The Learning Styles Myth


This is part 4 of a multi-part series in which I outline a framework for teaching code. The full table of contents can be found here

The learning styles idea has been around for a long time. The idea is contagious, it's widely known and many people accept it as fact.

The basic concept is that different people are better able to absorb new knowledge and understanding in different ways. For example, some people are more able to benefit from visual learning material, and some are more able to benefit from written.

One potential point of confusion is that learning preferences and learning styles are two different things. Some people like learning from videos and some people enjoy pouring over a text. These are preferences. And teaching people in their preferred medium isn't necessarily beneficial. Sometimes people's preferences are to do things that feel easy, and things that feel easy often are not the most effective education tools.

This article is about the pervasive myth of learning styles. This myth feels right, and it inspires optimism.

People creating courses and educational tools feel that they should cater to different learning styles so that they can help the most people. Learners believe that certain styles work better than others for them personally, and so they feel empowered as they seek out certain mediums and discard others. It gives people a new set of categories, and a new lense to apply when understanding themselves and others.

Too bad it's a myth.

Science says...

The TLDR is that there is no credible evidence that learning styles exist. And there is credible evidence that they don't.

There is a lot that has already been said well by others. I'm not going to repeat it.

Here are a few articles and papers worth reading if you need convincing.

But, does it matter?

Well, yes.

This myth harms people.

This myth shuts learners off from opportunities to learn.

If a learner believes that they are an visual learner, and they are presented with text, they might consider it a waste of time to even try to understand the text. Maybe they would be able to spend (aka waste) some time finding another resource that covers the same work. Maybe they would find what they are looking for, maybe not.

If you believe that trying to learn from a resource is a waste of time, you are unlikely to learn from that resource. And then the failure to learn can be false evidence that you could not have learned from that resource in the first place.

On top of that, educators spend time and money reworking material into different formats to cater for learning styles that don't exist. It's an unnecessary and wasteful burden. That time and effort could be spent on things that work.

And of course, maintaining a narrow and incorrect view of how learning really works, the complexities of understanding, stops people from even considering interventions that might work. If someone is struggling to understand a thing then changing the delivery medium to fit their learning style is a distraction from mechanisms that could be effective.

Does this mean everything should be taught the same way?

No, of course not.

The best way to teach a concept depends on...

Some concepts are better taught in some mediums than others.

  • if you want to teach someone carpentry then maybe some pictures are in order, and some physical work
  • if you want to learn a foreign language then audio is your best friend
  • if you want to learn to code, you need to read
  • if you want to learn to cook... just think about it

Clearly not everything should be taught in the same way. Some methods of teaching are more appropriate than others in different situations. And different ways of teaching, different mediums, can and should be combined when it makes sense to do so.

On top of that, engaging learning material tends to do a better job than boring material. Mixing delivery methods in an appropriate way can make content more engaging. So it's often worthwhile to mix things up.

Evidence based education practices

Educators and learners who focus their efforts on activities that are demonstrably effective are very likely to be more productive than those that base their efforts on myths.

This should be pretty obvious.

If we want to add leverage to learning, which we do, then it's important to stop spinning our wheels on things that don't work.

Book recommendation

The science of learning is a deep rabbit hole. I believe it is very worthwhile to know about at least some of it.

I recommend this book every chance I get. It's brilliant:

"Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel

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