Read 2 articles: Willingham (2018) and Fallace (2019),Answer the questions below by providing short answers
1.Who is the author(s) of Willingham 2018 reading? (Provide Full Name(s) and any other information about authors
2.What is the full title of the Willingham 2018 reading?
3.When was Willingham 2018 reading published?
4.What is the name of the publication of the Willingham 2018 reading?
5.Who is the author(s) of Fallace 2019 reading? (Provide Full Name(s) and any other information about author(s)
6.What is the full title of the Fallace 2019 reading?
7.When was Fallace 2019 reading published?
8.What is the name of the publication of the Fallace 2019 reading?
9.Write 4-5 sentences that describe what the Fallace 2019 reading is about:
10.Write 4-5 sentences about how you see these two readings as similar and/or different (think about content, format, and any other information included/not included in the document)
11.What questions does this exercise raise for you? What are you curious to learn more about?
Educational Researcher, Vol. 48 No. 6, pp. 349 –355 DOI: 10.3102/0013189X19858086
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The learning-styles concept appears to have wide accep-tance not only among educators,” Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2009) reported, “but also among par- ents and the general public” (p. 106). In recent decades, the idea that teachers should align their instruction with students’ par- ticular learning style, cognitive style, and/or learner preference has become commonplace in the literature on effective teaching. For example, Darling-Hammond and Baratz-Snowden’s (2005) influential text, A Good Teacher in Every Classroom, states that teachers ought to develop “teaching strategies that respond to different learning styles and approaches” (p. 22), and the InTASC (Counsel for Chief State School Officers, 2013) teach- ing standards invite educators to incorporate “multiple approaches to learning that engage a range of learner prefer- ences” (p. 19). Despite the general acceptance of the learning style idea, many recent studies (Hushmann & O’Loughlin, 2019; Knoll, Otani, Skeel, & Van Horn, 2017; Pashler et al., 2009; Reiner & Willingham, 2010; Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015) have questioned the effectiveness of aligning instruction with the alleged learning styles of individual stu- dents. That is, psychologists have been critical of the idea that students and/or teachers are able to identify a specific learning style or preference through which students learn best (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and that teaching through that aligned style will lead to improved learning. Although skepti- cism and confusion over learning styles have escalated in recent years (Lake, Boyd, & Boyd, 2017), the research on learning
styles had been problematic from the start, and scholars are uncertain exactly when and how the learning style idea first emerged. “Experts aren’t sure how the concept spread,” one journalist (Kahzan, 2018) admitted in an article on the “myth” of learning styles, “but it might have had something to do with the self-esteem movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s” (p. 1). In fact, the learning style idea first emerged in the 1960s.
In this intellectual history, I trace the origin, emergence, and early history of the learning style idea. Hollinger (1985) defines intellectual history as “the discourse of intellectuals” (p. 131). My objective is to trace the long-term and immediate intellectual discourses that gave rise to the learning style idea and document the moment in which scholars diverged from the race/ethnicity- specific language that had previously been affiliated with the term. In the tradition of intellectual history, I am not focused on judging the validity of the research on learning styles, nor am I concerned with evaluating the efficacy of the learning style idea itself. Rather, I trace the nature and evolution of the discourse surrounding the idea and how it connected to broader ideas, contexts, and conversations about race, ethnicity, anthropology, and psychology. I define learning style—used alongside related terms such as cognitive style, learning preference, and thinking style—vaguely as the historical notion that individual students acquire and process knowledge in specific ways and that
858086 EDRXXX10.3102/0013189X19858086EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHEREducational Researcher research-article2019
1William Paterson University, Montclair, NJ
the Ethnocentric Origins of the Learning style Idea Thomas Fallace1
In recent years, researchers have questioned the legitimacy of the so-called myth of learning styles and expressed confusion about exactly when and why the idea first emerged. this historical study traces the origin and emergence of the learning style idea. the author argues that the learning style idea originated in the 1960s as part of a broader effort to reach inner- city African American youth that certain educators deemed culturally deficient. by the time scholars developed learning style inventory instruments for mostly white children, they removed the race-specific language, and educators quickly forget the ethnocentric origins of the learning style idea.
