Time to stop believing education myths

One of my sons gave me a book called 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology for Christmas.

It was a perfect gift — he knows how much I love reading about flaws in “common sense” and popular opinion. 

This is one of those books you can flip through and read in any order, so I did exactly that and quickly came across one of my favorites, #18, the still powerful “learning styles” myth.

Learning styles were popularized in the 1980s, and the “experts” who promoted them made a lot of money. Actually, they are still making money. Their premise was simple: Some of us are auditory learners, while others are visual or kinesthetic learners, and it’s critical for teachers to know how to teach to these different strengths.

It sounds so reasonable. After all, I like having things explained to me rather than having to read instructions for myself — so it makes sense to think of myself as an “auditory.”

Too bad it’s nonsense.

There are countless online “learning style” assessments like this one.

Here’s what 50 Great Myths has to say:

#1 There is no agreement about what constitutes a learning style. While most models propose the division into auditory, visual and kinesthetic, other models have more than three styles or focus on other characteristics, like whether we are “reflectors” or “pragmatists.” (Whatever that is.)

#2 There is no valid way to assess learning styles. We can classify students all we want, but it turns out teaching to their “learning style” has no measurable benefit when it comes to performance on assessment tasks.

#3 We learn differently in different contexts. One of the learning styles inventories asks: “When you come to a new situation do you usually (a) try it right away and learn from doing, or (b) like to watch first and try it later?” A typical person might jump right in when it comes to learning a new dance but watch first when it comes to a scientific procedure. It doesn’t make sense to a give a one-size-fits-all answer.

Finally, my favorite: #4 Some teaching styles work best for all learners. Everyone learns better when teachers employ interactive teaching strategies, like weaving stories into lessons or engaging students in simulations. No one learns best by passive listening. (See my book, Beat Boredom, for more on this.) 

Search #learningstyles on Twitter, and you’ll find “learning styles” are still popular, despite many attempts to debunk them, including a December Education Week article. According to 50 Great Myths, some school districts still use this terrible methodology to hire teachers!

It’s sad, really, how slow we are to let go of ideas that don’t hold water. If you  or your school district are still promoting learning styles, it’s time to let it go — and shift your focus to effective teaching strategies.

I look forward to sharing more education myth-busting in the new year.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom