Neuromyths: Wait, Learning Styles Isn't a Thing?
Updated: Jul 30
The following blogpost is based on the article Neuromyths: debunking the misconceptions about our brains by Anne-Laure Le Cunff.
I learned it in a professional development session at work, so it has to be true, right? WRONG!!
l have believed every neuromyth referenced in Le Cunff's article at least once in my life, and some I have assumed to be true while questioning them. For example, using 10% of the brain I assumed to be true since it was broadcasted everywhere from online blogs to movies but always thought it didn't make much sense--why would we continue having brains if most used only 10% of it--wouldn't most people not survive into long life if the brain is supposed to be the most important organ in the body? It makes a good motivational speech for an individual to work to their fullest potential or a cool plot twist in a movie, but if it was reality, we would really be in a sad state of affairs.
Of all of the myths that I've held onto the longest, I would say it's the different learning styles, only because teaching for 15 years, my experiences with young people suggested that they did indeed have different learning "styles;" however, it makes sense based on Le Cunff's (2022) article that these are more preferences than styles of learning. Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork (2009) noted "ample evidence" of learners of all ages expressing "preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them" and even differing to having "aptitudes for different kinds of thinking" and "processing" information, but found "no evidence" for "validating the educational applications of learning styles" (p. 105). Rohrer & Pashler (2012) went on to do further research in this area, and while "At first blush, style-based instruction seems to be supported by a large empirical literature," the reality of the literature review found around "20 studies" that tested styles-based instruction" with "results of most of them [being] compellingly negative" (p. 634). Only "three appropriately designed studies . . . yielded a positive finding" and Rohrer & Pashler (2012) noted that "these findings [were] not very convincing" (p. 634). Ironically, there is a large industry of teaching resources, professional development, and online blogs pushing a styles-approach to education that just isn't scientifically based. It seems like we've all been duped into a cash cow that just sounds right--like those seeking the "Limitless" pill to access the 90% of the brain we already use.
After researching styles-based instruction, it's clear that our verbiage as educators needs to shift from styles to preferences. What I wonder is how much more work can actually be done when we shift our approach from styles to preferences? Acknowledging preferences seems to shift us even more toward a student-centered approach and growth mindset rather than styles, which suggests more of a fixed mindset (we all have certain styles and we can't change them). Upon reflection, learning preferences also better aligns with my personal experience as I would ask students when writing IEP reports what their "learning styles" are; interestingly, if I had students multiple years in a row, their "styles" shifted year to year and they would always have multiple "styles" they identified with. I also wonder how much the styles-approach industry would collapse if the truth got out there that they're pushing an agenda that isn't backed by science.
Le Cunff, A.L. (2022). Neuromyths: Debunking the misconceptions about our brains. Ness Labs. https://nesslabs.com/neuromyths (Links to an external site.)
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x (Links to an external site.)
Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: Where's the evidence? Medical Education, 46(7), 634-635. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04273.x