Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

 First published Dec 6 2012, updated June 2018


All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0


Like the three cueing system, the notion of learning styles has continued to evoke surprising enthusiasm among many educators. It has undeniable intuitive appeal – after all don’t we value individual difference? When a concept has social currency it seems churlish to dispute its existence on purely rational or empirical grounds. If it feels right, then one may development an emotional attachment that is difficult to shift even when there's an absence of research to support its usefulness in the classroom. If learning styles were simply a value system that stimulated teachers to provide the best possible teaching to all their charges then there would be little cause for concern. However, there are practical implications that may actually disadvantage some students, either because the method chosen is unhelpful to the concept or operation being taught, or simply because of the opportunity cost of time wasted when an inefficient approach is employed. Struggling students can least afford low quality or inefficient instruction.

 “To be a useful tool in instructional decision making, a theory of individual differences in learners must do the following things well:

(a) Specify the nature of the underlying trait in a way that is convincing and valid.

(b) There needs to be a measure of this trait which meets acceptable psychometric standards.

(c) The theory needs to describe why this trait is relevant to educational contexts, i.e., to specify which salient outcomes are related to which specific levels of the trait.

(d) There must be an information basis, preferably through responsibly executed research, suggesting that education outcomes are attributable to learner-situation interactions rather than task characteristics alone.

When assayed against criteria such as these, it is apparent that, in general terms, the learning styles movement has many deficiencies (Riding & Rayner, 1998). Contrary to the impression gained from net searching, there is not any currently available technology available to the classroom teacher which will enable his or her educational goals to be facilitated through diagnosis of student learning style”.

Yates, G.C.R. (1999). Applying learning style research in the classroom: Some cautions and the way ahead. In R. Riding. & S. Rayner (Eds), New directions in learning and cognitive style. Stamford, CT: JAI Press, pp 347- 364.

Hattie (1992) found an average effect size of only 0.14 for individualised teaching in schools, which includes learning styles. This trivial effect size strongly suggests that in general, it is not a good use of teacher time to try to set up, monitor and support individual learning programs when there are large groups to deal with. In 2015, he revised the figure for learning styles to 0.23 on the basis of 195 comparisons. Remember that Hattie's minimum threshold for a worthwhile approach is 0.40


Hattie, J.A. (2015). Hattie ranking - Interactive visualization. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/Kerryh/Documents/Workshops/Teaching%20stuff/Hattie/hattie-ranking-interactive-2009-2011-2015.html

Hattie, J.A. (1992). Towards a model of schooling: a synthesis of meta-analyses. Australian Journal of Education, 36, 5–13.


“ … learning styles is not just an interesting academic topic; it is also an industry. There are many promoters who actively market tests, books, workshops, and so forth, to school districts and to individual teachers. Our sense from talking to teachers is that although most of them do not personally administer learning styles tests to their students, many of them assume that they really ought to do be doing that, and regret that they do not have the opportunity to do more of it. As we saw it, our job was to figure out whether that regret was well founded, and our final conclusion was that it was not. In our article, we warned that learning styles products and practices lacked the sort of validation evidence that, in our opinion, ought to be presented before an industry emerges, not after.” (p. 122)

Pashler, H., Bjork, R., McDaniel, M., & Rohrer, D. (2015). Review: Book Review: Comment on Sternberg’s Review of Zhang. Reviewed Work: The Malleability of Intellectual Styles by Li-Fang Zhang. The American Journal of Psychology, 128(1), 122-125.

“Psychology has had much greater success describing commonalities among students than it has had in describing categorization schemes for differences. Researchers have compiled a fairly impressive list of properties of the mind that students share. And although going from lab to classroom is not straightforward, there is evidence that students benefit when educators deploy classroom methods that capitalize on those commonalities. For example, we know that spacing learning over time and quizzing (among other methods) improve memory (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013). We know that teachers can modify the classroom environment to decrease problem behaviors (Osher, Bear, Sprague, & Doyle, 2010). In mathematics, there is a particular developmental progression by which teachers can best teach numbers and operations (National Mathematics Advisory Panel, 2008). In reading, phonics instruction benefits most children (Reynolds, Wheldall, & Madelaine, 2011). Thus, psychologists have made some impressive contributions to education. When it comes to learning styles, however, the most we deserve is credit for effort and for persistence. Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that.” (p.269)

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266–271.

“Important to our purposes, the effect of instruction over whelmed learning style. … One educational implication of this research is obvious: educators need not worry about their students’ learning styles. There’s no evidence that adopting instruction to learning styles provides any benefit … are we sure it’s wrong is a bad criterion. We should ask whether there is good evidence supporting the theory.” (p.30-32)

Willingham, D.T. (2018). Does tailoring instruction to “learning styles” help students learn? American Educator, Summer, 28-33. Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/ae_summer2018_willingham.pdf


“The popularity of the learning styles mythology may stem in part from the appeal of finding out what “type of person” you are, along with the desire to be treated as an individual within the education system. In contrast, the notion that universal strategies may enhance learning for all belies the idea that we are unique, individual learners. In addition, most empirically-supported techniques involve planning (e.g., scheduling study sessions over a series of days) and significant effort (e.g., taking practice tests in advance of a classroom assessment), and let’s face it, we don’t want to work that hard.”

May, C. (2018). The problem with "learning styles". Scientific American, May 29. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-with-learning-styles/

“We conclude that there is insufficient evidence, however, to support learning styles as an instructionally useful concept when planning and delivering appropriately individualized and differentiated instruction”.

Landrum, T.J., & McDuffie, K. A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18, 6-17.

No evidence to back idea of learning styles 2017


‘The claim that students will perform better when the teaching is matched to their preferred learning style is simply not supported by science,’ writes Bruce Hood.

Monday 13 March 2017 10.59 AEDT Last modified on Monday 13 March 2017 11.53 AEDT

There is widespread interest among teachers in the use of neuroscientific research findings in educational practice. However, there are also misconceptions and myths that are supposedly based on sound neuroscience that are prevalent in our schools. We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported.

Generally known as “learning styles”, it is the belief that individuals can benefit from receiving information in their preferred format, based on a self-report questionnaire. This belief has much intuitive appeal because individuals are better at some things than others and ultimately there may be a brain basis for these differences. Learning styles promises to optimise education by tailoring materials to match the individual’s preferred mode of sensory information processing.

Teachers must ditch 'neuromyth' of learning styles, say scientists

There are, however, a number of problems with the learning styles approach. First, there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles. Usually, individuals are categorised into one of three preferred styles of auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners based on self-reports. One study found that there were more than 70 different models of learning styles including among others, “left v right brain,” “holistic v serialists,” “verbalisers v visualisers” and so on. The second problem is that categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.

Finally, and most damning, is that there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment. Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style. The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK has concluded that learning styles is “Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence”.

These neuromyths may be ineffectual, but they are not low cost. We would submit that any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected. Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.

One way forward is to draw attention to practices that are not evidence-based and to encourage neuroscientists and educationalists to promote the need for critical thinking when evaluating the claims for educational benefits supposedly based on neuroscience. As part of Brain Awareness Week that begins 13 March, we support neuroscientists going into schools to talk about their research but also to raise awareness of neuromyths.

Professor Bruce Hood
Chair of developmental psychology in society, University of Bristol, founder of Speakezee
Professor Paul Howard-Jones
Chair of neuroscience and education, University of Bristol
Professor Diana Laurillard
Professor of learning with digital technology, UCL Knowledge Lab, University College London
Professor Dorothy Bishop
Professor of developmental neuropsychology, University of Oxford
Professor Frank Coffield
Emeritus professor of education, University College Institute of Education, University of London
Professor Dame Uta Frith
Emeritus Professor, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London
Professor Steven Pinker
Johnstone family professor of psychology, Harvard University
Sir Colin Blakemore
Professor of neuroscience and philosophy, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, University College London
Professor Hal Pashler
Distinguished professor of psychology, UC San Diego
Dr Peter Etchells
Senior lecturer in biological psychology, Bath Spa University
Dr Nathalia Gjersoe
Senior lecturer in developmental psychology, University of Bath
Professor Gaia Scerif
Professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience, University of Oxford
Dr Sara Baker
Lecturer in psychology and education, University of Cambridge
Dr Matthew Wall
Division of brain sciences, Imperial College London
Dr Jon Simons
Reader in cognitive neuroscience, University of Cambridge
Dr Michelle Ellefson
Senior lecturer in psychology and education, University of Cambridge
Dr Ashok Jansari
Lecturer in cognitive neuropsychology, Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr Molly Crockett
Associate professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford
Professor Kate Nation
Professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford
Professor Michael Thomas
Director, University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience, professor of cognitive neuroscience, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Nikhil Sharma
Honorary consultant neurologist and senior clinical researcher (MRC),
the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery
Dr David Whitebread
PEDAL research centre, University of Cambridge
Professor Mark Sabbagh
Professor of psychology and neuroscience, Queen’s University, Canada
Dr Cristine Legare
Associate professor of psychology, University of Texas at Austin
Dr Joseph T Devlin
Head of experimental psychology, University College London
Professor Peter Gordon
Program director, neuroscience and education, Teachers College, Columbia University
Professor David Poeppel
Director, department of neuroscience, Max-Planck-Institute, Frankfurt
Professor Brian Butterworth
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Centre for Educational Neuroscience,
University College London
Professor Anil Seth
Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, School of Engineering and Informatics, University of Sussex
Dr Tom Foulsham
Reader in psychology, University of Essex

“Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis. We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learningstyles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number”.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

“Black and Wiliam (1998a) conducted an extensive survey of the research literature on assessment. They concluded from their study of the most carefully conducted quantitative experiments that: innovations which include strengthening the practice of formative assessment produce significant, and often substantial, learning gains. These studies range over ages (from five-year olds to university undergraduates), across several school subjects, and over several countries… The formative assessment experiments produce typical effect sizes of between 0.4 and 0.7: such effect sizes are larger than most of those found for educational interventions” (Black and Wiliam 1998b, 3–4)

Black, P.J., & Wiliam, D. (1998a). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7–73.Black, P.J., & Wiliam, D. (1998b). Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom attainment. London: King’s College London.

