The Dark Side of Learning Styles

In my previous post, I stated that my teaching would not be affected by the discovery that the learning styles theory is not supported by the evidence. In a comment, I added: “The most toxic impact of [learning styles] is that some students are convinced they can only learn visually, or kinesthetically, or whatever. This undermines their ability to expand their horizons.”

Michael Goldenberg said this more eloquently in a comment at Five Twelve Thirteen. With his permission, I reproduce his comment below — the first guest post on this blog!


Just need to comment on my concerns with the use of learning styles/multiple intelligences in education.

There are teachers, parents, and students who come to the doubtful conclusion that if a student is labeled (and I use that word advisedly) as an X-learner, that this means that student can only learn via lessons geared for X-learners. This strikes me as an overly-rigid notion for a host of reasons, the most important of which is that people are generally far more slippery than the labels we try to put on them in almost any aspect of life one cares to consider. Trying to label what sort of learner someone is can be an invitation for that person to shut down and shut out any other approach to learning.

While it may be helpful for a student to note that in a particular subject, s/he tends to learn better with a particular approach, the increasing emphasis on having teachers present mathematics with multiple representations means that all students will be exposed to a given mathematical concept from more than one perspective using more than one modality. To my thinking, that’s a very good thing, as it tends to deepen understanding of a given concept and, done right, the relationships among concepts. Coordinate geometry is one of the places where a huge link is made between geometric and algebraic ways of solving problems, with graphing of equations and relations presenting rich opportunities to view a variety of mathematical ideas in a richer, interconnected way.

There is some real danger, from what I’ve seen in many classrooms over the last 25 years, for a student to believe that s/he CAN’T learn math in more than one way. Some students use the learning styles notion to refuse to look at more than one model or explanation for a given bit of mathematics. While sometimes there may be legitimate concerns about being overwhelmed or confused by multiple representations, it’s dangerous to let students refuse to grapple with their less-preferred modalities, particularly writing about mathematics, something that many students wish to avoid.

Another danger arises for some teachers who may find themselves falling into a related trap. Labeling a student as a particular type of learner can lead instructors to exempt that student from having to consider, let alone master, more than one representation or model because “S/he can’t handle that; s/he’s an X-learner.” And of course, parents can readily fall into this same error, leading them to undermine efforts to get students to think in more than one way about math. I have dealt with parents who argue with me that their child simply cannot and should not be asked to write or talk about his/her mathematical thinking, telling me that the student is simply not a verbal/oral learner. And usually this is coupled with the complaint that the child “gets the right answer, so why should s/he have to explain it?”

The obvious “solution” to these concerns is as suggested here and by Henri Picciotto: teachers need to offer multiple representations on a regular basis. Variety in lesson styles is good for everyone (except maybe for teachers who’ve grown complacent over the course of their careers). Students who are taught from early on to view any subject through multiple lenses will generally be more adept at applying their learning to new and unfamiliar circumstances. Flexibility is a good thing in more than just athletic endeavors. Multiple learning styles/intelligences is a useful thing to consider, but it should not be used as a way to pigeonhole anyone.


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