Learning Styles: Controversies, Misconceptions, and Definitions
Marjorie Rosenberg, originally from the US, taught at the tertiary level for over twenty years in Graz, Austria and currently works with corporate clients, trains teachers and writes ELT materials. Marjorie served as the Chair of TEA (Teachers of English in Austria) from 2003 - 2005 and as IATEFL BESIG (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language Business English Special Interest Group) Coordinator from 2009 - 2015. From April 2015 - April 2018 she held the posts of IATEFL VP and President as a member of the IATEFL Board of Trustees. Email: email@example.com
My first encounter with learning styles was some thirty years ago in a training session held for adult educators by the Chamber of Commerce in Austria. The discovery that people learn differently was eye-opening to me as it helped to explain the successes and failures I had had myself as a language learner. After that first introduction, I became very interested in the topic and began to study different styles, experiment in language classes with ideas and look into ways to help students who had questions about learning a language.
Much to my surprise, several years ago I began reading newspaper articles and posts on social media with titles such as ‘Learning styles don’t work’ or ‘Debunking the myth of learning styles’. I have attempted to follow the arguments and the claims that styles either don’t exist or it isn’t necessary to take them into account. What I would like to do in this article is to address these points and explain my point of view regarding the differences I have observed over the years of teaching and working as a teacher trainer.
It is unclear to me what is meant by the comment ‘learning styles don’t work’. In my opinion, they are not supposed to ‘work’, they are simply a method we have at hand for learning more about individual learners in order to help them achieve their goals. I agree wholeheartedly that adapting instruction to fit each individual style is not only very difficult to do but most likely not very helpful in the classroom. Instead, knowing a variety of methods and approaches that we can use gives learners new possibilities to experiment and develop new strategies to help them be successful language learners.
Definitions and models
First of all, I think it is necessary to pinpoint which styles may actually come into question for teachers. Over the years a number of styles have been defined which adds to the confusion of what to do in the classroom. Based on a combination of classroom observation, two small-scale research projects and discussions with a wide range of educators, I have limited my use of ‘styles’ to the three areas mentioned by Andrew Cohen as being useful to understanding the process of language learning. These are: sensory/perceptual, cognitive and personality-related preferences. For me this translates to three models: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic perception based on research by Walter Barbe and Raymond Swassing (1979); global and analytic cognitive processing as defined by Herman Witkin (1977), and a model called ‘Mind Organisation’ created by April Bowie (1997) which determines preferred behaviour in learners.
The main point of this article, however, deals with misconceptions about the use of styles. It is important that they are not seen as limitations; in fact, once we are aware of our own strengths it is easier to try out new ideas and experiment with new ideas and with learning in general. In some cases, learners will do this on their own, in others the teacher can challenge learners to take chances and stretch out of their preferred styles.
Styles are also not ‘right or wrong’; some may just be more conducive than others for learning a particular subject. It is also necessary to differentiate between style and competence. Not everything is easy or enjoyable to learn but when the motivation is there, learners find ways to succeed in spite of their difficulties. It should also be kept in mind that the goal of working with styles is not to pigeon-hole learners but simply to be aware of the differences and use a mix of methods to reach as many students as possible. In cases where a learner has not understood a concept, explaining it in a different way may help him or her to grasp the concept. When we first harmonise with learners and then challenge them, we can help them to stretch out of their preferred modes and become autonomous and independent learners. As Guild and Garger say ‘it is possible to strive for uniform outcomes but to intentionally diversify the means for achieving them’.
Another misconception is the idea that a style can be used as an excuse. Recognising our own strengths and weaknesses does not mean that we can just give up if something we need to learn is outside our comfort zone. The goal, however, is to create a situation in which a learner is cognizant of these strengths and weaknesses in order to make use of them and expand beyond them. In fact ‘it is important to point out that the responsibility lies with the learner to discover means of adapting to the instruction as much as it is the responsibility of the teacher to help the learner do that.’ (Rosenberg 2011)
For those who have asked for ‘evidence of styles’ I would argue that eliminating the concept of styles from our teaching does not take the learners’ own experience into account. When a learner has determined what he or she needs in order to be successful, this should be respected. It may be the case that when we ask our learners what helps them to learn, we will gain valuable insight into the types of activities we plan for the classroom. Teaching and learning is a two-way street and each of us is a vital part of the journey. Remaining flexible and embracing the idea that one-size does not fit all can only enhance the experience of learning and lead us to a wide variety of methods and approaches which will be beneficial to both our students and to us as educators and life-long learners.
Barbe, WB and Swassing, RH (1979) Teaching Through Modality Strengths: Concepts and Practices, Coumbus: Zaner-Bloser
Bowie, A (1997) A Mind Organisation, Seattle: The Learning Styles Institute
Cohen: A (2002) ‘Focus on the Language Learner: Styles, Strategies and Motivation’ in Schmitt N (Ed) An Introduction to Applied Linguistics (pp. 161-178), 2nd ed. London: Hodder Education
Guild, PB and Garger, S (1998) Marching to Different Drummers, Alexandria: Association for supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
Rosenberg, M. (2016) ‘Learning Styles and Learning Strategies’, research paper, Treffpunkt Sprachen at the University of Graz, Austria
Rosenberg, M. (2013) Spotlight on Learning Styles, Peaslake: Delta Publishing
Rosenberg, M. (2011) ‘Learning Styles: Learner Differentiated Approaches and Methods’ Hofer, Christian/Schröttner, Barbara (Hrsg.) Looking at Learning (pp. 151-162), Münster: Waxman
Witkin, HA and Goodenaugh, DR (1981) Cognitive Styles: Essence and Origins, New York: International Universities Press
Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website
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