every time we teach this child, however, or that all baseball players learn best through baseball analogies, or that they cannot learn well through many of the same strategies employed with the rest of the class. It indicates only that we know our students well, and we successfully use that information to plan lessons, formally and informally, as warranted to provide what each student needs to be successful.
    There are plenty of moments in every fully differentiated class in which everyone is learning the same content the same way and at the same pace as their classmates. This is not evidence that such status won’t need a change, however, in order to accelerate learning for some, provide more support for others, or come at the topic with a different angle or example for still others. That mental agility and responsive style on the part of teachers are often followed by “a-Ha!” moments in students. This is supported repeatedly through strong anecdotal and schlolarly investigation.
    Responding constructively to students’ questions and needs are all examples of differentiation. We can and should respond appropriately to student inquiries such as, “Can you give me a second example so I can understand this?” “Would you let me work on this for another hour so I get it correct, not just done?” “Would this work in C++?” “What do you mean by…?” “But that’s different than what Hamilton said earlier in the decade, so how did our country get to this point?” “Can I map it out for a moment before writing?” “Can you help me find the bias in this text?” “Would it be okay if I tried the same experiment but with distlled water instead?” “Is there a better tool for this?” “What would happen if….?”
    I sincerely hope Willingham’s limited perception of differentiation doesn’t undermine educators’ full exploration and use of the approach. Undoubtedly, Willingham is the beneficiary of highly effective, differentiated practices over his years in his own learning. Just in the genesis of his book alone — drafting/revising/editing/discussion/drafting/revising again — There are excellent examples of the differentiated approach. It’s a little confusing as to why he would want to dismantle something from which he so clearly benefits.
    Again, his book has great material, both practical and inspirational, but he missed the boat on differentiation. Teachers and principals are encouraged to do far more reading and discussion in differentiation than what’s presented in his book. Thanks, Carol, for taking the time to clear the waters. — Rick Wormeli, Herndon, VA

  2. “The consensus among many current scholars and authors is that there are indeed differences in how people learn.” This seems to be where you draw your entire conclusion from…APS did a review of learning styles in 2009 and came to a much different conclusion than yourself. Best case scenario for an expert in learning styles is that the jury is still out…careful with that word consensus.


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