Are “Learning Styles” A Myth?

Are+%22Learning+Styles%22+A+Myth%3F

Zachary Furbush, Staff Writer

Learning styles do not exist. Visual, auditory, reading and writing, kinesthetic… These “learning styles” represent an example of neuromythology. Like hemispheric dominance, only using 10% of our brains, and having multiple intelligences, learning styles are a myth about our brains that nearly 90% of Americans still believe in. But that’s just it- a lie. We are not either left brained or right brained. We use one hundred percent of our brain, not ten percent. The idea that we have multiple ways in which we are intelligent has no research support. And to truly appreciate and understand a message, an individual needs all the mediums of communication, not just one. 

These “mediums of communication”, what does that mean really? 

Well, writing: typography, books, papers, any written language. Writing would be a “medium of communication.” So would a mobile phone–texting, calling, facetime, snapchat– all are examples of “mediums of communication.” In the education field, the different mediums are used as ways of teaching. The belief is that some kids learn better from certain mediums than others, and these mediums are called learning styles. The visual medium includes documentaries, diagrams, and pictures. The auditory has podcasts, videos, and music. The reading and writing medium encompasses textbooks, articles, and documents; and the kinesthetic involves arts and crafts, hands-on projects, and more physical activity. All of these mediums for learning are meant to give the same message (whatever is being taught), and they are all designed for different “learners.” 

So if all of these mediums teach the same message, then why do we need every medium to fully grasp a concept? Wouldn’t we only need one? 

Every medium is different; therefore, the medium affects the portrayal and overall understanding of a message. The Medium is the Message is a phrase created by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan that in essence means that the medium determines the comprehension and interpretation of the message. It means that the medium, not the message itself,  should be the focus of study. Basically, every medium of communication alters and can affect the message in ways that we don’t realize. 

 

How does the medium change the message? How can reading something in a textbook be different watching a documentary?

The difference in each medium is its capacity to deliver a message. Niel Postman, in his Amusing Ourselves To Death, says “Consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom.” Postman goes on in the next paragraph to explain why television is also incapable of expressing political philosophy. To answer the question, a textbook is dense with knowledge; it requires patience, skill, literacy, and time. Comprehension with a textbook comes with one’s ability to read it. With a documentary, the visual aspect requires full attention. The purpose of television and therefore a documentary is to fully engage the audience. The music, video clips, interviews, cinematography–every aspect of the documentary– is designed to engage the audience and convince them or explain to them something. The medium of a visual aspect is loaded with more sensory detail than a textbook.  Watching a documentary will leave a student understanding a message differently than after reading a textbook. 

So we need every “learning style” to understand a topic, but is there really an issue with teaching geared toward a specific learning style at the exclusion of others?

Yes. Educators teaching toward specific learning styles can be detrimental to the development of children’s work habits and motivation to learn and grow. Scott Bary Kaufman, a psychologist at Barnard College wrote “Catering to learning styles in the classroom ‘can actually foster a fixed mind-set, not a growth mind-set.’” What is a fixed and growth mindset? A fixed mindset is when people believe their qualities, skills, and abilities are fixed and unchangeable. No matter what they do, there is no getting better. The growth mindset is quite the contrary. It is the belief that failure is a learning opportunity that can help them acquire new skills and knowledge. Have you ever seen on teachers’ walls those posters saying “I failed” and then next to it, “I can learn from my mistakes,” signifying the latter is the better mindset? That is a perfect example of fixed vs growth mindsets. Teaching to certain learning styles encourages a fixed mindset because it places the belief in children that they can only learn one way.  They may believe that if a teacher doesn’t teach visually or kinesthetically, then they can’t learn because they didn’t utilize the child’s “preferred learning style.” This limits potential growth, therefore making the learning styles belief detrimental to younger children because it could foster a self-fulfilling prophecy and a fixed mindset.

 

The myth of learning styles has a lot to teach us about the results of limiting our mediums of communication. Telling children that they learn best when taught only in a certain way creates a dangerous mindset that can limit someone’s intellectual potential. Retaining these neuromyths in our culture and allowing this kind of lie to live and thrive in today’s world is an example of how extensive the effect of the internet is on our culture, spreading false information and fundamentally transforming the way we live our lives and teach our younger generations. Learning styles are not a new concept, especially not formed as a result of the creation of the internet, but the fast spread of information has only fostered and helped facilitate the spread of this idea, despite the truth and reality of this education style.