163. Unlearning Learning Styles and Personality Types

Unlearning Learning Styles and Personality Types
(and what it means for teaching and learning)


I always believed every one of us had specific learning styles and we all fell under certain types. Like, I am a non-math type. Despite having scored well on both math papers of the SLC exams (thanks to tuition center and guess papers), I have always sucked at math.

But I was completely dumbstruck while watching Tesia Marshik’s Ted videoLearning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection” in which she claims that individual learning styles and types don’t actually exist. She claims the popular belief that learners can be categorized into certain types is a myth. Citing several research, she says, assessing a learner’s style and then matching teaching styles – called the Meshing technique – is simply futile.

The video intrigued me enough to reflect on my learning habits. I prefer to find a meaningful connection between what I learn and what I want to do in my life. If I can imagine the reasons I’m learning a certain skill or subject (or if my teacher helps me visualize the meaning), then I feel motivated and engaged enough to learn. I always need to see a bigger picture. Else, I would just do it for the sake of doing it. And, that was the reason why I never felt connected with math because I didn’t know what it meant for me. I could rattle the theorems of Geometry, but I never knew their purpose. Trigonometry always seemed silly for me. And, Algebra was like running aimlessly in a desert.

As a teacher, I have come across students with different learning approaches. Some want to learn the theories first and then apply them later. They love listening to the concepts, taking notes, analyzing them, and organizing them. And others love to apply first, reflect, and finally deduct theories. They would get restless when they had to listen through long lectures.

In his seminal book Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984), David Kolb wrote that learning is an iterative process within four basic modes: experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation. Highly influenced by the earlier works of educationist John Dewey and psychologist Carl Jung, Kolb stressed that individuals usually have one preferred learning mode but for deeper learning, they must integrate both preferred and less-preferred modes in their learning cycle.

So if your preferred mode is learning by doing, then as Kolb says, you can deepen your learning only when you add reflective practice and improvisations. If you had first learnt the guitar by simply playing it, you can significantly improve your guitar skills by learning the musical theories, experimenting with them, and reflecting upon the experience. Interestingly, Kolb is not the only one who talks about integrating preferences. Lev Vygotsky calls it Zone of Proximal Development, Robert Bjork calls it Desirable Difficulty, Stephen Krashen calls it i+1.

However, the concepts of learning styles, personality traits, and type theories have held a stronghold in education. The most popular one being the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). As a result, the meshing technique is quite prominent in teaching. First, assess a learner’s so called learning style and type, and then label the learner as, for instance, Visual or Auditory or Kinesthetic. Then, match the teaching style for each learner.

But, here’s the big revelation. In a journal of the Association for Psychological Science published in 2008, professor Harold Pashler and his colleagues empathically say that “at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.” Similarly, another researcher Robert Bjork resents over the fact that many educational companies are promoting “the pseudo-science of learning style” as a marketing gimmick purely for profit. Now, Tesia Marshik’s video started to make sense to me.

This made me further probe into the learning theories and models proposed by the likes of David Kolb, Carl Jung, Bernice McCarthy. Besides learning preferences, apparently, they also talk about striking a balance between preferred and less preferred learning modes. Regardless of individual preferences – left brain type or right brain type, extrovert or introvert, visual or auditory or kinesthetic – teachers should create learning environment where students learn through various modes.

Bernice McCarthy, in her book About Learning (1996), also talks about Hemisphericity, which means that both sides of the brain work in complementary for perceiving and processing information and experience. The left side of the brain handles logic, sequence, literalness, and analysis; and the right takes care of meaning, emotion, context, and synthesis. Several research in the field of Mind, Brain, and Education now confirm that when learners are actively engaged to use both sides of their brains, they learn better, and also retain better. For instance, teaching science through stories. Exploring implicit patterns and structures in poems. Learning math through activities.

Similarly, drawing from the works of Carol Dweck on mindset, belief in learning style equates to having a fixed mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence is already set in the DNA and cannot be altered). Like I mentioned, I was trapped in my misguided belief that I suck at math, and as a result, I could never get better at it. Somebody who is convinced that she is an active learner may never understand the power of reflection. Whereas belief in learning preferences equates to having a growth mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence is malleable and can be significantly changed through desirable challenges and persistence.)

So what does this mean for teaching and learning?

This superficial debate over learning styles should not be happening at all. What needs to happen is teachers increase their awareness about these three important concepts related with learning theories:

  1. We learn better when the both sides of our brains are engaged.
  2. Because of our unique brains, we all have different learning preferences, not learning styles.
  3. When we integrate dominant learning preferences with the remaining ones, we feel challenged, motivated, engaged enough to learn better.

When teachers stop jumping into the “matching learning style” bandwagon, they would also stop labeling students into different types. They can then try to incorporate all learning modes into the teaching, and develop frameworks to engage both sides of the brains, and create continuous opportunities for the learners to do, think, feel, learn, reflect, sense, and experiment.

Teachers will be then able to design meaningful learning experiences with high motivation, engagement, and retention. When that happens, they can perhaps help students break the shackle of “I’m an introvert / extrovert” or “I’m not a math-type” or any other subject for that matter.