What’s What in Education? No. 1
Learning Styles-Based Instruction (February, 2022)
Dialogue overheard in a graduate education class:
Professor: Does it make sense for a teacher to provide instruction in a manner that is closely matched to the way in which a student is most comfortable and capable of learning?
Student: Uh…lemme guess. Yes?
Professor: Well then. Let us see.
In the 1970s, many members of the Woodstock generation turned to teaching as a profession. The idea of being able to mold the minds of a new generation of learners was appealing. The working conditions were thought to be good. The salary was good enough for a single person starting a new career.
During these years, the concept of teaching students based on how they learned best (their “Learning Style”) grew into a popular movement, based primarily on the work of Drs. Ken and Rita Dunn of St. Johns University in New York. The Dunns’ were not the first to explore this approach, but the way they presented it was easy to grasp and seemed more “teacher friendly” than the work of the educational researchers whose work preceded them. Shortly thereafter, highly respected researchers, David Kolb and Anthony Gregorc each offered their own research-based models and Bernice McCarthy introduced her 4MAT System, another teacher-oriented approach. Dr. McCarthy developed a large following on the lecture circuit.
Perhaps the “final straw” cementing the value of the Learning Styles approach was the overwhelmingly positive response to the publication of Dr. Howard Gardiners’ work on Multiple Intelligence, most notably in his book, Frames of Mind (1983). Here was documentation that people have at least seven different types of intelligence from which their learning ability develops. He actually added a few more types in 1999, but the dye had already been cast. If we are to honor the learning abilities of our students, teachers need to attend to all of their individual intelligences.
When Teaching Students to Read Through Their Individual Learning Styles was published in 1986 (authored by the Dunns, along with Marie Carbo) it became standard fare in most teacher education institutions.
As is the norm in the education profession, a vast array of college courses, workshops and in-service courses, keynote speakers, State and National conferences and on-site support teams emerged to “help” teachers learn and apply the various Learning Style models. For some time, it was a cottage industry across the country. Teachers were learning to accommodate student preferences in the classroom environment, in their emotional state, sociological and physiological needs, and, of course, in their psychological wellness. All of this effort came with the promise of producing higher levels of student achievement.
Did teaching students through their preferred Learning Style result in improved learning?
A Meta-Analytic Validation of the Dunn and Dunn Model of Learning-Style Preferences Rita Dunn Shirley A. Griggs Jeffery Olson Mark Beasley Bernard S. Gorman Pages 353–362 | Published online: 15 Jul 2010
Experimental studies based on the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Model and conducted between 1980 and 1990 were identified to determine the value of teaching students through their learning-style preferences. The 36 studies provided a database of 3,181 participants.
“Students whose learning styles are accommodated would be expected to achieve 75% of a standard deviation higher than students who have not had their learning styles accommodated. This finding indicates that matching students’ learning-style preferences with educational interventions compatible with those preferences is beneficial to their academic achievement.”
Meta-Analysis of Experimental Research Based on the Dunn and Dunn Model Maryann Kiely Lovelace Pages 176–183 | Published online: 07 Aug 2010
The author performed a quantitative synthesis of experimental research conducted between 1980 and 2000, in which the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model (R. Dunn & K. Dunn, 1993, 1999) was used. “The results overwhelmingly supported the position that matching students’ learning-style preferences with complementary instruction improved academic achievement and student attitudes toward learning.”
Curry’s (1987) review of different learning/cognitive style models reports the Dunns’ Learning Style Inventory as having one of the highest reliability and validity ratings.
Perceptual Learning Style and Learning Proficiency: A Test of the Hypothesis, Kratzig and Arbuthnott, 2006
“So far, there is no evidence to suggest that teaching students according to their preferred Learning Style has any positive effect on performance.”
Brain-Based Learning, Myth versus Reality: Testing Learning Styles and Dual Coding Josh Cuevas on October 12, 2014
“The vast majority of the research published in favor of learning styles has been comprised of correlational studies that could not test the matching hypothesis, identify interaction effects, or show causation. Many other favorable studies were published in predatory, pay-to-publish journals with highly questionable publishing standards.” “Ultimately, while no one denies that there are cognitive and personality differences in individuals, the current evidence casts serious doubt on both the existence of learning styles and, if they do exist, their ability to influence learning.”
Although the research evidence is mixed, teaching students based on their preferred Learning Style is philosophically consistent with the research and recommendations of both Howard Gardiner (Multiple Intelligences) and, more recently, the work of Charlotte Danielson (Differentiated Instruction). In 2018, John Hattie (author of Visible Learning) ranked Matching Style of Learning as having an effect size of 0.31, which placed it close to, but below, his criteria of 0.40 for “recommended strategies.” Finally, the growing ranks of advocates for what has been labeled The Science of Learning (Linda Darling-Hammond and others) suggest a new purpose for education that includes, “Educators (who) can identify each child’s talents, interests, and aspirations and align them with learning opportunities designed to promote them and build on them to create new competencies.” Sounds a lot like Learning Styles-Based Instruction, eh? While it is entirely counter-intuitive to suggest that this instructional strategy is ineffective, some members of the educational community seem intent on proving it so. Why? I don’t know. And, honestly, I don’t care. An instructional approach that focuses on and accommodates the individual strengths and needs of every student is one to be embraced. The logical results of this approach include: an accepting and supportive relationship between the student and the teacher; respect for the students’ prior achievement; and, the setting of appropriately challenging goals. If this is your thing…go for it!
Teaching Students to Read Through Their Individual Learning Styles: A Practical Approach, Marie Carbo, Kenneth Dunn, Rita Dunn, 1986
Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardiner, 1983
The Framework for Teaching (Evaluation Instrument)2013 Edition, Charlotte Danielson,
Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action By SoLD Alliance, 2021 Learning Policy Institute: Linda Darling-Hammond, Laura E. Hernández, Abby Schachner, and Sara Plasencia