APA Journals Article Spotlight®

Summary of recent APA Journal article August 26, 2014 Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/highlights/spotlight/issue-22.aspx

Learning Styles

"There is widespread belief among educators, as well as the general public, that providing instruction based on an individual's preferred learning style improves learning. That is, individuals with a visual learning style preference will comprehend better when they read rather than listen and, conversely, individuals with an auditory learning style preference will comprehend better when they listen rather than read.

As a result of this belief, educators and professional development leaders spend time and resources assessing their students and developing instruction to specifically match each student's preferred learning style.

In a critical review of the literature, Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2008) concluded that there has been little empirical scientific research to support or negate the learning styles theory. They detailed the specific experimental design needed to investigate this theory empirically.

Following the design of Pashler et al (2008), Rogowsky, Calhoun, and Tallal (2014) (PDF, 115KB), in an article to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, empirically investigated the effect of learning style preference in college-educated adults, as applied to (a) verbal comprehension aptitude (listening or reading) and (b) learning based on mode of instruction (digital audiobook or e-text).

Results demonstrated no statistically significant relationship between learning style preferences (auditory, visual word) and learning comprehension based on instructional method (audiobook, e-text). Taken together, the results of the investigation failed to statistically support the meshing hypothesis, either for verbal comprehension aptitude or for learning based on mode of instruction (digital audiobook, e-text).

The main finding from the study — that across-the-board visual learners scored higher than auditory learners — may have a substantial impact on current educational practice. In fact, educators may be doing a disservice to auditory learners by continually providing them with instruction that meshes with their auditory learning style rather than focusing on strengthening their visual word skills."

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.
Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2014). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 64–78. doi://10.1037/a0037478


“Recent brain research also brings into question some long-running ideas about preferred 'learning styles', say Horne and Wootton in their book Training Your Brain: “Recent brain research also brings into question some long-running ideas about preferred 'learning styles', say Horne and Wootton in their book Training Your Brain: "Edelman found that, irrespective of a student's preferred learning style, it was readily possible to help students to involve those parts of their brains that students or pupils normally preferred not to use.

"Restak reported that the brain made a better job of processing sensory input when several of its systems were working simultaneously. In short, brain research does not appear to support the idea that quality, persistence, extent or depth of learning are achieved by allowing the learner to use only their preferred learning style. What does seem to be important is that learning activities should stimulate several parts of the brain simultaneously since this promotes the increased neural interconnectedness associated with the development of increased cognitive capacity. Repetition and practice also seem to be important since they bequeath thickening of the myelin insulation on the axons of the neurons and this favors future thinking speed and accuracy."

A to Z of brain, mind, and learning. (2007). Learning styles a myth, British researchers say. Retrieved from http://www.learninginfo.org/learning-styles-myth.htm

Theoretical incoherence and conceptual confusion.

“The field of learning styles consists of a wide variety of approaches that stem from different perspectives which have some underlying similarities and some conceptual overlap. There are numerous groups working in isolation from each other and, with few exceptions, from mainstream research in psychology. Research into learning styles can, in the main, be characterised as small-scale, non-cumulative, uncritical and inward-looking” (p.54). … “After more than 30 years of research, no consensus has been reached about the most effective instrument for measuring learning styles and no agreement about the most appropriate pedagogical interventions” (p.61). “Curry’s evaluation, in 1987, was that researchers in the field had not yet established unequivocally the reality, utility, reliability and validity of these concepts. Our review of 2003 shows that these problems still bedevil the field.” (p. 64).


  • convergers versus divergers
  • verbalisers versus imagers
  • holists versus serialists
  • deep versus surface learning
  • activists versus reflectors
  • pragmatists versus theorists
  • adaptors versus innovators
  • assimilators versus explorers
  • field dependent versus field independent
  • globalists versus analysts
  • assimilators versus accommodators
  • imaginative versus analytic learners
  • non-committers versus plungers
  • common-sense versus dynamic learners
  • concrete versus abstract learners
  • random versus sequential learners
  • initiators versus reasoners
  • intuitionists versus analysts
  • extroverts versus introverts
  • sensing versus intuition
  • thinking versus feeling
  • judging versus perceiving
  • left brainers versus right brainers
  • meaning-directed versus undirected
  • theorists versus humanitarians
  • activists versus theorists
  • pragmatists versus reflectors
  • organisers versus innovators
  • lefts/analytics/inductives/successive processors
  • versus rights/globals/deductives/simultaneous processors
  • executive, hierarchic, conservative versus legislative, anarchic, liberal.

Cofield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, H. (2004). Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice. London, England: Learning and Skills Research Centre. Retrieved from http://www.ittralee.ie/en/InformationFor/Staff/Review/TLUHome/Learning/LearningTheoriesSection1TheappealofLearningStyles/

Curry, L. (1987). Integrating concepts of cognitive learning styles: A review with attention to psychometric standards. Ottawa: Canadian College of Health Service Executives

Coffield, F.J., Moseley, D.V., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre/University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

“Moreover, the status of research in this field is not helped by the overblown claims of some of the developers and their enthusiastic devotees. For example, Carbo, the director of the National Reading Styles Institute in the US, claimed that when staff were trained for 4 or 5 days in ‘matching’ techniques, ‘very often the results have been phenomenal, not just significant. We’ve had some gains of 10 times as high as students were achieving before’ (quoted by O’Neil 1990, 7). Rigorously conducted research, as we saw earlier, has experienced difficulty in establishing that matching produced significant, never mind phenomenal, gains”.

O’Neil, J. (1990). Findings of styles research: Murky at best. Educational Leadership, 48(2), 7.

"It is recommended that educators use a variety of learning methods, and encourage students to be receptive to different learning methods rather than try to link specific learning methods to specific learning styles”.

Loo, R. (2004). Kolb's learning styles and learning preferences: Is there a linkage?Educational Psychology, 24(1), 99-108.


“There are several issues raised in the discussion of learning styles. Are there such characteristics among learners? What is their nature? Are they constitutional in origin? If constitutional, then how do we assess them validly and reliably? If they are not constitutional but their own expressed preferences, is the impact of catering to them more related to motivation than directly to learning efficiency? If learning styles represent preferences, are there grounds for acceding to these preferences? What are these grounds? Are they related to improved learning or to teachers’ understandable sympathy for their students? Is it possible that preferences are unrelated to learning, or even deleterious to learning? Could it be that learning preferences represent a limitation on students’ problem solving repertoire, and their preferences should be expanded through experiencing other styles of teaching?” (Anon)


”Reynolds, in a fierce attack on the research tradition into learning styles, has criticised it not only for producing an individualised, decontextualised concept of learning, but also for a depoliticised treatment of the differences between learners which stem from social class, race and gender. In his own words, ‘the very concept of learning style obscures the social bases of difference expressed in the way people approach learning’ and ‘labelling is not a disinterested process, even though social differences are made to seem reducible to psychometric technicalities’ (1997, 122, 127). He goes on to quote other critics who claim that in the US, Black culture has been transformed into the concrete, as opposed to the abstract, learning style. His most troubling charge is that the learning style approach contributes ‘the basic vocabulary of discrimination to the workplace through its incorporation into educational practice’” (1997, 125).

Reynolds, M. (1997). Learning styles: A critique. Management Learning, 28(2), 115–133.

Alexander (2000, 561) knew he was adopting an unfashionable standpoint when he argued that it was: " ... a fact that different ways of knowing and understanding demand different ways of learning and teaching. Mathematical, linguistic, literary, historical, scientific, artistic, technological, economic, religious and civic understanding are not all the same. Some demand much more than others by way of a grounding in skill and propositional knowledge, and all advance the faster on the basis of engagement with existing knowledge, understanding and insight." (p.561)

Alexander, R. (2000). Culture and pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, H. (2004). Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice. London, England: Learning and Skills Research Centre.  

The Stahl article can be found online here:

The Existence of Learning Styles: Myth or Reality by Gypsy Denzine, Northern Arizona University. Retrieved from http://deanza.edu/dare/resources/The Existence of Learning Styles -- Myth or Reality.pdf

Reading Instruction and Learning Styles... Should They Be Matched? By Sara Tarver, University of Wisconsin. Retrieved from http://my.execpc.com/~presswis/tarver.html

Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: A quantitative synthesis assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54, 228-234.

Lloyd, J. Teach Effectively. Modality-Based Instruction (overall effect size based on meta-analysis of 39 studies, by Kavale & Forness, 1987): http://special.edschool.virginia.edu/information/mega/Index.html

Tarver, S. G. (1996). Should method of teaching beginning reading be matched to the student's learning style? Effective School Practices, 15(4), 37-38. Retrieved from http://www.adihome.org/research-a-topic/jodi/doc_download/830-din-old-v15-4

"Many maintain that different methods are required for different learning styles. There is very little evidence to support this in the case of learning to read. Being able to produce sounds for some letters is essential to being able to read with understanding, and therefore, not a matter of learning style."

Stahl, S., & Kuhn, M. (1995). Does whole language or instruction matched to learning styles help children learn to read? School Psychology Review, 24(3), 393-404.

