What You Need to Know About Learning Styles

Teachers differentiate to three major considerations: readiness, interest, and learning profile. Matching instruction to students’ readiness correlates strongest with academic growth, according to research. Attending to student interests means finding what will motivate students to work hard. And addressing learning profiles can make learning more efficient by considering how students approach learning.

Learning profile is a fluid concept that includes how culture, gender, intelligence preference, and learning style might influence how a student approaches learning. Carol Tomlinson is quick to clarify that learning profile is not a synonym for learning style.

The “learning styles” approach to teaching has received a lot of criticism of late—particularly from three groups, Tomlinson told attendees at her ASCD Annual Conference session on the controversial topic.

  1. Neuroscientists say there is limited evidence that different people use different neural networks to solve problems.
  2. Psychologists discredit the theory because it is too diffuse—multiple models contrast and compete with one another—and there is no randomized research to support addressing learning styles in the classroom.
  3. Sociologists present the criticism that Tomlinson said is most worth listening to. They say labeling a kid is never neutral; drawing conclusions based on very little information across cultures is problematic, and by generalizing, we may cause harm.

Although there is research showing the benefits of considering your students’ learning styles, it’s not randomized, and therefore not up to the rigor accepted in the sciences. So should teachers completely disavow learning styles?

“Singing a song will never teach you how to multiply, but it can be the medium for practicing new skills,” Tomlinson said. She advised teachers to

  • Be wary of the reliability and validity of learning styles survey instruments.
  • Refrain from labeling kids.
  • Know that the same person will learn differently in different contexts.

. . . . and concentrate on

  • Using multimodal approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Providing options for processing and demonstrating essential content.
  • Helping students know themselves as learners, so they make wise decisions about how to approach learning tasks—as well as when and how to change their approach.

Overall, Tomlinson thinks there needs to be better listening between teachers and neuroscientists—the lab cannot replicate the reality of the classroom, and teachers can learn from the criticism of learning styles. The big lesson seems to be: don’t pigeon-hole kids. Tomlinson quoted from Dylan Wiliam:

“Instead of teaching to fit each child’s style, teachers should be aware of different styles, help students become aware of different styles, and encourage students to use as wide a variety of styles as possible.”

“We may yet learn that attention to learning style awareness works in a different way,” Tomlinson concluded. Variety is a motivator, it can create connections between teacher and student, increase joy in learning, and empower student voice, she added.

“It may be that it’s a motivator, and not necessarily about what part of the brain you do your learning in.”

Slides from Tomlinson’s presentation are available on her website.