People are more alike than they are different.

It’s pretty much universally accepted wisdom that that different people are either visual learners, audible learners or kinaesthetic learners.

Let’s get straight to the point before further exploring this belief. As far as science can determine, there are not different categories of learners. Did that surprise you? It did somewhat surprise me but on studying the research and reading around the subject I changed my belief and agree that there are not different categories of learners. There are, however, different styles of learning.

Styles and abilities

First and foremost, it’s important to differentiate between style and ability. They are not the same thing. Here, perceived wisdom is correct. Style and substance are different. One person may have a certain style but that is no measure of their ability. Let me illustrate the point from the world of cricket. Kevin Pietersen and Jonathon Trott are two England cricketers. They differ in style considerably, with the former hitting many a flamboyant shot and often batting in a cavalier way and the latter batting steadily and, at times, very slowly. But batting style and speed is no measure of batting ability and it would be wrong to ascribe style to ability. In the end it’s about getting the runs on the board for the team, not how you actually score the runs, that matters. We may have a preference to watch the style of one player (especially if we’ve paid to watch the match) but their ability is unconnected.

In the context of learning, students and adults alike do have different styles of learning. We can use student’s strengths in one area to help address weaknesses in other areas. For example, someone good at language might use those skills in understanding a science concept, especially if the way that information was presented to us is unfamiliar or difficult to comprehend. There may be a poor match between how we learn best and how the information has been presented to us and so small changes in how it’s presented by the presenter or teacher might make all the difference to our learning.

If that is the case with learning it follows that matching presentation skills to particular learning styles would maximise learning in the student. That would mean a lot of hard work for the teacher or presenter but, it would be worth it if the rewards of maximised learning were to materialise as a result. So, is it worth it? Would individualised learning presentations maximise individualised learning?

I return to where I started and reiterate: people are more alike than they are different.

Some facts about memory that cognitive scientists have worked out:

Our memory system can store both what things look like as well as how they sound and feel. We use visual image representations when we visually represent something in our mind. For example: What is the shape of the Sydney Opera House or How many rooms in your house have a table-top lamp? We create the visual representation in our minds to answer the question and may even go on a trail, mapping the lights in the case of the second example, to answer the question. There are lots of overlaps in the brain with what you see in your mind and how you actually see in the first place so it’s not surprising people associate visual memory with visual learning.

You can also store images as sounds. For example: Who has a deeper voice? A male news reader you heard in the past few days or your last or present boss? You will likely try to recall people’s voices and compare them for who has the deeper voice. How we hear in our mind and how we actually hear are closely associated in the brain so once again the supposition that memory is learning is made. Further, we differ in terms of how well we can store visual and auditory memories. Some people are better at doing this than others. But that’s where it stops because we don’t store all of our memories as either sights or sounds. We also store memories in terms of what they mean to us. And we’re very good at it too. This is key since it is often said that memory is the residual of meaning. In other words: meaning has a life of its own outside of visual and auditory memories and often plants the greatest impact on us. We might forget what something looked like and how it sounded. But we tend to remember what it meant to us. What something meant to us is generally the most memorable of all. 

Returning to the theory that students learn best when presentation matches their preferred learning style. If the theory is correct then we should be able to easily test the theory by devising experiments where the groups are given presentations that match, as well as contrasted with, their preferred learning category. A simple assessment of their learning achieved would bear out that visual learners make higher scores when the information is delivered visually and not so well when it is presented orally such as only through discussion. The reverse would apply to auditory learners.

Here’s an example of just such a test.

Student A: visual learner
Student B: auditory learner

The activity:
Two different means of presenting unfamiliar words are given to student A and Student B.
Presentation method 1: the unfamiliar words in context are only spoken and discussed
Presentation method 2. the unfamiliar words in context are only displayed in a presentation

What does the outcomes of this test and other research tell us?

Dozens of studies have not supported the theory that student A would find presentation method 2 more effective to aiding their learning and student 1 would find presentation 1 more effective to aiding their learning. In fact, it doesn’t make a significant difference how the presentation methods are delivered. The extent of the learning achieved, irrespective of the student concerned and the learning styles employed, remain constant. People may well have a preferred learning style but there is no preferred learning category. In other words, I might have a preferred visual style but there’s no scientific proof that I’m a visual learner.

