A Problem with Learning Styles: A Tasty Analogy

Whenever I encounter literature or talks about learning styles, there seems to be a general pattern to what one is expected to know and do:

  1. Every student has a preferred way of learning (often, visual, auditory, etc.).
  2. With this preference, they will learn best through the particular modality.
  3. Everyone still needs to learn with all of their modalities, so be sure to mix up the lessons with all of the approaches.

This seems like a nice idea, but as well-meaning as it may be, I contend that it is equally misguided. To explain this in another way, I give the analogy of tastes. We have five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (science postulates that there may be more, but I will stick to the five here). Some prefer sweet concoctions, others like salty things, while yet others like sour foods. A sizable percentage of us also like some combination (I love chocolate, which is a combination of sweet and bitter).

In order to have the best culinary experience, I devise the following:

  1. Every eater has their own taste preference.
  2. With this preference, they will taste things best through that modality.
  3. Everyone still needs to eat with all of their tastes, so be sure to mix up your recipes with all of the flavors.

It becomes a little more apparent that taste preference is irrelevant. People will still be able to taste blueberry pie, spaghetti with meatballs, and lemonade just fine regardless of their taste preference. Will a “salt taster“ be incapable (or less capable) of trying new cuisines because it is not rich in sodium? In fact, we could see how an emphasis on salt could ruin some dishes. Put a cup of salt into a typical chocolate chip cookie batter recipe and see if anyone (salt lovers and salt haters alike) is going to like the batch.

When it comes to learning, cognitive psychology emphasizes using the senses that are most compatible with the lesson itself. An emphasis on salt is reasonable when working with soups while more focus on sugar should be expected with many dessert items. Likewise, one learning to tie  their shoes or change a car tire would benefit from a kinesthetic approach; the learning of word pronunciation or the differentiation of pitches emphasizes listening, regardless of what one thinks they prefer.

In the end, we might believe we have a preference for learning, but it likely has little use for actual learning.

Just some food for thought.

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