"Consequently the modality concept holds little promise for special education and the present findings provide the necessary basis for no longer endorsing the modality model, since learning appears to be really a matter of substance over style" p. 238. (They reviewed 40 studies and found an overall effect size around zero)

Kavale, K. A. & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54, 228-239.

"No convincing demonstration of the cognitive style matching hypothesis has been published".

McKenna, F.P. (1990). Learning implications of field dependence-independence: Cognitive style vs. cognitive ability. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 4, 425-437.

"Two thorough reviews of the relevant literature ... conclude that predicate matching or communicating through an individual's preferred modality has no specific impact on behaviour. It has been shown repeatedly that modality usage is highly unstable and tends to vary according to task demands. As a result, an individual identified at one point in time as "visual" will more than likely be classifies as "auditory" when next observed (Owens, 1977, Gumm et al., 1982). There is little agreement between measures used to identify modality preferences (Thomason et al., 1980) and no evidence that matching input and processing style affords any particular benefit either for putting an individual at ease (Dowd & Petter, 1982) or for enhancing learning (Sharpley, 1987)".

Knight, D. (1997). Learning styles and accelerative learning: An appraisal. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 2, 25-28.

"The Graham & Kershner (1996) study assessed the neuropsychological validity of the modality preference measures from the Reading Style inventory (RSI), an instrument that claims to measure left-hemisphere (analytic, sequential, auditory) and right-hemisphere (holistic, simultaneous, visual) reading styles. Their findings: "Older fluent readers (age-matched to the children with disabilities) rated their reading styles more strongly auditory and visual than nondisabled beginning readers (reading-level-matched to the children with disabilities) and children with dyslexia. Compared to both control groups, the dyslexia group was unique in failing to demonstrate a high incidence of children with strong preferences in either modality. RSI ratings were unrelated to dichotic listening and, by inference, not related to the relative activation of the cerebral hemispheres in linguistic processing, RSI performance was also unrelated to reading comprehension, word recognition, word attack!, and verbal/performance IQ. The results do not support the underlying biological rationale of the RSI or its claims to accurately profile nondisabled novice readers and children with dyslexia in terms of their cerebral hemispheric preferences."

Graham, N.A., & Kershner, J.R. (1996). Reading styles in children with dyslexia - A neuropsychological evaluation of modality preference on the Reading Style Inventory. Learning Disability Quarterly, 19, 233-240.

From Stone & Clements, 1998:

"The idea of fitting instruction to the unique characteristics of the student is one of the most intuitively appealing notions in pedagogic theory and one of the oldest modes of learner-centered education. It originated with the child study movement of the early 1900s (Spaulding, 1903) and has been researched repeatedly since (e.g., Davis, 1948; Caplan & Ruble, 1964). In the view of proponents, if learners have unique social, emotional, and intellectual characteristics, it should be possible to optimize learning by fitting schooling to them. Not only has learning style research been dedicated to this idea, many studies that are technically concerned with aptitude, personality, and developmental assessment have been enlisted in the effort. These areas of investigation are not all recognized as such but, in principle, all might be included under the broad heading of attribute-treatment interaction research (Snow & Swanson, 1992).

The general problem with regard to studies of student attributes and their relationship to achievement is that numerous differences in personality, intelligence, learning styles, and other characteristics have been described, but appropriate intervention has been only suggested or left to the imagination of the teacher. In other words, they are long on diagnosis but short on treatment. The many studies identifying learning styles illustrate the problem (Entwistle, 1981; Snow, 1992). As Slavin puts it: "What has never been studied, to my knowledge, is the question of whether teachers who adapt to students' styles get better results than those who don't" (cited in Ellis & Fouts, 1993, p. 69). Studies of multicultural diversity are broad attempts to identify race, gender, language, and other group differences that correlate with educational outcomes--again, for the purpose of better fitting schooling to the student. They too are long on diagnosis and short on proven interventions. Many differences are identified, but the matter of how to fit schooling to those differences in some advantageous way is left unanswered. In truth, the attention given studies of individual differences and diversity bears little relationship to their usefulness in improving academic achievement. Rather, they are a product of Dewey's learner-centered view buttressed by social and political considerations.

The core problem in interpreting research on student differences is knowing whether the relationships that have been discovered are functional relationships (i.e., causal relationships) or merely incidental correlations. In other words, do the correlations between race or gender or learning style and school success mean that schools can take some action that would improve outcomes? Despite any clear indication of what, if anything, about the school environment may be responsible for some groups performing less well than others, schools are frequently stampeded into making changes and accommodations that generally presume that diversity has been insufficiently accommodated or welcomed. Changes in teaching, organization, funding, hiring practices, curricular content, faculty training, pupil assignments, and leadership are only some of the responses that have been undertaken and, in general, they have shown little systematic relationship to achievement.

A case can be made that accommodations to race and gender differences, for example, have at least resulted in gains such as lessened stereotyping and greater racial tolerance, but even these nonacademic gains are not an unmixed blessing. Interventions based on a premise that differences are related to deficiencies suggest the condescending notion that differences are disadvantages--a view that contains the seeds of self-fulfilling prophecy and a ready-made excuse for failure."

Stone, J. E., & Clements, A. (1998). Research and innovation: Let the buyer beware. In Robert R. Spillane & Paul Regnier (Eds.). The superintendent of the future (pp.59-97). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers.

Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?

“How does the mind work—and especially how does it learn? Teachers’ instructional decisions are based on a mix of theories learned in teacher education, trial and error, craft knowledge, and gut instinct. Such gut knowledge often serves us well, but is there anything sturdier to rely on? Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology who seek to understand the mind. In this regular American Educator column, we consider findings from this field that are strong and clear enough to merit classroom application”.

By Daniel T. Willingham, American Federation of Teachers http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/summer2005/cogsci.htm


”Question: What does cognitive science tell us about the existence of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and the best way to teach them?

The idea that people may differ in their ability to learn new material depending on its modality—that is, whether the child hears it, sees it, or touches it—has been tested for over 100 years. And the idea that these differences might prove useful in the classroom has been around for at least 40 years. What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality. In this column, I will describe some of the research on matching modality strength to the modality of instruction. I will also address why the idea of tailoring instruction to a student’s best modality is so enduring—despite substantial evidence that it is wrong. Discussions of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners are common in educational literature, teacher-preparation programs, and professional development workshops. The theory that students learn more when content is presented in their best modality seems to make sense, seems to be supported by classroom experiences, and offers the hope of maximizing each child’s learning by planning different lessons for each type of learner. For example, within one kindergarten class, the auditory learner could listen to stories about different holidays around the world, while the visual learner examined pictures of holiday celebrants, and the kinesthetic learner handled costumes and artifacts associated with the holidays. But is the theory correct? And, whether or not the theory is correct, might it not also be true that all of the kindergartners would learn the most about holidays by listening to stories, looking at pictures, and handling costumes? Before we tackle the research on using modalities to enhance student learning, let’s review a few things that cognitive scientists know about modalities.

1. Some memories are stored as visual and auditory representations—but most memories are stored in terms of meaning. Cognitive psychologists have used formal laboratory tasks to investigate the role of modality in memory. An important finding from that research is that memory is usually stored independent of any modality. You typically store memories in terms of meaning—not in terms of whether you saw, heard, or physically interacted with the information. For example, your knowledge that a fire requires oxygen to burn is unlikely to be stored as a visual or an auditory memory. The initial experience by which you learned this fact may have been visual (watching a flame go out under a glass) or auditory (hearing an explanation), but the resulting representation of that knowledge in your mind is neither visual nor auditory. How did cognitive scientists figure this out? An important clue that memories are stored by their meaning is the types of errors people make on memory tests. People who listen to a story will later confidently “recognize” sentences that never appeared in the story—so long as these new sentences are consistent with the story’s meaning (Bransford and Franks, 1971). The same phenomenon is observed with purely visual stimuli. People rapidly lose the memory of the precise images that make up a picture story (e.g., whether a character faced left or right), but they retain the meaning or gist of the story (Gernsbacher, 1985). These findings do not mean that you can’t store auditory or visual information. You can, and you do. For example, if I ask you “Which is a darker green: a Christmas tree or a frozen pea?” you’ll likely report that you would answer this question by visually imagining the two objects side by side and evaluating which is a darker green. If I ask you whether Bill Clinton or George W. Bush has a deeper voice, you will likely report that you would answer by generating an auditory memory of each. The mind is capable of storing memories in a number of different formats, and laboratory research indicates that a single experience usually leads to more than one type of representation. When subjects view a picture story, they do have a visual representation of what the pictures look like, in addition to the meaning-based representation. They usually don’t remember the visual representation for long, however, largely because when they see the pictures, they are thinking about what they mean in order to understand the story. If, in contrast, they were asked to remember visual details of the pictures and to ignore the story they tell, they would have a better memory for the visual details and the meaning-based representation would be worse. (This principle is another example of a generalization made in a previous column: What’s stored in memory is what you think about. To read that column, see www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/ summer2003/cogsci.html.)

2. The different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another. Our minds have these different types of representations for a reason: Different representations are more or less effective for storing different types of information. Visual representations, for example, are poor for storing meaning because they are often consistent with more than one interpretation: A static image of a car driving on a snowy hill could just as well depict a car struggling up the hill or slipping backwards down the hill. And some concepts do not lend themselves well to pictures: How would one depict “genius” or “democracy” in a picture? On the other hand, the particular shade of green of a frozen pea would be stored visually because the information is inherently visual. Because these different memory representations store different types of information, you usually cannot use one representation to substitute for another. This point is illustrated in an experiment by Chad Dodson and Arthur Shimamura (2000). They asked subjects to listen to two word lists and to judge whether or not each word on the second list (new words) had appeared on the first list (studied words), as shown below. The interesting twist was that each word on both lists was spoken by either a man (depicted by boldface) or a woman (depicted by italics). If a word had appeared on both lists, it might be spoken in the same voice (“Window”) or in different voices (“Doctor”). The question is whether changing the gender of the voice (and, therefore, the auditory experience) influenced memory for the studied words.















