Education Myths ~ “Learning Styles”

To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself–that is the first duty of the educator.”
~ Maria Montessori

Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators.”
~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Today’s post is a summary of a discussion forum I’m moderating about “Learning Styles” at one of the courses I’m taking on adult education…enjoy!

“What’s your learning style?” “How do you learn better?” “are you a visual, an auditive or a kinaesthetic learner?” “I learn better when I take notes” “I only learn when I can discuss the topic with somebody”…

We have all heard those questions or statements; the idea that people (from children to adults) have “learning styles” has permeated our educational and corporative world so much that almost any facilitator, trainer or teacher would at some point refer to “learning styles” …I have even witnessed entire presentations and read a lot of articles about this topic. However, since I started studying psychopedagogy back in 1994, I learned they are an over-simplification that tries to classify human beings into “groups”…

The thing is…they are a myth! There is no evidence that demonstrates that people have a preferred channel or that they may function better when listening, observing/reading or moving/doing…

As a psychopedagogist, apart from learning about all the great education theorists (and practitioners!) of the past (Rousseau, Dewey, Montessori, Pestalozzi, Freire, Piaget, Vygotsky) I also learn the different (proven) strategies to teach using insights from psychology and neurology: we used psychomotor, multi-sensory, cognitive and emotional techniques to address the many wonderful differences children have to discover the world out there (and their world in there)…

This week I have also learned that apart from these mythological “ learning styles” there were many others out there…and none has been proven either!

What are the implications of this for us as teachers and for learners as…learners?

Many educators, faced with the evidence, still defend learning styles by saying that people learn differently…I agree with this, but “differently” means much more than learning styles: it means that we are complex beings who have a personal history with learning a particular subject, with a teacher or with the educational system and that this may have shapep how we respond the next time: we also have different needs, experiences and expectations: we don’t learn the same way all the “subjects” nor at the same pace…

As a permaculturist myself, I know that people are not compartmented: permaculturists are holistic, not reductionist, we think in systems and we try our best to think ethically. This means that as a teacher, I don’t try to classify or create false expectations about people: I start with trust and high expectations, convinced that learning is beautiful and fun and doesn’t need to be imposed, nor paced or even measured…

What is learning? How do we learn?

Speaking from both more than 15 years of experience as a teacher (of children, teenagers and adults, both in-class and online), I can say that learning is “transformation”, learning can take a few minutes (the “aha! Moment or the learning of a mechanical skill) or an entire life (for some of us, certain “topics” may take forever)…learning also happens “holistically”: we connect the “new” with the “old” and there are changes at neurological level (actual physical patterns that may be created by the repetition of the new skill or repetitive neurological connections when we retrieve certain information), changes at psychomotor level (we may learn a new position or to feel certain parts of our body stimulated when certain skills or memories are recalled), changes at cognitive level (we now can retrieve, analyze. synthesize and use new information to solve new problems or old problems in a new way, to create and design or evaluate something) or even at emotional level (we now have different beliefs, values, goals or enjoy things differently as a result of the new information): we learn with all our “selves”: heads, hearts and hands…I would risk to say we also learn with our “souls” whatever we want to interpret this, as we are, beyond our bodies, spiritual beings…change may start in the head (something you read, see, hear or experience with any other sense triggers a thought: challenges your schemes, your paradigms and produces an “imbalance”), other times it may start in the heart (something you experience or perceive with any of your senses, read, heard, etc. may get to your core beliefs or worldview, you “feel” an internal reaction, a need to respond or change) and sometimes, change may start in your hands: you start doing something without much motivation or conviction, or imposed by yourself (i.e. going to sleep really late) and suddenly after a few days or weeks your entire body has “learned” this new behaviour and is now ingrained in your head and heart as well as in your “hands”…

So “learning differences” do exist, but not so learning styles…

It is my personal view that we, as educators, can only create nurturing, welcoming and safe environments for learners (of all ages and backgrounds); we can then expose them to learning opportunities by showing, sharing, challenging with questions and through diverse activities…but we cannot “ensure” they are learning…that (again, my personal view) would be arrogant, oppressive and even violent, like most current education is: we (as a society) create institutions, artificially separate people in age groups or even genres or “levels” and then “teach” them “subjects”, which are also artificially divided knowledge about a world that is not “compartmented” but holistic: systems within systems…

This approach has been utilized for about 150 years (although the concept of “school” is ancient, we have “mandatory attendance” since the 1800’s and universities (no mandatory) started in Europe in the 12th Century)…unfortunately, it creates many problems: we teach about photosynthesis (the most important process on Earth and on which our lives depend!) as another boring “subject” and we may emphasize “history” (only the official and superficial one) but forget about teaching much more important skills, such as critical thinking, ethics and how to be self-reliant and community oriented…

A good surprise that I plan to research further has been to be exposed (from my previous PIDP course, 3240) to UDL (Universal Design for Learning): even when still within our current paradigm (we still may have a few more years of it!), UDL looks into exposing the learners to as many different formats and strategies as possible, through first exploring and giving them a choice. This renewed respect for the learner is a positive thing that I embrace as a teacher!

The questions I made myself this week ending today (regarding the learning styles) are:

  • Why is important to discriminate between substantiated theories and “public knowledge”?

Public/general knowledge can be pervasive and destructive: if we simplify the complexity of the learning process and the human being, we may end up with a small “toolkit” of boring “activities” …we may also start labelling people, not allowing them to evolve and change…from the more “formal” and “institutional” point of view, echoing these theories make us look as poorly informed teachers and perpetuates the idea (perceived by some) that the social sciences are not a science a all…

  • If learning styles are a myth, what impacts does knowing this have for teachers?

This may force more than one teacher to look further and explore beyond the surface: what is really learning? Why am I teaching? What do I want to achieve with this strategy or activity? How can I create a more welcoming and nurturing environment for all my students?

  • We still know people learn in different ways, have differences in approach, pace, depth and expectations…how can then we address these differences if not through learning styles?

What about holistic education?:

Holistic Education, a brief introduction:

Higher Education and the Journey of Transformation:

Philosophical Sources of Holistic Education:

Relationship between holistic education and Permaculture:

Permaculture and Holistic Education: A Math Made in Heaven…and Earth:


The myth of learning styles:

Diversity, leanring style and culture:

Are learning styles a myth?

People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?

Busting the Mehrabian Myth:

Research summary- Learning styles:

The culprit: the VARK Questionnaire:

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