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'What do people mean when they say "learning styles don't work"?'

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Marjorie Rosenberg calls for a more nuanced debate around one of the most divisive issues in education.

By Marjorie Rosenberg

In the last few years the mere mention of the words ‘learning styles’ has become controversial. As someone who has been working in the field of styles and learner preferences for more than twenty-five years it is uncertain to me what is meant by the argument ‘learning styles don’t work’.

I have two questions. First ‘which particular style are we talking about? And second, how do we use styles in the classroom?’ I agree wholeheartedly that there is no point in adapting instruction to fit each of the individual styles. What is needed instead, I believe, is a variety of methods and approaches to give learners new possibilities to experiment and develop new strategies so that they can become successful.

So, what styles are we talking about? Over the years a number of styles have been researched and defined which adds to the confusion of what to do in the classroom. Based on experience and close observation of learners, I have limited my research to the three areas mentioned by Andrew Cohen as useful to understanding the process of language learning: sensory/perceptual, cognitive and personality-related preferences. I also find it helpful to look at the strategies that learners develop based on their own learner preferences.

The crux of this article, however, deals with the misconceptions about the use of styles. As I have already said there is no point in adapting instruction to fit each of the individual styles. Instead we need to use a variety of teaching methods to challenge leaners and help them develop new strategies.

There may be times, however, when a learner simply hasn’t understood something and explaining it in different words or in a different way can help them to grasp a concept which earlier made little or no sense. By first harmonizing with them and then challenging them we can help them to stretch out of their preferred modes and become autonomous and independent learners. As Guild and Garger say ‘it is possible to strive for uniform outcomes but to intentionally diversify the means for achieving them’.

Another misconception is that a style can be used as an excuse. Just because we recognize our strengths and weaknesses does not mean that we can just give up if something we need to learn is outside our comfort zone. The goal, instead, is to create a situation in which a learner is cognizant of these strengths and weaknesses in order to make use of them and expand beyond them. As I wrote in a May 2011 paper on the subject ‘it is important to point out that the responsibility lies with the learner to discover means of adapting to the instruction as much as it is the responsibility of the teacher to help the learner do that.’

We have been reading about ‘evidence’ in the field of education for quite some time. I would argue that this does not take the learners’ own experience into account. When a learner is clear on what he or she needs in order to be successful, this should be respected. We may find that asking our learners what helps them to learn will give us insight into the types of activities we plan for the classroom. It is a two-way street and each of us is a vital part of the journey. Remaining flexible and embracing the idea that one-size does not fit all can only enhance the experience of learning and lead us to a wide variety of methods and approaches which will be beneficial to both our students and to us as educators and life-long learners.

Marjorie Rosenberg is a research assistant at the University of Graz and author of Spotlight on Learning Styles (Delta) and Creating Activities for Different Learner Types (Wayzgoose Press)