Children Aren't Born With Learning Styles, Scientists Warn Parents

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Researchers believe learning styles are a myth. Getty Images

The idea that some kids pick up information better when it's presented visually, and others physically or by listening, is a myth that could rob children of opportunities to learn and a waste of parents' money, according to scientists.

Researchers at the University of Michigan looked at the pervasiveness of myths about so-called learning styles. The authors of the study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology questioned what is known as psychological essentialism: The idea that the category something fits into is determined by a biological "truth" with a genetic basis. For instance, girls liking pink, pitbulls being violent, or visual learners only retaining information when it is presented to them in a specific way.

Despite the theory lingering for decades, there is no evidence to suggest tailoring a person's learning experience to their self-reported learning style helps them to retain information, the authors wrote.

Their study investigated attitudes towards visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles. The researchers recruited a total of 668 U.S. adults, who were paid about $1 to fill out surveys asking them about their beliefs about learning styles. Information including the participants' occupation, their education level, and gender were also collected. In one survey, respondents were asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with statements like "People are born with a predisposition to have a certain learning style."

In both surveys, over 90 percent of participants said they believed in learning styles. And around half of the people tested said they believed that we are born with learning styles; that they can easily be identified; inherited from our parents; and help to predict what a child will do in life.

Shaylene Nancekivell, a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and study co-author, told Newsweek: "I am very concerned that parents and educators may be wasting money and time using ineffective learning tools.

"We should be using best practices in our classrooms and at home to teach our children. The prevalence of the learning style myth and commercial products means that it is very easy to spend money and time on programs or strategies that may not be helping children learn."

She continued: "One major concern is that essentializers might be less resistant to changing their beliefs. It seems likely that those holding a more essentialist interpretation of learning styles may be less receptive to counter-evidence.

"My biggest concern is that time is being spent teaching young children maladaptive strategies for learning. It is important that children from a very young age are taught with the best practices so they will succeed."

Asked how the study was limited, Nancekivell explained: "We need to replicate and better understand our findings with educators. It will be important to dive deeper into educators' beliefs and replicate our finding that educators who work with younger children are more likely to view learning styles in an essentialist light. We also need to better understand how the differing beliefs we have discovered translate into practice."

Dr. Paul A. Kirschner, professor emeritus educational psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands, wrote a 2016 article in the journal Computers & Education entitled: "Stop propagating the learning styles myth."

Asked to comment on the limitations of the new study, Kirschner told Newsweek: "[The study] identifies origins of the belief, and thus is possibly theoretically and/or philosophically significant, it stops there.

"The real problem is that [learning styles] robs children of opportunities to learn by branding or pigeonholing them as belonging to a specific group that cannot do certain things.

"It's also a good excuse for parents to blame teachers and schools for their children's poor study habits and for schools and teachers to blame makers of learning materials."

Dr. Angel Urbina-Garcia, a lecturer in early childhood at the U.K.'s University of Hull who was not involved in the research, told Newsweek: "It is a good study although not outstanding given the small sample use and the bias towards recruiting only U.S. participants."

"It confirms that culturally-shared views can be—mistakenly—taken for granted and taken as 'true facts' despite the lack of evidence to support such a view. It shows the risk we have in schools not only in relation to this belief but also with other shared views with no scientific grounds."

He went on to criticize the authors for not discussing the difference between "learning style" and "ability," which he said are concepts usually mistaken and used interchangeably.

"Participants may not know the difference between these two terms, leading to a misunderstanding of the concepts investigated."

This article has been updated with comment from Shaylene Nancekivell, and Angel Urbina-Garcia.