Cognitive Science says “Learning Styles Don’t Exist”: Meaning-Making is King!

Check out this video from cognitive scientist, learning expert, and author Dr. Daniel T. Willingham.  He says it is not enough to simply aim to teach to various “learning styles” in effort to enhance learning. Willingham does not say that we people do not have certain proclivities towards ways of experiencing content, but we must go one step further beyond this because  learning occurs when information is presented in a manner that is conducive to making meaning.

A week ago before coming across this video, although I didn’t plan to I did my own informal experiment testing this hypothesis. I needed to try to remember a 3 minute speech for an upcoming presentation, and I was convinced I would learn the content most efficiently using various visuals models to appeal to what I believed what my dominant learning style…I drew pictures and relational diagrams of the text.  As well, I knew I was also partial to auditory learning so I recorded a cd of the speech and played it dozens of times on repeat.  Wanting to cover the kinesthetic domain, I would move about dramatically while the cd played, trying to act out the text.  I figured all of these antics would burn the speech into my mind, but I have to say that as creative as these strategies were, they alone did not seem to do the trick.  What finally made that speech stick was definitely the combination of the activities insofar as experiencing them was cause for me to really meditate on the meaning of what I was saying in the speech.   As I eventually understood in my core the message I was trying to convey, like an actor who becomes “one” with her script and character, I found the words came to me suddenly without effort.  Trying hard to learn something involves grasping for meaning and the process can feel like a kind of alchemy…the ingredients can be mysterious combinations, but when it all works, it works! Learning!

As a teacher, I am committed to providing a multi-modal learning experiences for my students…but now I will do so with the understanding that although this is a valuable end in itself, for real learning to occur these multi-modal presentations of content must serve that “magical” process by which students will create and apprehend meanings!

This “magical” process of creating and apprehending meaning occurs differently for each person–ahhh, and this is the joy and challenge of teaching!

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