As is often the case, ideas in education become industries and when those industries are finally debunked it is the original idea that becomes most maligned. Such is the case with the enthusiastic pronouncement that teaching to learning styles, an accepted practice for the past several decades, is unsupported by actual research. Unfortunately, the research used to fan this finding has morphed into an industry that challenges, not so much teaching to learning styles, but the idea that not all students learn at the same rate and in the same ways.

One size STILL doesn’t fit all

Cemetery rows. Factory model. Sit down, shut up, or get out. Not very nice terms for the way most students were taught for close to a century. Throughout that entire time, though, educational researchers looked at how teaching was being conducted and then went looking for ways to do a better job of teaching. One unifying concept was reached in the understanding that one-size-fits-all instruction fails to meet the legitimate learning needs of most students. In the urgent responses to Sputnik, the Soviet Union’s successful launch of a tiny satellite in October of 1957, thoughts of teaching in a way that recognized differences in learning among students soon gave way to actual practices that applied that idea. Central to this notion is the concept now universally known as differentiation. That was the idea, and that idea spawned several industries, most notably, that of the three unique learning styles.

You’ve most likely taken at least one assessment to determine your learning style: audio, visual or tactile. Somewhat less likely is that your curriculum was adjusted to match your learning style with a differing form of instruction. According to a major study published in 2009 learning styles are not supported by sound research and conforming teaching to match those styles is “a wasteful use of limited educational resources.” Few doubt the correlation between teaching to learning styles, but critics are citing the limited scope of the study as reason to not dismiss the concept of differentiation.

As one might expect, columnists seized upon the study as “proof” that the falsely nostalgic notion of traditional filling of empty vessels as the one way to teach had been vindicated. Disappointingly, many defended the learning style model through use of anecdotes. What seems to have been lost in the distortion is the mountain of research supporting differentiation as a best practice for teaching and one-size-fits all was never an effective means of teaching.

The baby in the bathwater

Amid all the recrimination of education and all the reactionary defense of same, other research has been published that moves the discussion from what’s not valid to what works. A recent study commissioned by the Department of Education concludes that online education is not only as good as traditional education, but “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The study went on to cite how web-based instruction incorporated collaborative elements of learning that provided not only hands-on learning – tactile by another name – but learning as part of a community, a solid refutation from any conclusion that straight-row learning environments were ever as wildly effective as some like to claim.

The findings that the methodology of applying learning styles is unsupported by research does not equate to a vindication of those panning differentiation. In fact, combined with the knowledge from studies about collaborative and online courses, the controversial finding about learning styles will likely have the effect of more, not less, focus on what actually does work in the classrooms.

Joseph Baker’s business experience in management spans more than 15 years. A leader of development and management teams, he also implemented budget reductions professionally and as an independent contractor.   Joseph led strategic planning and systems of implementation for nine organizations, public and private, and worked extensively with small businesses.  His education background ranges from teaching to school administration.