The idea that people learn best in their own particular way: their so-called “learning style” is a very popular idea in education. Aoife Muckian investigates why it continues to be so popular despite a lack of supporting evidence.
The field of Psychology is vast, and its benefits are many when it comes to education. The field of education, however, has historically been highly susceptible to fads. One such fad that has been widely adopted has been that of the “learning style.” There is in fact very little scientific evidence for the idea that different individuals learn in different ways. The promotion of this idea across many educational systems around the world has thus allowed it to gain the status of “neuro-myth” among members of the Psychological community.
Proponents of the learning styles approach to teaching believe that some people are best suited to a visual approach, while others rely on listening techniques in order to study more effectively. This may sound familiar to many Irish students who have attended study skill sessions offered in schools and universities. This neuro-myth has enjoyed enormous popularity in recent decades.
In March of this year, 30 prominent members of the neuroscience community wrote to The Guardian calling for the widespread neuroscientific myth of learning styles to be discouraged from educational use. They felt that in the long run, the teaching of this myth would be a costly drain on resources and facilities that could be better used for learning methods supported by science. “Such neuro-myths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term,” they wrote in the letter.
“In March of this year, 30 prominent members of the neuroscience community wrote to The Guardian calling for the wide-spread neuroscientific myth of learning styles to be discouraged from educational use.”
One study conducted by researchers from various universities in the U.S. have found that studies which supported the learning styles method had inadequate evidence to back up their claims. When they ran a study testing whether or not a person’s preferred learning style optimised their ability to study effectively, they did not find enough evidence to suggest that this was the case.
Despite this and other similar studies, the learning styles approach to teaching is widely promoted in schools and colleges even to this day. A 2012 study surveyed 242 primary and secondary school teachers in the Netherlands and the UK about their beliefs in various popular neuro-myths in education. It also enquired about how often they had encountered these myths in schools, and it tested their general knowledge about the brain. Despite answering an average of 70% of the general knowledge questions correctly, 93% of teachers from the UK and 96% of teachers from the Netherlands believed that there existed different styles of learning among their students.
Along with being the most widely-believed myth in the study, the learning styles myth was also one of the most frequently encountered by teachers surveyed in the study, with 98% of the British teachers confirming that they had seen it being used in schools.
“The learning styles theory was also one of the most frequently encountered ideas by teachers surveyed in the study, with 98% of the British teachers confirming that they had seen it being used in schools.”
Why is the neuro-myth of learning styles so popular despite being so widely criticised by neuroscientists and psychologists? One way to explore this question is to examine the history and origins of the learning myth. Part of the history behind the learning styles theory can be traced back to the idea that people can be split into various “types.” This idea was introduced in its current form by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and started to gain popularity in the 1940s. Carl Jung’s theories about personality were incorporated into the now famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test (MBTI). Though this personality test has likewise received very little scientific support, it still remains popular among employers and individuals alike.
Researchers have theorised that the ability to place people into categories holds a kind of philosophical appeal for some people. They posit that this may be why despite the lack of evidence in their favour, tests like the MBTI or myths such as the learning styles idea stubbornly maintain their popularity. The emphasis that the learning styles myth puts on individualism may also be appealing to parents and their children, especially in an education system which traditionally has encouraged uniformity. Teachers may also favour this method both as an educational tool and as something which reaffirms individualism in the minds of children.
It may be important to note that different students do prefer to learn in different ways. The myth is that these preferences reflect differences in performance. The truth is that no matter what style somebody prefers to learn in, everybody learns most effectively in the same way.
Psychology and Neuroscience are becoming increasingly influential on how our young people are being educated. With this in mind, scientists working in these areas are more interested than ever in ensuring that their findings are accurately translated into educational practice. They hope that by debunking myths like this, education will become evermore effective and evidence-based.