The learning style models proceed from the widespread belief that people differ in how they learn. The assumption of individualized learning styles developed in the second half of the 20th century and it has had a big impact on pedagogy and didactics despite the strong criticism that some scholars have advanced.

The controversy

In the academic field it is widely recognized that the way in which people decide to use their cognitive resources, their potential, their attitudes and their learning strategies produce a significant effect on their scholastic and work performance. At the same time the critics of the theories of learning styles affirm that people obtain the same scholastic outcomes whether they follow their styles or not: «Students do have preferences about how they learn. Many students will report preferring to study visually and others through an auditory channel. However, when these tendencies are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference – learning is equivalent whether students learn in the preferred mode or not» [1].

Then: who are we to believe?

First annotation (against the critics): “under controlled conditions” people don’t study, they simply take part in experiments. It’s another matter entirely. In the “complex case of studying” experimental conditions are only a blurred, shallow, reductive, partial, false imitation of what happens in real learning. Second annotation (against the upholders): presumes that adapting directly didactics and learning materials to the personal style of the student in order to improve the performance, is only wishful thinking. All the attempts made in this direction have failed miserably. Maybe this happened because it is not as easy as it is believed to know precisely the cognitive style of the others and not even our own style.

In effect, that for which the theory of learning styles is rationally criticized mainly concerns the classification and the strict separation of a style to the others, but not the fact that there are individual cognitive differences between people. So the well-founded criticism focused primarily to deny any validity in using learning styles approach in education; and secondarily in highlighting the cognitive features that are common to all. I agree with the theorists of learning styles about the existence of something that is specific, particular to each person inherent the cognitive modalities to learn. But at the same time I understand the objections concerning the reductionism implicit in the attempt to set a clear, rigid and excessively defined – and sometimes even definitive - classification of learning styles.

Studying is not only memorizing

On the other hand, the critics did not always show sufficient evidence to deny the existence of different learning styles, but they have only done some experiments to falsify certain theories on learning styles (especially that of Visualizing, Auditory and Kinesthetic modality). Not infrequently these experiments were limited to the memorization and so they showed their limit since in learning procedures categorization, problem solving strategies, the building of judgment and many other mental activities are also important. Learning is not only a question of memorizing things. Memory or, better, the various forms of storage information are fundamental in the process of learning but the aim of this process is to reach the reflexive thought. The various forms of memory give the availability of some mental objects like images, concepts, ideas, past links and associations between images, concepts and ideas. But the rational thought lays out on a different level compared to memories, at least in part.

Not everything is easily quantifiable

Everyone has their own specific way of relating to the outside world and so specific modalities to learn, but maybe these modalities are not so easily ‘quantitatively’ identifiable. Various learning modalities exist, but the differences are not separated by clear-cut limits. Most probably differences fade, blur from one style to the others, from one individual to another. Moreover, in the process of learning a lot of dynamics and activities follow each other, many cognitive factors interact and it is quite impossible to isolate and align them. So my conclusion analyzing the arguments of the learning styles advocates and opponents is that the personal style can’t be classified in a strict scientific range, it can’t be directly theorized, but only sketched out and progressively circumscribed matter by matter, subject by subject, person by person, situation by situation.

Cognitive and learning styles

Learning styles reflect, at least in part, the cognitive styles of the person: the former are such as the extension of the latter. So learning styles are more easily modifiable than the cognitive ones. We must also distinguish between ability and cognitive style [2]. The ability is the mode of response of the subject to environmental stimuli, while cognitive style is primarily the way in which the subjects applied their skills to the problem to be solved or used them to the things to know. So what characterizes each person depends not only on the skills possessed, but also the ways to use them. People can have similar skills but use different – and sometimes very different – cognitive styles. So they get different results both at school and in the workplace. According to Sternberg R.J. and Spear-Swerling L. (1997) clever people are those who know how to optimize their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. Changing the style of learning we can act on our own cognitive style and so improve our skills. In this optimization and compensation work, the best outcome is surely being able to find a good balance between skills and styles.

