Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Visual vs. Auditory Learners? Humbug!

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2009 at 4:15 pm

It turns out that the neuro science doesn’t corroborate the notion that there are different types of learners. In fact, a new book Why don’t Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham argues that students need a knowledge base before they can think critically because this is not something that the brain naturally does. In Christopher Chabris review in The Wall Street Journal, he rejects the theory of different learning styles.

It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in “style,” researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as “auditory learners” and “visual learners.” Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners.

But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum — at all levels of schooling — is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. “Specious,” for instance, means “seemingly logical, but actually fallacious” whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.

We want to believe that students will be challenged more by being given skills, but in order for them to organize information and analyze it, they have to know what it means first. My teacher, Rabbi Chaim Brovender once said, “There are only two questions. One is: How can he say that? And the other is: What does it mean? The first question is irrelevant until the second question has been addressed fully. ”

More importantly, just because something seems to make sense, does not make it true.

It may be that appealing to different student temperaments is confused with how they learn. The reseach may indicate that teachers are responding to regulating classroom behavior, and assuming that because students are more manageable, they are actually learning more. Indirectly, that may be true, but it has nothing to do with ones “style” of learning.

I think I need to read this book.


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