Why Multiple Learning Styles Are Overrated & Why You Should Ignore Them

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Have we taken the idea of multiple intelligences and learning styles too far? 

I'm a staunch proponent of one-on-one learning, and an education that nurtures a child's interests and talents while teaching the core subjects.

But the idea of testing a child to determine his/her "learning style" and then having to train teachers in the multiple learning styles (71 schemes have so far have been proposed, Coffield et al. 2004), and then have the teachers modify their methods to fit the child's style seems, at best, excessive. 

Especially when we look back in time, and we figure that without this new knowledge children seemed to learn just fine. In fact, in spite of our research and progress, our literacy rates have been steadily declining since the 1960's.  

In their extensive study, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, Pashler et al. (2009) conclude, "The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students' learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated." 

They also go on to say that the acceptance of the learning-styles theory is not surprising given the push to adopt it by vendors who make a lot of money selling learning-styles products. 

Sometimes we overthink things, and sometimes we create problems where none existed before. This, I'm afraid, may be one of those times. 

The Ancient Chinese and the Ancient Greeks recognized that different personality types were predetermined. Whether or not you were born with a predisposition to become methodical, analytical, sensitive, artistic, talkative, social, ambitious, or a visionary was mapped out before you even came into the world.

In some ways, this concept correlates with Howard Gardner's Frames of the Mind (1980) where he identifies what he later said were 8 1/2 intelligences. The intelligences Gardner describes are a complicated way of saying the obvious, which is that some kids are more inclined one way than another, and that some are better at some things than others. 

Gardner said in his follow-up book (after the learning-style craze had taken root) Multiple Intelligences (1993), "It becomes important to consider individuals as a collection of aptitudes rather than as having a singular problem-solving faculty that can be measured directly through pencil-and-paper tests."

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Teaching is a skill that comes naturally to many and especially to mothers. Any mother will tell you so because we're always teaching our children. If our child doesn't learn something one way, we figure out another way to demonstrate or explain that which we're trying to teach. Being a teacher is like this.

Great teachers have been great because they've inspired intellectual awakenings and a love for their subject in their students, and they've been great because they were adept at sharing their knowledge in ways that their students could grasp. 

If you have ten students that you introduce a new concept to, nine will understand it, and one will become confused. What do you do now? You find a new angle, and you explain the concept again.

This is teaching. 

The idea of catering teaching methods to one child's learning preference because they are a "kinesthetic" learner or a "visual" learner is to invite ad absurdum into the equation. It can also limit the child's perception of how he/she learns.

Think about it: if we teach our children that they fit under a label that says they are a particular kind of learner, then we teach them to think in narrow constructs about themselves.

The world doesn't bend to our child's arbitrary learning preferences, and it's short-sighted to raise them to think it does. When they get their first job, do you think their employer is going to ask them what their learning preference is before they train them?

On the contrary, we teach our children that the world works a certain way and that to get along in it requires that they learn necessary skills (good manners being at the top of the list!). 

In other words, children do the bending, not the world. The sooner your child understands this, the easier life will be for him and everyone who knows him. 

Worry less about the learning style of your child and worry more about your ability to explain things in multiple ways when your homeschooling. 

This is why teaching is considered more art than science. You need to be able to think creatively to teach well. Teaching by analogy is the best way to convey complex concepts, so learning how to produce quick analogies is a crucial teaching skill that you can develop. 

If your child doesn't comprehend one explanation, hopefully she'll get the next, and if not that, then the next. If she still doesn't understand, then she may not be intellectually ready to grasp the concept yet. 

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Sometimes it's a matter of time before a new idea or skill clicks in your child's brain. These moments are called intellectual awakenings—they come when they come, we can't push them. We can't force our children to learn; they have to do this for themselves.

To do the work of learning, children have to be willing to exercise their minds.

The most we can do as their teacher is to provide a rich learning environment, explain concepts well, and let time do its work. We can also educate ourselves about the sound principles of learning.

Don't worry that you have to become proficient in the multiple learning styles before you can teach your children. Don't worry that you've got to scientifically modify what you teach to each child's learning style. And furthermore, don't worry that you've got to figure out what each child's learning style is! 

You're a homeschooling mother (or father). You probably have more than one child to teach. Teach the lesson. If he doesn't get the concept, teach it again another way. If he still doesn't get it, step aside for a while. Let the idea sink in. Let him play around with the idea on his own. He'll get it when he's ready. 

Yes, teaching is that simple. 


PS. If this was useful to you, please share with your friends. 

For a glimpse into my teaching style (keep in mind, it was the first day of the year), you might like this post: http://bit.ly/2ID2M9N.

If you feel stuck and you'd like some help with homeschooling, you can also schedule a one-hour consultation here: http://bit.ly/2GJAZEr


Elizabeth Y. Hanson is the founder of Smart Homeschooler™ and has been a consultant and researcher in children's rearing and education since 2001.