Dodson and Shimamura found that whether the gender of the voice repeated or switched made no difference at all in remembering the word (75 percent versus 73 percent accuracy). That is, subjects were just as likely to remember “Doctor” as “Window.” But when subjects judged that a word was on the first list, they also had to say whether a man or woman had said it. For this judgment, subjects were more accurate if the same gender voice spoke the word on the first and the second list (57 percent) than if the voice switched genders (39 percent). This experiment indicates that subjects do store auditory information, but it only helps them remember the part of the memory that is auditory—the sound of the voice—and not the word itself, which is stored in terms of its meaning.  

3. Children probably do differ in how good their visual and auditory memories are, but in most situations, it makes little difference in the classroom. Let’s return to classroom education. We’ve said that some memories are stored visually, some auditorily, and some in terms of meaning. And it’s likely that some students should have a relatively better visual memory or auditory memory. Shouldn’t that mean that some students will more easily remember material that is presented in their stronger modality? It does, but what advantage would this superior memory provide for the student in a classroom? Teachers almost always want students to remember what things mean, not what they look like or sound like. For the vast majority of education, vision and audition are usually just vehicles that carry the important information teachers want students to learn. There are some limited types of materials for which an exact visual or auditory representation is helpful. The child with a good visual memory might have an edge over his peers in learning the location of capitals on a map of Europe, for example. That task is inherently visual. The child with a good auditory memory might learn the correct accent for a foreign language more quickly. (And the child with a good kinesthetic memory may have an edge in sports, handwriting, or painting.) But most of what we want children to learn is based on meaning, so their superior memory in a specific modality doesn’t give them an advantage just because material is presented in their preferred modality. Whether information is presented auditorily or visually, the student must extract and store its meaning.

What does the research say about teaching to a child’s strongest modality? Because the vast majority of educational content is stored in terms of meaning and does not rely on visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory, it is not surprising that researchers have found very little support for the idea that offering instruction in a child’s best modality will have a positive effect on his learning. A few studies show a positive effect of accounting for students’ best modality, but many studies show no effect (Kampwirth and Bates, 1980; Arter and Jenkins, 1979). The most comprehensive review was conducted by Kenneth Kavale and Steven Forness (1987); it is especially relevant for teachers because it includes many studies that tested the effectiveness of specific instructional approaches (as opposed to laboratory-based exercises). Kavale and Forness analyzed 39 studies using a technique called meta-analysis, which allows the combination of data from different studies. By combining many studies into a single statistical analysis, the researchers have greater power to detect a small effect, if one exists. The initial results indicated that teaching in the child’s best modality might have a small impact on learning, but closer inspection of the studies qualified that conclusion. The studies showing the largest effects had methodological problems. For example, a common error in studies of modality is a failure to ensure that the lesson plans and materials are equivalent in every way except modality (since that is the only way to be sure that any effect found is due to modality). Some studies have used materials specially-prepared for the visual and auditory conditions and then compared those to “regular teaching materials.” It is possible that the specially prepared materials were more interesting or better organized than the “regular teaching” materials. This type of mistake calls the results into question because no one can tell if the results were caused by the change of modality or by the use of better materials. (The results may demonstrate that children learn more when teachers use better materials.) When Kavale and Forness limited the meta-analysis to studies with few or no such methodological problems, the modality effect disappeared.2 Kavale and Forness’s meta-analysis provides substantial evidence that tailoring instruction to students’ modality is not effective; across these many well-designed studies, such tailoring had no educational effect. But readers should bear in mind that it is impossible to prove a negative: We cannot be certain that modality theory is incorrect because it is always possible that we haven’t looked for just the right sort of evidence. An inventive theorist could always create a new version of the theory with predictions that hadn’t yet been tested. Nonetheless, the meta-analysis included a large number of studies that tested many different hypotheses (see "How Has Modality Theory Been Tested?" for examples). Although it is technically true that the theory hasn’t been (and will never be) disproved, we can say that the possible effects of matching instructional modality to a student’s modality strength have been extensively studied and have yielded no positive evidence. If there was an effect of any consequence, it is extremely likely that we would know it by now.  

Teachers should focus on the content’s best modality—not the student’s.We have seen that the mind uses different representations to store different types of information and that these representations are poor substitutes for one another. That indicates that teachers should indeed think about the modality in which they present material, but their goal should be to find the content’s best modality, not to search (in vain) for the students’ best modality. If the teacher wants students to learn and remember what something looks like, then the presentation should be visual. For example, if students are to appreciate the appearance of a Mayan pyramid, it would be much more effective to view a picture than to hear a verbal description. Many topics may call for information in more than one modality. In a unit on the Civil War, in addition to lectures and reading, it might be appropriate to include recordings of martial music used to inspire the troops, visual representations (maps) of battlefields, and perhaps a chance to handle the pack and equipment the troops carried so that students could appreciate their heft. Similarly, if students are to learn the form of an English sonnet, they should hear the stress forms of iambic pentameter, and then see a visual representation of it. There are other ways in which modality of instruction can influence the effectiveness of a given lesson—but the influence applies to all children (see box, p. 34). Experiences in different modalities simply for the sake of including different modalities should not be the goal. Material should be presented auditorily or visually because the information that the teacher wants students to understand is best conveyed in that modality. There is no benefit to students in teachers’ attempting to find auditory presentations of the Mayan pyramids for the students who have good auditory memory. Everyone should see the picture. The important idea from this column is that modality matters in the same way for all students.  

If modality theory is so wrong, why does it feel so right?The belief in modality theory is very common among teachers. More than 25 years ago, Arter and Jenkins (1979) reported that more than 90 percent of special education teachers believed it. Today, the prevalence of books describing the theory and lesson plans suggesting ways to implement it suggest that it still enjoys widespread acceptance. Why is the theory so widely accepted if there is no research evidence to support it? One factor is that it fits with a more general assumption that many teachers hold: There are genuinely important differences among students in how they learn. Modality gives us an easily understood way to think about the differences among children and it offers a hopeful message—a relatively easy adjustment to teaching practice may provide a boost to kids who are struggling. Further, everyone else believes it. Although false, the truth of modality theory has become “common knowledge.” I think that these factors may contribute to the belief, but I also think that most teachers wouldn’t believe the theory if it did not seem consistent with their own experience.

There are two ways that a teacher might see what looks like evidence for modality theory in the classroom. First, a teacher who believes the theory may interpret ambiguous situations as support for the theory. For example, a teacher might verbally explain to a student—several times—the idea of “borrowing” in subtraction without success. Then the teacher draws a diagram that more explicitly represents that the “3” in the tens place really represents “30.” Suddenly, the concept clicks for the student. The teacher thinks “Aha. He’s a visual learner. Once I drew the diagram, he understood.” But the more likely explanation is that the diagram would have helped any student because it is a good way to represent a difficult concept. The teacher interprets the student’s success in terms of modality theory because she has been told the theory is correct and because it seems to explain her experience. But cognitive scientists have long known that we all notice and remember examples that confirm our beliefs and, without meaning to, ignore and forget evidence that does not. Modality theory may also seem correct because, as we have discussed, children probably do differ in their abilities with different types of memories. I remember my daughter commenting (out of the blue, as 4-year-olds will) that her preschool teacher said “white” in a way that made the “h” faintly, but distinctly, audible. I was impressed that she had noticed this difference, remembered it, and could reproduce it. So my daughter may have a good auditory memory, and that might help her in certain tasks, such as remembering regional accents, should she decide to be an actress. It does not mean that I want her teachers to ensure that she receives primarily auditory input in her coursework, because her superior auditory memory will not help her when she needs to remember meaning. But it is easy to see how one might (mistakenly) believe that complex material would be easier for her to master if presented auditorily. Further, as the box on p. 34 indicates, there are various ways in which modality does strengthen instruction (for all kids)—and it’s easy to imagine that the effect has to do with a student’s modal preference when in fact the effect is due to the content’s best modality. (See related sidebars: "How Has Modality Theory Been Tested?" and "The Content's Best Modality Is Key.")

Daniel T. Willingham is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Cognition: The Thinking Animal. His research focuses on the role of consciousness in learning. Readers can pose specific question to "Ask the Cognitive Scientist," American Educator, 555 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001 or to  amered@aft.org. Future colums will try to address readers' questions.


1 The notion of kinesthetic learners is a big part of modality theory. However, this article will focus on the other two modalities because what’s commonly considered a “kinesthetic learning experience” is almost always a misnomer. Kinesthetic information comes from the joints and muscles and tells the brain about the location of body parts. Kinesthetic learning is the process of making movements automatic; it’s the type of learning you do as you slowly master typing, riding a bike, or mincing garlic. In the classroom, a “kinesthetic learning experience” is usually taken to mean any activity that involves movement, e.g., dissecting a worm or using blocks to explore fractions. But the learning that comes from these activities almost always goes along with changes in mental activity—the learning is not really part of the kinesthetic experience. For example, if I handle a Greek costume (rather than watch you handle it), I am the one who decides which part of it to explore, whether or not to try it on, and so on. True kinesthetic learning experiences, like practicing handwriting, do not make up much of the curriculum. To avoid continual qualifications about what is or is not a true kinesthetic learning experience, I will refer mainly to visual and auditory modalities. The conclusions drawn also apply to kinesthetic learning experiences.

