Do We Over-Emphasize Learning Styles?

By Lisa Friedman

There is no doubt in my mind that EVERYONE has the ability to learn.

We just each go about it differently. From Proverbs, “Teach a child according to his/her own way,” but how do you discover a learner’s “way”? One thought is that a child’s “way” is his/her learning style.

Learning style is defined as an individual’s preferred mode of gaining knowledge. There are three basic learning styles that are most widely utilized; visual, auditory and kinesthetic. However, four additional categories are also generally accepted; social, logical, verbal and solitary.

I know that I am primarily a visual learner. How do I know this? When one of my children yells out to me, “Hey mom, what does I-N-S-U-R-M-O-U-N-T-A-B-L-E mean?” I will usually reply, “Come here…I need to see it.” Similarly, when attending a lecture or a workshop, I take notes or tweet about what the presenter is saying. For me, the writing (kinesthetic) and then being able to see the information helps me to retain what I have learned.

We all use every learning style, but have dominance in certain areas. I demonstrated a blend of two learning styles above, despite first asserting my dominance as a visual learner. Further, our dominance is not fixed and can shift given the experience, and it is possible to learn or improve dominance in any given area. Using a student’s preferred learning style is a logical and effective way to differentiate instruction and improve student motivation and achievement.

However, not everyone embraces the practice of teaching to preferred learning styles. In an interesting article by Reed Gillespie called “The Pitfalls of Learning Styles and How We Got Duped Into Believing in Them” he states, “Today I cringe when my well-meaning peers talk about using – sometimes even paying for – learning style inventories…” He goes on to assert that not only is there no proof that understanding learning styles improves learning, but that using them could actually be dangerous. He says, “Labels shape expectations, lead to exaggerations and perpetuate the notion that a student is not capable – or not as capable – of success.” Rings true for those of us involved in special education…

My daughter handed me her most recent spelling test where she missed five words out of twenty. When I asked what happened she replied, “I’m not good at spelling”. Compare this to Reed’s story of John who struggles with reading and writing. Throughout middle school John is given opportunities to express his learning through art and drawing, as this preferred modality is where he excels. Yet, when he arrives in high school, John is ill-equipped to handle high school writing assignments and suffers poor grades. Reed argues that we have set John up for failure. And as I tell my daughter, being “bad at spelling” isn’t an excuse, but rather a wake up call, to improve her skills.

What do you think? When we strive to teach children “according to their own way” are we missing the mark? Do we deprive our children of the opportunity to strengthen areas of weakness when we seek to cater to their strengths?

As an award-winning Jewish Educator, Speaker, Creator and Facilitator of workshops & trainings, Lisa Friedman offers professional coaching & expertise to develop inclusive practices and programs for faith organizations and religious schools. This article is reprinted with permission from her blog, Removing the Stumbling Block

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Great article! Let me add a few thoughts (that I’m still thinking about).
    1. There are somethings that require the use of specific learning/teaching strategies regardless of individual preferences. For example, teaching children to ties shoes. I can’t imagine how to do this without hands on learning.
    2. The more learning strategies employed in learning about anything, the greater the chances that what is learned will be remembered and used.
    3. It is especially important to develop our weaker learning styles and not ignore them (not that the article said to do this). All learning styles do not lead to the same knowledge. When I read something, I have a far greater ability to imagine the meaning of what I am reading than is ever possible through visual learning.
    4. Students will eventually leave the ivory tower of Jewish education and be faced with multiple learning opportunities. We want tour children and students to be as capable and confident as possible in facing them.

  • We are setting students up for failure IF competency is measured in the standard, quantifiable method. Perhaps we need to find ways to measure mastery that are not so data driven (is that a contradiction in terms)?

    • For sure. And I think for many (if not most) in Jewish education we do measure success in “soft”, less quantifiable ways. Nevertheless, there is always something to be said for data. Thanks for reading!

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