Thinking about learning styles.


Third grade mask-making.

I once had a fifth grade student who was, let us say, not fully engaged in the activities I had provided in the art room. He goofed around a lot.

One day, following a request to settle down, he turned to me and said, “Mr. K. Your teaching is not really differentiated to meet my personal learning style.”

Who had this kid been talking to? Probably my Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum.

I tell this story on occasion because I thought it was funny at the time. I still do. And then I was sent a copy of an article from Scientific American.

I am not making a critique of the concept of learning styles and differentiation. The article brought back memories of the dozens of fads pushed by administrators and my  board of education that had no more data to back them up than can be found in the correlation of  learning styles to instructional effectiveness.

The article suggests that the evidence for the notion of learning styles is pretty thin. It has often been confused with the concept of multiple intelligences, student interests and ability.

The more interesting question is whether learning styles, as opposed to abilities, make a difference in the classroom. Would educators be more effective if they identified their students’ individual styles and catered their lessons to them?

The lack of empirical data didn’t keep administrators and school boards from jumping on to the learning styles bandwagon about a decade ago.

Differentiated instruction became a buzzword in teacher evaluations. Every principal had to use the word  in their post-observation conference and write-up.

I remember one evaluation that we – the union – challenged. A first grade teacher in our building was engaged in a whole-class reading activity. In plain English, she was reading a story from a children’s book to the class. It was even part of the reading curriculum adopted by the district.

It was just at the moment she was reading her story when the principal walked in to do her evaluation observation. In the principal’s  write-up our teacher was marked down for failing to differentiate her instruction to meet the learning styles of the students in her class.

She was reading a storybook to her class.

For years, hours of professional development time and money was given to promoting the concept of correlating instruction to learning styles even though there’s no real data to support the idea that it impacts student learning.

I’m not arguing against taking into account student interest, student ability or what Howard Gardner calls multiple intelligences.

I’m arguing against the use of buzzwords instead of data and against the faddishness of what passes for educational leadership.

Things may be different now. Maybe for the worse.

With the push for the Common Core Standards, any thought of student-centered instruction seems to be disappearing. Differentiation is being replaced by monitoring instruction based on a standard.

Will we see assessments of Common Core instruction now be using kinesthetic or visual measures?

I doubt it.

Let me know.

One thought on “Thinking about learning styles.

  1. Non-educator here (read blog for pension news mostly) but it seems to me that the unsupported differentiated fad was directly linked to a resurgence of gender segregation in schools based on stereotypes about boy/girl learning styles. Hope the discrediting extends to that as well.

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