Keywords: cognitive processes/development; historical analysis; history; individual differences; learning processes/
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researchers/teachers can identify a particular learning/cognitive style in which a student can most effectively learn. Specifically, I trace the idea of learning styles from interwar anthropological research on cultural difference to postwar research on “culturally deprived” (Riessman, 1962) and “culturally disadvantaged” (Johnson, 1970) children to the idea that there might be a “Black learning style” (Cureton, 1978; Hale, 1982; Slaughter, 1969) to the construction of several learning style inventory tools in the 1970s (Dunn, Dunn, & Price, 1975; Kolb, 1976). I demon- strate how the learning style idea originated in an effort to reach inner-city African American youth that certain educators deemed culturally deficient (Martinez & Rury, 2012; Scott, 1997; Valencia, 1997). However, by the time scholars developed popular learning style inventory instruments for mass distribu- tion for presumably White children, they removed the race- specific language and shifted the focus from identifying the learning styles of groups to identifying the learning styles of indi- viduals. As a result, educators quickly forget the ethnocentric origins of the learning style idea.
The idea that students differed from one another in ways that required some kind of individualized instruction originated during the progressive education movement (Cremin, 1961; Zilversmit, 1993). Scholars justified the idea of accommodating individual differences through child-centered rationales, which recommended hands-on learning catered to students’ interests, and intelligence testing, which outlined the alleged differences in student intellectual potential and ability. Both student-centered instruction and intelligence testing recognized that student dif- ference was a major issue facing schools and that a rational, sci- entific approach to curriculum could meet that challenge (Kliebard, 1995; Zilversmit, 1993). However, in no way did pro- gressive educators acknowledge that students may have different learning styles; the focus was solely on different levels of intelli- gence, ability, knowledge, or academic potential. The idea of dif- ferent learning styles did not emerge until after World War II in response to changes in anthropological conceptions of cultural difference.
Prior to World War II, most White anthropologists employed a hierarchical approach to culture that viewed all societies, past and present, on a universal scale of sociological development leading from savagery to barbarianism to civilization (Stocking, 1968). All of the cultures that met the criteria for civilization were White, while all of the cultures that met the criteria for barbarian and savage were non-White. Thus, the ethnocentric hierarchical model served as justification for White supremacy in the United States and the world until the late 1930s. However, during the early 20th century, a group of American anthropolo- gists led by Franz Boas, and his former students Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, questioned the efficacy of the hierarchical model of culture and sought to replace it with a contextualized, contingent, relativistic approach to culture based on cultural dif- ference (Stocking, 1968). Drawing on their ethnographies of indigenous cultures, Boas, Mead, and Benedict described societ- ies in terms of qualitative differences instead of approaching
them in terms of quantitative and technological accomplish- ments. During this time, leading African American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter Woodson also employed a relativ- istic approach to culture by documenting the cultural achieve- ments of Blacks in the past and present. However, White scholars mostly ignored the work of Du Bois and Woodson and contin- ued to employ a hierarchical model toward communities of color through the 1930s. Innate/biological explanations of racial dif- ference, especially among psychometricians, continued as well.
The Boasian view of culture slowly gained influence between the 1900s and 1920s, but it really did not take hold until the rise of Nazism in the late 1930s (Barkan, 1992). Anthropologists led the charge to attack the racial science that the Nazis were using to justify their genocidal policies against racial minorities. In response to the Nazis’ assault on minorities, the American Anthropological Association passed a resolution in 1938 stating: “Anthropology provides no scientific basis for discrimination against any people on the ground of racial superiority, religious affiliation, or linguistic heritage” because the “psychological and cultural connotations [of race], if they exist, have not been ascer- tained by science” (American Anthropological Association, 1939, pp. 29–30). Shortly thereafter, Benedict (1940) published Race: Science and Politics, and Montagu (1942) published Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Both books were best- sellers, and both drew on recent anthropological research to attack the scientific basis of racism. Benedict and Montagu insisted that there was no scientific basis for the biological ori- gins for cultural traits and that culture—in the new, contextual- ized, relativistic version of the word—was the best way to describe differences among people of the world. As Mead (1940) asserted during World War II, “scientific research has docu- mented the absence of any proof of reliable differences in intel- ligence and emotional make-up; differences, that is, which are impervious to the forces of cultural change” (p. 202).
