The Learning Style Debate

10 Feb

I am sceptical about learning styles.  Much is made of them, CELTA and DELTA trainees are required to learn about them and to plan their lessons taking into account activities that cater to the visual, auditory or kinaesthetic sensibilities of their students, or at least to show evidence of having intended to….  Personally, I don’t doubt that people learn in different ways or have different preferences for processing information, but what I’m not sure about and have yet to see any evidence confirming, is whether changing my teaching to cater for these various styles actually has a positive effect.  Which is why I was very interested to read Katie Lepi’s “The Myth of Learning Styles” on the Edudemic blog, which presents the arguments against.  The fantastic infographic from her piece is reproduced below.

teflgeek learning styles

The original learning styles model came from the work of David Kolb, who, in the seventies, first posited his experiential learning cycle and the subsequent learning styles that could be discerned in it.  There then followed a five year argument in the journals as to the validity of his approach with many eminent academics pointing out there was no evidence for his claims.  These days, his ideas seem fairly mainstream though I suspect the way they are viewed academically depends on which field the academic concerned ploughs for a living.

In essence, Kolb borrows from earlier work by Lewin who posits a cycle :  Abstract Conceptualization – Active Experimentation – Concrete Experience – Reflective Observation and back again.  The learning process, it is argued, follows this cycle:  you have an idea, you try it out, you get your data and you decide whether it worked or not and what to do next.

Kolb then identifies four different learning styles, which rely on aspects of these cycles for their learning, where these aspects are divided into (a) how we do things and (b) how we think about things.

  • Divergers (Concrete Experience / Reflective Observation)
  • Assimilators (Abstract Conceptualization / Reflective Observation)
  • Convergers (Abstract Conceptualization / Active Experimentation)
  • Accommodators (Concrete Experience / Active Experimentation)

On a personal note – this seems somewhat unsatisfying to me and appears to unnecessarily bracket people in certain categories, surely these are better seen as learning skills that individuals can draw on at any given point, which are underwritten by the learning concepts described in the cycle?  I write this as someone who has clearly not read much of Kolb’s original writings….

Honey & Mumford, basing their work on that of Kolb, adapted these descriptions into, for want of a better term, “plain English”.

  • Activists are Accommodators
  • Reflectors are Divergers
  • Theorists are Assimilators
  • Pragmatists are Convergers

Activists are doers – they learn by experimenting and trying things out, often without considering the consequences.  They tend to have relatively short attention spans, quickly getting bored and moving on to the next thing.

Reflectors are watchers – they learn by observing the environment, gathering as much data as they can and then drawing their own conclusions.  They tend to be more cautious and to let other people make most of the running before making their own opinions known.

Theorists are thinkers – they learn by formulating a theory and then by integrating any data they have into that theory – either proving the theory or discarding it in favour of a replacement.  They prefer objective data and tend to take a logical approach to things – they can be quite rigid and dismissive of anything that doesn’t fit their theories.

Pragmatists are, unsurprisingly, practical.  They like to see what works and what doesn’t and are keen to try new ideas out and see what happens.  They love looking for new ideas to try out and tend to be more down to earth and problem solvers.

Where I think the idea of learning styles falls down slightly, is when it gets lumped together with the idea of multiple intelligences.  Jim Wingate’s 1996 articles for ETP contain a 49 item questionnaire that is intended to help teachers and learners identify which type of intelligence is dominant with them:  linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial (visual), musical, bodily – kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Wingate’s argument is that by identifying dominant types of intelligence in students and the classroom, the teacher can select activities which appeal to the learner’s intelligence type and therefore maximise the effectiveness of the input.

There are, in my view, some problems with this.

Firstly, an intelligence type is not the same thing as a learning style – the way you think and the types of activities you like to do may, or may not correspond with the way you learn, but the automatic association is for me at least, troubling.

