Taking a stand for Rhee -- catering to ???????learning styles??????? can help students get engaged

A Core Knowledge blog this week criticizes the concept of "learning styles" and educators' acceptance of this "unquestioned dogma." Specifically under critique is Michelle Rhee, whose DC Public Schools Teaching and Learning Framework includes the targeting of multiple learning styles among qualities of good teaching. The blog references Dan Willingham (a cognitive psychologist whose views on 21st??century skills I greatly admire), who authored a guest post also calling out Rhee for her acceptance of such scientifically invalid theories.

I'm not a neuroscientist--this isn't hyperbole...Willingham really is a neuroscientist--and I won't even pretend to have opinions regarding the scientific legitimacy of Rhee's focus on "learning styles." But, as a former teacher and TFA alum (a program that believes in paying attention to student learning modalities; also, possibly where Rhee first heard these terms) I still think Rhee's suggestion to consider learning styles when delivering instruction is a valid one.

Willingham contends that the theory that kids learn better when taught according to their learning styles just doesn't hold water (I don't disagree with this point). But he also says:

Some lessons click with one child and not with another, but not because of an enduring bias or predisposition in the way the child learns. The lesson clicks or doesn't because of the knowledge the child brought to the lesson, his interests, or other factors.

He admits that whether a child "gets it" or not depends on the student's background knowledge and interests. When teachers "cater to learning styles"--e.g., providing visual aids in addition to speaking (auditory), or including kinesthetic activities in combination with visual/auditory--can't these add-ons (think: visuals, pictures, charts, clapping, chanting, songs, movement, etc.) engage children, trigger their previous knowledge, and match their interests? If so, then Rhee's suggestion to vary the content of lessons has merit.

Second, I don't agree with Willingham that catering to learning styles "makes a teacher's job much more difficult." When I taught my kindergarteners to recognize sight words, incorporating a chant or song, a visual (a picture of the word or something that reminded them of it) and movement (spell it with your hand in the air) did not require that much extra time. (Granted, this might be far easier in early education.) Doing so garnered the interest of students who couldn't sit still, were fascinated by hand-drawn pictures, or who loved music more than viewing a plain flashcard. I'm not making a case about what happened in their neural pathways. But catering to students' "learning styles" doesn't have to be difficult. And if it gets children more engaged, then I think Rhee is on the right track.

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