The new relativistic definition of culture was a doubled- edged sword for communities of color in the United States. On the one hand, it removed the biological justification for racism and suggested that social inequalities between Whites and Blacks were the result of race prejudice, unjust social policies, and cul- tural difference instead of intelligence, innate potential, or immutable traits. The culturally relativistic approach opened the door for a more egalitarian view of racial difference. On the other hand, the new definition of culture inspired sociologists and anthropologists to replace theories of biological deficiency with newer theories of cultural deficiency that depicted commu- nities of color as somehow pathological, damaged, or less devel- oped than their White counterparts. As Frederickson (2002) explained, cultural racism “is a way of thinking about difference that reifies and essentializes culture rather than genetic endow- ment, or in other words makes culture do the work of race” (p. 141). Starting in the 1960s, social scientists drew on their ethnographic studies of low-income communities of color to construct new theories of cultural deficiency that while certainly less dismissive than the former biological theories of race, never- theless approached communities of color through a deficiency lens, suggesting that they were somehow ontologically less devel- oped than their middle-class White peers. That is, White scholars
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perceived people of color as having a culture to the same degree as middle-class Whites, but that culture was still deemed some- how pathological and/or deficient (Martinez & Rury, 2012; Scott, 1997; Valencia, 1997).
Personality Type and Cultural Deficiency
By the early 1960s, several trends converged to underscore a new focus on the alleged cultural deficiency of students of color living in cities, leading eventually to the suggestion that Black students may have their own learning style. First was the rediscovery of poverty ushered in by Harrington’s (1962) book, The Other America. In addition to people of color, Harrington’s study also depicted poor Southern Whites in Appalachia as part of the nearly 25% of Americans living in poverty. Furthermore, based on his study of the poor in Mexico City, Lewis (1961) intro- duced the “culture of poverty” thesis, suggesting that genera- tional poverty created a self-perpetuating set of pathologies that impoverished people transmitted across generations, making assimilation to middle-class life difficult for youth living in pov- erty. Controversial reports such as Moynihan’s (1965) The Negro Family and Coleman et al.’s (1966) Equality of Educational Opportunity garnered further evidence that the learned cultural traits of people of color may be the biggest impediment to their success in school and that their impoverished condition was in part the fault of their own cultural attributes. The Moynihan report notoriously named the poor Black experience as “a tangle of pathology” (p. 29), and the Coleman et al. report demon- strated that family background, not per pupil expenditure, was the biggest determinate of success in school.
Second, the Civil Rights movement brought attention to the plight of oppressed groups. As African American leaders won political and legal victories, they soon shifted their attention to issues of economic and social inequality. To combat these social and economic inequalities, President Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives funded compensatory educa- tional services such as the Head Start preschool program. The Great Society drew federal funding and research dollars to previ- ously neglected urban areas populated by people of color. The engagement of urban, African American youth became a central concern for educators looking to bring equitable outcomes to students of color. Policymakers designed the Head Start and other preferential and compensatory programs to address the perceived cultural deficiencies of poor students in an attempt to close the achievement gap between White and Black students. However, many of the volunteers, workers, and researchers applied middle-class biases to urban youth, which further per- petuated the view that African Americans were culturally deficient.
Third, cognitive psychologists began questioning the alleged passivity of the human mind, as conceptualized by behavioral psychologists, and reenvisioned the mind as open, interactive, and culturally contingent. Specifically, cognitive psychologists considered the ways that preexisting cognitive schema and cul- tural attributes affected the process of learning, thus blurring the line between individual and group consciousness. Piaget argued that the child’s mind developed through epistemic stages that
shaped and distorted how new knowledge was processed (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). Bruner (1960) suggested that learning was a form of enculturation to academic ways of thinking. As Bruner (1966) argued: “Knowing is a process, not a product” (p. 72). Both Piaget and Bruner questioned the immutability of intelli- gence and emphasized the importance of early childhood educa- tion on future learning. More significantly, during this time, scholars began to consider the impact of cognitive differences, or “personality” (Allport, 1955; Jung, 1923), on learning, and a few studies even suggested that there were different ways that the mind approached a problem.