Secondly, there is no evidence that it makes any difference.  The key article here is Pashler et al “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” which concludes “there is no adequate evidence to justify incorporating learning style assessments into educational practice”.  Their article goes on to cast doubt on the rigour of some of the studies which do show a correlation and points out that in general studies with a sound methodological base tend to contradict the idea of differentiated instruction for learning styles.

Thirdly, it presents a very black and white view of the way people learn.  A preference is just that, a preference.  I have a preference for tea over coffee and chicken over fish.  But I enjoy coffee and fish when I have them and will sometimes prefer them to the tea and chicken options.  Mackenzie (in Multiple Intelligences and Instructional Technology) makes the point that (a) Everyone has all the intelligences (b) you can strengthen an intelligence (c) any such survey is only ever going to be a snapshot of that particular moment and (d) the purpose of MI theory is to help people, not label them.

I don’t doubt that learning style questionnaires and multiple intelligence assessments can be useful tools in helping learners to be more aware of their cognitive processes and in identifying educational strategies they might find more enjoyable.  Equally, I think the single most valuable contribution learning style theory may have made is in pushing the concept of variety firmly into the classroom and I will continue to include as much variety in my lessons as they (or the learners) need.  But while my learners are multiple and they are intelligent – I just don’t think they don’t need me to cater to their style.

Postscript (added 11/02/14):

Russ Mayne, who blogs at the excellent and always readable “Evidence based EFL”, shared his own post on the credibility or lack thereof of learning styles theory.  His post, “Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching“, is a very well argued deconstruction of learner style theory and he makes the point that it is also a bit of a sacred cow in EFL and while criticism of the idea is allowed, you aren’t allowed to discard it entirely.  It occurs to me in this context that just as a fact is merely a theory which hasn’t been disproved yet, an unproven theory is actually only a belief.  The problem with beliefs is that they tend to require you to invest your emotional and psychological selves and it is very difficult, having committed so much of yourself to an idea, to give that idea up; as negation of the belief equates in some respects to negation of the self.  But then, this is why we do research, right?  I look forward to seeing any confirmatory evidence for learning styles in due course.

References & Further Reading:

Mackenzie, Walter, 2005 “Multiple Intelligences and Instructional Technology”, ISTE Publications.

Mobbs, Richard “Honey & Mumford” retrieved from:

Pashler et al, 2008, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 3.:  retrieved from

Wingate, Jim, 1996.  “Multiple Intelligences” English Teaching Professional:  retrieved from:


5 Responses to “The Learning Style Debate”

  1. Marisa Constantinides Tuesday 11 February 2014 at 11:40 #

    Reblogged this on DELTA Course Blog and commented:
    Great post on this debate and David Petrie takes a stance with some very good arguments and a good review of existing literature. What do you think?

  2. paulreaduk Tuesday 11 February 2014 at 13:20 #

    Cheers, David – great post. Thanks for the links.
    It seems intuitively obvious to me that you’re right and task variety in lessons is the important factor here for facilitating learning (although I admit I haven’t seen the first-hand data on that, either! For all I know, people learn just the same if they plod through endless repetitive exercises..!).
    Things like “multiple intelligences” get passed around in education as if they were fact – the Wingate article being an example. Assertions are made, but without reference to any evidence. This is usually well-intentioned and probably harmless, and teachers on the ground almost certainly ignore most of it anyway. Sometimes, though, the lack of critical thinking leads to massive time- and money-wastes like “Brain Gym” which actively promote the teaching of nonsense:
    The onus must surely be on the people promoting this or that wheeze to show that it actually improves retention of knowledge, or has some other tangible benefit to students. In the meantime I’ll go on using an unadulterated and spiritually pure form of the Paul Method…!

  3. teachingbattleground Tuesday 11 February 2014 at 18:51 #

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. teacherphili Wednesday 12 February 2014 at 11:18 #

    An interesting, well-argued piece, David. Thanks.


  1. More Educational Mythbusting | teflgeek - Wednesday 11 February 2015

    […] theories are completely wrong, just that the claims that are made for them are unproven.  I have said elsewhere that I find learning styles unconvincing and that most of what I have read suggests teaching to a […]

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