EDUCATION: We all learn differently – or do we?

27 January 2017

Have you ever heard someone claim that their child is a “visual learner” or a “kinaesthetic learner”? Most of us will be familiar – or at least have heard mention – of these so-called “styles of learning”. But what are they all about? And are they a valid tool to help our children learn?

While there are many different categories of learning styles, many advocates of this approach claim that there are three different types of learner:

  • Auditory learners – learn best through listening and hearing. They take information in by reading aloud, discussing things with others, and even talking to themselves, repeating information out loud.
  • Kinaesthetic learners – kinaesthetic learners like doing, touching and moving. They learn best when they complete activities related to the subject, and take information in better when they are free to move around.
  • Visual learners – visual learners look by looking and seeing. They take notes, which can be very detailed, enjoy illustrations and diagrams, and tend to shy away from class discussions.

In other words, some believe that we all learn in different ways and that our learning is most effective when the way in which we are learning about something is matched to our preferred learning style. This is known as the “meshing” hypothesis. As such, this approach is employed throughout many state schools as an example of best-practice teaching, with many teachers employing a range of different approaches to appeal to the different learning styles of their students.

There are lots of free online resources to help determine what learning style you have. Type “VAK (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic) test” in Google for a whole list.

However, not everyone agrees that such learning styles exist, let alone that they should be employed by teachers in our schools.

In their review of research undertaken about learning styles, Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork concluded that the adherence to such learning styles is a “wasteful use of limited resources.” In their review, they stated: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”

Catherine Scott, who conducted the report ‘The enduring appeal of learning styles’ for the Australian Council for Educational Research agreed that there was “no credible evidence” for such styles of learning. “Learning styles as an idea chimes well with the individualist value system of our culture and fits its dominant, entity, model of human attributes but there is no credible evidence that it is a valid basis for pedagogical decision-making,” she said.

She added that “the continuing endorsement of ‘learning styles’ wastes teaching and learning time, promotes damaging stereotypes about individuals and interferes with the development of evidence-based best practice. It has no place in education theory and practice that claim to be scientifically based.”

Professor Stephen Dinham, a leading researcher in education policy, recently told the Sydney Morning Herald that some schools were making students wear coloured hats and other articles of clothing that signified what learning style they had. This was not the best idea, he told the paper. "When you put people in artificial categories it changes something in people's mind … it gives kids the message that their abilities are fixed," he said.

What do you think? Do learning styles exist? Or is it impossible to pigeon-hole students in this way?

Read more in our learning styles in our article here.

Written by

Kerry White

Kerry is the Senior Writer for Kids on the Coast and Kids in the City. Kerry moved to Australia from England in 2013 with her husband and two daughters. She worked as a sub-editor in London for seven years before she had her girls. She now calls the Sunshine Coast her home and is making the most of its glorious weather and beaches. She enjoys baking, especially when she has a glass of wine in hand, and is a part-time Psychology, Criminology and Justice student. She also shares her home with two cats and her daughters' imaginary dogs.

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