Jung (1923) first introduced the personality traits of individ- uals and how they differed in degrees of introversion, extrover- sion, sensitivity, intuition, thinking, feeling, judging, and perceiving. Myers-Brigg (1962) turned Jung’s personality types into the popular Myers-Brigg personality type inventory. Furthermore, in Psychological Differentiation, Witkin, Dyk, Fattuson, Goodenough, and Karp (1962) suggested that some learners were “field-dependent” while others were “field- independent” in their ability to solve problems; the former required social support while the latter did not. In The Silent Language (1959) and the Hidden Dimension (1966), Hall stud- ied the unspoken language of gestures and nonverbal cues. He concluded that some cultures communicate in sophisticated ways through nonverbal cues and spatial recognitions that are missed and/or ignored by middle-class, White culture, which tended to be highly verbal. “People from different cultures not only speak different languages,” Hall (1966) explained, “but, what is possibly more important, they inhabit different sensory worlds” (p. 2). Hall included examples of how urban dwellers draw on different spatial cues than those living in suburban and rural areas, suggesting that urban youth had different cognitive- cultural approaches to their lives.
Collectively, this new scholarship reenvisioned the mind as context-bound, interactive, socially mediated, and culturally influenced. This new approach drew attention to the conditions and environments in which students were raised by suggesting that urban students experienced the world differently than sub- urban and rural ones. More importantly, this work underscored the idea that personalities, cultures, and environments inter- vened in the way students responded to stimuli. Instead of envi- sioning the mind as a blank slate that behaved in accordance with universal laws, as behaviorists suggested, cognitive psychol- ogists and cultural anthropologists forged a new interactive and culturally informed approach to mind that opened the door for the idea that students (and/or groups of students) potentially learned differently. Under this new conception, the development of individual personality and acculturation of the individual to social/ethnic groups worked conterminously. As a result, the line between the individual and his or her culture was blurred and conflated.
Drawing on these developments in cultural anthropology, social policy, and cognitive psychology, Riessman (1962) authored The Culturally Deprived Child. Riessman suggested for the first time that differences in student achievement might be due to differences in “styles of learning” (p. 64). Riessman identified poor Appalachian Whites, Puerto Ricans, Mexican
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Americans, and Native Americans as culturally deprived, yet the examples in the book focused almost exclusively on urban and particularly male African American youth. In his book, Riessman used the terms “cognitive style,” “type of thinking,” “style of learning,” and “style of thinking” interchangeably (pp. 64, 115), yet subsequent learning styles theorists would later distinguish these concepts from one another (see Curry, 1983). Under the heading, “Another Style of Thinking,” Riessman asserted, “Deprived children are capable of developing abstract, symbolic thinking. They appear to develop this type of thinking in slower, more direct fashion; that is they require more examples before ‘seeing the point’” (p. 115). Riessman pointed to the untapped potential of urban youth and advocated for addressing their par- ticular style of learning, writing:
The underprivileged child has a cognitive style or way of learning that includes a number of features that have unique creative potential: his skill in non-verbal communication (his is not word bound). His proclivity for persisting along one line (one track creativity), his induction emphasis on many concrete examples, and his colorful free association feeling for metaphor in language, perhaps best seen in his use of slang. These potentialities, indigenous to his cultural heritage, must be fully explored in any program concerned with developing talent among underprivileged groups. (p. 115)
Although Riessman stated repeatedly that he was trying to tran- scend the deficit approach to culture by “emphasizing the posi- tive aspects of their culture, which, hitherto, have been largely ignored” (p. xiii), it was difficult to read his characteristics of culturally deprived children and their learning style as preferable to the learning style of mainstream, middle-class, White stu- dents. In other words, despite his best intentions, Riessman could not completely transcend the hierarchical view of culture because he judged the culture of students of color against the standard of White mainstream culture. Elsewhere in the book, Riessman decried the “anti-intellectualism and narrow practical- ity of the deprived,” again demonstrating that he was working, at least partially, through a deficit lens (p. 129).
