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Are Learning Styles a Myth? (page 2)

Are Learning Styles a Myth?

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Updated on Nov 1, 2013

Witte’s conservative approach to research is likely regarded as appropriate in the fields of education and educational psychology, particularly given the ongoing debate about whether there’s any evidence that perceptual modalities and learning styles exist.

Dr. Daniel Willingham, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Virginia, says “kinesthetic learners don’t exist, and learning styles don’t exist.” Willingham explains that the notion of children learning differently (that some learn better if you read a story aloud, act out a story, etc.) is just a prediction. “It’s been tested over and over again, and no one can find evidence that it’s true,” Willingham says. “The idea moved into public consciousness, and in a way it’s perplexing. There are some ideas that are just sort of self-sustaining.”

It’s understandable, though, why this particular idea is self-sustaining. The Dunn-Dunn Learning Styles model is one of the more popular learning styles models, developed in 1967, and widely used U.S. schools. The model incorporates the following premises:

  • Everyone has strengths, but different people have different strengths.
  • Most individuals can learn.
  • Instructional environments, resources, and approaches respond to diversified strengths.
  • Individual instructional preferences exist and can be measured reliably.
  • Given responsive environments, students attain statistically higher achievement and aptitude test scores in matched, rather than mismatched treatments.
  • Most teachers can learn to use learning styles as a cornerstone of their instruction.
  • Many students can learn to capitalize on their learning style strengths.

This model, though researched in more than 90 higher education institutions across the United Stated, has its share of criticism. Dr. Frank Coffield, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, assessed the Dunn-Dunn model along with other learning style models and came to the following conclusion, detailed in his report “Should We Be Using Learning Styles? What Research Has to Say to Practice." "Despite a large and evolving research program, forceful claims made for impact are questionable because of limitations in many of the supporting studies and the lack of independent research on the model.”

Willingham explains the criticism this way: “One problem is that nearly all of the empirical work that is supposed to support the Dunn and Dunn model are masters and PhD dissertations of students who worked with her [Rita Dunn], and were not published in peer-reviewed journals. This makes people suspicious that these studies are not methodologically rigorous enough to stand up to scrutiny.”

Witte agrees that most methods for testing learning styles have not demonstrated validity. “The vast majority of learning styles instruments do not seem to report validity and reliability,” Witte says. “That’s not to say that learning styles don’t exist, but I would say that they’re very difficult to measure.”

Willingham suggests that we think about differences in material and what is to be communicated rather than thinking the differences lie in children. “Let the material be the guide,” Willingham says. “There’s no doubt that seeing something in different ways is going to be a good thing.”

In response to the suggestion that learning styles do not exist, Witte says, “Well, we still have people who are convinced that IQ tests are nothing more than vocabulary tests. This should not be a debate over whether learning styles exist, but how we measure them.”

Visit the American Educator to read Willingham’s article, “Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?”

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