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Are Learning Styles a Myth?

Are Learning Styles a Myth?

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Updated on Nov 1, 2013

What kind of learner are you?

If you ask most adults, they’ll tell you—“I’m a visual learner,” “Definitely an auditory learner,” “A kinesthetic learner for sure.” In fact, this general understanding of how people learn is so ingrained in public perception that many parents even apply their understanding to their children. For example, “Tommy isn’t an auditory learner because when I tell him to do something, he doesn’t listen, but when I display a sticker chart on the wall, he responds. He must be a visual learner.”

Though this example might make intuitive sense, it doesn’t tell the whole story. According to Dr. James Witte, Auburn University Associate Professor of Adult Education, there are several types of learning styles, including: cognitive (how we think about learning), affective (how we feel about learning), and perceptual (how we perceive our environment and how it relates to learning). When we talk about someone being a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, we’re talking about the perceptual learning style.

In fact, according to Witte, there are four other perceptual modalities: print (seeing written words); interactive (verbalization); haptic (sense of touch or grasp); and olfactory (sense of smell and taste). Witte, who established the Institute for Learning Styles Research Journal in 2006, explains that perceptual learning has to do with the five senses and the way in which people extract information from their surroundings.

“There’s nothing restrictive about a learning style,” Witte says. “Just because you prefer to read for informative purposes doesn’t mean you can’t learn through lecture.” This is where many people get it wrong, Witte explains. It’s not that someone is specifically one type of learner over another; it’s that individuals have preferred learning styles.

Witte does not advocate testing perceptual modalities with children, however. “You have to read over and over again before you decide you like reading,” Witte says. “I’m not sure that the child has sufficient neural network based on repetition to legitimately establish a modality preference. If a kid is just learning to read, why would you expect him to have a preference for reading?”

So is there such a thing as a kinesthetic learner (a person who learns best when involving the whole body)? Many parents have been told or have deduced that their energetic child who is constantly in motion, who must be “doing” at all times, is a kinesthetic learner. Witte would tend to agree that these children might be kinesthetic learners, though he admits that there’s still a lack of evidence to demonstrate this with certainty. “I’m a very, very conservative researcher,” Witte says. “I believe the learning styles investigation involving perceptual modalities are primary designed for adults. But even if we look at our high school students, if you are wiggling in your seat and showing a lack of attention, the odds are that you will not be identified as a ready-for-college student. And yet all the student wants to do is to learn by doing! It’s amazing what students can produce if we can meet that kinesthetic need.”

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