Riessman’s book received criticism from both those who rejected his cultural relativism as well as those who thought he had overemphasized the cultural deficiency of urban Black stu- dents. As Cynthia P. Deutsch (1965) argued,
Riessman’s argument on cultural relativism does not take into consideration the increasing industrialization of our society and the consequent greater dependence on verbal communication which lead to a greater need for facility in verbal skills such as reading and writing. (p. 143)
Drawing on the research of Martin Deutsch, she insisted that language acquisition was critical to learning and that the urban Black youth had verbal deficits that needed to be corrected, not catered to. On the other end of the spectrum, African American author Ralph Ellison (1963/1986) insisted that there “is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid” (p. 65). Suggesting that Black students were culturally different, not deprived, Ellison argued that poor African American kids could draw on a rich “social fabric” based on “basic ingenuity” that had been overlooked by
White educators. He implored educators “to find out what [Black children] have” and asked, “What do they have that is a strength?” (p. 65). He insisted that instead of language deficits, Black children had “great virtuosity with the music, the poetry of words” (p. 67). Citing Ellison, Castro (1971) likewise ques- tioned Riessman’s assertion that students of color had verbal deficits and demonstrated the consistencies in the language pat- terns of African American youth, which she had studied in her research by using drama and games to access their rich linguistic knowledge.
In an article for the Journal of Negro Education, Riessman (1964) attempted to respond to both critiques of his approach— that he was too dismissive and not dismissive enough of urban Black youth. Carefully replacing the term culturally deprived with economically disadvantaged and/or educationally deprived, Riessman again outlined “the content-centered not form- centered mental approach” of urban youth and their “physical and visual style in learning” (p. 230). He also listed additional deficits of the educationally deprived such as “poor auditory attention poor time perspective, inefficient test-taking skills, and limited reading ability” of “disadvantaged youth” (p. 230).
Others took Riessman’s learning style idea even further. Dismissing Riessman’s relativistic approach to culture as too empathetic and irrational, Johnson (1970) likewise identified a learning style of the culturally disadvantaged. However, Johnson was more overt in his deficit language. “[T]he learning style of the culturally disadvantaged is not efficient,” Johnson explained, “it is slow, physical, nonverbal, problem-centered, and concrete- oriented—like the learning style of a young child” (p. 33). Johnson listed further deficits of culturally disadvantaged youth, such as “negative attitude towards intellectual tasks,” “inability to recognize adults as information sources,” “ineffectiveness to verbal stimuli,” “present-oriented,” “slowness with intellectual tasks,” and “inability to deal with multiple problems” (pp. 36– 39). Johnson’s assertion that the learning style of the culturally disadvantaged was “like the very young child of any culture or social class” linked his assessment to the largely debunked ethno- centric theory of recapitulation—the idea that the development of the individual retraced the sociological/psychological history of the human race and that non-White cultures/minds repre- sented earlier childlike stages of White cultures/minds. Pre- Boasian anthropologists in the early 20th century used the theory of recapitulation to justify domination over non-White and premodern cultures that were characterized as childlike, undeveloped, inchoate, and savage (Fallace, 2015). By adopting the “child” metaphor, Johnson unwittingly linked his approach to the hierarchical theory of culture he was trying to challenge. “The term culturally disadvantaged . . . is a relative term,” Johnson explained. “The disadvantaged materializes when the child leaves his primary cultural group to function in the domi- nant culture” (p. 3). Thus, according to Johnson, the deficits of the culturally disadvantaged were contingent, not absolute. Nevertheless, Johnson approached students of color as ontologi- cally less formed than their White counterparts and espoused cultural assimilation in lieu of cultural preservation.
By the mid-1960s, the learning style idea had first entered the discourse via Riessman, and it did so in the context of teaching “culturally deprived” children. Riesmann’s book was not
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specifically about learning styles, yet it did represent the first time the term had been used in an educational context as a way to improve educational outcomes. However, not all scholars using the cultural deprivation paradigm adopted or discussed the idea of learning style. Conversely, not all scholars who employed the idea of learning styles linked the idea to cultural differences and deficits. Even those who applied the learning style idea to urban youth, such as Strom (1965), used it in inconsistent ways. As Strom pointed out in his book, Teaching in the Slum School: “Not only is instruction influenced by different types of learning but recent studies suggest that children differ in their preference of learning styles” (p. 78). However, instead of outlining the divergences between the middle class and culturally deprived learning style, Strom pointed to an “authoritarian method of learning” versus a “spontaneous style of learning in which trial and error, experimentation, and idea modification are utilized” (p. 78). Thus, Strom suggested that the “authoritarian” and “spontaneous” learning styles cut across class and racial types, thus paving the way for the race-blind learning style inventories of the 1970s.
