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Learning Styles: Whose styles are these and what are they for?

The idea of learning styles commonly refers to some notion for a preferred way of learning. It implies that each of us has a natural inclination toward learning of some kind, and that if that natural inclination can be identified then teaching experiences can be provided that facilitate our learning. Obviously, there is diversity in learning. However, to identify a generic set of abstract categories, label people according to these categories, and then provide experiences designed to help people in that category learn contains a variety of assumptions that need to be examined more closely...

The Origins of Learning Styles

The idea for revisiting learning styles came to me via the Autono Blogger which lead me to James Atherton's entry Heterodoxy: Learning styles don't matter. This line of thinking amounts to a dismissal of the assumptions that:
  1. people have preferred ways of learning;
  2. these ways of learning can be categorized and collected under the banner of learning styles;
  3. teaching experiences should be designed to address specific categories of learning styles; and
  4. that the quality of learning will somehow be improved if the educational experience is appropriately matched to the learning style of the learner.

Thought about in this manner, the idea of learning styles is clearly an exercise in over-generalization and obsessive classification. To create a set of categories and then to place people firmly in one or a set of categories is limiting at best. It begs the question:

Whose learning style is this and why should it matter to me?

How is it that a system that purports to promote something called learning designs such a limiting framework for experience? The answer to this question, I believe, is not hard to find. Education is a system uniquely based on the assumptions of abstraction and classification. In other words, the concepts and ideas promoted are commonly removed from their context and, in addition, placed into systems and categories that are artificial. We refer to this as a curriculum, or the technology of abstraction and classification. The idea of learning styles is commonly associated with instructional design, or the technology of communicating abstraction and classification. In a sense, this is the content of education and the various subjects and courses represent variations on this theme.

A learning style, then, is simply a direct extension of abstraction and classification. Instead of categorizing information, we categorize people. Worse, the people said to be learning, the students, are all too often mere recipients information that has been prepared for them.

A Misleading Assumption

A fundamental problem with the idea of learning styles is that the idea of learning is often confused with education. Education often assumes learning to be something along the lines of acquiring knowledge, developing skill and promoting a positive attitude. If these things are happening, and they can be measured via assessment and evaluation, then we assume that learning is taking place.

Our rational possibilities of understanding, in the absence of strong corrective effects from other qualities, tend to split off into ever-narrower specialist streams, carried on at great pace by the momentum of their own internal logic. Yes. Logic. Self-justifying, self-fufilling, self-interested logic. - John Ralston Saul in On Equilibrium

However, this definition of learning is also a direct offspring of the same set of assumptions. That is, the more students master abstract categories the more, so it is assumed, they are learning. The proposition simply does not make sense. Learning styles in this context really equates to something that might be more appropriately called styles of being educated.

There is a failure on the part of those promoting learning styles to provide an adequate and broad perspective on learning that reaches beyond the educational system itself. This retrieves the old adage, "To a person with a hammer everything looks like a nail." We become seduced by our won technology (i.e. - in this context, curriculum and instruction).

In the end, it is misleading to assume that education has an expert and intimate relationship with learning. The two are frequently far removed from one another, and it is entirely possible that education inhibits learning.

The Plasticity of Learning Styles

...pandering to learning styles may be doing the students a disservice: they will benefit more from adapting and becoming versatile, more able to respond both to formal teaching and learning from experience...
- James Atherton in Learning Styles Don't Matter

David Suzuki and Richard Restak explore the possibility that the brain can change and transform itself based on experience. if this is the case, then it is entirely possible that learning styles change and transform themselves based on experience as well. If we promote a preferred set of learning styles for an individual we may in fact be limiting their ability to learn from a neurological perspective.

It may be that the uncomfortable and unfamiliar are perhaps more valuable in a learning environment than the routine. Learning to become more adaptable, flexible, versatile and responsive to the unexpected is perhaps better preparation for the experience of living, than spending years in a controlled and sterilzed environment. The uncomfortable and unfamiliar are qualities that promote fundamental change and growth in learning. Without them, we have something less than learning.

Of course, educational systems do not typically have a healthy sense of plasticity to them. In their worst form, they are static systems of self-serving logic. They view minor variation as fundamental change or innovation. Our common sense tells us clearly that life simply isn't logical and certainly not static - it is mysterious. And this mystery demands flexibility and adaptability in order to embrace it, and in difficult circumstances to merely survive. Promoting a fictitious set of learning styles under the banner of improving something called learning is a disservice to the individual.

"Educating" Styles vs. Learning Styles

Perhaps part of the solution is to separate, to some degree, the idea of being educated from the idea of learning. We might then explore the notion of "educating" styles - which seems like a term more appropriate to what is being described as learning styles. This would help to unhinge the assumptions that learning and education are intimately connected.

In this sense, a learning style is unlikely to be presented as a taxonomy whereas "educating" styles can be effectively presented as a taxonomy. If we think about learning as a kind of universal interface with experience, then a taxonomy lacks utility. For example, we can ask ourselves the question:

What are the learning styles implied in the experiences of:

We could add many names to this list. But the important point is this - the learning style, if there is one, is the person and all of their circumstances and situations in life. Jerry Wennstrom, in this sense, is a learning style.

The Future of Learning Styles

I agree with James Atherton's statement that learning styles don't matter as long as we are referring to learning styles as they are presented and exist within the education system. However, if we elevate the idea of learning beyond the confines of edu-speak to the authetic lifelong experiences of people then we are able to glimpse new possibilities for bringing together the idea of learning with the idea of style. In a sense, a true learning style is found in each person and are therefore a diverse global phenomenon.

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Learning has alot to do with stations in life. Workers have no voice in their destinies and seem to hold back reacting in a vocal or written manner.
I worked in several factories while attending college and found out quickly there was a vast void between the factory floors and the classrooms in college. After many years in the business world knowing many top executives up to Presidents of companies, this void was always there. It was even more pronounced in the academic world and as I grew older I began to realize why I was unable to take in anything from the business classes while I worked with many good men in the factories.
A shop foreman turned out to be the greatest man I ever met in my life after knowing many top executives and educators. There were other shop foreman that excelled in their positions and yet faced a communications gap with the so called educated class.
There is a language of the educated that holds rank over common sense thinking. Somewhere somehow workers have to be encouraged to speak out and write in their own ways about the ills of our society. Why should an educated class without any real world experience run the show. We now have elite groupings who have exported middle class jobs creating a working poor class in the USA.
Workers should be encouraged to stand up and communicate the common sense and human dignity in the worday. Free Trade has caused the most massive dislocation of workers. International entities like the WTO, elite groupings, politicians, trans national corporations control the flow of wealth outside any real democratic process. Workers have no voice in the matter although they are the core of any economy.
See or

Interesting stuff. Thanks for the link. Is the idea of "learning styles" originally dreamt up by teachers to facilitate learning or to facilitate teaching? Are there any true stories out there about learners who discovered untapped potential after realizing they were forcing themselves (or had been forced) into an unnatural (for them) learning style? While I'm keeping an open mind on the subject, I now tend towards James Atherton's view as expressed in your quote above. "Pandering to", or, more charitably, trying to accommodate, different learning styles is creating a lot more work for me and tiring me out, with few obvious benefits. I've been thinking a lot recently about the broader issue of student-centred teaching approaches, and will blog about it presently. I hope you will drop by again and post a comment or 3.

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