Thursday, January 07, 2016

The "Learning Styles" Neuromyth

When people ask me for a quick-hit description of the sort of education we embrace at Woodland Park, I have a variety of answers depending on the circumstances, but my most common short-hand for what we do is "progressive play-based education." I then tend to go on to talk about the power of play, leaving the "progressive" part behind.

I'm not using the word "progressive" in its current political sense, as a stand-in for the word "liberal," but rather in the sense that the great John Dewey used it or, more contemporarily, Alfie Kohn. At its most fundamental, however, when I use the term "progressive" I mean to imply that we strive to be educators who do our best to follow what the research tells us about teaching young children and are willing to make changes when we learn that there is a better way.

I reckon a lot of us are "progressive" educators, even if we don't use the term. 

Of course, most classroom teachers are not researchers in the strict sense of the word, even as the job requires a ton of research of the trail and error variety. Nor are we consumers of research papers, if only because we already have full-time jobs and we are not all adept at sifting through raw data. No, most of us rely on "popularizers" to interpret and communicate the data for us. Folks like Peter Gray, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and the aforementioned Alfie Kohn are vital communications links between the scientists and classroom teachers, along with the journalists and bloggers who distill key points into useful articles that at least point us in the right direction.

The problem with this system, of course, is that there is sometimes a breakdown in communication, something that seems to have happened with the whole idea of the importance of different "learning styles." I know that when I was searching for a kindergarten for my own child, that was all the rage. Everyone wanted to tell us about how their school accommodated "all" the learning styles, or alternatively, how their school focused on certain learning styles. There were workshops you could take and tests you could subject your child to that purportedly helped parents identify their own child's learning style. And it was our job as parents, for the sake of our kids, to match our child up with schools and teachers who understood their learning style. It was very stressful to me as a parent because I couldn't for the life of me figure out my own child's learning style. 

Honestly, as much as the idea of learning styles seemed to make sense, it has never been my focus as a teacher, if only because every time I turned around these learning styles had been redefined and re-categorized, leaving me to feel that it was an area of research that was still very much in flux. I guess I figured that I'd just wait until there was more consensus on the subject, counting on the notion that a play-based curriculum, with its emphasis on child-led learning, meets children where they are no matter what their learning style or temperament. And now it appears that it was good to wait:

Over and over, researchers have failed to find any substantive evidence for the notion of learning styles, to the point where it's been designated a "neuromyth" by some education and psychology experts.

It appears that the concept has been debunked, yet the idea of learning styles remains quite entrenched in our collective educator consciousness. So, as one of those folks who occasionally finds myself in the role of "popularizer," I'm writing today in an attempt to help bust this widely popular and inaccurate myth. If you don't believe me, I urge you to click through to this New York magazine article. If you're still not buying it, then follow it's links to the actual research. 

I hate when one of my cherished notions is found to be wrong, but it's part of the job. As Mister Rogers sang, "Discovering truth will make me free." This is what progressive education is all about.

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allie said...

I'm glad you wrote about this, Tom - people are really defensive of the idea of learning styles, which really cannot be quantified. Its not negative to keep the concept in mind - but I think we learn more about what engages different children in learning rather than how they absorb or learn information. For me, the best part of the learning styles myth is the reminder that every child is an individual, and they have diverse interests and needs. But at the end of the day, we do not need to make sure that every moment of the day addresses learning styles. We are in such a highly clickable time in history - and most people aren't clicking, they're just scrolling through the headlines and taking statements as fact. Research-backed information is different than everyday classroom observations, or hopes.

Unknown said...

Once again, we are trying to simplify a very complex issue into and either/or decision. Is this yet another attempt to justify "one size fits all" education by arguing that everyone learns in the same way? Yes, at some level, we all have the same brain parts that do the same general work. But as Allie said, the most important thing is to recognize that we are all different.

Tom, when I was in your school, one little girl rarely participated in anything. Instead, she stood and watched what everyone else was doing. Was she learning? No doubt in my could almost see the wheels turning. Another young man spent 20 minutes pouring water back and forth between containers, eventually making a water wheel turn in the opposite direction.

I don't think it's important what we call these preferences, but they ARE preferences. What we don't need are more labels. What we do need is more respect for the unique abilities of individuals, and you do that every day.

Sarah L said...

I'd call it focus, not so much a learning style: 1. what makes us most alive/attentive, 2. how we process experience, and 3. what tunes us in to our intuition. I found it to be a helpful way to examine myself and I did find some truth in it. Probably using all three styles makes me recall any lesson better.