The Models, Myths and Misconceptions – and What They Mean for Your Learning
It's tempting to try to pin down one "perfect" way of learning. But it can also be dangerous.
Everyone's approach to learning is based on a complex mix of strengths and preferences. And we absorb and apply new concepts, skills and information in different ways at different times.
So, however helpful it would be to find out how each of us does it "best," there are many reasons why even asking the question is far from straightforward.
After all, how we learn depends a great deal on what we're learning. And our preferred learning techniques might not, in fact, be the most useful. Despite this, many scientists, psychologists and education experts have tried to identify distinct, innate "learning styles."
But serious doubts have arisen about some of the most popular models – especially the ways in which they have been applied. There are even concerns that the "labels" they produce might actually limit people's learning.
In this article, we look at how the key learning styles theories were developed, and explore their intentions and limitations. We also show why it's still valuable to understand your personal approach to learning – even if there's no single, "magic bullet" solution for any of us.
What Are Learning Styles?
The notion that everyone has their own learning style became popular in the 1970s. It's an attractive thought: if each of us could identify one, "ideal" approach to learning, we'd be able to focus on it – and be consistently successful.
What's more, by understanding other people's needs, we'd know how best to support them to learn. It could revolutionize education, training and L&D, and help all of us to reach our full potential as learners.
Before we explain why many experts now have little faith in learning styles, let's explore how some of the original ideas came about.
Learn more about the theories behind learning styles – and their drawbacks and limitations.
Different Learning Styles: 6 Influential Models and Theories
1. David Kolb and Experiential Learning
David Kolb's model of "experiential learning" stated that we learn continually, and, in the process, build particular strengths. Those strengths were said to give rise to personal preferences, which Kolb described in terms of four learning styles: Accommodating, Converging, Diverging, and Assimilating.
As Kolb saw it, Accommodators were "hands-on" types, keen to learn from real experience.
Convergers were supposed to deal better with abstract ideas, but still liked to end up with concrete results. They understood theories, but wanted to test them out in practice.
Divergers tended to use personal experiences and practical ideas to formulate theories that they could apply more widely.
And Assimilators, according to Kolb, were most comfortable working with abstract concepts. They extended their understanding by developing new theories of their own.
Kolb said that it was beneficial to know which type of learner you were, in order to "play to your strengths." He also believed that educators and trainers could tailor their teaching methods to different people's learning styles.
2. Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles
Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed Kolb's model by focusing on how learning is used in practice, particularly at work. They identified four new learning styles: Activist, Pragmatist, Reflector, and Theorist – using terms that we might naturally pick to describe ourselves and our colleagues.
To find out more about Kolb's model, and about Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles, see our article on the 4MAT approach to learning.
3. Anthony Gregorc's Mind Styles
This theory put us all on a spectrum between concrete and abstract thinking, and between sequential and random ordering of our thoughts.
- Concrete perceptions happen through the senses, while abstract perceptions deal with ideas.
- Sequential thinking arranges information in a logical, linear way, while a random approach is multidirectional and unpredictable.
In Gregorc's model, our strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas determined our individual learning style.
4. Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic Learners (VAK)
Educational psychologist Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues proposed three "modalities" of learning: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic (movement and touch). These were often referred to simply as VAK.
Barbe was clear that everyone had strengths, weaknesses and preferences in each of the three modalities. The most effective learning, he said, utilized all three in combination. He said that the mix we achieved depended on many factors, and would likely change over time.
The VAK model was popular and widely applied. But, like some of the earlier models, it became associated with a fixed outlook on learning. Many people took it to mean that learners could be classified by a single modality – as a "visual learner," for example – with little room for maneuver. And there was confusion over whether the VAK definition referred to someone's innate abilities, their personal preferences, or both.
Neil Fleming extended VAK to VARK, exploring four modalities: Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. You can find out more about both VAK and VARK in our article, VAK Learning Styles.
5. The Learning Styles Task Force
In the 1980s, American educationalists were still trying to find out as much as they could about learning styles, to help classroom teachers to achieve the best possible results.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) formed a research "task force," and proposed additional factors that might affect someone's ability to learn. These included the way study was organized, levels of motivation, and even the time of day when learning took place.
They divided learning styles into three categories: Cognitive, Affective and Physiological.
- Cognitive: how we think, how we organize and retain information, and how we learn from our experiences.
- Affective: our attitudes and motivations, and how they impact our approach to learning.
- Physiological: a variety of factors based on our health, well-being, and the environment in which we learn.
6. The Index of Learning Styles™
Various related questionnaires and tests quickly came into use, aimed at helping people to identify their personal learning style. One of the most popular was based on The Index of Learning Styles™, developed by Dr Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman in the late 1980s.
