Thursday, August 28, 2008

Someone else agrees with me: learning styles don't exist!

So I've often said in an off-the-cuff way that I don't really believe in learning styles. More concretely, I've often said in my Spanish classes that I don't believe in visual language learners, because, well, language is auditory. I particularly hate diagrams like this, which are supposed to cater to visual language learners:

The reason I so hate that diagram is that it tries to use a visual clue to organize supposedly arbitrary information, disguising what is in fact a very simple auditory pattern (a pattern called dipthongization, which in fact exists in English as well as Spanish).

Anyway, today I noticed in a post on Tom Hoffman's blog that he linked to a video called Learning Styles Don't Exist. It's a little simplistic, but entertaining and, I think, right.

So, has anyone heard of this guy before? Is he right? Does anyone outside of the world of education take learning styles seriously? Is there any research to support them?

Or is the reason that the "different learning styles" line is so common in educational circles really that many teachers are (or are imagined to be) simply uncreative, and it's easier to tell them "cater to different learning styles" than to say, "be less boring", or "try out something new"?


Sam M said...

I haven't watched the video yet, nor have I studied "learning styles" in the way that someone with a degree in teaching would have. But I can say from personal experience inside my own brain that it's very hard for me to learn anything until I see it written down. So yes, I do think learning styles exist, at least to a certain extent.

Of course, there are bad ways to cater to different learning styles, just like there are bad ways to do just about anything. And, as you point out, some things need to be learned a certain way. It *helps* me to remember and pronounce vocab if I see it written, but at some point I do have to understand it when it's spoken to me, if I want to say that I'm "learning" the language.

This is something we run into with our kids a lot: identifying a learning style or disability is not an excuse not to do hard things. It's a guide about how to do them, and an indicator of where you'll need to try harder.

Tom Hinkle said...

It's interesting you mention "writing things down" in the context of language learning. One thing I notice again and again in teaching language is how much the skill of reading-aloud interferes with the skill of learning pronunciation.

It's not at all infrequent that I'll have an entire class pronouncing and understanding a phrase beautifully until I write it on the board, at which point their English reading skills will begin to interfere with their newly acquired Spanish and they'll completely lose their pronunciation... (the point here is that I have to teach Spanish reading as yet another separate skill -- the mixture of pronouncing Spanish well and seeing Spanish written is not enough).

Anyway, none of this quite gets at the learning styles debate. The crux of the argument is not whether some people are better at certain kinds of learning than others but whether those strengths actually matter to teaching. Your claim about writing things down, for example, would be pretty easy to try to verify experimentally (do people with your "style" actually learn better when written down for than those without your style). According to this guy (who may or may not be trustworthy) attempts to do that sort of experiment have produced disappointing results for the learning-style folks.

Anonymous said...

I think seeing words written helps certain people (myself included) reproduce that word on exams or remember where something is written as a point of reference. On the other hand, I strongly believe that people who truly learn languages (and most of us learn at least one) learn them by listening and speaking. I also highly doubt the "learning style" trend; mostly I see it leading to unproductive exercises (particularly craft projects) that rarely teach anything.

And that boot thing is the most absurd thing I have ever seen. It is actually distracting.