Do We Over-Emphasize Learning Styles?

There is no doubt in my mind that EVERYONE has the ability to learn.

We just each go about it differently.

From Proverbs, “Teach a child according to his/her own way.”  But how do you discover a learner’s “way”?

One thought is that a child’s “way” could be his/her learning style. A learning style is defined as an individual’s preferred mode of gaining knowledge. The three basic learning styles most widely utilized are visual, auditory and kinesthetic. There are others, too, including Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences:

multiple-intelligences-learning-styles; MatanI know that I am primarily a visual learner. How do I know this? When one of my children yells out to me, “Hey mom, what does I-N-S-U-R-M-O-U-N-T-A-B-L-E mean?” I will reply, “Come here…I need to see it.” Similarly, when attending a lecture or a workshop, I take notes or tweet about what the presenter is saying. For me, the writing (kinesthetic) and then being able to see the information helps me to better retain what I have learned.

We all use every learning style, but we each have dominance in certain areas. Further, this dominance is not fixed and can shift given the experience, and it is possible to learn or improve dominance in any given area. Capitalizing on a student’s preferred learning style is a logical and effective way to differentiate instruction and improve both student motivation and achievement.

However, not everyone embraces the practice of teaching to preferred learning styles. In an interesting article by Reed Gillespie called “The Pitfalls of Learning Styles and How We Got Duped Into Believing in Them” he states, “Today I cringe when my well-meaning peers talk about using – sometimes even paying for – learning style inventories…” He goes on to assert that not only is there no proof that understanding learning styles improves learning, but that focusing on them could actually be dangerous. He says, “Labels shape expectations, lead to exaggerations and perpetuate the notion that a student is not capable – or not as capable – of success.”

Reed goes on to share a story of John who struggles with reading and writing. Throughout middle school John is given opportunities to express his learning through art and drawing, as this preferred modality is where he excels. Yet, when he arrives in high school, John is ill-equipped to handle high school writing assignments and suffers poor grades. Reed argues that we have set John up for failure. Have we? Or have we made it possible for John to face these new high school challenges with resilience because he has been previously able to find success?

When we strive to teach children “according to their own way” do we miss the mark? Do we somehow deprive our children of the opportunity to strengthen areas of weakness when we seek to emphasize their strengths?

Lisa Friedman; Matan

Lisa Friedman is Matan’s Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks. She is also an Education Director at a Reform congregation in Central New Jersey where she oversees the synagogue’s and religious school’s inclusive practice.