2 This meta-analysis was not without controversy. Rita Dunn, who has proposed a theory consistent with modality effects (e.g., Dunn and Dunn, 1992; 1993; Dunn, Dunn and Perrin, 1994) wrote a rather acrimonious criticism of the Kavale and Forness study (Dunn, 1990), to which they replied (Kavale and Forness, 1990). Dunn later published her own meta-analysis (Dunn et al., 1995), which appeared to provide strong support for a large modality effect. Kavale and his colleagues (1998) noted, however, that only one of the studies reviewed had appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. All the others were unpublished doctoral dissertations, and 21 of these were from Dunn’s home institution, St. John’s University. This is a problem because of confirmation bias—a tendency in researchers to unconsciously slant the design of a study and its interpretation to favor the outcome they hope to observe (Wason, 1960; Mahoney and DeMonbreun, 1981). That’s why having impartial, expert reviewers is vital to research. Almost none of the studies included in Dunn’s meta-analysis underwent scrutiny by outside reviewers, which makes it hard to take seriously”.


Arter, J. A. and Jenkins, J. A. (1979). Differential diagnosis-prescriptive teaching: A critical appraisal. Review of Educational Research, 49, 517-555.

Bransford, J. D. and Franks, J. J. (1971). The abstraction of linguistic ideas. Cognitive Psychology, 2, 331-350. Dodson, C. S. and Shimamura, A. P. (2000). Differential effects of cue dependency on item and source memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 26, 1023-1044.

Dunn, R. (1990). Bias over substance: A critical analysis of Kavale and Forness’ report on modality-based instruction. Exceptional Children, 56, 352-356.

Dunn, R. and Dunn, K., (1992). Teaching Elementary Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Dunn, R. and Dunn, K., (1993). Teaching Secondary Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Dunn, R., Dunn, K., and Perrin, K.J. (1994). Teaching Young Children Through Their Individual Learning Styles. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Dunn, R., Griggs, S. A., Olson, J., Beasly, M. and Gorman, B. S. (1995). A meta-analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn model of learning style preferences. Journal of Educational Research, 88, 353-362. Gernsbacher, M. A. (1985). Surface information loss in comprehension. Cognitive Psychology, 17, 324-363. Kampwirth, T. J. and Bates, M. (1980). Modality preference and teaching method. A review of the research. Academic Therapy, 15, 597-605.

Kavale, K. A. and Forness, S. R. (1990). Substance over style: A rejoinder to Dunn’s animadversions. Exceptional Children, 56 (4), 357-361.

Kavale, K. A. and Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228-239.

Kavale, K. A., Hirshoren, A., Forness, S. R. (1998). Meta-analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn Model of Learning-Style Preferences: A critique of what was Dunn. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 13, 75-80.

Mahoney, M. J. and DeMonbreun, B. G. (1981). Problem-solving bias in scientists. In R. D. Tweney, M. E. Doherty, and C. R. Mynatt (Eds.) On Scientific Thinking (pp. 139-144). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wason, P. C. (1960). On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12, 129-140.

How Has Modality Theory Been Tested?

“The most comprehensive review of studies testing the effect of matching modality of instruction with students’ modality preference was a meta-analysis conducted by Kenneth Kavale and Stephen Forness (1987). The study (see p. 34 of the main article) concluded such instruction produced no educational benefit. Here are three examples of the kinds of studies that were included in the meta-analysis. In one carefully designed study, Thomas Vandever and Donald Neville (1974) examined the impact of modality on learning to read. To determine students’ modality strengths and weaknesses, a teacher presented each student with an auditory, a visual, and a kinesthetic lesson on 12 novel words. In the auditory lesson, the sound of the word was emphasized; in the visual lesson, the shape and length or the word form was emphasized; and in the kinesthetic lesson, the words were traced and silently spoken. After each lesson the student’s ability to read the words was tested. If a student had similar scores on the three tests, that student was determined to have no modality-based strength or weakness. But if the student scored much higher or lower on one test than on the other two, that student was categorized as having a strength or weakness in the modality. Of the 282 students tested, 72 showed a strength or weakness in a modality that was extreme enough to continue with the experiment. The second phase of the study was designed to confirm whether or not these 72 students would benefit from ongoing instruction in their strongest modality.

 Subjects were assigned to further reading training with novel words using a variety of instructional methods that centered on each student’s strong or weak modality. Sessions were 25 minutes, four days a week for six weeks. Students’ ability to read the words was tested weekly. The data showed that the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods of instruction were equally effective, and that teaching to a student’s modality strength or weakness made no difference. Similar results were found in a study that tested the use of modalities to teach vocabulary (Ringler and Smith, 1973). One hundred twenty-eight students were classified according to their best modality and then taught new vocabulary words with instructional materials that were visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or combined (meaning all three modalities were used). The students were grouped for instruction such that each type of learner was represented in each type of instructional group. That way, the researchers could see if, for example, the visual learners did better in the visual instruction group than in the auditory instruction group. The results showed that the children did learn the new vocabulary—but the instructional modality made no difference at all.

 A third study on the influence of modality preference on lesson comprehension also found similar results (Newcomer and Goodmnan, 1975). The researchers tested 167 fourth-graders on a battery of auditory and visual tests. In order to give modality theory the best chance of working, they selected 57 students who showed a relatively large difference on the auditory and visual tests. These students were then exposed to six brief lessons on new concepts. Each lesson was introduced with a theme (e.g., “The Solar System”) and consisted of five related facts (e.g., the position of the planets, the function of the sun, etc.). Half of the lessons were presented via brief descriptions (auditorily) and half were presented pictorially, with printed captions (visually). Immediately after the lesson, students’ comprehension and retention were tested. While 18 statements relating to the lesson were being read aloud by the experimenter, students silently read along and circled the ideas that had been presented in the lesson. The results showed that the “auditory” and “visual” learners showed no advantage when a lesson was presented in their preferred modality, compared to when it was not”.

Willingham, D. (2005). How has modality theory been tested? American Educator, Summer. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2005/willinghamsb1.cfm


Kavale, K. A. and Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228-239.

Newcomer, P. L. and Goodman, L. (1975). Effect of modality instruction on the learning of meaningful and nonmeaningful material by auditory and visual learners. Journal of Special Education, 9, 261-268. Ringler, L. and Smith, I. (1973). Learning modality and word recognition of first-grade children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 307-312.

Vandever, T. R. and Neville, D. D. (1974). Modality aptitude and word recognition. Journal of Reading Behavior, 6, 195-201

“The Content's Best Modality Is Key

The research presented in this article boils down to this: Modality of instruction is important, but it is equally important for all students—not more or less important depending on students’ modality preference. There are several important implications for educators.

First, teachers need not worry about differences between students in terms of modalities; there are not visual or auditory or kinesthetic learners. Indeed, applying this incorrect theory may actually shortchange some students. For example, a teacher introducing the concept of multiplication may show her students three boxes, each containing two marbles, but insist that the “auditory learners” in the class ignore this helpful visual aid, and instead listen to a verbal explanation. Imposing an ineffective explanation on a child because of a supposed modality fit is poor instruction.

Second, modality does have an impact on learning, but this impact is the same for all students. Each modality is effective in carrying certain types of information: If it’s important that children know what something looks like, sounds like, or feels like, they should experience the object in that modality.

Third, as experienced teachers know, a change in modality can provide a welcome change of pace that brings students’ attention back to a lesson. Students who have been primarily listening for 20 minutes will be glad to watch a short video. And students who have been watching a demonstration will benefit from solving a problem on their own. Teachers would do well to consider these uses of content-driven modality, and to disregard the idea that instruction needs to be tailored to a child’s best modality.

Fourth, as most teachers know, creating visual images is a good way to help you remember. (For example, to remember the parts of a perfect flower, you could imagine carefully peeling away the sepals, petals, pistil, and stamens until all that is left is the stem.) But this does not mean that having a good visual memory will improve memory for meaning. It turns out that the quality of the images people create doesn’t seem to matter that much. People who report especially vivid images do not seem to be better at visual memory tasks than people who report poor quality images (Dickel and Slak, 1983; Ernest, 1983; Owens and Richardson, 1979). It is the process of creating the images that gives you the memory boost, and the quality of the final image is irrelevant. Moreover, creating visual images is a memory-boosting strategy that helps all people, not only those with a good visual memory”.

Willingham, D. (2005). The content's best modality is key. American Educator, Summer. Retrieved from



Dickel, M. J., & Slak, S. (1983). Imagery vividness and memory for verbal material. Journal of Mental Imagery, 7, 121-125.

Ernest, C. H. (1983). Imagery and verbal ability and recognition memory for pictures and words in males and females. Educational Psychology, 3, 227-244.

Owens, A. C., & Richardson, J. T. (1979). Mental imagery and pictorial memory. British Journal of Psychology, 70, 497-505.

AERA-C: Learning and Instruction Forum Comment from Greg Yates, University of South Australia

This article on learning styles by Dr Willington is very sensible and responsible, and much thanks to Steve Bissonette for drawing attention. Willington's past columns in the same journal are also well informed, easily read and sensible. The key sentence in the present paper is the following: "For example, your knowledge that a fire requires oxygen to burn is unlikely to be stored as a visual or an auditory memory. The initial experience by which you learned this fact may have been visual (watching a flame go out under a glass) or auditory (hearing an explanation), but the resulting representation of that knowledge in your mind is neither visual nor auditory". This is a remarkable statement which hinges upon holding a theory of the mind which provides insight into how your brain adds to its knowledge base. Modern theories of multi-media learning are found in writings of two key people, Richard Mayer and John Sweller, and they will stress how the mind has to combine information from different inputs. Your brain is not set up to favour any one input source: Instead, it is set up to look for patterns, consistencies, to recognise, and to gently incorporate. But you need diverse elements to do this, ie you combine inputs, and that's what learners try to do. This gentle refinement of knowledge is our inevitable (ie evolutionary) human condition, since we cannot download programs into our CPUs. We call it understanding. Thanks, Steve, Cheers, Greg Yates, University of South Australia

Learning styles: Freud's seminal contribution to learning styles

Warning: For the humour challenged, this is tongue-in-cheek (or somewhere)!