The questionnaire considered four dimensions: Sensory/Intuitive, Visual/Verbal, Active/Reflective, and Sequential/Global. The theory was that we're all somewhere on a "continuum" for each of them. Neither extreme was said to be "good" or "bad." Instead, we'd do best by drawing on both ends of the spectrum.
Questionnaires like this promised to define anyone's learning style, so that they could address any "imbalances," and learn in the ways that would benefit them most.
Criticisms of Learning Styles
These and other theories about learning styles have become extremely popular and widespread. However, a growing body of research has challenged many of their claims.
Let's look at the four key criticisms that have been leveled against them:
1. The Science Isn't Strong Enough
We may express our preferences about how we learn, but they're not necessarily an accurate reflection of how our brains work. According to neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, the idea that we can be defined as purely visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners is "nonsense." That's because, she says, "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."
A study by Massa and Mayer also found little difference in learning outcomes when they matched their test subjects' preferences (visual or verbal) to the learning materials they were given.
2. Learning Styles Change
Attempts to "diagnose" someone's learning style once and for all will likely fail. As Eileen Carnell and Caroline Lodge explain in their book "Effective Learning," an individual's learning method will be different in different situations, and likely change over time.
3. Strengths and Preferences Are Not the Same
An influential piece of research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology revealed big differences between people's assessed strengths, and how they actually tackled learning tasks in practice. For example, someone who scores better in tests after hearing the information might still choose to learn by reading – simply because they enjoy that style of learning more.
4. Teaching to Particular Learning Styles Doesn't Work
For psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, the idea that "students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles" is one of the "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology." This, he says, "encourages teachers to teach to students' intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses," limiting their learning as a result.
Using Learning Styles to Improve Learning
Despite the criticisms we've outlined, some of the ideas that underpin learning styles theories still have value – especially the emphasis on metacognition: "thinking about thinking."
One influential collection of research cast doubt on specific learning styles models, but was still positive about metacognition. And metacognition has been shown to improve educational outcomes – leading the Education Endowment Foundation to recommend it as a key teaching and learning tool.
Analyzing our thinking can help us to plan learning strategies that work for us. It can support us to become more organized in our studies, to use prior knowledge as the foundation for new learning, and to choose effective methods for different learning tasks.
Plus, by examining our strengths and weaknesses, we can make the most of any aspects of learning that "come naturally" and that we enjoy, while also working on the areas that might be holding us back.
If you're eager to improve your personal approach to learning, here are three key steps to take:
1. See the Big Picture
Do everything you can to gain a rounded picture of your learning. Look at all the different reasons why you tend to tackle learning the way you do.
And, when you're in the process of learning, ask yourself why you're doing it a particular way. Is it because it's the most effective for you, or simply because it's what you've always done?
Be wary of definitive judgments. Instead, consider different scenarios, and try to differentiate between how you like to learn, and how you learn best – in a variety of learning situations.
2. Identify Your Strengths
Highlight the types of learning that work best for you, and the conditions for learning that support them. For instance, you might be more of an active learner, who operates best in groups.
Keep doing the things that give the best results, to keep your learning fast and effective – and look for ways to improve them even more.
But also leave room to practice and strengthen any learning behaviors that you find more difficult.
3. Work on Your Weaknesses
You can often improve areas of your learning that are letting you down simply by using them more.
If you feel that you're not confident learning visually, for example, get into the habit of reading the charts and diagrams in an article before grappling with the ideas in the text.
Or, if you're an independent learner by nature, make a point of involving others in your problem-solving from time to time.
Also, actively look for opportunities to try out new ways to learn. You might be surprised about what works – and about the new elements of learning that you enjoy.
How to Help Other People to Learn
Becoming more aware of your own strengths and preferences helps you to appreciate and cater for the diverse ways in which others learn, too.
For example, when you're giving a presentation, chairing a meeting, or leading a training session, avoid leaning too heavily on the approach that you would enjoy yourself.
Remember that some learners will benefit from visual aids, while others will rely on listening to what you say, or on watching your body language. Back up abstract theories with real-life examples. Spend time discussing small details as well as outlining large-scale ideas.
You can't always cater for everyone, but you can better engage your audience by allowing for different approaches to learning. If nothing else, your varied approach will keep people energized and alert!
"Learning Styles" theories attempted to define people by how they learn – based on individual strengths, personal preferences, and other factors such as motivation and favored learning environment.
Many different Learning Styles models were developed, but even the most popular ones have now been called into question. The main criticisms are that they are unscientific, inflexible, and ineffective in practice.
However, it's still worth using metacognition – "thinking about thinking" – to work out what does help you to learn. That way, you can play to your strengths, develop any weaker areas, and create the best conditions for learning.
This level of awareness can also help you to communicate with greater impact, and to support other people to learn.
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