Learning Styles is Nonsense

Baroness Susan Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, considers the notion of learning styles to be "a waste of valuable time and resources" (Julie Henry, Telegraph via Education News):

According to Susan Greenfield, however, the practice is "nonsense" from a neuroscientific point of view: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together - the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person's lips - that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart.

"The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak [visual, auditory, kinesthetic], or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits."

Thirty years without independent evidence!

Commenting on student-centered learning about a year ago, I said that learning styles were not as important as the modality of the task:

When I began school more than a few years ago, I never "discovered [my] own learning styles." I still don't know what my learning style is. And it doesn't seem to have slowed me down as far as learning is concerned. When I think about the activities in which I engaged: studying various "book" subjects, taking Wood Shop, playing baritone horn in the band, and being on the wrestling team in high school, if there is such a thing as a learning style (at least in a way that it significantly affects learning), it seems obvious that the modality of the activity decides what "style" of learning should be employed.

As Greenfield states, "our senses [are] working in unison." A little bit of reflection confirms this: When playing baritone horn, I was using my ear for music, my eyes for reading music notation and watching the director, my fingers on the valves and lips on the mouthpiece for controlling the pitch, and my entire body for correct posture. And it didn't matter which of my "learning styles" I preferred. I had to use what was needed for the modality of playing music, in this case auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities working together.

Greenfield is not alone. Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia (American Educator), says,

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.

Willingham's article is worth reading in its entirety, but two of his points are:

  1. Some memories are stored as visual and auditory representations—but most memories are stored in terms of meaning.
  2. The different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another.

They seem clear enough. Despite the pervasive belief in the effectiveness of teaching according to students' learning styles, there's too little, if any, evidence supporting it--not to mention that the most important variable in learning is "time on task" (see The Expert Mind). From a pedagogical perspective, it seems Greenfield is right: Learning styles is nonsense.

Update of related articles (via ict-echo):
Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : A systematic and critical review
Stephen Draper's "Learning Styles (Notes)"