Neuromyths: No, You Don’t Have a Learning Style!

Neuromyths are unfounded rumours about how our brains work. Find out why this means you’re not a visual, verbal or tactile learner.

I was in charge of training and development at my company for many years. The management moved me into that role from an operational job, so I had to pick up some train-the-trainer pointers as I felt my way along.

Just about every book I read, and every workshop I attended considered certain “truths to be self-evident.” These ideas had to do with our mind/brain connection. 

For instance, facilitators encouraged us to tailor our training material to accommodate both left-brain and right-brain thinkers. Perhaps more importantly, we had to make sure that we put together training programs that appealed to visual, auditory and kinesthetic (tactile) learning styles.

Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic Learning Styles

Sometimes workshop leaders would remind us that humans only use 10% of our brains, encouraging us to tap into trainees’ vast unlocked potential. Often, we’d be encouraged to incorporate classical music into our sessions or our break periods because the Mozart effect makes us smarter.

Others would inform us that we had our work cut out for us. They told us that we all learn almost everything by the time we’re three years old. 

Early learning made adult education demanding because students had to unlearn impressions they picked up as toddlers. Worse, adults weren’t very good at grasping the new ideas we needed to instill.

Not One of These Concepts is Remotely True

Readers will have heard some or all of this information about the brain at some point in their careers. We now know that not one of these concepts is remotely true.

They’re called neuromyths, and like a lot of pseudoscientific ideas, they’re difficult to dispel. Most educators are committed to at least some of these “principles.”

Teachers have often built their entire teaching strategy around incorporating one or more of these concepts into their lesson plans. Many of them are “true believers” in the left/brain right brain dichotomy, the learning styles model or both.

Article of Faith Inside the Positive Thinking Industry

We’re more likely to hear that we only use 10% of our brains from motivational speakers, life coaches and self-help books than in educational contexts. The extra brain potential is an article of faith inside the positive thinking industry. 

In truth, every segment in our brain is there for a reason. Healthy adults continuously make the most of all of it.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who believe in these common neuromyths. Consultants, coaches and managers have convinced many in the general public that they are primarily a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner.

Taking a Hard Look at the Learning Style NEUROMYTH

A research team at Laurentian University’s Cognitive Health Research Laboratory is taking an especially hard look at the kinesthetic, auditory or visual (KAV) learning style neuromyth. They’ve looked at the literature and done an extensive survey of their own examining belief in neuromyths.

They looked at 14 countries, including Canada and found that roughly 90% of teachers firmly believe in the KAV neuromyth. In the name of child-centred learning, they dutifully incorporated KAV approaches into their teaching styles.

They identify students according to the three learning styles. Then they subtly emphasize pictures for members of one group, speech or sound for the second group, and hands-on exercises for the third.

Brains Supposedly Develop on  One of Three Patterns

The justification behind the KAV neuromyth is that our brains supposedly develop according to one of three distinct patterns. KAV proponents believe that this development predisposes us to be either tactile, visual or verbal.

The trouble is, that isn’t true. There’s no question that each of us has a unique brain. It’s also true that our synapses wire up connections in response to the experiences we have as we grow up.

Where the KAV neuromyth runs off the rails is when its adherents claim that our development pigeon-holes us into one dominant predisposition or style. The many things our brains have in common far outweigh the differences between us.

Interconnection Between Sight, Hearing and Touch

Every healthy human brain has a remarkably complex interconnection between our senses of sight, hearing and touch. When we see movement in the bushes, all of our sensations spring into action to support our brain in working out what’s causing it.

This capacity was critical to our survival in our hunter-gathering days. Noticing unexpected sounds, movements or sensations could save our lives, or help us bring home dinner for the kids.

We all experience all of our senses simultaneously, and that’s how we all learn in the real world. We’re all equally capable of learning from a lecture, a PowerPoint or a sample handed around the room.

Authority Figures Impress a Learning Style Upon Them

Many readers will be skeptical about this finding. Authority figures may have impressed upon them that they belong to a particular learning style and should adjust their study habits accordingly.

The researchers published a meta-analysis in the journal Psychoeducation. They found that out of the numerous studies conducted on the KAV learning styles, not one showed that matching students to so-called styles helped children learn.

Other readers may accept that the KAV learning styles are a neuromyth but wonder how much that matters. The researchers found that there are definite negative implications to labelling students according to preconceived learning styles.

Teacher Might Deem Them a Kinesthetic Learner

For example, a child raised on a farm might be a bit handier than their urban classmates at first. Their manual dexterity might lead a teacher to deem them a kinesthetic learner.

The school might steer the child or their parents toward technical subjects or away from music or the arts. After all, neither sight nor sound matches their supposed learning style. 

As we’ve seen, this child and all other children learn by touching, seeing and hearing all at once. Being nudged in a particular direction like this at critical periods could lead to missed developmental opportunities and instill an inaccurate self-image.

“I’m Not Wired for Things Like That”

Neuromyths might discourage them from exploring creative topics throughout life. They might brush them off, thinking, “I’m not wired for things like that.”

A group of thirty influential psychologists, including Stephen Pinker, have published an open letter in the Guardian. In it, they warn teachers and the public about the KAV neuromyth.

The signatories of the letter explain, “Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style.”

“False Impression of Individuals’ Abilities”

The letter concludes, saying, “Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general.”

Recognizing the learning styles as a neuromyth is a paradigm shift for educators everywhere. “Paradigm shift” is a phrase from philosopher Thomas Kuhn.

Professor Kuhn believed that paradigm shifts usually faced resistance from established voices within a profession. The reluctance is because of confirmation bias—we all continue to see what we want to see.

Change Usually Driven by the Younger Generation

He suggested that the adoption of new worldviews is gradual and usually driven by the younger generation. That’s also how the team from Laurentian views the issue.

They’re raising awareness among student teachers with a group activity. The participants begin by reporting whether they are visual or auditory learners.

Then the researchers ask them all to memorize words using images or sounds. At the end of the exercise, there’s never any link between perceived learning styles and the results.

60% of Participants Still Planned to Use Learning Styles

Still, after the first time, the team piloted the activity, 60% percent of the participants planned to take learning styles into account in their classrooms. Neuromyths are stubborn things.

 Lead author Professor Luc Rousseau explained, “All human brains love to receive information in more than one sensory modality. This strengthens the synaptic connections between sensory areas.”

Instead of labelling people with learning styles, we need to nurture the many ways we all have of discovering new things. We may have certain aptitudes, but all of us can build our knowledge using many combinations of diverse study techniques.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Let’s scrap the neuromyths: No, you aren’t a ‘visual’ or ‘auditory’ person
No evidence to back idea of learning styles
Neuromyths and Their Origin Among Teachers in Quebec
On the usefulness of VAK (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) “learning styles” in education: Between the research hypothesis and the scientific myth
Benefits of Nature Confirmed by Science
Social Media Distancing: Flattening the Infodemic Curve

Conspiracy Theories Spread Faster than Germs

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