The sorting hat: Debunking the myth of multiple learning styles

Each child learns differently. But do learning styles still matter? Dr Selina Samuels explains.

Learning styles myth students sitting ipads
Dr Selina Samuels Chief Learning Officer BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The idea that specific learning styles (visual, auditory, reading and kinaesthetic) apply to every student has finally been dispelled.

Sure, every child is different, but enough evidence now exists to suggest that people aren’t really one certain kind of learner or another.

And yet even though ‘learning styles’ are no longer a category of learner characteristics that a teacher needs to know, the idea that each learner falls into a particular group (the sorting hat of education) which requires a specific teaching approach is remarkably persistent.

The actual reality is much simpler.

Lots of factors contribute to the way children learn

Learning is affected by a child’s underlying skills in numeracy and/or literacy, how much sleep they had the night before, the amount of academic pressure they’re under, anything going on at home, and a range of other social factors. In short, each student brings her whole life to every lesson.

Because of this, labelling someone an auditory, visual or kinaesthetic learner is clearly reductive. And although all students are different, with different lifestyle factors that impact each and every lesson, there are ways to absorb knowledge that are common to most learners, no matter the subject or their age.

Common ways that children learn:

1. Encouraging transparency and driving clarity

As a parent, you can really help your child by explaining or showing them why they study certain subjects. Don’t let them get away with the familiar wail, “I’ll never need to know this in my life!” Tell them why Maths is vital to so many jobs, managing a budget, or even running a household. Explain why being able to present a coherent and logical argument might just help them in every facet of their social and professional interactions.

If they don’t know why their teacher gave them a certain mark, urge them to ask. A mark without explanation is meaningless and will only do harm. Transparency and clarity are vital elements in the relationship between teacher and student and, if you don’t feel they are being honoured by your child’s teacher or school, you may need to be your child’s advocate.

2. Breaking up information into digestible pieces

Most students (most people, for that matter) don’t take too well to large streams of information that they need to process and absorb. Students may be given a lot of resources to summarise, or a textbook to navigate. The important thing is to break both the content and the tasks down into logical and accessible ‘chunks’ of information that they can tackle one at a time. This gives them a sense of achievement on the one hand, and on the other allows them to build their understanding sequentially. Each chunk becomes a building block for the next, and so on.

3. Making connections across concepts

As most adults know, knowledge isn’t really restricted to narrow categories. And yet in school, subjects are taught in silos. One of the problems with this approach is that students can’t see the connections between the different things they’re studying and become blinkered learners – less able to apply what they know in one context to what they know in another.

There’s also evidence that building cognitive connections between pieces of information strengthens the neural pathways in the brain and therefore the ability for a student to retain and reuse the information. That means that rather than students having to memorise information for an exam (and almost immediately forgetting it), they’ll just know it.

4. Learning by teaching others

A great way for children to consolidate and apply what they’ve learned is for them to teach others. As a parent, you can gain insight into what your child is doing at school and also gauge their level of comprehension by asking them to teach it to you. It’s also nice for kids to feel like they’re teaching their parents something. Be careful, though, and remember that this is not an opportunity to correct them or to show that you actually know more, tempting as it may be. If they’re the teacher, let them have the floor.

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