Is Everything You Know About Learning Styles Wrong?
Do we put too much emphasis on learning styles in education?
Have you ever heard about the concept of “learning styles”? This educational theory was developed in the 1980s by Neil Fleming, a New Zealand educationalist. After observing over 9,000 classroom lessons, Fleming became convinced that children had different “learning styles.” Fleming counted four learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic (VARK).
Fleming asserted that children learn better if instruction is offered in a child’s particular learning style. In other words, a child identified as a visual learner would benefit more from visual instruction, whereas a kinesthetic learner would do better with a hands-on approach. By tailoring our instructional approaches to a child’s learning styles, said Fleming, we can improve educational outcomes.
The VARK model is prevalent. Do a cursory search for VARK on the Internet, and you will see how much literature has been written about it. It is especially popular in educational circles as it can offer justification for diversifying instructional methods, something any good teacher is always eager to do.
The ubiquity of VARK leads some to wrongly conclude it is a psychological concept when, in fact, it is an educational theory (Fleming was an educator, not a psychologist). I was curious about getting a psychologist’s take on VARK and the idea of learning styles, so I chatted with Homeschool Connections’ own Dr. Kristi Moore about the subject. Kristi Moore has a PhD in Educational and Developmental Psychology from the University of Florida and specializes in child and adolescent development, learning, and motivation. We are blessed to have Dr. Moore teaching high school psychology for HSC!
Phillip Campbell: When I was in college, we heard a lot about Fleming’s learning styles. What’s the consensus of psychologists on VARK? Is Fleming’s VARK model considered a viable theory in educational psychology? Why or why not?
Kristi Moore: In educational psychology, we don’t like to use the term “learning styles.” There is a lot of incorrect information about learning styles. Most learning style models, including Fleming’s, focus on the idea that we have a particular learning style, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. These theories say people learn best when information is presented in their specific learning style, but that isn’t true. Our brains don’t work that way at all! We learn information best if we are learning it the way we will use that information. Think about riding a bike–I can show you a picture or video and tell you how to do it, but until you actually get on the bike and experience it, you won’t learn to ride it.
PC: Interesting. If the VARK theory doesn’t correspond to what psychologists actually know about how the brain processes information, what is the explanation for why children seem to gravitate toward certain instructional methods? For example, one child likes to appropriate information by reading directions, and another prefers it explained verbally. Is it mere preference?
KM: Most likely, it is a preference, but other factors are usually involved, too. For example, most people who prefer visual information would rather listen to an engaging speaker versus looking at dull illustrations. All of us like interesting and stimulating information; what interests us can vary between individuals. Another interesting finding from research that shows us this is most likely a preference is that people don’t learn any better in their actual learning style or preference. Suppose someone says they are a visual learner. When presented with information in a visual style, they don’t learn that information any better than if it was presented in another style.
PC: If there aren’t fixed “learning styles” that people do better with, does this imply that a child’s ability to thrive with different types of instruction is more fluid than people think?
KM: Yes, most definitely! As mentioned, we learn best when the information is presented in the same way we will use it. For example, suppose you are asked to draw a diagram. It makes sense that you study pictures or practice drawing instead of reading about the thing you are diagramming. This also brings up the point that use of these learning styles can be harmful. It perpetuates the myth that we only learn best in one style. Over my years of teaching, I’ve had many students tell me that their learning style did not match how I teach and that the reason they aren’t learning is my fault! I should change my style to match them. They’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy where instead of trying to learn the material, they give up because it doesn’t match their perceived learning style.
PC: I assume this can be complicated further if dealing with a child with learning disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD? How does the presence of such a condition impact the way children need to be instructed?
KM: Learning disabilities often change the way students need to be instructed. We must remember that all children are unique and learn at different paces. If you have more than one child, I’m sure you’ve had situations where something works for one of your children but not the other. That’s one of the reasons that education can be complicated–there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for learning. For any learning disabilities or neurodivergence, I encourage parents to reach out to people who specialize in their particular area if their child is having difficulty learning.
PC: In general, it seems like people enjoy categorizing themselves. Right brain vs. left brain, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram types, Friedman and Rosemann’s “Behavior patterns”—or VARK learning styles. What are the benefits and/or dangers of classifying children in this manner?
KM: I don’t see any benefits to these classifications, but I understand why we, as humans, like them. We want to be able to understand each other. These categories make it easy to classify people, and we think that if we know someone’s classification, we can figure them out! The fact is that humans don’t fit neatly into categories. How we react and respond is based on many things, such as our personality and temperament, but also many external factors that can change. For example, you may normally be very calm and collected, but when someone insults your family, your reaction changes. If you are under a lot of stress, how you act and respond will be different. That’s why these categories don’t work–they oversimplify us as human beings and lead to stereotypes.
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If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Moore and her classes, I recommend checking out her “Meet the Instructor” video on the Homeschool Connections YouTube channel, or visiting her instructor page on the HSC website.