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MYTH BUSTER

Playing to Kids' Learning Mode Can Be a Flop

In disputing the common theory on using children's best learning method, Daniel T. Willingham points to experiments and the nature of much of what is taught in school.
In disputing the common theory on using children's best learning method, Daniel T. Willingham points to experiments and the nature of much of what is taught in school. (Photo By Dan Addison - Courtesy Of U Va Public Affairs)
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Monday, February 18, 2008

The theory: Children can be identified as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners -- that some do better by seeing material, some by hearing it and others by experiencing it -- and learn best when lessons are presented to appeal to their best modality.

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The debunker: Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that the theory seems to make sense but that research shows it isn't entirely true.

Willingham, who likes to turn conventional education wisdom on its ear, said that perhaps 90 percent of teachers believe students learn material differently.

It is true, he said, that all people have varying abilities in these methods. Someone who has robust auditory abilities is likely to pick up a French accent faster than someone who doesn't, he said, and strong visual abilities will help someone memorize a map of Africa.

But it doesn't translate into helping with a lot of learning because of the way memory works and the nature of much of the information learned at school. "It is true that you might be better than I am at being a visual imager," he said. "But most of what happens at school is about meaning, and that meaning is not specific to a modality like hearing or seeing. It is more abstract than that."

For example, he said, a third-grader might know that fire needs oxygen to be maintained, but the fact will not be stored in terms of an image. Rather, it remains rather abstract in a meaning-based representation.

He said experiments have been done with groups of children who are classified as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners and then given material with the correct method as well as the incorrect method to see if anybody learns better in one mode than another.

According to Willingham, "There is no evidence that the idea holds water."

-- Valerie Strauss


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