Labeling in the Name of Progress

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Labels on the Brain, Part 2, By Erica Kleinknecht, PhD (2012)

The Learning Styles Conundrum
My position: curricular plans based on “Learning Styles” are nothing more than socially sanctioned systems of student-labeling, promoted in the name of progress. Though couched in positive, reformation terms, educational practices and policies reflective of learning styles are both costly and dangerous. This is an unpopular position, but one with support. Since school districts spend money on assessment and training – lots of money – this position needs to be considered and explained. That’s what I am doing here.

I laid the foundation for this claim in Part 1: Labels on the Brain. Here’s a recap:

1. The human brain is both deeply complex and refreshingly simple. All networks operate in the same way as we perceive elements of the environment and relate what we experience to what we know. This process gives rise to schemas, which create labels. It’s part of the human condition.

2. Labels direct action, shaping relationships and patterns of interaction between learners and their teachers.

3. When students are labeled, the neural networks that result shape their mindsets in a “fixed” manner that hinders learning. However, when knowledge is labeled, lasting and meaningful academic growth can occur, in no large part because the resultant achievement mindset reflects growth, not limitations.

When teachers regularly use knowledge-labels to activate and enhance schemas, they enable higher-level thinking, creativity, and problem solving – the very things we want to nurture in our youth. To promote these skills, we owe it to students to follow best practices so we do more good than harm, as we aim to shape the leaders, workers, parents, and teachers of tomorrow. This is the heart of the learning styles conundrum. Learning Styles are promoted and sold as the very latest in best practice. See for yourself, a sampling of current promotional materials:

  •’s “Science for All” series on teacher resources: How can different learning styles be addressed with consistent expectations?

This is one sticky wicket. Seeming experts state over and again that “learning styles assessments” measure real individual differences across humans, in the way they learn and remember. And they claim neuroscience evidence supports this. But it doesn’t. Nowhere in the neuroscience literature is there unequivocal evidence suggesting that humans differ in the ease with which neural networks are sensitized in the manner suggested by learning styles. Nor does behavioral evidence exist showing the effectiveness of teaching to students’ preferred styles. But a debate about the effectiveness of incorporating learning styles into the curriculum roils on, expert against expert. Meanwhile, it’s the students who are losing, all in the name of progress.

The Learning Styles Perspective
Ironically, the Learning Styles phenomenon captured the hearts and minds of so many instructors here in the US, in part, because it was introduced to address the very problem in education that the phenomenon now promulgates: the labeling of students. Progressive teachers were then (as they are now) hungry for reform and happy to adjust in the name of progress. Learning styles were sold as a means of avoiding the inequities that come from only engaging students in one unchanging format (traditional lecture and homework, emphasizing only one style of learning) that so easily lead to ability grouping.

Here are the two key principles of the Learning Styles perspective:

1. Every learner has her own preferred style of engagement and she learns best when taught in this style. There are a variety of schemes (e.g., see here and here), but across schemes, similar categories appear, including Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic learning. These styles purportedly stem from “different wirings” at the neurological level; that is, authors claim that human brains differ in how information is taken in and  and represented in mind. Let’s imagine what this means:

  • Auditory learners are wired to thrive when they “hear” the material (“Explain it to me again, please…”)
  • Visual learners are wired to thrive when they “see” the material (“Pictures, please!”)
  • Kinesthetic learners are wired to thrive when they “move” the material (“Interpretive dance, please: can you say ‘YMCA?’”)

2. Teachers must deliver material in a variety of ways to level the playing field: every kind of learner deserves a fair shot at learning in their style.

Because anyone who knows children knows too that they do indeed differ on any number of counts, the educational community embraced this idea. Different kinds of learners being taught in the same way? Something seems unfair there, doesn’t it? It offered an answer to the question of why such disparities exist across students, in terms of engagement and achievement. Learning styles made sense.

