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Brain Myth Series #1: Learning Styles

What are Brain Myths?  

For thousands of years, mankind has pondered the mysteries of the human brain. With advances in neuroscience, we know more today about functions of the brain than ever before. Some historical knowledge about the brain has provided a gateway to deeper understanding; some beliefs have been disproven with modern technology and some accepted wisdom about the brain or learning are simply false or myths…that get passed on as truths. With so much conflicting information available, some of these erroneous ideas continue to perpetuate. As educators and parents, it is important to be well informed and to know brain fact from fiction. This series on ‘Brain Myths’ examines some commonly held ideas and sheds light on the facts. 

Brain Myth #1:  ‘Teachers need to cater for different Learning Styles’

We begin with ‘Learning Styles.’ The idea that teachers should cater to individual student’s learning style for easier, better learning was promoted since the 1970s, and was popular even in the last decade or so. The basic premise is that children tend to have a preferred way to learn, and that learning will be more effective if material is delivered according to their particular preferred style, for example: visual, auditory, social, verbal etc. This theory, instinctively, seemed to make sense. Those who work with students will have experienced first-hand that students do indeed have different preferences. Think of the students who prefer to lean through reading and who do not enjoy the challenge of hands-on discovery, and vice versa; and that while ‘social learning’ is often rated highly by students, some students are inclined to a solitary pursuit of knowledge.  And so on.  

But, is the preferred way to learn the most effective way?

The short answer is that there is no current evidence to support the idea that providing instruction in the student’s preferred mode is helpful. In fact, some suggest that it actually wastes valuable teaching and learning time that could be spent on effective strategies, such as providing feedback.  A ‘learning styles’ approach can possibly be harmful to students by promoting stereotypes and limiting learning. Consider also, that in designing instruction, it may be that the stretch or struggle to make sense of learning is a more desirable goal for memory and consolidation, than an easy path.

While this myth might be one that many Australian teachers are all too familiar with, it seems there is an ongoing perpetuation. One large research study across the UK, Netherlands, China Turkey and Greece found a staggering 95% of teachers surveyed believed that a student’s learning would be more effective if the material was presented in their preferred learning style (Howard-Jones, 2014). It may be that with more education and discussion the prevalence of these ideas will decrease.

Mixing it up for better learning outcomes

Student preferences aside, expert teachers know the value of varied modes of delivery. Crucially, teachers need to be adept at adjusting the mode of learning where a student has a difficultly or disability (for example, dyslexia or hearing impairment), that may impact on the learning process when information is presented in a particular manner. Teachers will often choose to vary their classroom delivery to spark interest, to reinforce a concept, to promote learning transfer, or to offer students a different experience. 

Catherine Brandon, Director of Genazzano Institute / Psychologist

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 15 (12), 817-824.Teachers must ditch 'neuromyth' of learning styles, say scientists, (2017) The Guardian, 1 June 2018)Vaughn,T. Tackling the learning styles myth. Teacher Magazine. 1 June 2018)