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Sound It Out

Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Unlearning learning styles

September 21, 2010

I read with interest this list of 10 things teachers should unlearn from What Ed Said. The post generated lots of conversation, especially on the "Technology integration is optional" and "Students are obliged to respect teachers" points.

One item that would make my list of 10 things for teachers to unlearn would be the notion that teachers should alter instruction based on learning styles. Learning styles have always provided a tempting and intuitive notion: Determine a student's learning style, and then provide instruction in a format that matches the preference of the student (for example, provide a visual learner with predominantly visual information).

Despite the boxes of books and materials designed to help teachers teach to students' learning styles, there's just isn't any research to justify changing teaching practices to match learning styles. As the Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence review concludes, "limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number."

Want to hear the same information straight up from UVA cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham? This Learning Styles Don't Exist video on YouTube is helpful and informative. Another source of good information on the topic comes from the learning styles search results of Teach Effectively.


Sorry to doubt you, but Dan Willingham's "meta-research" (he does no field research at all, he simply assembles a collection of research he desires to quote) proves nothing, and I think the analysis you are pulling from this is 180 degrees off. Willingham's chosen studies to study are like the research which claims that "multitasking is impossible." They are based in a set of unquestioned assumptions about both cognition and how the brain functions. And these assumptions are based in the theory that what White Protestant Society has been insisting is "the one way to learn" is correct.Of course, these belief systems have consistently failed 2/3 of students in the United States, and were developed to match an educational system literally (and intentionally) designed by fail 80% of students. simple, observable fact is that there are dramatic and significant learning differences and preferences among humans - who are not the machines prescriptive solution makers would wish them to be. These are not just apparent to anyone deep-mapping student learning experiences, but they show up on fMRI images of brains at work. If you deny this, as Willingham does, you do what he does, declare all who do not fit the "norm" to be "retarded" "disabled" "pathologic." And that decision has a stunningly high human cost.But just a note. Three years ago in a debate on this Dr. Willingham said quite clearly that while his research indicated that he could not find evidence of learning styles, he still encouraged teachers to adapt their teaching to student needs and preferences as if those styles "did exist." He simply said that this was "clearly best practice."

The first time you learned to read was probably the last time you learned to read. That poses a problem. You simply adopted the first reading habits instilled and never broke them. Let me explain. When you were first learning to read, your teacher would say what to you? "Sound it out" Then, the teacher asked you to do what? "Say the words out loud placing your finger under each word" To expand on this thought, the teacher would later tell you what? "Now say the words to yourself in your head" Well, guess what. Us speed reading professionals call that unbroken habit "Sub-vocalization" or "Auditory Reassurance" As a speed reading instructor for Iris, this is something I don't practice and help you break. If one wants to speed read, they can't say the words in their head because essentially, you can only read as fast as you talk. Right?

There is also the recent article in the NY Times by Benedict Carey entitled "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits" that refers to Dan Willingham's debunking of the LS hypothesis:

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase