A Core Subgroup of Believers Don’t Just Think Learning Styles Are Real, But Also Inherited And Hard-Wired In The Brain

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Teachers were just as likely to be “essentialist” believers in learning styles as other participants

By Matthew Warren

The “learning style” myth – the idea that we each have a preferred modality for learning, usually described as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic – just won’t die. Belief in learning styles endures even though psychologists have pointed out repeatedly the many problems with the concept. Students don’t benefit from learning in their supposedly preferred style, for example, and teachers and their pupils don’t agree on the pupil’s learning style in the first place. 

But exactly how believers in learning styles conceive of the concept has until now remained unclear. It could be that people take an “essentialist” view that our learning style is something we are born with, for instance. On the other hand, they may believe that learning styles are more liable to change – a “non-essentialist” perspective. A new study in the Journal of Educational Psychology has found that, in fact, both views are common, a result that could have implications for tackling the myth. 

Shaylene Nancekivell and colleagues at the University of Michigan asked 331 adults who believed in learning styles to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with 15 statements that laid out an essentialist view of the myth. These ranged from suggesting that learning styles are innate (e.g. “In the future, scientists will be able to determine a person’s learning style by examining their genes”) to implying that learning styles can predict success (e.g. “A person’s learning style predicts the kinds of teachers from whom they learn best”). 

Overall the participants’ responses were quite inconsistent: for example, they tended to agree that learning styles can be detected in childhood, but disagree that they are inherited from their parents. And the average rating for all statements fell almost exactly in the midpoint of the scale.

However, further analysis revealed two key subgroups hiding in the pool of participants. Based on patterns in their responses, the researchers identified one group they called “essentialisers”, who more strongly endorsed more of the statements, and another group of “non-essentialisers”.

The researchers then ran a second experiment to find out more about the beliefs of the two groups. Participants read a short story about a baby whose biological and adoptive parents had different learning styles (one set of parents were “visual” learners and the other “kinaesthetic”, for instance). The essentialisers indicated that the child was most likely to develop the learning style of their biological parents, while the non-essentialisers rated the learning style of the adoptive parents higher. Essentialisers were also more likely to believe statements relating learning styles to brain differences, such as “Brain imaging can be used to identify a person’s learning style.” 

These results suggest that people’s beliefs about learning styles vary much more than previous studies have recognised, the authors say. Some people appear to believe more strongly than others that learning styles are hard-wired in our brains and genes – and this could potentially make them more resistant to efforts to debunk the myth, the researchers suggest. “The present studies provide a new starting point for research on learning styles and suggest that future research on neuroscience-based myths needs to move beyond merely assessing the rate at which they are endorsed,” they write.

It would be useful to know whether certain individuals are predisposed to being essentialisers, but for now this remains unclear. Neither age, gender nor level of education predicted which participants were in which group. And most dishearteningly, the teachers who took part in this new research were just as likely to take an essentialist view of learning styles as the remaining participants. If essentialist views about learning styles really are more resistant to change, then understanding what makes a person think that way will be important for tackling the myth. 

Maybe They’re Born With It, or Maybe It’s Experience

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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