Is There a Black Learning Style?
By the end of the 1960s, controversial research by Jensen (1969) reasserted innate explanations of racial disparities in intelligence. In this context, the learning style idea took on new relevance as an alternative to biological/innate explanations for disparities in school achievement among racial groups. The learning style the- sis suggested that the low achievement of African American stu- dents was due more to a mismatch between the instruction of White middle-class teachers and the learning style of urban Black students than it was due to innate deficiencies in intelli- gence and/or cognitive potential (Cohen, 1969; Slaughter, 1969). In this sense, Riessman’s thesis was more liberal and humane than Jensen’s argument for the innate inferiority of stu- dents of color. Nevertheless, race-based learning style idea con- tinued to be attacked by those who rejected his culturally relativism and those who thought he had not gone far enough in recognizing the positive attributes of Black students.
One empirical study by Smith (1966) employed different learning styles with Jobs Corps participants of different races and ethnicities. Reasserting the behaviorist approach to learning, Smith concluded that race made no difference in how individu- als learned. “As has been long maintained by behaviorists,” Smith concluded, “the burden of learning lies with the teacher and the institution of learning, not with the learner” (p. 3). Although Smith found that ethnicities could not be aligned with specific learning styles, he argued that race, “particularly Negroes,” did make a difference in regards to behavior (p. 3). Smith found that when Blacks made up over 40% of the class, their achievement and behavior degenerated, but when they made up less than 40% of the class, their achievement and behavior improved. This finding reinforced the cultural deficit approach to African American youth because it implied that the cultural traits of Black students impeded their own learning, but only when the relative number of Black students was great enough to exert their cultural influence on the rest of the class. Yet paradoxically,
Smith’s study directly challenged the idea that there was a Black learning style.
Despite evidence and argument to the contrary, the idea per- sisted that Blacks learned differently than Whites. Articles pub- lished in the 1970s (Cureton, 1978; Gantt, 1972; Johnson, 1970) cited Riessman as justification for the idea that a Black or culturally disadvantaged learning style could be identified and addressed. “Is there a black learning style, a learning style espe- cially suited to innercity [sic] students?,” Cureton (1978, p. 755) bluntly and provocatively asked. “I believe there is,” he answered (p. 755). Even those who were critical of the research on learning styles were still hesitant to rule out the possibility that learning styles could somehow be aligned with race. As Costello and Payton (1973) argued, “It seems necessary to separate . . . those cultural differences which preserve diversity in our culture, and those differences in learning style that limit individual develop- ment and may have nothing at all to do with preserving cultural diversity or ethnic identity” (p. 100). In summary, there were several learning style typologies in circulation by the 1970s. Some scholars identified Black/White and/or assimilated/cultur- ally deprived learning styles, while others used introverted/extro- verted or authoritarian/spontaneous typologies. Some recognized issues of race, ethnicity, and/or class and made it central to their rationale for why addressing learning styles was so important. However, by the time a few innovative scholars decided to design learning style inventories for mass distribution in schools, issues of race/ethnicity were ignored.
