Learning styles: Have we been barking up the wrong tree?

It’s an honour to be writing the first post on this blog–thanks to Lesley Painter-Farrell and Mike Griffin for asking me.

Before you read on, take this quick quiz (you don’t have to tell anyone your answers 😉 )

Do you agree or disagree with these statements?

  1. We mostly only use 10% of our brain.
  2. Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic).
  3. Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners.
  4. Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function.
  5. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic).

At the TESOL conference in Toronto this year my colleague, Patricia Harries, and I presented a study that we’d conducted among teachers in the US and Canada asking questions about the brain and its connection to teaching languages. Like 75–80% of teachers around the world, (according to Pickering and Howard-Jones, 2007) we’re interested in brain science and the latest developments, but like those teachers we’re also unsure about how this translates to classroom practice.

It was an article by Pickering and Howard-Jones from 2007 that originally piqued our interest in this topic and when we dug below the surface we found that there are several ideas in language teaching that language teaching professionals consider to be an accepted part of our practice, but that involve beliefs in what neuroscientists call “neuromyths.” In the Guardian last year an article called “Brain baloney has no place in the classroom” contained a discussion and link to this article by Paul Howard-Jones in which he discusses so-called “neuromyths.” 

What are “neuromyths?” In short, they are commonly mistaken beliefs about the brain and how it works. They’re generally spread when the popular media exaggerate and/or distort report findings, when the research is obscure or difficult to understand, when the theories themselves are impossible to test or, in some cases, because there are vested interests in a programme based on a neuromyth. As a teacher in the Pickering and Howard-Jones study says, “The snake oil sellers are often gifted communicators” (2007:  112), while, as it’s also pointed out in the article, scientists are not always known to be the clearest explainers!

So, what do neuromyths have to do with language teaching? Well, it turns out that one of the most common neuromyths is something that we in language teaching accept as common knowledge and frequently incorporate in our classroom practice–namely, the idea that teaching to learners’ preferred learning styles will enhance learning. Yes, it turns out that what we have been taking for granted as good practice for about 40 years now has no basis in brain science and research into learning. If you go to the sources and read the studies for yourself, there are a few things you will find. 

First of all, there’s the scientific evidence about the way the brain functions – we do process different types of information in different areas of the brain, but there is so much interconnection between these separate areas that it is not correct to say that we can learn just visually, auditorily or kinesthetically. See Dekker et al (2012) for more details.

Then, there are the attempts to identify and classify what the different learning styles are. Coffield et al (2004) look at the many different models of learning styles that have been put forward (they discuss thirteen) and conclude that, “Research into learning styles can, in the main, be characterized as small-scale, non-cumulative, uncritical and inward-looking.” (2004:  135)

Then there are the experiments and empirical evidence that has been put forward to attempt to find a correlation between perceived learning style and learning enhancement. Paschler et al (2009) have done a meta-analysis of this research and conclude that, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility, is in our opinion, striking and disturbing” (2009: 117).  If you want to check a study that finds no correlation between learning style and learning outcome, have a look at Krätzig and Arbuthnott from 2006.
A lot of time and effort is spent in language teaching classrooms deciding whether learners are “visual,” “auditory” or “kinesthetic” learners and how to best accommodate these different styles into our teaching, while neuroscientists regard this as a neuromyth.  Isn’t it time we abandoned the VAK learning style myth and spent more time exploring directions that really do enhance learning?

(BTW, statements 1, 3, 4, 5 are all neuromyths 🙂 and the slides from our TESOL presentation can be viewed here.) 


Author’s biography:

Carol Lethabycarol is  based in San Francisco and  teaches Methods and Materials for TEFL/TESL on the online MATESOL, as well as face-to-face at UC Berkeley Extension. Since starting in the field in 1986, her work as a language teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant has taken her from the UK, where she grew up, to Austria, France, Greece, Mexico, as well as the US. Her website is: http://clethaby.com.




Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning. A Systematic and Critical Review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Dekker,S., Lee, N.C., Howard-Jones, P., and Jolles, J. (2012).  Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers.  Frontiers in Psychology 3/429 1 – 8

Howard-Jones, P (2014)  Neuroscience and education:  myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience Volume 15 December 2014 817-824

Krätzig, G.P. and Arbuthnott, K.D. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 238-246.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Pickering, S. J., and Howard-Jones, P. (2007). Educators’ views on the role of neuroscience in education: findings from a study of UK and international perspectives. Mind Brain Educ. 1, 109–113.

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