Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

11 September 2008

Learning Styles, Brain-Based Learning, and Daniel Willingham

Clark @ 6:19 AM

I’ve gone off on learning styles before because there’s a lot of fluff and not much substance.  I’d been pointed to Dan Willingham‘s video on brain based learning, and in pointing it to someone else, found his one on learning styles. He’s a cognitive psychologist (my background, btw), and is putting out the research-based views on these topics.

My point has been that the learning styles instruments are broken, though the idea makes sense in that it helps teachers/instructors be sensitized to individual learner differences.  And I’ve argued that you use the right medium for the message, not try to re-represent.  Dan goes into more detail, and points out that people do learn certain things better, but that meaning is the core, and that you match the presentation to the nature of the knowledge.  He argues that learning styles shouldn’t make a difference to what you do (if you already use appropriate design).  I love his conclusion:  “good teaching is good teaching, and teachers don’t need to adjust their teaching to individual learning styles”. Hear, hear (and not “see see” or “feel feel” :).

He also goes on about brain-based learning, and talks about how most of it (95%) doesn’t make sense.  His point is that one level of research doesn’t necessarily translate to another.  His claim is that much of this stuff isn’t really brain-based research, and then a lot of it is just wrong(!).  He gets quite specific about what’s wrong with a couple of popular examples, and points to people who are doing it well.  At the end, he says if someone’s claiming “there’s all this new information about the brain…will revolutionize teaching”, you should stay away.

Highly recommended, if you care about learning or education.


  1. Clark – Thank you for the debunking this notion and for the links to the video!

    Comment by Guy W. Wallace — 11 September 2008 @ 1:01 PM

  2. I don’t mind being a little wrong, but I hate being
    totally out to lunch. Thanks for helping to gel my
    understanding of this, Clark. It’s going to call for a
    whole lot of introspection, and examining of curriculum

    Comment by Jason — 12 September 2008 @ 8:03 AM

  3. […] Learning Styles, Brain-based Learning, and Daniel Willingham | Learnlets | Clark Quinn | 11 September 2008 […]

    Pingback by More Debunking from Professor Willingham | Workplace Learning Today — 15 September 2008 @ 5:12 AM

  4. From David Owen, “Are You a Difficult Person?” (The Atlantic Monthly, October 1989):

    One thing I’ve noticed about brain polarity is that, at least in its motivational-seminar form, it seems to be primarily a right-brained concept. That is, it’s a concept used by flexible, disorganized people to explain the behavior of inflexible, organized people, such as managers, accountants, bankers, and your boss.

    Comment by Dave Ferguson — 12 November 2008 @ 10:27 AM

  5. Dave, love it!

    Comment by Clark — 12 November 2008 @ 11:16 AM

  6. His final comment scared me and I called and spoke to him about it. It seemed to absolve teachers of taking any responsibility for appreciating the fact that there are students in their classrooms who have learning differences/disabilities. Have you checked out the work at Cast.org and their Universal Design for Learning Principles? Students need/benefit from multiple methods of engagement, representation and expression. His conclusion suggests that maintaining the status quo or one size fits all is sufficient. I work with too many students who fail using this approach and who see themselves as failures or, worse, stupid.
    Please do not perpetuate this and I know this is not your intention.

    Comment by KarenJanec — 31 December 2008 @ 10:52 AM

  7. Karen, as my more recent post says, I think we need to recognize different learning skills, and provide support. I take Willingham’s message to be don’t use the wrong media for communication just because of ‘styles’ (e.g. don’t use prose to communicate a complex interaction), but his position is on information presentation. Somewhat in opposition to Spiro’s cognitive flexibility theory as well (note to self: reconcile this). I didn’t hear him say don’t assist learners to process information that’s complex for them, nor for different forms of application.

    And, yes, I’ve looked at Universal Design in the past, and strongly support different forms of processing information actively. That’s why I talk about blogs, wikis, and discussion forums as supporting different types of knowledge application. I’m a fan of portfolio approaches to assessment as well. And I argue for adding the emotional engagement as well as cognitive.

    Comment by Clark — 31 December 2008 @ 11:23 AM

  8. I think the only way to test any cognitive psychology theories or clinical research findings is to translate them into applied research by using them. Use it and then when you see your students’ enjoying your learning by demonstrating enhanced interest/body language/participation/attention, you don’t need much further proof, do you?

    Comment by Elite — 22 October 2009 @ 6:11 AM

  9. […] From Clark Quinn : http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=166 – From: http://learnstreaming.com/7-resources-explaining-the-learning-styles-myth/ – and http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=387 […]

    Pingback by Learning Styles: The Validating Evidence is Not There — 7 November 2011 @ 10:57 AM

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