Boscolo [3] defined cognitive style as a «mode of information processing that the subject adopts predominantly, which lasts through time and is generalized to different tasks». Therefore, it doesn’t indicate a greater or lesser intelligence of the subject, but only his particular approach to reality, the way in which he refers to the circumstances and how he reacts. They are basic cognitive predispositions and so they can hardly be modified. On the contrary, learning style is precisely much more a question of apprehending complex contents. This is a key point to keep in mind: knowing cognitive styles to change the learning ones. But then the question is: to what extent our analysis and our classification of the styles can be used if we know that – at the moment – the models of them are maybe inadequate or, anyway, not exhaustive?

In educational processes multiple causes interact that produce different effects that change from one contingent situation to another. So, although science will come to isolate and define clearly all possible cognitive styles the problem will persist. In fact, in the dynamics of learning innumerable social, motivational, genetic, cultural and personal factors interact. They cannot be isolated, but not even added: the sum does not give a true picture of reality. I don’t want to draw here a new classification of styles, but only try to use the concept of learning styles like a polar star in order to focus and improve the strategies of learning and memorization. In this way it can make sense to use the models of learning styles, without giving them a precise epistemological value, but adapting them from time to time in relation to the subjects and the situations. As if for the North Star a thorough analysis of its surface is not important, but its position in the sky is; so about cognitive styles a complete description or a complex classification is not necessary, as a suitable definition in order to improve students’ performance. There are a great variety of models, someone [4] has searched to give a list counting 71 of them. It’s useless and wasteful to analyze them all here. By way of example, I will briefly describe only those that are relevant to an introduction to an effective didactics described from a cognitive point of view.

David A. Kolb’s model is based on his theory of the process of learning through experience, and is more specifically defined as “learning through reflection on doing”. Kolb’s outlines two related approaches to learning: “Concrete Experience” and “Abstract Conceptualization”; closely linked to them there are two other approaches especially related to the transformation of experience into an enrichment of knowledge: “Reflective Observation” and “Active Experimentation”. The best learning process involves all of these four modes in proportions that vary from situation to situation. These four elements and their mutual interaction constitute what it calls a learning cycle: experience > observation > conceptualization > experimentation > new experience. What I find relevant in this model is the opportunity to clarify the dynamics and the mobility of thought from a concrete state to an abstract one.

Another theory, that of Anthony Gregorc, relies heavily on the dichotomy «concrete-abstract». For this author there are four elements to consider. The first two are perceptual qualities: «Concrete: This quality enables you to register information directly through your five senses […] Abstract: This quality allows you to visualize, to conceive ideas, to understand or believe that which you cannot actually see. When you are using your abstract quality, you are using your intuition, your imagination, and you are looking beyond “what is” to the more subtle implications» [5]. The latter two are ordering ability: «Sequential: Allows your mind to organize information in a linear, step-by-step manner. When using your sequential ability, you are following a logical train of thought. […] Random: Lets your mind organize information in chunks, and in no particular order. When you are using your random ability, you may often be able to skip steps in a procedure and still produce the desired result» [6]. Gregorc identifies four combinations of these elements in the learning activity of each individual: concrete sequential, abstract random, abstract sequential, and concrete random. Every single person adopts different combinations in different ways and this characterizes the personal learning style of each one.

Finally, I want to briefly mention another learning style model, which one of Walter Burke Barbe and colleagues based on the three modalities of learning: Visualizing modality, Auditory modality, Kinesthetic modality. These elements occur in combination (as happens most of the time, and the most frequent modalities are visual or mixed) or independently.

Visual: picture, shape, sculpture, paintings.
Auditory: listening, rhythms, tone, chants.
Kinesthetic: gestures, body movements, object manipulation, positioning.

On the internet and in the libraries there are many resources to study in depth these three and other learning style models. It is not important to deepen their knowledge here. It’s enough to outline in broad terms their main features in order to introduce two strategies that I will show in the next articles.

[1] Riener C., Willingham D., The Myth of Learning Styles, in Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning, September/October, 2010
[2] Kogan N., Educational implications of cognitive styles. In G. S. Lesser, Psychology and educational practice. Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Illinois, 1971
[3] Reference text: P. Boscolo, Psicologia dell’apprendimento scolastico: gli aspetti cognitivi, Utet, Torino, 1986
[4] Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall E., Ecclestone K., Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review, Learning and Skills Research Centre, London, 2004