Skip ahead to the present day, and here is what we see. Eager pre-service teachers stay up nights studying literature on the “Myers-Briggs,” “Multiple Intelligences” and other Learning Styles theories. They dutifully make lesson plans that will appeal to all the learners they are likely to come into contact with once they enter the fray. They – and seasoned teachers too — dutifully attend workshops on how to create “Differentiated Classrooms” that support all kinds of learners (note however, that not all “DC” approaches are equal and there are some that do not focus on learning styles – I am not calling those into question here). All these writings are presented as elements of “Brain Based Education.” (And as an aside, brain based education as a label has never made sense to me. What aspect of learning isn’t brain based?). School districts spend quite a lot of money in learning styles assessment and in training. Folks take this very, very seriously. It’s become big business too.

The Learning Styles Zeitgeist compels us to accept it.

Whereas the perspective is wildly popular, not everyone has drunk the Kool-aid. Here’s a not-so-hypothetical rendering of present-day debates between education experts and cognitive scientists:

  • Education experts: “How can you say students don’t differ? When I respect their differences, I see learning styles work their magic. Student engagement changes when lessons change to suit their preferences. I see first-hand evidence every day.”
  • Cognitive Science experts specializing in Neuroscience: “Neurologically, learning and memory occurs in the same way; humans don’t differ on this count. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise
  • Cognitive Science experts specializing in Cognitive Psychology: “The research necessary to lend support to the perspective just doesn’t exist. Nor does a classroom analogue. With no evidence, we can’t recommend it’s use.”
  • Education experts retort: “Neuroscience and neuroimaging are in their infancy. And right now, isn’t it true to say that the gap between neural processing and qualitative experience isn’t well understood? So who is to say that learners don’t differ? We might find out someday.”
  • Cognitive Science experts retort with something to the effect of “Not bloody likely, given what we currently do know about the neurology of learning and memory. There isn’t room for variability in the system. Everyone has inputs to the memory system from their eyes, ears, and body. We are ALL visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.”

And so it goes. As you can see, both sides look at the issue from different angles (indeed isn’t that always the way?!). Advocates hold up individual cases to support their position and dissenters emphasize the fact that alternative explanations stemming from research exists for the cause of the behaviors the advocates report. It’s intuition & optimism vs. empiricism.

Intuition is a powerful force though, and the current anti-science zeitgeist here in the US (e.g., see here and here) supports it. Though critics claim that learning styles haven’t fixed the problem in our educational system (i.e., it has only changed the face of it), their voices reflect a distinct minority. For every blog post against, there are numerous others touting it’s effectiveness. For every trade book raising doubts, numerous others tout the opposite. Never mind the journal articles reporting the scientific evidence against learning styles—who reads those.

Daniel Willingham, Cognitive Scientist who writes in several forums ranging from blogs, to trade, to text books, starts a chapter in his 2009 book titled “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, with the following claim: human thinking and remembering abilities are more alike than they are different. It’s a great trade book, written for educators. I used it the last time I taught Edu Psych to MAT-5th year students and they loved it. That is, they loved 6/7ths of it. The 7th chapter presents what I like to call a “learning styles expose.” They refused to “buy” the chapter, despite the fact that overall they claimed the book was the most valuable resource they had acquired to-date in their graduate studies. They refused to consider the possibility that learning styles are not real.

Though deeply dismayed by their unwillingness to consider the information with an open mind, at the same time, I understand that the discussion went against everything they’d heard from other “experts” in the field. What I was asking of them was monumental. Very few students had any background at all in Psychology and here I was, an interloper in the College of Education, asking them to choose sides. Who should they believe? A couple of Cognitive Scientists (i.e., me and the book author), or all the Education Experts and they were working with in many different capacities? Some students in the class left angry, indeed, the argument was just as awkward and emotionally charged as was the self-esteem discussion I report on elsewhere.

