What’s your learning style? Visual? Auditory? Kinaesthetic? If you believe it’s important to match teaching materials to individual learning styles, you’re certainly not alone – but a group of neuroscientists are now attempting to debunk this so-called “neuromyth” in UK schools.

Launched to coincide with Brain Awareness Week, the initiative is bringing scientists into schools to talk about their research, and to explain why the concept of learning styles is both widespread and misleading.

The campaign is spearheaded by Professor Bruce Hood, a specialist in cognitive development at the University of Bristol, and founder of the not-for-profit organisation Speakezee, which runs a searchable database of academic experts.

What’s wrong with the idea of learning styles?

In a letter for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), Professor Hood argues that despite its intuitive appeal, the learning styles model is “a gross simplification of the complexity of brains operating in classrooms and the multimodal nature of lessons”, with “no credible scientific evidence”.

Dr Sarah Baker, a lecturer in psychology and education at the University of Cambridge, explains: “We’re not saying that everyone learns in the same way. It’s not that there aren’t any learning styles; it’s just that this idea of fixed learning styles is a misperception. It’s not like a blood type where you can take a test and find out what your type is, and then you’re good to go.”

The problem with this fixed approach, Dr Baker continues, is that it may leave students unmotivated to keep trying and adapting when facing a challenge. “We’re kind of putting people in boxes, and sending the message that they can’t change.” Professor Hood agrees, arguing that a belief in fixed learning styles “can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.”

There’s also a financial cost. In a survey of over 100 independent schools, Speakezee found that expenditure on training and consultancy for learning styles-related approaches could reach more than £30,000 per year. As Dr Jon Simons, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge points out, this is funding that could be allocated elsewhere, “for example on employing more teachers and paying them better, or on the many evidence-based methods that do exist for improving learning.”

What should teachers focus on instead?

Examples of such evidence-based approaches, Dr Simons says, include “encouraging students to think deeply about the meaning of information they are learning and relate it to associated information and previous knowledge” and using “imagery-based methods such as mnemonics to remember lists of facts”.
Dr Baker emphasises the importance of encouraging students to develop a growth mindset, with a strong belief in their own capacity to change and improve. “Research shows people can grow and develop in many different ways – and also that it’s important that people believe that about themselves.”

More generally, she adds, encouraging students to reflect on their own learning is beneficial. “We talk about meta-cognition a lot, meaning that students take charge of identifying their own strengths and weaknesses. That can be through a cycle of feedback, where the feedback is discussed and the learner responds. Activities to develop the student’s sense of themselves as a learner will ultimately bring more rewards than just giving someone a label and saying ‘That’s your learning style.’”

Connecting students, teachers and scientists

The Speakezee-led campaign aims to help students and teachers develop this meta-cognition, while at the same time allowing researchers to improve their understanding of how the science plays out in practice. “The students have been amazing,” Dr Baker says. “They asked some really cool questions – it shows how switched on they are and how receptive they can be to this kind of research.”

Stuart Nicholson, principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies, one of the schools involved, hopes the initiative will inspire both teachers and students to keep on asking questions. “Too often we hear the received wisdom presented as fact. It’s important to challenge these assumptions as individual teachers, because only then are we asking intelligent questions as a profession about our profession.”

Sue Riley, CEO of NACE (the National Association for Able Children in Education) commented, “As a charity whose work focuses on the teaching of children with high ability, we constantly strive to inform our work with research evidence which has an impact on policy and practice in schools. We acknowledge that there remain many unanswered questions about how we learn, but that a number of myths about learning and ability have abounded and still abound which have no foundation – and moreover comprise ideas which can have a very negative impact on learners.
“NACE’s resources, publications and professional development programmes strive to be grounded in the evidence that does exist, as well as inviting the schools we work with to be critical, reflective professionals that can add to the debate.”
This year’s NACE National Conference will bring together experts and education professionals from around the country to debate best practice in provision for more able learners, with keynote speakers Professor Lord Robert Winston and Professor Simon Colton exploring the theme “Giving talent space”. Find out more

Image credit: Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies