September 30, 2014

Learning Styles: Have We Got It All Wrong?

Auditory, visual, and “hands-on” learning styles have caught on like wild-fire. Classrooms, students, and teaching methods reflect awareness and application of learning styles. But—the psychologist behind learning styles, Howard Gardner, admits that we’ve got it all wrong. We’ve misunderstood his theory and turned it into the “learning style” theory we know.


In recent years, learning style theories have undergone heavy questioning. In their book, “Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn”(2014), John Hattie and Gregory Yates debunk the learning style myth. Hattie and Yates show that learning style data are often misinterpreted, over-generalized, or methodologically unsound. While learning types are not inherently false, they oversimplify the brain’s complex process of assimilating and retaining new information.

Working Memory that Really Works

Recent studies show that the more neurological pathways you engage while acquiring information, the more likely you are to remember that information. Using several brain centers for a particular task (like visual, auditory, tactile, and linguistic pathways) lends more neurological resources towards the successful completion of that task. Meanwhile, if you limit yourself to a single learning style, you activate only one part of the brain. So—why teach onlythe visual brain centers? Why limit yourself or your child to “only”? Why not teach your whole brain?

Teaching the Whole Brain

There are many ways to start your child on a path towards “whole brain learning.” First and foremost, remind your child that learning styles are myths. Remember that using all learning styles in the classroom (and at home) increases your child’s ability to process and remember new stimulus. Then, tailor your child’s study and extracurricular habits to meet a multi-faceted approach. Try some of these tips:

  1. Make flashcards using as many senses as possible: Flashcards already engage visual, verbal, and tactile brain regions. Add an auditory element by encouraging your child to read their cards aloud. (Bonus: Write flash cards in red ink. We pay most attention to the color red, our cultural “warning” color, so we remember red things more clearly).
  2. Relate new information to old information: When memorizing basic word lists, study participants better remembered words they could associate with personal experience. Likewise—relating new information to facts your child previously mastered will solidify new content.
  3. Focus on executive function skills: Planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention, managing time, and creating mental representations all require extensive coordination of several brain regions. These activities also make up the mental processes called “executive function,” and can be taught in relation to any academic subject.  
  4. Seek professionals with varied approaches: Learning many problem-solving strategies keeps thinking flexible and prevents “learning style” excuses. Meeting with an executive function tutor, in particular, provides opportunities to personalize and maximize your child’s education.

With these tools on your side, you and your child can reclaim your endless potential. So surrender learning style labels and start exercising your whole brain.