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Brain Scientists: ‘Learning Styles’ Like Auditory, Visual, And Kinesthetic Are Bunk


While nearly 90 percent of Americans think people have unique learning styles — the best known are labeled auditory, visual, and kinesthetic — cognitive research has steadily debunked the idea over time. To mark Brain Awareness Week this month, 30 internationally respected neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators issued a public letter asking teachers to stop wasting time with it. The letter says:

…there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or ‘meshing’ material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment. Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style. The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK has concluded that learning styles is ‘Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence’.

These neuromyths may be ineffectual, but they are not low cost. We would submit that any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected. Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.

A recent survey about education myths pins both teacher training and the media for popularizing “learning styles” memes, which include the concepts of “right brain versus left brain,” “multiple intelligences,” and “reasoning versus intuitive.” These all make for fun TV segments and lots of moolah for pop psychologists like Malcom Gladwell, yet not only do not benefit learners through opportunity cost they keep people from doing something more useful with their thoughts and bodies.

“Newspaper articles, blog posts, and TV shows often promote ideas that turn out to have little basis in fact,” the Center for American Progress survey summary says. “…Instead, it seems that content makes the key difference. So students should learn music by listening to music, while students should learn reading by doing more reading.”

This myth is undoubtedly fed by the fact that a majority of U.S. teacher training programs and textbooks promote it: 59 percent of teacher training textbooks “advocate planning instruction around learning styles” and 67 percent of teacher training programs required student teachers to address learning styles in lessons they prepare, “generally requiring that every lesson plan address how instruction accommodates students in their so-called learning styles,” a 2016 survey found.

University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has long publicly combatted the idea. Here’s his Q&A page on it, which gives more finely tuned information to help understand what the neuroscience does and does not say. His “garage-band quality” video below also gives a quick primer.

Despite the research consensus, many education institutions continue to use taxpayer dollars to reinforce and spread the idea. Why would they do that? Well, teacher training institutions are known as “cash cows” for a reason. It’s that they have a captured market of people who want to go into teaching and are therefore typically forced by state mandates to get a teaching degree regularly take ed school classes throughout their teaching career, despite the research showing that neither a teaching degree, certification, nor “professional development” improve teacher quality.

Put simply, teaching schools can suck because they don’t have to perform to get customers. State mandates guarantee them customers regardless of the value they provide teachers and therefore students. They are therefore quite notoriously one of the most useless and politically progressive sectors of academia — which is saying something.

Learning Styles Reinforce an Unhelpful ‘Fixed Mindset’

While the concept of learning styles might seem true because different people are better at different activities than others and this may stem from brain differences, the researchers who signed the letter noted that, besides the lack of evidence to support this notion, “categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.”

Recent research from Carol Dweck and colleagues, popularized in her book Mindset, notes that when people have a “fixed mindset” about their abilities, seeing failure as a signal to stop rather than work harder, they are less likely to achieve regardless of their innate abilities. Thus pegging a child as an “auditory learner” can teach him to give up or not try when he receives information another way, ultimately reducing his learning. It gives him an excuse to not do the work to learn.

Earlier generations would have called the traits Dweck promotes “good character,” since they involve behaviors such as persistence, attention to detail, hope, a good worth ethic, and giving every pursuit your best. At any rate, research does seem to indicate that good character can help make up for genetic deficiencies to at least some extent, as Raj Chetty’s work on the neighborhood effects of marriage rates and Charles Murray’s work on American habits suggests, for example, while on the other hand the determinism inherent to pegged learning styles may depress learning.

Evidence from other sectors indicates that depriving people of their moral agency, their responsibility for their own behavior and learning, is a sure route to their degredation. Retired British doctor Theodore Dalrymple has long discussed how his poor and addicted patients are those most likely to use passive language about their failures, such as the murderer who said of his knife, “It went in,” as if the thing he did really had nothing to do with him.

Regardless of how much power our genes have over our ideas, capabilities, and station in life, people simply have better lives when they act as if they are responsible for its outcomes, even if that ultimately turns out to be a noble lie. (My own view is that biology has simply not caught up with physics in bumping against the commpletely uncomprehensible, mind-blowing, rational unpredictability of our universe. This world seems to be far wilder than many biologists and neuroscientists believe.)