When it comes to learning, we all have different abilities. So what’s a teacher to do when faced with a classroom full of students who learn in various ways? The answer may shock you. Nothing
According to Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, cognitive science demonstrates that “teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality.” In other words, if a concept is most effectively taught by incorporating hearing or seeing or touching into a lesson, this is best way for all students to learn the material.
One student may be a more visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner. Another may be a naturally gifted musician, mathematician, or athlete. Nobody is going to take this away from them. It’s just that, as Willingham demonstrates, “All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.”
This does not mean “one size fits all” when it comes to learning. Clearly, some students learn quickly, while others require repetition to master concepts. One student may be ready to move on to the next math skills group, while another needs more time. Teachers can cater to their classes by modifying the pace of instruction or creating more opportunities for repetition, while at the same time letting content drive teaching methodology. Assuming instruction focuses on the best way to communicate content, introducing multiple modalities can prove effective, engage students, and reinforce the lesson.
But what about the child’s individual learning style? Isn’t it more logical to present content in a way that addresses one’s best modality? And what about all those teachers working to prepare lesson plans that can accommodate the different types of learners in their classrooms?
D-Ed Reckoning states that it’s easy to misinterpret student behaviors since an observed learning style could mask underlying complex cognitive traits. For example, a student may compensate for weakness in one area (e.g., reading) by asking lots of questions or talking through ideas. The teacher might conclude the child is an auditory learner, while unintentionally ignoring the basic problem.
The post goes on to explain, “The myth of learning styles is based on three faulty premises: learning styles are intrinsic, learning styles can be assessed, learning styles can be matched to instructional styles… these differences may be expressed as learning styles and modalities, multiple intelligences, and differing interests, [none of which] has any empirical support nor has any been shown to have an effect on learning or instruction.”
Willingham supports this claim, saying, “…the possible effects of matching instructional modality to a student’s modality strength have been extensively studied and have yielded no positive evidence.” While he does not dispute that students learn differently or that content may be best taught using more than one modality, he strongly recommends that teachers focus on the content’s best modality not the student’s.