When I went through my teacher certification program, we spent a lot of time on “learning styles” and “differentiated instruction.” In real life, I end up teaching my way and don’t really worry about kinesthetic versus auditory versus visual learners. Looks like I might not be wrong after all Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham debunk the common view that students can be divided into “auditory, kinesthetic, and visual learners:”:
Students do have preferences about how they learn. Many students will report preferring to study visually and others through an auditory channel. However, when these tendencies are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference—learning is equivalent whether students learn in the preferred mode or not. A favorite mode of presentation (e.g., visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) often reveals itself to be instead a preference for tasks for which one has high ability and at which one feels successful.
So why does every education program push this idea? Their answer:
What are the reasons for this myth’s perseverance? First, we think that a belief in learning styles persists because the more general claims (the ones we addressed above) are true. Learners do differ from one another. But many who believe in the myth do not consider the critical differences between styles and abilities. Teachers should take into account the differences in learners’ abilities. And adjusting a lesson not just to be appropriately pitched at the students’ level of ability but to take into account their background knowledge and interests is surely an important first step in fostering learning.
Second, a belief in learning styles fits into an egalitarian view of education: Everyone has value, according to the theory, and everyone has strengths. The corollary for some learning-styles theorists is that if you think that the theory is wrong, you must think that all students are identical—which is obviously untrue. Again, we agree that students differ and all students have value, but we do not need learning-styles theory to convince us of that.
Third, learning-styles theory has succeeded in becoming “common knowledge.” Its widespread acceptance serves as an unfortunately compelling reason to believe it. This is accompanied by a well-known cognitive phenomenon called the confirmation bias. When evaluating our own beliefs, we tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and ignore contrary information, even when we encounter it repeatedly. When we see someone who professes to be a visual learner excel at geography and an auditory learner excel at music, we do not seek out the information which would disprove our interpretation of these events (can the auditory learner learn geography through hearing it? Can the visual learner become better at music by seeing it?)
[As Reiner and Willingham] note, to deny the significance of learning styles is not to deny the diversity of students. It simply isn’t true that “if you think that the theory is wrong, you must think that all students are identical.” And this in turn generates one of the pernicious effects of the learning styles meme: It leads us to neglect differences among students that actually do contribute differences in learning. Students differ in talent, ability, and intelligence; in their interests or motivations; and in their background knowledge. And some students have specific disabilities that impede various forms of learning. And it would be a disservice to students not to at least be cognizant of these differences when we design our learning environments.