Kerry Hempenstall http://www.ldonline.org/xarbb/topic/11008

“It is difficult to argue with the proposition that every child is unique. A less readily accepted assumption is that such uniqueness necessitates that all children learn differently. An assertion arising from this assumption is that teaching to a student’s natural learning style will lead to higher quality learning. Thus, it is argued, there are those visual learners for whom instruction should involve a visual format; audiles who learn best when listening; and, tactiles who need to touch for optimum learning. Learning styles remains remarkably popular in education, despite the absence of significant empirical support that such classifications are valid or reliable, or that attempting to teach to a dominant modality improves the outcomes for students. As the belief has been so resistant to contra-indicative research findings, the writer elected to consider how far the concept could be carried.

A seminal paper in The Onion entitled Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum (http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28606) provided the impetus for a search for more than the few simple categories currently considered critical.

Looking into the learning styles movement from a historical perspective provides some surprising information about its origins. A search of leading academic databases indicated that Freud was the first to recognise a "You say tomaytoe, I say tomartoe" instructional dichotomy. He pointed to differences in style among learners based upon the degree to which they successfully completed early developmental stages.

Thus, oral learners are those who are fixated at the oral stage or who regress to that style under stress. Bill Clinton is of course a classic example of the oral learner, despite Freud's famous dictum that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".

All students have an inalienable right to a preferred style of education, and young oral learners are those whose primary sense involves the palate. "I eat, therefore I learn" provides teachers with the challenge, and thereby the inspiration to meet these students' distinctive needs. Although much NICHD research is yet to be completed, an empirically validated strategy for this group involves teaching reading through the ingestion of alphabet soup. Some critics have argued that the force-feeding approach to teaching leads to simple regurgitation of facts; however, this may be the ideal system for oral learners as it provides learning opportunities at both the input stage and the output stage.

The ability-training model has been treated with undue harshness by researchers in recent times. Popularised during the 1960's, it proposed that training the underlying processes behind any given skill will overcome learning difficulties and accelerate learning. Many internet marketers have recognised the potential in this once forgotten sidetrack, and have enthusiastically filled this market niche. For oral learners, opportunities include tongue callisthenics, epiglottal biofeedback, and mouth aperture training programs in either small group or mouth-to-mouth instruction.

Anal learners have always been misunderstood and harshly treated in school. Learning blockages are a common problem, and teaching that does not allow for this specific zone of proximal development often goes to waste. Anal students have suffered discrimination, and their innocent attempts to communicate anally have been met with disdain, disgust and punishment. Teachers must now become alert to the needs of such students, and provide encouragement for particularly insightful examples of anally produced responses to, for example, reading comprehension questions. Incorrectly interpreting these contributions as mischievous flatulence is demeaning to the students, and massively diminishes their self-esteem. Communication is the key to civilised discourse and all attempts must be respected. Surely we've learned something from the wonderful way in which Facilitated Communication has resolved the communication issue in autism. As teachers we must become alert to the anal learners’ construction of the world. This alertness was defined by Rogers as "entering their phenomenological field". Entering the field of an anal learner is invariably a rousing, unforgettable experience.

It is time to desist from the persecution of anal learners, and instead become attentive and accepting of their natural communication style. Because we appreciate that one-way communication is inadequate as a teaching strategy, we recognise a need for training how to communicate in like manner, just as some dedicated teachers learn finger spelling, sign language, or cued articulation to aid those with other special needs. A preliminary survey of young teachers known to be sensitive to unique student needs has reported their preparedness to do whatever it takes to redress this communication problem. Indeed, some remembered (in their teacher training) constructivist professors providing many lectures that could only be anally-inspired. There are rumblings from less flexible teachers, however, that only massive in-service re-education will enable them internalise the skill level required.

If we are truly to integrate those with such very special talents, we must also make every attempt to normalise their experience. How can a school demonstrate to these students that they are valued just as the way they are? It is not hard to imagine a school anal choir. What parents of the anal learners would not feel proud of their children, performing a beautiful piece of music in their natural and inimitable manner - thereby enhancing acceptance by teachers and peers alike? It would surely provide a public validation of their style that would elicit improved social cohesion and tolerance in the school.

The overt and covert behaviours of phallic learners have also been misinterpreted in the past. A category with more boys than girls, the apparent self-absorption has tended to leave them isolated in class and sometimes overlooked by teachers. Paradoxically, they often prefer their educational activities to occur in private, whilst sometimes relishing the opportunity to display their achievements to the whole class.

The phallic learner has a reputation for having a rather narrow perspective, and thus relatively few instructional windows of opportunity are possible. However, inspiration to teachers is provided by the many successful phallic learners working in the advertising industry. They have demonstrated that it is not difficult to cover a diverse range of topics while employing only one thematic tool. Teachers should consider the use of the double entendre to hammer home major conceptual points. Of course, the subtle introduction of Playboy into the beginning reading program is entirely consistent with the important role of pictures in learning an alphabetic language. "It's not what you've got, it's the way that you use it" is the phallic mantra. The phallic learning style appears to be a common and an enduring one, as in a large scale New York Times survey, many women reported awareness that most of their partner's cognitive functioning occurred below the waist.

Freud's description of the latency period as one in which very little happens obviously fits a significant number of students. The latent learner is one who is not ready for learning yet, and the appropriate teaching strategy is to do nothing. DO NOT TEACH! We are indebted to the far-sighted whole language pioneers who recognised this increasingly large group some time ago, and have ensured developmentally appropriate practice (in this case, no practice) is applied. Though it may be difficult to accept for some teachers, it is the normal style of these learners to do nothing. Latent learners should be accepted and celebrated, rather than badgered by well meaning, but behind the times, instructionally-obsessed teachers. The latent learners' conception of the universe is as valid as any other, and teachers should resist the temptation to shift them into any artificial learning model, such as mastery learning or precision teaching.

So there you have it. An acknowledgement of the wonderful, previously unsuspected diversity in our students can open new vistas to teachers, albeit with a few associated challenges. Learning styles teachers appreciate that if children are to take risks as learners, it is incumbent upon teachers to provide the unconditional positive regard (Rogers again) towards their students' preferred modes of learning. As Marie Carbo clarified so succinctly, when we consider all of these traits as strengths rather than as teaching problems, difficulties simply evaporate.

Howard Gardner added an eighth intelligence to his profoundly important Multiple Intelligences framework, but it is obvious that he has missed something. It is time Gardner recognised the work of the pioneering Freud by inclusion of these additional categories. Oral intelligence, anal intelligence, and phallic intelligence must have their day in the sun. Surely, however, the most profoundly instructive of the Multiple Intelligences must be latent intelligence. This is an intelligence of which there are no observable signs in any domain. It’s criminal the way in which this group has suffered discrimination. But, no longer. We've finally reached that most desirable of educational states - complete recognition, inclusion, and celebration of the brilliance of every student. Everyone in the world can now be above average in one of the expanded Multiple Intelligences framework. Thank you, Sigmund”.

From Howard Gardner

“About ten years later, I received a message from a colleague in Australia. He said, 'Your multiple intelligences ideas are being used in Australia and you won't like the way that they are being used.' I asked him to send me the materials and he did so. My colleague was absolutely correct. The more that I read these materials, the less I liked them. The 'smoking gun' was a sheet of paper on which each of the ethnic and racial groups in Australia was listed, together with an explicit list of the intelligences in which a putatively strong and an accompanying list of intelligences in which they were putatively weak.
"This stereotyping represented a complete perversion of what I personally believed in. If I did not speak up, who would? Who should? And so, I went on television in Australia and criticized the program as pseudo-science. That critique, along with others, sufficed to result in the cancellation of the project."

Howard Gardner, "The Ethical Responsibilities of Scientists," an essay in "Science Literacy for the 21st Century."

If you ask the question, "Does MI theory provide a way to assess and instruct to individual differences?" the answer is probably "no." For example, in Gardner's own research, primary students' performance on pairs of "authentic tasks" that supposedly tapped the same "intelligences" failed to correlate, while some pairs of tasks that supposedly tapped different "intelligences" correlated significantly (Gardner & Hatch, 1989; Gardner & Krachevsky, 1993). More generally, I was not able to locate any evidence that identifying and teaching to students "intelligences" improves academic performance. There are also other empirical and pedagogical problems with MI (Klein, 1997). On the other hand, there is evidence that people use multiple representations to solve problems, that specific representations have specific effects on problem-solving, and that teaching multiple representations is educationally useful (e.g., Mousavi et al., 1995; Gentner & Gentner, 1983; van Someren et al., 1998). However, this view is not specific to multiple intelligence theory, and MI theory is too general to help in predicting which representations will be useful for solving any specific problem.

Gardner, H., & Hatch, T. (1989). Multiple intelligences go to school: Educational implications of the theory of multiple intelligences. Educational Researcher, 18(8), 4-9.

Gardner, H., & Krechevsky, M. (1993). The emergence and nurturance of multiple intelligences in early childhood: The project spectrum approach. In H. Gardner, Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice (pp. 86-111). New York: Basic Books.

Gentner, D., & Gentner, D. R. (1983). Flowing waters or teeming crowds: mental models of electricity. In D. Gentner & A. L. Stevens, (Eds.), Mental models, (pp. 99-129). Hilllsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Klein, P. D. (1997). Multiplying the problems of intelligence by eight: A critique of Gardner's theory. Canadian Journal of Education, 22, 377-394.

Mousavi, S. Y., Low, R., Sweller, J. (1995). Reducing cognitive load by mixing auditory and visual presentation modes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 319-334.

van Someren, M. W., Reimann, P., Boshuizen, H. P. A., & deJong, T. (1998). Learning with multiple representations. Kidlington, Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd. Perry Klein, Ph.D. Faculty of Education University of Western Ontario (519) 661-2088 X-8872

From a summary I wrote about LS and reading:

“Some maintain that different methods are required for effectively teaching students with different (assessed) learning styles (see Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, for a review of these). There is very little evidence to support this in the case of learning to read. Being able to produce sounds for some letters is essential to being able to read with understanding, and therefore, not a matter of learning style. In a descriptive study of children's reading problems, Bryant and Bradley (1985) concluded that phonics instruction would benefit all learners. They found that children with reading problems were generally the children on the end of a continuum of pupils who could not figure out the sounds for letters themselves. Bryant and Bradley speculated that the pupils who become good readers could figure out many of these letter-sound relationships without explicit instruction, and would probably do so even more readily if they were actually taught these relationships. These early findings have reached a near unassailable acceptance by empirically based researchers, and find their expression in the published findings of the NICHD”

Lyon, G.R., Alexander, D., & Yaffe, S. (1997). Progress and promise in learning disabilities, Learning Disabilities, 8(1), 1-6).

Stahl, S., & Kuhn, M. (1995). Does whole language or instruction matched to learning styles help children learn to read? School Psychology Review, 24(3), 393-404.

“This study (Graham & Kershner, 1996). assessed the neuropsychological validity of the modality preference measures from the Reading Style inventory (RSI), an instrument that claims to measure left-hemisphere (analytic, sequential, auditory) and right-hemisphere (holistic, simultaneous, visual) reading styles, Older fluent readers (age-matched to the children with disabilities) rated their reading styles more strongly auditory and visual than nondisabled beginning readers (reading-level-matched to the children with disabilities) and children with dyslexia, Compared to both control groups, the dyslexia group was unique in failing to demonstrate a high incidence of children with strong preferences in either modality, RSI ratings were unrelated to dichotic listening and, by inference, not related to the relative activation of the cerebral hemispheres in linguistic processing, RSI performance was also unrelated to reading comprehension, word recognition, word attack, and verbal/performance IQ, The results do not support the underlying biological rationale of the RSI or its claims to accurately profile nondisabled novice readers and children with dyslexia in terms of their cerebral hemispheric preferences”.

Graham, N.A., Kershner, J.R. (1996). Reading styles in children with dyslexia - A neuropsychological evaluation of modality preference on the reading style inventory. Learning Disability Quarterly, 19(4), 233-240.

From a summary I wrote:

“In RASE, 1992, 13(1), 6-33 was an interesting dialogue between Vicki Snider and Marie Carbo on the issue of learning styles and learning to read. Vicki expressed several concerns - among them the lack of reliability and validity of Carbo's Reading Styles Inventory - modelled upon Dunn et al. (1979) Learning Style Inventory. She also queries why only auditory and analytic learners should be prescribed phonics when the research indicates that phonics is appropriate for all beginners, and older remedial readers. She argues that reading styles ignore the phonological deficits of the reading disabled, thus leading to a mistaken view of the reading process and reading problems. She further argues that the reading styles literature lacks methodologically sound, independent replication. Unsurprisingly, Marie Carbo fires back a spirited defence, to which Vicki Snider adds a rejoinder”.

Snider, V. E. (1992). Learning styles and learning to read: A critique. Remedial and Special Education, 13(1), 6-18.

Carbo, M. (1992). Giving unequal learners an equal chance: A reply to a biased critique of learning styles. Remedial and Special Education, 13(1), 19-29.

Dunn et al. (1979) Learning Style Inventory. Price Systems, Box 1818, Lawrence, KS 66044-0067.

Other refs of note:

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Graham, N.A., & Kershner, J.R. (1996). Reading styles in children with dyslexia - A neuropsychological evaluation of modality preference on the reading style inventory. Learning Disability Quarterly, 19(4), 233-240.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge. (pp. 195-197)

Kavale, K., & Forness, S. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54, 228-239.

Landrum, T.J., & McDuffie, K. A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18, 6-17.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

Snider, V. E. (1992). Learning styles and learning to read: A critique. Remedial and Special Education, 13(1), 6-18.

Stahl, S., & Kuhn, M. (1995). Does whole language or instruction matched to learning styles help children learn to read? School Psychology Review, 24(3), 393-404.

Tarver, S. G. (1996). Should method of teaching beginning reading be matched to the student's learning style? Effective School Practices, 15(4), 37-38.


 When did we lose touch with the alphabet?

When beginning readers look at a text they often do so in the manner in which they examine pictures – attending to the words’ physical features. They try to remember these features and compare subsequent unknown words with those in their developing bank of picture-words. This primitive approach may suffice for a short time, though only for those few words that are feature-ridden, such as the word look conveniently having two eyes. Changing a letter in look to make the word hook may evoke the same spoken response because the child is attending to the word’s general architecture rather than to its alphabetic construction.

Beginning readers may attempt to memorise whole sentences from typical early story books. The stories often have a large picture and a sentence or two on a page. The sentences are not too difficult to remember, especially when the picture offers clues as to the sentence. Some students can memorise whole books, thereby giving the appearance of reading when actually they are simply reciting, as one would do for a poem. Changing a letter (or even a word) in these sentences will not alter the interpretation, because the child is attending to a memorized spoken sequence rather than to alphabetic cues.

To prevent these strategies becoming habitual it is helpful to indicate to the child that there are more useful (alphabetic) strategies in solving the reading puzzle. The alphabet is one of the most wondrous of human inventions, enabling an infinite number of written words to be created from a limited set of letters. For some children, the implications of an alphabetic language for learning to read is readily apparent. These children probably already have had wide literacy experiences prior to their school years. They know some or all the letter names or sounds. They may have played games with spoken word structure, such as in I-Spy and Pig Latin. Perhaps, they’ve also played with magnetic letters on the fridge to make words. For others, the alphabetic strategy, that letters map onto spoken sounds, does not eventuate naturally. Someone has to direct their attention to this concept, and ensure its mastery in practice.

So how do we dissuade children from counter-productive strategies and towards an appreciation of the power of the alphabet? Our education policies instruct our teachers to play a cruel trick on these more vulnerable students. Teachers are told to ensure students don’t make use of the alphabetic principle as their initial reading strategy. The policies suggest that there are numerous equally effective means of making sense of print. It is not necessary to pay much attention to the visible words. Students are encouraged to predict (guess) upcoming words using a “three cueing system”: meaning cues, grammatical cues and letter-sound cues (Victorian Essential Learning Standards, 2005). In the three cueing system, letter-sound cues are employed as a checkup merely to confirm the choice of word.

So, the very basis of our language is de-emphasised and students are sent on a wild goose chase. In class, when students meet a word they don’t recognize, one would think that they’d be taught initially to rely on unraveling the sounds associated with the written word? Don’t they decode to sound that which has been encoded to print? Sadly, no! The policies don’t support this as the primary approach.

Parents too are misdirected by these education policies. “Let your child look at the pictures and words to work out the meaning. Ask a question such as: What word might make sense?” (Department of Education, Employment and Training, 2001, Literacy Week Supplement, The Age). Further advice to parents, taken from primary school newsletters, indicates some schools’ actions are certainly consistent with current policy. “Ask your child to look for clues in the pictures.” “Ask your child to look at the first letter to help guess what the word might be.”

 What evidence is there that this so-called three cueing system represents what skilled readers do? None, it’s simply a belief, contradicted by the known facts about reading. In fact, the fluent reader recognises most words in a few tenths of a second - far faster than complex analyses of meaning and grammatical cues can be accomplished. Computer-based eye movement research has not supported the notion that skilled readers predict words before they see them. That some teachers may unwittingly subvert the process of skilled reading development, with well-meaning but unhelpful advice to beginning or struggling readers, is an unfortunate outcome.


E=MC2 (and a lot of hard work) Education Age 16/10/2006 David Dobbs.

MY MOTHER, rest her merry, brainy soul, convinced me early on that I was - as she liked to put it, quoting the cartoon character Yogi Bear - "SMARRRter than the average bear!" I happily assumed that my Yogi-like intelligence would ensure great things. My sense of entitlement grew when I easily won good marks in school, then grew some mode when three different college professors told me I had a talent for writing. Rising to the top, I gathered; was a matter of natural buoyancy.

 The reality check came in my 20s, when nearly a decade of middling effort failed to cast the glow of my writing genius much beyond my study walls. By my early 30s I saw the obvious: my smarts and "talent" - above average or not-would count for little unless I outworked most of the other writers. Only when I started putting in some extra hours did I get anywhere. About the time I had my epiphany, a growing field of scholarship was more rigorously reaching the same conclusion. It seems the ability we're so fond of calling talent or even genius arises not from innate gifts but from an interplay of fair (but not extraordinary) natural ability, quality instruction and a mountain of work. This new discipline - a mix of psychology and cognitive science - has now produced its first large collection of expert reviews, the massive Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.  The book essentially tells us to forget the notion that "genius", "talent" or any other innate qualities create the greats we call geniuses. Instead, as the American inventor Thomas Edison said, genius is 99 per cent perspiration - or, to be truer to the data, perhaps 1 per cent inspiration, 29 per cent good instruction and encouragement, and 70 per cent perspiration. Examine closely even the most extreme examples - Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Stravinsky - and you find more hard-won mastery than gift. Geniuses are made, not born.

