Friday, January 08, 2010

Learning Styles Theory Versus Sustained Hard Work

After interviewing cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham recently on his book Why Don't Students Like School, I went back and re-read his very thorough chapter entitled "Why Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?"  I was struck by his assertion that children "are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn."

eSchool news today reported on a study commissioned by Psychological Science in the Public Interest, and called "Learning Styles:  Concepts and Evidence."  How's this for a zinger?

Top News - Study questions learning-style research
“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded. “If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”
This is a fascinating article that should produce some real dialog.  Here's some more from Dan Willingham to give context:
"Everyone can apprecaite that students differ from one another.  What can (or should) teachers do about that? ...Two basic methods have been suggested.  One approach is based on difference is cognitive style--that is, if one matches the method of instruction to the preferred cognitive style of the child, learning will be easier.  Unfortunately, no one has described a ste of styles for which there is good evidence.

"The second way that teachers might take advantage of differences among students is rooted in difference in abilities.  If a student is lacking in one cognitive ability, the hope would be that she could use a cognitive strength to make up for, or at least bolster, the cognitive weakness.  Unfortunately, there is good evidence that this sort of substitution is not possible.  To be clear, it's the substitution idea that is wrong:  students definitely do differ in their cognitive abilities..."  (pp. 125-6)
Dan's book is really worth reading. It's not a quick read, but it's hard to argue with his evidence-based approach and his somewhat stunningly simple conclusions. 

In this case, he argues that what really helps the student is background knowledge and (see chapter 8) sustained hard work.  Hmmm...


  1. I very much like Willingham's work. Some of his and others' work influenced an editorial I wrote for the Iowa Science Teacher Journal. The editorial provides a few classroom examples that might help people better understand why "learning styles" doesn't actually help inform instruction although it intuitively makes sense. Here is the article:

    I am working on the follow-up that discusses more acceptable learning theories (those supported by cognitive science). It will hopefully appear soon. We are an issue behind on the journal.

  2. I may not understand Dan Willingham's points from reading the quotes on your page. It's obviously very hard to glean a whole book's worth of information from a paragraph of two. But, I would argue that there is a very credible paradigm for understanding distinct cognitive skill-sets. Howard Gardner has done a great deal of work in this area.

    Am I misunderstanding something?

    Andrew Pass

  3. @Jerrid: Thanks for the link. Good article.

    @Andy: I'm not the expert in this area, but it's worth reading the referenced article and, if possible, Dan's chapter on this. Jerrid's article reference above might be of intersest as well. I think he is recognizing cognitive skill-sets; he's just saying that there is no evidence that trying to teach to those skill-sets actually improves learning.

  4. After reading Willingham's book I have shared it with some of the teachers at my school. They all believe that "learnings styles" is a proven fact and that I am crazy. I really enjoyed his book and recommend it to all teachers as a very informative and practical book.

  5. J C King3:43 PM

    I teach at a community college, and I often hear students rationalize poor performance by claiming different "learning styles." And yet, I provide VISUAL illustrations, ORAL lectures, and there is a WRITTEN textbook.

    It's not politically correct to say so, but different people just have different levels of academic aptitude. If it were not so, then everyone would have the capability to become a neurosurgeon, right?


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