The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’

Apr 13, 2018

By Olga Khazan

In the early ‘90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of watching 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently?

Fleming zeroed in on how it is that people like to be presented information. For example, when asking for directions, do you prefer to be told where to go or to have a map sketched for you?

Today, 16 questions like this comprise the vark questionnaire that Fleming developed to determine someone’s “learning style.” Vark, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic,” sorts students into those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through “kinesthetic” experiences.  (“I learned much later that vark is Dutch for “pig,” Fleming wrote later, “and I could not get a website called because a pet shop in Pennsylvania used it for selling aardvarks—earth pigs!”)

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8 comments on “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’

  • This article conflates “learning for life” with “remembering for a test”. Educationalists are often the least skilled at assessing the utility of knowledge in an individual, through no fault of their own but themselves trained to jump through SATs test hoops. (Contrast with Finnish school teachers who have exactly the skills needed.)

    The little video at the end has some useful ideas in it. Susan Greenfield’s emphasis on narratives and Tim Brown’s on cultivating the skill of asking questions of seeing what’s missing, are the best.

    Memorability isn’t the same as retaining for utility of solving problems. Any number of people exhibit astonishing memories without being able to put the “facts” to work. Not remembering a fact, having difficulty remembering a fact, may be as much a problem of integrating that fact into the mega-model you are forming of how things interact and work together. I certainly don’t feel obliged to remember all people want me to remember if it is patently useless to me. We triage the inbound to test if it meets a need.

    Interestingly a converse of this can happen. People remember less well neatly sewn up theories. Knowledge presented as a half told story, that hangs together for us but has some missing pieces seems to get us to remember for later, so we can scout for the lost pieces and solve the puzzle. We love puzzle stories, detective fiction and the like, that need great attention and retention of detail.

    Visual, auditory etc. are stupid superficial dichotomies. These regions of the brain aren’t the problem solving areas. Its the prefrontal cortex does the inferential work. The visual cortex is a mere cognising-majig. I solve problems almost entirely by making models in topological space and moving bits around until things work better. Others, less aspie and systemising may see problems in much more human form, seeing emotional needs in conflict that need resolving, of being caught between obstinate rocks and callous hard places. Our internal models and metaphysical vocabulary may be rather more where the differences in learning lie.

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  • @OP – Vark, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic,”
    sorts students into those who learn best visually,
    through aural or heard information, through reading,
    or through “kinesthetic” experiences.

    The important leg on a three-legged stool, is the one which is missing!

    These inputs need to be co-ordinated and joined up!

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  • Hi Phil [#1],

    I largely agree with you, and I am very much aware that my opinion is not based on facts.

    Finland is clearly doing many things right in education – from the viewpoint of the Center for Inquiry – which gives us a statistics-based reason to ask what they’re doing right.

    If the Center for Inquiry is to take its mission seriously, however, then the first task is not to ask: What is Finland doing right? Or the corollary (assuming we find the statistics convincing): What are other countries – including your own, if you’re not Finnish – doing wrong?

    The first question is: Where is the political will to investigate, factually, what makes a good education?

    The reason this is the first question is that the answer will motivate those who can see that current institutions do not meet the needs of democratic society.

    My own position, which bears constant repetition, is that democracies educate their citizens to the highest level of their individual ability and motivation – or they are, quite simply, not democracies. We can tack on to that a whole series of other, less focused, goals for education such as: Maximizing the individual student’s utility to society at large, or amplifying student’s potential to lead a happy, fulfilled, life, and so on …

    Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Countries that are not Finland do not have education systems like Finland because they lack the political will to pursue the same socio-political goals as Finland i.e. the above goals. They are lesser democracies, QED.

    We can rave and rant all we like about how education ought to be run – we’re just spitting into the wind without the backing of the plebs.

    Religion got here before us. The Center for Inquiry faces the daunting task of overcoming ingrained attitudes to education, much of which are informed by a religious-political agenda of conformance, the trope that remembering = intelligence and the dogma that questioning authority is bad. In the Atlantic’s story (the OP above) we see another angle: Pseudo-science in education research that is supported – in defiance of the facts – because it supports the preconceived notions of leading lights who are themselves the products of education systems that prioritize what ’feels right’ over critical analysis and that a creed trumps actual thinking.

    The plebs are therefore, literally, pre-programmed to find fact-based policy at the very least suspicious – and at the extreme anti-social, anti-human and, of course, anti-religion. Nowhere is this more fiercely defended and promoted by the religious than in the field of education. Home Schooling religious wing nuts are merely the extreme of the extreme.

    This is, by the natural flow of the generations, extended to the political establishment; policies based on retaining social structure by misusing education as a tool of oppression is an almost global phenomenon (Finland is among a tiny number of outliers).

    The flip side is opposition politicians who misuse education as a base for policies on equalizing opportunity – largely by inventing systems designed to undermine the emergence of experts likely to question future politicians and by curbing the opportunities of students who, by the accident of birth, happen to belong to a larger minority and thus creating future voters for their political opponents. The post-modern regressive left, in particular, is throwing fuel on this fire-to-burn-democracy.

    I know of no politicians who do not add kowtowing to organized religions in order to gain votes. Frequently, they do this even though it undermines what ought to be their primary concerns. I’m assuming them to be supporters of democracy – which I admit is something of a leap of faith on the evidence they present. It is little wonder, frankly, that sectarianism – and religious sectarianism in particular – is on the rise.