Cognitive psychology in particular does not hold that visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners exist. One such researcher, Frank Coffield wrote his findings in:
A Systematic and Critical Review of Learning Styles

From January 2002 to January 2003
Project Leader(s): Frank Coffield
Staff: Kathryn Ecclestone, Elaine Hall and David Moseley

and this is what he concluded from his research:

“None of the models we reviewed passed all of the ‘good test’ criteria of reliability and validity, with the result that one cannot use a learning styles instrument and be sure that all the items are measuring what they intend to measure, that the results will be the same if the test is taken again or that the results can predict how someone might approach a learning experience in the future.”

Common sense, though, holds that Student A would do better with visually presented information and Student B would do better with discussion and oral presentations. So how is it that student A, who prefers visual information, didn’t do any better or worse when the information was presented visually and visa versa for student B?

The problem is that this isn’t what’s being tested. It’s actually meaning that is being tested and, as we said earlier, meaning is a completely different memory. In education, if not in life, we need to remember what something means and not what it looks like or sounds like. Effective learning happens when we move from the concrete to the abstract. I might see that Antarctica looks very wide when represented on a 2D map but I need to understand that 2D maps mis-proportion landmasses and actually Antarctica stretches around to meet the other end so it’s nothing like as large as it implies on the 2D map. Knowing where Antarctica is, is a visual skill and is concrete. Knowing the effective size of Antarctica and how maps distort landmass and what that might mean for navigation purposes is abstract and, as such, has a very different meaning. Unfortunately, administered tests can’t help but measure meaning derived from visual or auditory memory: not just visual and auditory meaning. There is no way of knowing whether meaning has affected the visual and auditory memory. To date, this problem hasn’t yet been solved. May be it never will.

So, if it is wrong, or at least can’t yet be proved to be right, why does it seem so right?

Statistically, about 90% of teachers believe it’s true and I believe that the same can be said for the public. How is it that this is the case? For the following three reasons:
1. It’s become commonly accepted wisdom. It doesn’t matter if it’s scientifically verifiable. Wisdom says it is so it must be true
2. Something quite similar to the theory actually is true. We do differ in our visual, auditory and kinaesthetic memories.
3. Confirmation bias.

To take each point in turn:

  1. Just because we say it is doesn’t mean that it is the case even if most people believe it. If we went on that statement then the world is flat and the Sun goes around the Earth. ‘Facts’ are not as we interpret them. They are what we reliably and consistently confirm based upon our understanding. Of course facts do change but only when consistently produced results validate the new set of facts
  2. We can have very good visual memories but, for the reasons explained earlier associated with meaning, that doesn’t mean that we are visual learners. That link remains the Holy Grail, if it even exists at all
  3. We have many biases such as the negativity bias and choice blindness. Here is another one: confirmation bias. We are biased towards evidence that supports what we already believe to be the case. Just because a visual demonstration helps a ‘visual learner’ doesn’t mean that proves he is a visual learner. It might just be a good example that was used to help their learning. The example might be so encapsulated with meaning that made the difference in understanding. Or it might just have been one further example that helped consolidate the meaning. Any or more examples might have made the difference to understanding. What would have happened if the last example was an auditory example? Would we have discounted it? Scientists must be very careful of not merely confirming what they think anyway. It’s remarkably difficult to do.

So, there we are! It’s proved beyond reasonable doubt. There’s no such thing as a visual learner. Or auditory and kinaesthetic learner for that matter. If only it were that simple to change our thinking. Commonly accepted wisdom is very difficult to dismiss. We are naturally very good at making connections, drawing conclusions that might not be the case; and, we’re inherently biased! And since when is it that just because science says it’s not, or is, the case do we all suddenly accept it and let go of our previous thinking?

People are more alike (in the ways that they learn) than they are different (in the ways that they learn) but it might take a long time for this statement to move from cognitive scientific understanding to commonly accepted wisdom.

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Some of the concepts explored in this post have been based upon Daniel Willingham’s book: Why Students Don’t Like School. An article found after this post was written might prove useful to the reader in terms of further reading.

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