Different Learning Styles? Maybe Not

If you went to school in the 1970’s, you may have been told you were a certain kind of learner: auditory, visual, kinesthetic. I was hired to teach kids with learning disabilities in a public school system near Rochester, and the theory was very much in vogue. “LD” was a fairly newly utilized diagnostic category, and districts were just beginning to set up distinct programs. Parents of the elementary school age kids assigned to me were desperate for a solution to their children’s learning problems. Maybe the issue was the kids just hadn’t been presented with the information in a mode that maximized their cognitive style.

As with any new theory, some parents and some teachers took the idea to the extreme, demanding that auditory learners, for example, only be presented information through tapes and lectures, and only having to demonstrate their mastery by speaking, never writing or showing.

A Quartz article by Jenny Anderson entitled “Kinesthetic No More” reports on research by Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia. Willingham’s research says it’s all bunk; there’s no credible evidence to support the theory.

I didn’t find the theory very useful either, back when I was teaching. We spent a fair amount of time trying to discern each student’s supposedly preferred learning modality, and I then tried to offer them material presented in that way. It was a lot of work, and it didn’t seem to make much difference. Their complex learning problems persisted.

The most damage was done for students who bought wholesale into the idea that they were entitled to accommodation based on their learning style. Much later in life I met with a young woman diagnosed with learning disabilities who’d made her way through law school with extensive accommodations but was unable to land an associate’s job. She told me she wanted to work in a law firm but was unable to work under pressure, handle large volumes of work under a time deadline, or attend to detail. She couldn’t fathom why no law firm was willing to reshape the job of an associate to fit those limitations. It was, she told me with real anguish, not fair.

I explained, gently I hope, that her limitations went squarely to what new law firm associates were expected to do, and said I thought she’d never be hired in that role. I pointed out that her legal training could be very useful in other kinds of work. At that point she stormed out of my office.

Many months later I got a handwritten note from her, apologizing for her immature reaction. She’d gotten a job as a legal advocate for abused and neglected children in the Family Court system, and was very happy with the work.

Martin Luther King’s refusal to accept the world as it was helped all of us who believe in civil rights. This young woman’s refusal to accept the world as it was didn’t serve her, and she was smart to recognize that she was the one who needed to shift.

Ah, that we’d always know the difference…

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