Originally Posted: November 13, 2010
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“Hi, my name is Dan Willingham. I’m a Cognitive Psychologist and a Neuroscientist [emphasis added]….I’m gonna talk to you today about learning styles, and how Cognitive Psychologists know [emphasis added] – that they don’t exist” (Willingham, 2009, “Learning Styles Don’t Exist,” ).
Initially, I had to review this video several times just to get passed my own and personal hang-up and impression that Mr. Willingham’s introduction sounds pretentious – to me; that was my initial perception.
The fact that Mr. Willingham makes the distinction that he is a “Cognitive” Psychologist seems to indicate that he has chosen to accept and distribute the theories of Cognitivism as undeniable and unquestionable truth. If we use child-like faith to accept Mr. Willingham’s message as absolute truth, then Learning Styles do not exist.
I do not have a “traditional” educator’s background. Actually, my background is in IT – the Information Technology kind, as opposed to Instructional Technology. I mention this just to bring up the point that I am not completely partial (yet) to any particular learning theory.
“Learning theories attempt to describe how humans learn….what are the key elements in the process of gaining new knowledge and capabilities and how those elements interact” (Januszewski & Molenda, 2008, p. 18). When discussing learning theories, there are three main models or strategies (isms) that are often referenced: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism.
Supporters of the cognitivist theory focus on that learning which occurs in the mind of the learner.
Cognitivism focuses on the actual cognitive processes of learning. It sees the brain as multiple compartments that are more integrated and interdependent than the straight stimulus/reaction view in behaviorism. It says that learning is an active process of filtering, organizing, and integrating information within and between these different areas of the brain making learning sometimes harder to observe than something like a Skinner box. (T. Henning, personal communication, September 30, 2010)
Januszewski and Molenda (2008) point out the following limitation to the theory of cognitivism: “…it is meant to apply to learning in the cognitive domain….It has much less to say about motor skills or attitudes except as regards the cognitive elements of those skills” (p. 30).
All or Nothing?
Mr. Willingham seems to, purposely, use examples out of context. Yes, you may have a student that performs better through auditory learning, but, as Mr. Willingham points out, when it comes to learning the shape of a country, that student has to, visually, see the country’s outline. Perhaps listening to the teacher describe the geography and population of the country while seeing the shape of the country’s borders will help solidify the information in the student’s mind. While the preferred modality for a particular student may be auditory, that does not mean that the student is not able to learn by other means.
Unfortunately, it appears that too many people put the proverbial “blinders” on, and take an all or nothing approach when it comes to learning theories.
Champions of a particular learning theory, which may have a strong grounding in research and is therefore a quite useful description of how people learn, sometimes forcefully argue that their prescriptive instructional implications must be equally true whether or not they have been tested and upheld empirically. (Januszewski & Molenda, 2008, p. 18-19)
An eclectic approach combines ideas from the different learning theories without forcing the implementation of an entire “parent theory”.
Personally, I believe in the “supermarket approach”; take the parts of the learning theory that are needed at the moment, and leave the rest “on the shelf” for another day. Whether as an educator, or as an instructional designer (or both), one has to analyze the types of learners that one has as an audience. Then, are we able to “go shopping” and implement the best portions of each of the learning theories.
In the end, we have to accept that different learners, not only have different learning styles, but also have different motivations to learn, different life experiences, different cultural influences, and even different levels of knowledge.
I, for one, have come to the realization that learning theories must be blended. This is the best way to ensure that we, as educators, are able to impact the maximum number of learners as possible.
Januszewski, A., & Molenda, M. (2008). Educational technology: A definition with commentary. New York, NY: Routledge.
Willingham, D. (2009, July 30). Learning styles don’t exist . Retrieved from http://www.teachertube.com/members/viewVideo.php?video_id=119351&title=Learning_Styles_Don_t_Exist