Hence my “sticky wicket” comment above. Culture tells us to believe in learning styles – experts do and you should too! Regular patterns of thinking reinforce folks’ endorsements of learning styles. These patterns of thinking stem from the way schemas work (see Labels on the Brain for detailed explanation of this). In short, schemas bias our attention guiding what we notice in the present, and they bias our memory processing, guiding what we remember from the past. In other words, our knowledge and expectations lead to confirmation biases (we tend to see what we expect) and hindsight biases (we remember those details from the past that reflect our current perspectives). These patterns of thinking are “givens” in Psychology, thanks to the Nobel Prize winning work of Daniel Kahneman and colleagues. Indeed, science writer Malcom Gladwell won fame and fortune for popularizing this work, however, knowing about the process doesn’t always stop us from engaging in it. Thus the situation we are now in in the US: folks’ biases serve to perpetuate their beliefs that learning styles are real. That is why the “report” that learning styles are fiction seems counter-intuitive and thus dismissible. When you have an image in your mind of a child who, when allowed to learn in a different way and then appears to do better, it’s hard to believe that learning styles aren’t real. The image is more powerful than the esoterically written science report. Cognitive Scientists surely have their work cut out for them, in making their case against learning styles.

So what’s a concerned parent and educator herself to do? Discuss the problems is a start. I see six biggies that warrant deep consideration.

Problem #1: Learning Styles Label Students

The process of learning leads to labeling. Though labeling happens in our heads, the process begins in the world, with our daily encounters and experiences. Each and every social group, whether an academic discipline, an industry, or a high school clique, creates its own system of labels; in fact there’s a label for that too: it’s called jargon. Linguists call this out as a defining characteristic of language: the generativity function. You don’t need to know the label (generativity) to know the process. You live this experience all the time without missing a beat: words enter our vernacular to “label” new products – think “Xerox” and “Google” – and once those products get under our skin the words start to change form, for example a common shift is from noun to verb:

Have you googled it?” or “Can you Xerox this for me?”

A mere fifteen years ago, the first question would have been un-interpretable, but the second familiar. Not so much today, rather the reverse is likely true. We don’t Xerox much anymore. Not only do labels lead to action, labels can become action. After all, that’s the point of learning and memory. When students are labeled, even if the label is as seemingly innocuous as representing their “typical performance,” the consequences are not good. Imagine:

  • Student turns in paper
  • Teacher returns paper with a grade (e.g., “C”)

[repeat several times]

  • Student internalizes grades written on the array of papers: “I’m a C-Student
  • Grades become a label

The label “C-Student” (and “A-Student” or “B-Student” too) carries with it a whole host of expectations that guide both student and teacher. That’s how labels become action.

Teachers’ Perspective:

  • Action 1: “I’m getting tired, I will read the sure-to-be-best papers first, and save the rest for tomorrow.”
  • Consequence: You read fast. Doing so leads you to miss pesky syntactical errors and, perhaps, leaps in logic too. When we read fast, we unconsciously fill-in missing details – that’s the beauty of schemas in action!
  • Grade: the students’ work in this case isn’t assessed very carefully, but is quite likely to receive a high mark.
  • Action 2: “Starting off fresh today… let’s see what mistakes ______ made this time.”
  • Consequence: You read slow. Doing so leads you to find and circle pesky syntactical errors and leaps in logic. When we read slow, we evaluate the text more precisely and trip-up on missing details.
  • Grade: the students’ work in this case was scrutinized and quite likely to receive a low mark.

Student’s Perspective: Once labeled, students conform to the expectations that come with the label. You can easily imagine the self-talk:

  • C-Students make mistakes, so I’ll just turn spell check off and crank this out
  • A-Students can’t make mistakes, so since I don’t have much time today, I’ll choose the easier assignment option, since I don’t want to hurt my GPA

Both cases are self-defeating. Keeping these scenarios in mind, replace “A-student” with “Visual Learner” and guess what? You get the same result, only stronger. Once students know their learning-style-label, the label guides their thinking and action. Now imagine again, the following thought-process of a student in a foreign language class, where many lessons and assessments are auditory: “Ugh! It’s so hard for me to just listen. I’m a visual learner! Why should I try if the teacher won’t give me something to see? I can see the accent better than I can hear it. This isn’t fair.”

Add to this recipe for disengagement “The Meshing Hypothesis” and the problem compounds further. The meshing hypothesis states that in order to maximally benefit from instruction inspired by learning styles, students must both learn and be assessed in their preferred style. However, teachers don’t often get to make alternate forms to their exams – all students take the same exams. So what’s left then, is a teacher who evaluates her students’ work, albeit unconsciously, differently when she knows that the assessment either does or doesn’t match the students’ preferred styles. For example, Teacher thinks to self: “Johnny’s score on this assignment doesn’t reflect his true ability; he’s a visual learner and this was an oral exam. I’ll remind him of that so he’s not too upset with this grade.”

