The Lochness Monster, Yetis, Big Foot, and Learning Styles

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
January 31, 2021

The Lochness Monster. Yetis. Big Foot. Learning Styles. What do they all have in common? Yep, you guessed it. None of them exist.

Yet, an article in the Atlantic, The Myth of Learning Styles, shares just how much we have been “snowballed” by this pedagogical Yeti. More than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believe in their presence and use them to design instruction. But spoiler alert – there is NO. SUCH. THING.

This is not to say that we don’t have a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses, cognitive variability, multiple intelligences, or preferred learning approaches. But our brains are not wired for a single “style” of learning. 

If someone says, “I am a visual learner,” or “I need to hear it, to learn it,” this idea stemmed from the theory of learning styles. There is just one problem: the theory isn’t grounded in science. In fact, multiple studies have proven that learning “styles” are no more than learning “preferences” and that a preference doesn’t lead to better learning outcomes. The theory of learning styles has been debunked (and is even the source of this hilarious Onion article, “Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor Based Curriculum.”)

Variability

Every student, regardless of variability, deserves the best opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge, especially those students who have been historically marginalized. To embrace student variability, we have to move away from labels, as if they relate to learning. Imagine you were in the “vegetarian” group and I used that information to serve you lentil soup – for breakfast. I mean, you’re a vegetarian right, so that must mean you LOVE lentils. Clearly, I am being fresh, but it supports the point. In the book, UDL Theory and Practice (free with login), the authors note that human variability is not this/that, either/or but rather a continuum of differences that change according to context and opportunity. All of us have multiple learning approaches that may be effective, based on the context, and this aligns much more clearly to the concept of multiple intelligences. 

Multiple Intelligences

Some educators use “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences” synonymously, but they are not the same. The theory of Multiple Intelligences was created at Harvard University by Howard Gardner in 1983. The theory was built on the idea that there is no one, single way, that we can evaluate a person’s intelligence and that all people are unique and have individual strengths.  Gardner identified eight original intelligences: Linguistic/Verbal, Logical/Mathematical, Visual/Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist and an additional intelligence has been added for Existential intelligence.  According to Gardner, we each have all of these intelligences and we each need all of them at one time or another, but some forms of intelligence are more natural to us and others, we require more support (i.e. this is another way of looking at variability!). 

MultipleIntelligences-780x1024

Source: CAST, Let Them Thrive, 2018

So what is the problem?  What difference does it make?  The problem is simple.  If we cater to a student’s “learning style” by giving the “visual learner” more visual information and more aural information to the “auditory learner” or more movement to the “kinetic learner,” we will short change their learning process.  This does not mean that we can’t embrace multiple forms of intelligence and provide numerous scaffolds and supports. In fact, we should provide visual, auditory, linguistic, conceptual, and socio-cultural scaffolds, but not because of learning styles. Because of variability.

If you haven’t already done so, take some time to talk to your learners about their unique variability, multiple intelligences, and the learning approaches that help to elevate their strengths. But remember not to use this information to label or group students and urge students to stop thinking about themselves as being one-dimensional. In order to learn, we all need certain conditions and supports, but those change based on context. Being self-aware of our strengths, needs, and preferences is incredibly important to becoming an expert learner. And that is real. Unlike the Lochness Monster. Sorry, Nessi.

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