Declaring itself the “first comprehensive approach to the assessment of an individual’s learning style in grades 3 through 9,” Dunn et al. (1975) published the first comprehensive Learning Style Inventory in 1975 (p. 5). Admitting that the “questions in the instrument” were “highly subjective and rela- tive,” Dunn et al. admitted that their inventory merely assessed how “students prefer to learn, not the skills they use” (p. 6). Dunn el al.’s inventory was complex and involved 22 areas in the domains of environment, emotionality, sociological, and physi- cal needs. The next year, Kolb (1976) published a simpler Learning Style Inventory that identified only four learning styles: convergent, divergent, assimilationist, and/or accommodationist. Kolb cited the work of Bruner (1960), Jung (1923), and Myers- Brigg (1962) as justification for his learning style inventory. In contrast, Dunn et al. did not cite any of the cognitive or anthro- pological research justifying the existence of learning styles, but they did cite several empirical studies demonstrating that stu- dents learned better when instruction was aligned with their learning style. Despite Riessman’s prominence in the literature, neither Dunn et al. nor Kolb cited him as the originator of the learning style idea. Generally, those who did cite Riessman in connection with learning styles tended to align certain learning styles with particular racial, ethnic, cultural groups or classes, while those who did not cite him tended to approach learning styles in more individualistic terms.
By the time Dunn et al. (1975) and Kolb (1976) published their learning style inventories, psychologists had completely purged the deficit language from the history of the learning style idea. Neither Dunn et al. nor Kolb addressed the issue of whether certain racial or socioeconomic groups learned differently. It is
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possible that scholars deliberately avoided the issue of race in an attempt to avoid the controversy that had embroiled the work of Riessman. Or more likely, they were unaware of the work of race-specific learning style theories altogether and believed that race, ethnicity, and culture were completely irrelevant to the way that individuals learn. Either way, Dunn et al. and Kolb had redirected the discourse on the learning style idea away from racial stereotypes and deficit language despite the fact that schol- ars had been discussing the learning style ideas and its link to race/ethnicity for over a decade before the learning style invento- ries had been constructed and the fact that some African American authors continued to pursue the idea that Black stu- dents may have a learning style that was incompatible with White schools (Hale, 1982; Shade, 1982). Once the race-neutral learning style inventories become popular for use with White students, the discourse shifted to the discussion of emerging issues, such as the consolidation of multiple learning style frame- works, judging the efficacy of the theories, and assessing its role in improving student learning (Curry, 1983; Dunn et al., 1981). However, the learning style idea was still conceptually messy and controversial. Curry’s (1983) review of the literature on learning styles ignored the issue of race/ethnicity and class, identified over a dozen learning theory frameworks, and concluded that there was “bewildering confusion of definitions surrounding learning style conceptualization” (p. 3). The same year Curry presented her findings, Gardner (1983) published his influential Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences that, although not technically a learning theory, nevertheless provided further evi- dence and momentum for the idea that individual students pos- sessed divergent learning strengths, preferences, and styles.
Whether the learning style idea is valid and/or worth pursing today is beyond the scope of this article, which focuses solely on the ethnocentric origins of the idea. Nevertheless, advocates should be aware of its problematic early history. During the 1960s and 1970s, the learning style idea was plagued by two recurring issues. First, the existence of learning styles was assumed before it had been fully clarified and empirically estab- lished. Throughout its early history, scholars expressed skepti- cism of both the existence of learning styles and the assigning of learning styles to particular racial/ethnic groups (Costello & Payton, 1973; Smith, 1966), yet scholars continued to explore and apply the idea nevertheless. Second, many scholars conflated the culture of social groups with the psychology of individual students (Cureton, 1978; Gant, 1972; Hale, 1982; Riessman, 1962; Shade, 1982). As a result, they failed to distinguish clearly where individual psychology ended and enculturation to social groups began, especially when approaching students of color. This created a paradoxical construct wherein ethnicity/race explained everything when it came to the alleged learning style of low-income students of color (e.g., Cureton, 1978; Hale, 1982; Riessman, 1962), yet race/ethnicity explained nothing when it came to the alleged learning styles of middle-class White students because White students’ race was regarded as irrelevant (Dunn et al., 1975; Kolb, 1976; Myers-Brigg, 1962). As a result, scholars paradoxically perceived students of color to have a
particular collective learning style tied to their culture while they perceived White students to have individual learning styles com- pletely independent of culture. Both views reflected a conceptual inconsistency that reflected the ethnocentrism of the period.
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THOMAS FALLACE, PhD, is a professor of education at William Paterson University, 602 Upper Mountain Ave., Montclair, NJ 07043; firstname.lastname@example.org. His research focuses on intellectual and curriculum history.