    Where is the academy that is sifting through the research on education, naming the pseudo-science and building a clear framework for fact-based education research? Who, in short, is finding out why Finland does so well? More importantly; where is the academy that is calling out the other ’academies’ on their lack of fact and rigor?

    Where is the politician that is fighting for a democracy-based, fact- grounded and critically supportable policy on education? More importantly; where is the politician speaking out and holding the secular (i.e. religion neutral) line in education in the English-speaking World? One would be a nice-to-have. We need, of course, thousands.

    Where are the media, the educators of the adults, meeting their social and political obligations by championing fact-based policy and the democratic basis of extensive education for all?

    Where are the plebs, including us, who understand these imperatives, these lost opportunities and the consequent loss of progressive value that would save and enrich billions of human lives? We are not recruiting, yet there is a huge group of untapped voters out there ready to hear and understand the message.

    I would like to think I am no slouch. Sharing, as I did, two homes and friendships with teachers; I have been made fully aware of the careless nature of the ’science’ that underpins much of modern education – and of the atrocious lack of quality in every and any political debate on education in every country where I happened to be present and heard such debate.

    But, like every other pleb, I have many daily concerns and, although I am not side-tracked like many of my fellow voters by bread and circuses (home-delivered pizza, Cable TV and a game in the park on Saturday) – a political gambit as old as Ancient Rome – I still struggle to find time to be an active participant in the political process. I need that help I listed above. Without it I know, just as I said at the beginning, I am operating in a fact-free zone.

    While we have made great political strides in recent decades – in this, the second most important political fight today after the defense of Free Speech: We still lack leadership, we still lack a political foundation and we still lack organization among the voters.


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  • Stephen of Wimbledon #3
    Apr 14, 2018 at 7:11 am

    I was commenting over here, that those who quietly work at getting things right in education, get little credit for their work in the media, while buffoons like Gove, Pickles, Farage, and Boris. Johnson, get constant coverage!

    Unfortunately under Blair, the theocrats still got representatives giving input into education legislation and organisation, involving “faith-schools”!

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  • Hi, Stephen.

    You may not be surprised by to find I mostly agree with you too.

    China is interesting. It is going through a period of great bread and circusses anaesthetising the populace during a great period of zero democratic opportunity.

    Mostly the technocrats are sustaining growth, palpably lifting nearly all out of that popular fifties image of China as the poorest country in the world. The golden goose period will come to an end in a few decades and then the demand for some political accountablity during the flat topped period of wealth will need answering.

    If the Chinese leadership do this rationally, Emperor Xi Jinping will have educated his people within an inch of their lives. Free individuals of great enough education will tend rather to agree with each other, because Facts…. and the staged emergence of a democracy can get underway.

    I will be watching China’s education investments and policy to see where Emperor Xi expects this to go. Lots of education suggests a Democratic terminus.

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  • Hi Alan [#4],

    It is in the nature of politics in general, I observe, that a lot of the hard work gets done with little or no fanfare.

    Politics itself is turned, by a media hungry for 24 hours of rolling ‘newstainment’, into one of the circuses so perfectly designed to distract us plebs while vested interests plough many an anti-social furrow. Trump is the latest in a long line – and custom-made for the job. Yes, I said custom-made and I meant custom-made.

    With apologies to non-Brits, but Alan will know what I mean: Labour MP Frank Field did a similar thing in the pensions field to your old colleague in education – he is a largely forgotten, even an unknown, hero and many people will grow old owing him thanks.

    Unfortunately there is another side to the coin. What is Betsy deVos actually up to?

    Whatever it is; there are many like me who are US citizens – they need to know they have the backing, they need to be ready.


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  • Hi Phil [#5],

    I agree that watching China is interesting. Rather, I imagine, like being at the base of the volcano and having a drink with friends while watching the ‘fireworks’ in the knowledge that you’re a safe distance away. A lot of fun until you realise just how fast that pyroclastic flow is heading directly towards you …

    It seems likely that China will follow other Eastern Tiger economies (as they used to be called) into a slump at some point. There is something truly extraordinary about the way that economics is ignored by politicians – they’re never ready for the downturn.

    I like the idea that a substantial investment in education would signal a totalitarian regime’s transition to a democracy. In fact, I can see how that would work – even if unwitting. One of the few good things about politicians is that there are nearly always unintended consequences to their actions.

    I’m quite surprized to get away with post #3 without being labelled a Jeremiah.

    While everything I said, I believe, bears up under scrutiny; I posted at a time when people are marching in their thousands for science and reason and at a moment when we learned that more US Scientists have decided to stand for Congress than ever before.

    If these kinds of things do not peter-out, if they can be sustained – grow, even – then we are seeing the first straws in the wind of change.

    I follow the Moskva

    Down to Gorky Park

    Listening to the wind of change

    I was there. Change, big change, can happen. The lesson from Gorky Park is never stop pushing – in politics the job is never, ever, done.


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  • There is something truly extraordinary about the way that economics is ignored by politicians – they’re never ready for the downturn.

    I think I disagree a little with this. Having recently read Ja Hoon Chang’s Bad Samaritans, I don’t believe any Pacific Rim economy has been of the classical neo-liberal, free market faith. They appear far more seeing markets as a means to an end. And Japan is mostly happy with their post industrial plateau and seem happy to maintain it. Watching South Korea plateau next will be another interesting view.

    The US, however, can have no such terminus, with its wild inequality, the hero status of its hyper selfish individuals unable to get satisfaction from a pathetic coupla billion.

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