What do you think is the teacher’s worst enemy? A convenient untruth

Learning styles have been under the spotlight for the last few years (see for example, this discussion). If you are still sitting on the fence with your thinking about learning styles, or maybe you are totally convinced…I’d strongly advise your read Steve Wheeler’s post below. It offers a well-informed, thoughtful discussion. Initially Steve looks at “bad theory” and the impact it can have on beliefs about learning and practice. One point that I felt was key was the fact that as learning practitioners we might think that there are no issues with thinking about learning styles. However, Steve quotes a really key point – it’s not about tailoring resources to suit learners with different learning styles, but rather it is a case of designing a learning experience that is relevant, clear, encourages active engagement…in other words, good design.

The original post A convenient untruth  (in full below) was published by  on 24th November 2011

What do you think is the teacher’s worst enemy? Some would say lack of time. Others would say unsupportive leadership, or the dreaded government inspection. Rigid curriculum, lack of resources and bad student behaviour may also be high on the list for many educators. For me, the worst enemy is bad theory. Bad theory, when accepted without challenge, can lead to bad practice. It’s insidious, because bad theory that is accepted as fact without a full understanding of its implications, results in bad teaching, and ultimately, learners will suffer.

One of the biggest myths known to teacherdom is learning styles. Time and time again, the belief that students can be placed into specific categories such as activist or theorist, or that they are predominantly inclined toward one modal category of learning (e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) is inserted into professional conversations as if the theories are fact. And time and again, such beliefs are the justification for placing students into a specific style of learning so that a class can be ‘managed’ more effectively. Such categorisation of students is an absolute nonsense and the practice of doing so should be challenged strongly. It is lazy pedagogy, and the only reason I see that such beliefs persist, is that it is a convenient untruth which allows some teachers to stay within their comfort zones.

In an excellent expose on learning styles, Riener and Willingham (2010) argue this:

“…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?)”

Multiple Intelligences
Multiple Intelligences (Photo credit: London Permaculture)

Clearly one of the problems that emerges when teachers administer a learning styles inventory or questionnaire to their students is that the result tends to become a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ (See Rosethal and Jacobson, for more on this phenomenon). One of the most notorious (and vacuous) inventories is Honey and Mumford’s LSI, which in essence is nothing more than a repurposing of David Kolb’s earlier experiential learning cycle model. Another is Neil Fleming’s VAK model (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic) which is basically a reworking of ‘tell me I forget, show me I remember, involve me I understand’. Such learning styles theories are based on little more than anecdotal observations, and are akin to folk medicine. But the student doesn’t know this, and simply trusts the teacher’s judgement. The student then sees the results of the questionnaire which informs them that they are for instance predominantly a ‘reflector’ or that they are an ‘auditory learner’. They then actively seek to maximise their ‘learning style’ by engaging in reflective activities, or visually rich media. This all progresses to the detriment of the other learning modes, which become deficient and atrophied. Result – the learner fails to gain a holistic learning experience, and misses out on the many rich opportunities to expand and develop their other sensory or cognitive skills. Worse still, as Barbara Prashnig explains:

“….it remains a fact that every human being has a learning style which can consist of contradictory components, often leading to inner confusion and uneasiness. Style mismatches between teaching and learning, physical learning environments not conducive to information intake and unmet physical needs during the learning process can lead to frustration, stress, learning problems, underachievement, low self esteem, discipline problems among younger students, and dropoutism in high schools.”

Do we really need to label people and brand them in this way? Riener and Willingham again:

“…learning-styles theory is sometimes offered as a reason to include digital media in the classroom. While including multimedia may be a good idea in general (variety in modes of presentation can hold students’ attention and interest, for example), it is not necessary to tailor your media to different learning styles. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves for showing a video to engage the visual learners or offering podcasts to the auditory learners. Rather, we should realize that the value of the video or audio will be determined by how it suits the content that we are asking students to learn and the background knowledge, interests, and abilities that they bring to it. Instead of asking whether we engaged the right sense (or learning mode), we should be asking, what did students think about while they were in class?”

The final nail in the coffin on learning styles comes from a report by Frank Coffield and his colleagues (2004) who reported that not only was the concept of learning styles so ill defined as to be virtually useless in pedagogical terms, the instruments used to ‘determine’ student learning styles were flawed. They failed to measure accurately what they were purported to measure (validity construct) and they failed to measure learning styles consistently over time (reliability construct). Probably the only reason some teachers (and many training organisations) hang on to the idea of testing learning styles is that it is convenient to do so, and that to ditch the idea altogether would leave them having to work harder with students.

We can conclude that in the selection of digital media (and any other learning resource) teachers should not be dictated to by the fallacy of learning styles, nor should they attempt to measure what turns out to be a moving feast of approaches to learning that are actually dependent more on changing context than they ever will be on any deep-seated human propensity. Would it not be better to simply acknowledge that all learners are different, and that all can benefit from a range of varied experiences that ultimately leads to enriched personal experiences? It may mean more work, but it would certainly be a lot fairer.


  • Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre.
  • Riener, C. and Willingham, D. (2010) The Myth of Learning Styles. Change Magazine, Sept-Oct.
  • Rosenthal, R. and Jaconson, L. (1992) Pygmalion in the Classroom, New York, NY: Irvington.

Creative Commons Licence

A convenient untruth by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Posted 24th November 2011 by 

About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ (http://www.ethosconsultancynz.com/). I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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2 Responses to What do you think is the teacher’s worst enemy? A convenient untruth

  1. Margaret says:

    Hi there Hazel
    I couldn’t agree more with you’re comments. Designing a good learning experience is all about delivering clear and engaging content, not about putting learners into boxes. It’s much better to accept that people are different and to provide as rich a learning experience as possible.

    • Thanks for your comment, Margaret 🙂 I’m pondering as to why learning styles have gained such credence, and I wonder if one of the reasons that they are so popular because it feels as though it is something tangible during the design process…something where an educator can say – “see, I’m meeting this visual learner’s needs by including these diagrammes”? In other words, it feels way more targeted, and somehow ‘personalised’.

      I suspect learning styles will be around for a lot longer yet….

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