Manuscript received June 4, 2018 Revisions received October 12, 2018; February 18, 2019
Accepted May 29, 2019https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/the-myth-of-learning-styles/557687https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/the-myth-of-learning-styles/557687mailto:email@example.com
Are You a Visual or an Auditory Learner? It Doesn’t Matter One mental strategy may be much better suited than another to a
By Daniel T. Willingham Mr. Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia.
Oct. 4, 2018
You must read this article to understand it, but many people feel reading is not how they learn best. They
would rather listen to an explanation or view a diagram. Researchers have formalized those intuitions
into theories of learning styles. These theories are influential enough that many states (including New
York) require future teachers to know them and to know how they might be used in the classroom.
But there’s no good scientific evidence that learning styles actually exist.
Over the last several decades, researchers have proposed dozens of theories, each suggesting a scheme to
categorize learners. The best known proposes that some of us like words and others like pictures, but
other theories make different distinctions: whether you like to solve problems intuitively or by analyzing
them, for example, or whether you prefer to tackle a complex idea with an overview or by diving into
If one of these theories were right, it would bring important benefits. In the classroom, a brief test would
categorize children as this type of learner or that, and then a teacher could include more of this or that in their schooling. In the workplace, a manager might send one employee a memo but communicate the
same information to another in a conversation.
Does such matching work? To find out, researchers must determine individuals’ supposed learning style
and then ask them to learn something in a way that matches or conflicts with it. For example, in an
experiment testing the visual-auditory theory, researchers determined subjects’ styles by asking about
their usual mental strategies: Do you spell an unfamiliar word by sounding it out or visualizing the
letters? Do you give directions in words or by drawing a map?
Next, researchers read statements, and participants rated either how easily the statement prompted a
mental image (a visual learning experience) or how easy it was to pronounce (an auditory learning
experience). The auditory learners should have remembered statements better if they focused on the
sound rather than if they created visual images, and visual learners should have shown the opposite
pattern. But they didn’t.
The theory is wrong, but, curiously, people act as though it’s right — they try to learn in accordance with
what they think is their style. When experimenters asked research participants to learn a new task and
gave them access to written instructions and to diagrams, the people who thought of themselves as
verbalizers went for words, and the self-described visualizers looked at pictures. But tests showed they
didn’t learn the task any faster because they adhered to their purported style.
In another experiment, researchers eavesdropped on brain activity to show that people will mentally
change a task to align with what they think is their learning style. Researchers used stimuli that were
either pictures (a blue-striped triangle) or verbal descriptions (“green,” “dotted,” “square”). While in a
brain scanner, participants had to match successive stimuli, but they never knew whether a picture or
words would pop up next.
When self-described visual learners saw words, the visual part of their brain was active; they were
transforming the verbal stimulus into a picture. Likewise, verbal areas of the brain were active when
verbal learners saw a picture; they were describing it to themselves. But again, these efforts were in vain.
People performed the task no better when the stimuli matched what they thought of as their learning
The problem is not just that trying to learn in your style doesn’t help — it can cost you. Learning style
theories ignore the fact that one mental strategy may be much better suited than another to a particular
task. For example, consider the theory that differentiates intuitive and reflective thinking. The former is
quick and relies on associations in memory; the latter is slower and analytic.
Whatever your purported style, intuitive thinking is better for problems demanding creativity, and
reflective thinking is better for formal problems like calculations of probability. An intuitive thinker who
mulishly sticks to his supposed learning style during a statistics test will fail.
Although conforming to learning styles doesn’t help, we can learn a few lessons from this research.
First, instead of trying to transform a task to match your style, transform your thinking to match the task.
The best strategy for a task is the best strategy, irrespective of what you believe your learning style is.
Second, don’t let your purported style be a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure or an excuse for resignation.
“Sorry I mixed up the dates — I’m just not a linear thinker” is bunk. Likewise, don’t tell your child’s
teacher that she is struggling in class because the teacher is not adjusting to her learning style.
Finally, the idea of tuning tasks to an individual’s style offered hope — a simple change might improve
performance in school and at work. We’ve seen that that doesn’t work, but this research highlights hope of
another kind. We are not constrained by our learning style. Any type of learning is open to any of us.
Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.”