Despite the good intentions captured above, such attitudes hurt learners. Reactions like this guide learners’ self-talk, setting the stage for a fixed mindset. Learners’ mindsets translate into achievement motivation, which shapes patterns of engagement, which yields test scores and grades, which then feed back into the self-system and the school system…and on and on it goes.

Telling students that their outcomes, both good and bad, are due to their learning style, essentially tells them that they aren’t in control. Students’ sense of control shapes their motivation. When attributions for learning outcomes are placed on “fixed traits” motivation plummets. When attributions are placed on effort and engagement, motivation increases. I see this in students entering college. I’m told by students that they can’t learn in a lecture class because they aren’t auditory learners. Auditory learners tell me they must record lectures because taking notes doesn’t work for them – they are “auditory” so writing doesn’t help. Efficacy of lecturing aside, these attitudes are self-defeating. Students treat their styles like handicaps that require accommodation. They use their learning-style-labels as a means of externalization – the labels give students a publically sanctioned reason to disengage (I don’t learn this way, so I am not going to try). In short, labeling students in terms of their styles undermines learning.

Problem # 2: Everyone can learn in a multi-sensory manner

The process of forming, maintaining, and adding-on to neural networks happens in the same way with everyone. Anyone can build a schema through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic means and the degree to which you prefer one or the other has next to nothing to do with the sensitization of a network. Network sensitization is a refreshingly simple procedure:

  • Read a word (“Dance”), cell assemblies fire, you think about its meaning, network is sensitized
  • Hear a word (“Dance”), cell assemblies fire, you think about its meaning, network is sensitized
  • Do what a word indicates (“Dance”), cell assemblies fire, you think about its meaning, network is sensitized

Regarding activation patterns in your brain that support each experience noted above, a slight difference exists at the point of entry. However, each entry point leads to the activation of the same schema – your knowledge of dancing comes to mind in each case. In fact, whether you actually move or not, the neurons that support movement will engage when you think about dancing. Expert athletes, dancers, and musicians know this – mental rehearsal works! The way the knowledge representation process works doesn’t differ from person to person based on whether they like to read, listen, or move.

Problem # 3: Opportunity Costs.

Teachers who work in a school that respects learning styles have a lot to do! They have to create layers of lesson plans to accommodate the “styles” of their students, for example, they have to figure out how to teach mathematical concepts in a manner appealing to kinesthetic learners. I don’t know how they do this, but here’s an idea that comes to mind: imagine a chant sung to a catchy, danceable tune: “Raise your hand in the air – say “Whole!” “Whole!” … Wiggle your thumb, say “1/5th!”, “1/5th!” and so on. Doing something like this with young learners might actually be a lot of fun, but is it the most effective way to teach fractions?

  • Cost to teachers: Teachers’ time is drained, taking them away from opportunities to improve their craft in more meaningful ways.
  • Cost to students: Students potentially lose the opportunity to get engaged in more meaningful and effective ways.

Problem # 4: The meshing hypothesis can’t be fully implemented in schools, anyway.

Teachers’ hands are often tied in terms of assessment. They aren’t able to both teach and assess the same lesson in 3 ways (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Students are differentially engaged, but tested in only one way. This is simply bad practice. It goes against all we know about how knowledge representation and memory work. Learning occurs when a neural network is established representing our initial experience. Elements of this experience captured in the network serve as cues later on: something in the environment has to trigger spreading activation. When there’s a match between the present and the past, spreading activation is smooth and effective. When there isn’t a match, that old network might not get activated, resulting in frustration and guessing. In other words, memory accuracy (or test performance) is maximized when learning and assessment conditions match and is undermined when they differ. So if students aren’t tested in the “style” they were taught in, the assessment won’t yield an index of what was learned.

Problem #5: Financial Costs.

Need I say more? Assessment inventories are incredibly costly. School districts should not spend money on something endorsed by intuition and anecdotes rather than empiricism.

Problem #6: The confirmation bias, writ large.

The last problem takes us back to where we started. Educators love learning styles. They love it because they believe it works. In that class mentioned earlier a student argued, arms crossed with vitriol in her eyes: “I’ve seen it work with my own eyes. When students’ style is assessed and their instructional experience changes, they do better. Everyone in my practicum agreed that the students improved.” To her comment, I replied with pointed questions:

  • How do you know it worked? Did you have a baseline for comparison?
  • Did you engage them in the material in two ways, then assess them in two ways, and compare the outcomes? Did they do better in their style, and worse in their non-preferred style?
  • Can you rule out the possibility that your beliefs may be maintained by confirmation bias? By hindsight bias? Did your practicum instructor talk about biases in thinking?

In other words, biases in thinking are perpetuating the myth of learning styles. We don’t have to be victims of this process though. We can think in more objective terms, we just need practice doing so. So the problem here is getting folks to rise above their natural biases and consider the other side. Or, at the very least we need to get folks to consider alternative explanations for what they see happening in the classroom. The student in my class might be right in noting that the child she was thinking of improved. But it is entirely possible that this child’s performance improved for an entirely different reason. It’s possible that the child improved because s/he was bored before and the new lesson caught their attention.

Where do we go from here?

My point, in sum, is that grass-roots reform emphasizing learning styles is dangerous. However, top-down reform emphasizing high-stakes testing is too. So where do we go from here? Whereas many teachers across the nation work magic with marginal resources, many other teachers are stressed working under sub-optimal conditions, and students suffer. The national attitude at both levels needs to shift. But shift to what? If I had a magic wand to re-write the national agenda, I would do so. I would develop teacher-training programs that emphasize the rich literature in cognitive, developmental, motivational, and social psychology. Psychology has a lot to offer education.

Psychologists need to engage folks in discussion and meaningful, deep debate so we can move away from teaching fads and move towards teaching that will inspire creativity, higher-level reasoning and effective problem solving, in age-appropriate ways. I’m collecting ideas towards this end, and will share them in future posts. Stay tuned.

11 thoughts on “Labeling in the Name of Progress

  1. You sure came out swinging. I must say, this is exactly what I’ve been thinking for a while. I don’t want to give in too much to my own confirmation bias, but when I wrote recently that our current methodology of excessive testing and believing that it proves something was a “clusterf*ck,” I was focused on the same things you mention in Problem #6. All of these biases, even when we know about them, even when we understand them and how they work, are incredibly difficult to overcome. Though I appreciate the intuitions of parents, students, and teachers, I have trouble believing that they are going to deliver the best results. I’ve been known to take students who have ADD outside of the quiet classroom for tutoring sessions, just to push them a little harder and have them experience something new, only to find that they pay attention in the middle of a busy library or even a Starbucks. By saying, “maybe that was the diagnosis before, but let’s just try this–it might help,” a lot of kids will come along and give it a shot, often to their betterment. I’d suggest that teachers, when faced with a student who says, “but this is how I learn,” say, “sure, but let’s try something new. You might be surprised.” Chances are, the student will.

  2. This is great! For some reason, out of all the things I learned in graduate school, learning styles was the one that grabbed me the least. But I always felt a little guilty for ignoring it. By contrast, the most useful thing I learned was about the brain’s ability to grow, change, and strengthen, depending on how much “exercise” it receives. When I share this idea with my students and reinforce it throughout the year (and believe in it myself), I notice huge improvements in student motivation. And I agree with you that the idea of fixed learning styles completely flies in the face of this research. If a student believes that s/he can only learn in one way, s/he will only practice learning in that one way, and his/her brain will only get “buff” (as I explain it to my students) in that one way. This entry is brilliant! I’m sharing it with my principal.

    1. I’m delighted with your response – thanks. If looking at this stimulated any sort of discussion in the faculty lounge, I’d be curious to see a synopsis of your principal’s and colleagues’ reactions too. I am most interested in knowing, over time, whether posts like this can make enough waves to effect even a glimmering of positive change.

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About EricaK

As a professor and a parent, I think a lot about education. Turns out that the topics I teach (e.g., cognitive and developmental psychology) inform my thoughts about teaching, and that is what I want to write about here.