Individual learning styles: Not so fast, bub!

Of the many theories that have overtaken educational policy and practice, few have been as influential as the belief that every child learns in his or her own way (see Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind:The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 1983, which set the ?one size fits all? world on fire).? Just as ?rote memorization? has been booted from school houses, so ?customized learning? has become a battle cry for modern pedagogical movements like child-centered classrooms, schools of one, individualized instruction, ad infinitum, so to speak..... ? As Mike Petrilli wrote in his Education Next piece on differentiated instruction earlier this year,

The greatest challenge facing America's schools today isn't the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or ?teacher quality.? It's the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom.

Thanks to a wonderful report by Patti Neighmond in today's Morning Edition (National Public Radio), we may get back on the path of common sense in our approach to the "enormous variation" challenge.? Reports Neighmond, a new meta-study (a study of studies), by University of South Florida psychologist Doug Rohrer, suggests that that there's no scientific evidence to show that? the learning style movement has done anything for student learning.? Rohrer tells Neighmond,

We have not found evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these [learning style practices]?? and until such evidence exists we don't recommend that they be used.


No doubt, we'll hear from other researchers about the validity of Rohrer's findings.? But for the moment, the advice of? Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive scientist who writes frequently about how students learn (see here), should guide us.? As Neighmond sums up Willingham's opinions,

[T]eachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners. He says we're on more equal footing than we may think when it comes to how our brains learn. And it's a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it's presented.

Is there a middle ground here? It may be that, as Willingham suggests, we need to adjust our thinking ? and teaching styles ? to understand how we are similar before we start trying to design systems that emphasize our differences.? (Not to be too metaphysical here, but what exactly is a system?) It may just be possible that technology will eventually free us from the need to live (and learn) together.? But just in case we're not there yet, and with all due respect to Monsieur Rousseau and his descendents, we might best err on the side of his and their social contract collegues and try to understand what is common before throwing all our babies into one-person dinghies -- even if they are all connected to Google.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Peter Meyer
Peter Meyer is a Adjunct Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute