learning styles: the limiting power of labels

There’s an ongoing and lively debate in the world of education about the prevalence and relevance of ‘learning styles’. Various models try to place a label on how people prefer to learn, and the number of labels within these models also varies widely. In a coordinated effort, the Debunker Club is targeting the ‘Learning Styles Myth’ throughout the month of June.

VAK Debunked
Image Source: Mairi Thomson

While there are a large number of learning style models in-use, the VAK/VARK model is widely promoted. Most people who’ve attended a personal or professional development workshop in the last 30 years have probably heard about this model and how it helps with understanding your own personal learning style so you can be a ‘better learner’.

Even more worrisome is that, despite being quite thoroughly challenged by evidence-based research, this model is still being promoted in programs for educators at all levels, with the intention that if you understanding the learning styles of ‘students’, you will design and deliver better learning experiences. While I’m all for continuing to explore every possible way to make learning better and easier for everyone, the purpose of this post is not to go back over the research findings that have debunked learning styles as a valid educational or instructional theory.

Google Trends
Image Source: Google Trends

Even though Google Trends shows a diminishing interest in the ‘learning styles’ topic, a search today still returns millions of positive results, with many hosted on .edu domains! So what’s most interesting to me is how the ongoing promotion of learning styles as a valid theory of instruction, and the placement of labels on people, could actually be limiting the effectiveness of learning.


Labelling Theory

In life, labels are useful, no doubt about it. They help us to identify and analyse information quickly, and allow us to relate new information to what we already know (or think we know). But when it comes to ourselves or others, labels might not always be so useful. Wikipedia defines labelling theory as “how the self-identity and behaviour of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them.”

So imagine now that you’re a participant in a lesson or course, and you have no background in educational theory. You’ve just been on the receiving end of a session about learning styles. You may have even taken a scientific-looking questionnaire that confirms what your personal ‘learning style’ is.  Something in the result resonates with you, because you trust the facilitator, and she has encouraged you to relate your preferred ‘learning style’ to thinking about all of those times when learning was either very easy, or very difficult for you.

“YES!” you think. “Now it all makes sense! I’m terrible with numbers, because I’m a kinaesthetic learner, and my year 8 Maths teacher never gave us hands-on activities to do!”

What could be the limiting power of this label? At the very best, it will likely now be in the background of your life as self-talk forever, reminding you that  maths is not your strong suit. At worst, maybe it will hold you back from wanting to learn more, improve your skills, or apply for that job that would be perfect for you, if only they didn’t want someone who was halfway decent with numbers…

The science of learning and how believing you can get smarter actually makes you smarter

Learning is, at it’s most basic definition, the process of collecting, modifying, understanding and using information. How effective we are at learning new and different things is influenced by our context, our environment and importantly, our own attitudes towards learning.  This excellent research shows that believing you can get smarter can definitely make you smarter.

So calling all learners and educators: for the love of learning, please stop using the ‘learning styles’ myth to label (and limit) learning potential. Instead, lets take ourselves on a journey of open learning possibilities…

Image Source: http://www.skitterphoto.com

Post-Publish Update:

This afternoon, my daughter and I had a conversation about her day at school. I then told her that I’d written and published a blog post on learning styles. I asked her if she’d heard of them, and she said “Oh yes – we did that at school one day. I’m a visual-kinaesthetic learner.” I kind of stopped in my tracks a bit and thought about it. I’m not one to interfere too much in her at-school learning processes, as I believe that you’ve got to put trust in the teacher as the ‘person in the room’, and I never want to undermine those relationships. But later on, I asked her what being a ‘visual-kinaesthetic learner’ meant to her in everyday classroom activities:

“Well, I learn best when I see something, or have a chance to do something. If someone’s just talking, I find it hard to listen or pay attention. So that’s what it means.”

“Do you think it’s different if you’re really interested though?” I asked. “Does the topic or subject have any impact on how you learn?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “If it’s an interesting topic, that’s different. I can listen and understand then.”

So again, this ‘labelling’ and it’s potential limitations, concerns me. Do we really want people of any age going through their lives with a pre-conceived notion of how they learn best? Does the self-perception of “I’m a weak auditory learner” have a negative impact on how people then engage with content when it’s presented aurally, or requires a verbal discussion?

The world is full of a fascinating array of information that’s presented in lots of formats, and these formats might not always provide a match to a perceived learning preference. Shouldn’t we be focusing on helping learners understand how learning really works, and supporting them to know that they can and will learn, when they meaningfully engage with content in all it’s formats?

4 thoughts on “learning styles: the limiting power of labels”

  1. Mairi, This is terrific!!!!!!!! Very thoughtful, very kind, and insightful.

    And I love the Google Trend Data!!!!!!!!!!

    Thank you!

    = Will


    1. Thanks Will. It took me a while to work out how to get at the Google Trend report – it’s an interesting way to look at data on search terms. I was keen to see what the ‘learning styles’ search data said – it still seems like a popular topic!


  2. Are you saying you are against labeling so that children don’t believe they are limited to a certain style of learning? Some of us do find we learn better in some ways than others. I learn better by reading than by listening, for example, unless, as you say, I’m really interested. I also learn by doing. Do you believe students don’t have a preferred learning style or simply they should not be labeled as having one? Do you think teachers should vary their methods in presenting material so that those with different learning styles will all be more involved?


    1. Hi Barbara. Thanks so much for your questions.
      Yes – I would say that I’m not a fan of labelling if it has limiting potential. The learning styles topic is a hot one, because there isn’t any solid evidence that learning styles are valid from an instructional/educational standpoint, and yet as a concept, it is still widely promoted and accepted.
      I think learning potential is limitless, and that teachers should definitely use a variety of methods in supporting learning. I don’t think it’s helpful if people are encouraged to believe that their personal ‘learning style’ holds some power over how and what they are capable of learning, particularly if this influences further exploration of a topic based on how the content is presented.


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