 EXTRAORDINARY EFFORTS "Its complicated explaining how genius or expertise is created and why its so rare," says Anders Ericsson, the professor of psychology at Florida State University who edited the handbook. "But it isn’t magic, and it isn’t born. It happens because some critical things line up so that a person of good intelligence can put in the sustained, focused effort it takes to achieve extraordinary mastery. "These people don’t necessarily have an especially high IQ, but they almost always have very supportive environments, and they almost always have important mentors. And the one thing they always have is this incredible investment of effort." This is mixed news, Ericsson says. "Its funny, really. On one hand its encouraging: it makes me think that even the most ordinary among us should be careful about saying we cant do great things, because people have proven again and again that most people can do something extraordinary if there willing to put in the exercise. On the other hand, its a bit overwhelming to look at what these people have to do. They generally invest about five times as much time and effort to become great as an accomplished amateur does to become competent. Its not something everyone's up for."

 Studies of extraordinary performance run the gamut, employing memory tests, IQ comparisons, brain scans, retrospective interviews of high achievers and longitudinal studies of people who were identified in their youth as highly gifted. None bears out the myth of inherent genius. Take intelligence. No accepted measure of innate or basic intelligence, whether IQ or other metrics, reliably predicts that a person will develop extraordinary ability. In other words, the IQs of the great would not predict their level of accomplishments, nor would their accomplishments predict their IQs. Studies of chess masters and highly successful artists, scientists and musicians usually find their IQs to be above average, typically in the 115 to 130 range, where some 14 per cent of the population reside - impressive enough, but hardly as rarefied as their achievements and abilities. The converse - that high IQ does not ensure greatness -- holds as well. This was shown in a study of adult graduates of New York City's Hunter College Elementary School, where an admission criterion was an IQ of at least 130 (achieved by a little over 1 per cent of the general population) and the mean IQ was 157 - "genius" territory by any scaling of IQ scores, and a level reached by perhaps one in 5000 people. Though the Hunter graduates were successful and reasonably content with their lives, they had not reached the heights of accomplishment, either individually or as a group, that their IQs might have suggested. In the words of study leader Rena Subotnik, a research psychologist formerly at the City University of New York and now with the American Psychological Association: "There were no superstars, no Pulitzer Prize or MacArthur Award winners, and only one or two familiar names." The genius these elite students showed in their IQs remained on paper.

 So what does create genius or extreme talent? Musicians have an old joke about this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall from here? Practise. A sober look at any field shows that the top performers are rarely more gifted than the also-rans, but they almost invariably outwork them. This doesn’t mean that some people arerit more athletic or smarter than others. The elite are elite partly because they have some genetic gifts - for learning and hand-eye coordination, for instance - but the very best rise because they take great pains to maximise that gift. Take Stephen Hawking, who likes to dismiss questions about his IQ by saying, "People who boast about their IQ are losers". He was a middling student and achiever until his mid-20s. Only then did he catch fire - and begin working obsessively - while collaborating with fellow physicist Roger Penrose on black-hole theory. Pete Sampras didn’t possess more talent than Andre Agassi, but he won 14 grand slams to Agassi s eight because he worked harder and more steadily. And as cellist Yo-Yo Ma once said, the most proficient and renowned musicians are not necessarily those who outshone everyone as youths, but rather those who had "fire in the belly'.


This has led scholars of elite performance to speak of a 10-year rule: it seems you have to put in at least a decade of focused work to master something and bring greatness within reach. This shows starkly in a 1985 study of 120 elite athletes, performers, artists, biochemists and mathematicians led by University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Bloom, a giant ofthe field who died in 1999. Every single person in the study took at least a decade ofhard study or practice to achieve international recognition. Olympic swimmers trained for an average of 15 years before making the team; the best concert pianists took 15 years to earn international recognition. Top researchers, sculptors and mathematicians put in similar amounts of time. The same goes even for those few who seem born with supreme talent. Mozart was playing the violin at three years of age and received expert, focused instruction from the start. He was precocious, writing symphonies at seven, but he didrlt produce the work that made him a giant until his teens. The same is true for Tiger Woods. He seems magical on the golf course, but he was swinging a golf club before he could walk, got great instruction and practised constantly from boyhood. Even today he outworks all his rivals. His genius has been laboriously constructed.

Study so intense requires resources - time and space to work, teachers to mentor - and the subjects of Bloom’s study, like most elite performers, almost invariably enjoyed plentiful support in their formative years. Bloom, in fact, came to see great talent as less an individual trait than a creation of environment and encouragement. "We were looking for exceptional kids," he said, "and what we found were exceptional conditions." He was intrigued to find that few ofthe study's subjects had shown special promise when they first took up the fields they later excelled in, and most harboured no early ambition for stellar achievement. Rather, they were encouraged as children in a general way to explore and learn, then supported in more focused ways as they began to develop an area they particularly liked. Another retrospective study, ofleading scientists, similarly found that most came from homes where learning was revered for its own sake.

 Finally, most retrospective studies, including Bloorrts, have found that almost all high achievers were blessed with at least one crucial mentor as they neared maturity. When Subotnik looked at music students at New Yorks elite Juilliard School and winners of the highschool-level Westinghouse Science Talent Search, he found that the Juilliard students generally realised their potential more fully because they had one-on-one relationships with mentors who prepared them for the challenges they would face after their studies ended. Most of the Westinghouse winners, on the other hand, went on to colleges where they failed to find mentors to nurture their talent and guide them through rough spots. Only half ended up pursuing science, and few ofthem with distinction.

 MASTERING MEMORY So what do elite performers attain through all that deliberate practice and sensitive mentoring? What makes a genius? The creme de la creme appear to develop several important cognitive skills. The first, called "chunking", is the ability to group details and concepts into easily remembered patterns. Chess provides the classic illustration. Show a chess master a game in progress for just five seconds and they will memorise the board so well that they can re-create most of it - 20 pieces or more - an hour later. A novice will be able to place just four or five pieces.

  Yet chess masters dortt necessarily have a better memory than novices. Their clustering skills begin and end at the chessboard. Show a master and a novice a random list of 20 digits, and a few minutes later neither will be able to recall more than seven or eight of them in sequence. In a chess game, by contrast, the master sees not the 20 pieces that confront the novice but dusters of pieces, each of which is familiar from experience. Interestingly, the chess master will remember about as many clusters - four or five - as a novice will individual pieces. The better the master, the larger the dusters he'll remember. We all exercise such clustering skills when we read. Learning to read means coming to recognise chunks of letters as words, then chunks of words as phrases and sentences and - at a deeper level - sentences and paragraphs as components of a works larger meaning. This chunking puts individual words into logical, recallable contexts. As a result, we'll remember almost all of a logical 20-word sentence and only four to seven words from the same 20 words ordered randomly.

 Apart from chunking, the elite also learn to identify quickly which bits of information in a changing 3ituation to store in working memory. This lets them create a continually updated mental model far more complex than that used by someone less practised, allowing them to see subtler dynamics and deeper relationships. Again, this is something skilled readers do with good novels. However, it appears more striking-more suggestive of "genius" - when we see these skills used by Garry Kasparov to simultaneously beat 30 grandmasters or French footballer Zinedine Zidane to spot a killer through-ball that no one else saw.

 Such masters seem to operate on another plane, yet the rest of us can take solace in knowing that their mastery rarely extends beyond their discipline. It is a fair bet that Roger Federer would beat you at both tennis and ping-pong, but not as soundly in the latter. The gap will shrink as you move further away from his field of expertise. Michael Jordan, widely considered to be one of the world's greatest athletes, struggled horribly when he moved from basketball to baseball, where he was routinely flummoxed by minor league pitchers. Likewise, if you ever met Kasparov over a poker table, you might well hold your own.

 While the study of elite performance has been based mainly on observational and interview techniques, its models agree nicely with what neuroscience has discovered about how we learn. Eric Kandel of Columbia University in New York, who won a Nobel prize in 2000 for discovering much ofthe neural basis of memory and learning, has shown that both the number and strength of the nerve connections associated with a memory or skill increase in proportion to how often and how emphatically the lesson is repeated. So focused study and practice literally build the neural networks of expertise. Genetics may allow one person to build synapses faster than another, but either way the lesson must still be learnt. Genius must be built.

 Studies of elite performance also chime with another recurrent theme in modem neuroscience and genetics. These disciplines all but insist that the traditional distinction between nature and nurture is obsolete. What we call talent or genius illustrates vividly what the past 25 years have taught us about gene expression-that our genetic potentials are activated and realised only through environment and experience. Natural buoyancy merely gets you off the bottom. You rise to the top by pumping yourself up.

So is the ideal of innate genius dead? If not, should we kill it? Certainly a clear-eyed analysis shows that "genius" is really a set of exceptional skills cultivated through disciplined study. We should probably shelve the notion of genius as an innate, almost irrepressible gift and speak instead of expertise, talent or even greatness - terms that hint at the work underlying supreme accomplishment.

Granted, this isn't as much fun, and recognising the work factor is sobering. It is disappointing to realise all your mother’s blather about how smart you are doesn’t mean anything, and that you have to work demonically regardless. But as something to believe in, genius is not looking so smart. You want to play the big stage, you got to put in the time.

NEW SCIENTIST The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, by Anders K Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J Feltovich, Robert R Hoffman, Cambridge University Press, $104.


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