Should different learning styles make a difference in teaching?

I have been a believer in the different modalities impacting learning. As a homeschool mother I had a lot more ability to influence this. So my son, whom I believe is a kinesthetic learner, ran around the house touching things to help him memorize his multiplication tables. (He was having trouble with them.)

It didn’t help. This may explain why.

The idea that people may differ in their ability to learn new material depending on its modality—that is, whether the child hears it, sees it, or touches it—has been tested for over 100 years. And the idea that these differences might prove useful in the classroom has been around for at least 40 years.

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement.

A few things cognitive scientists know about modalities:

“1. Some memories are stored as visual and auditory representations—but most memories are stored in terms of meaning.”

“2. The different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another.”

“3. Children probably do differ in how good their visual and auditory memories are, but in most situations, it makes little difference in the classroom.”

What does the research say about teaching to a child’s strongest modality?

Because the vast majority of educational content is stored in terms of meaning and does not rely on visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory, it is not surprising that researchers have found very little support for the idea that offering instruction in a child’s best modality will have a positive effect on his learning. A few studies show a positive effect of accounting for students’ best modality, but many studies show no effect (Kampwirth and Bates, 1980; Arter and Jenkins, 1979). The most comprehensive review was conducted by Kenneth Kavale and Steven Forness (1987); it is especially relevant for teachers because it includes many studies that tested the effectiveness of specific instructional approaches (as opposed to laboratory-based exercises).

Kavale and Forness’s meta-analysis provides substantial evidence that tailoring instruction to students’ modality is not effective; across these many well-designed studies, such tailoring had no educational effect.

“Teachers should focus on the content’s best modality—not the student’s.”

This includes bringing in pictures for Old English history, music for The Great Gatsby, and perhaps doing a dance when teaching “Dancing in the Louvre.”

If modality theory is so wrong, why does it feel so right?

[I]t fits with a more general assumption that many teachers hold: There are genuinely important differences among students in how they learn. Modality gives us an easily understood way to think about the differences among children and it offers a hopeful message—a relatively easy adjustment to teaching practice may provide a boost to kids who are struggling. Further, everyone else believes it. Although false, the truth of modality theory has become “common knowledge.”

Actual kinesthetic learning is rare in the classroom.

But the learning that comes from these activities almost always goes along with changes in mental activity—the learning is not really part of the kinesthetic experience. For example, if I handle a Greek costume (rather than watch you handle it), I am the one who decides which part of it to explore, whether or not to try it on, and so on. True kinesthetic learning experiences, like practicing handwriting, do not make up much of the curriculum. To avoid continual qualifications about what is or is not a true kinesthetic learning experience, I will refer mainly to visual and auditory modalities. The conclusions drawn also apply to kinesthetic learning experiences.

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