There’s been recent talk on Twitter around the debunking of ‘learning styles’. You may have completed a number of checklists that in the end summarize what kind of learner you are - visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Or maybe you are a converger, diverger, assimilator or an accommodator according to Kolb’s model? From a behaviourist perspective however, you are just a learner. Whether a lesson or your work is based on visual stimuli, auditory stimuli or tactile stimuli, they are all considered the discriminative stimulus (SD) in the three-term contingency. They act as the cue to which you respond. In the case of Kolb’s model, the styles speak more to behaviours that may or may not have been reinforced. Our preference for one kind of stimulus or action over another may simply be a matter of our learning history and not some inherent preference we were born with. In other words, some of us may have become “kinesthetic learners” because our environments were rich with objects and materials to manipulate and learn from, while other so-called “auditory learners” may be in environments where there is a lot of information and instruction coming via auditory sources.
You can think of the learning styles debate as the classic ‘chicken and egg’ phenomenon: which came first? Was it the learning style that first appeared, and then the materials were adapted to suit? Or, were the materials present first and the learning style evolved from there?
Regardless of which side you choose, the bigger issue is that learning needs to be generalized. We can learn addition by seeing the numbers add up on a page, by listening to the teacher explain to us what “10+1” is or by lining up a pile of apples and oranges and adding them up. I bet you can respond correctly in any one of those scenarios. Congratulations! You have generalized the concept of addition from a variety of cue/SDs. In applied behaviour analysis, there is always a focus on generalizing one’s behaviour so that it will occur under a variety of circumstances when warranted. We don’t necessarily want our learner to only know how to respond under one kind of stimulus, but all kinds - visual, auditory, tactile. Even within those senses, we aim to teach using a variety of materials. Using the example above, if adding up apples on the table, we may later include lessons that make use of addition with other materials such as books, pop cans, folding towels, stacking chairs etc.
Learning is complex, it involves a variety of stimuli and millions of three-term contingencies across our lifetime. Learning is on-going and as such, we have generalized much of our early life lessons to be efficient under today’s circumstances. We may categorize ourselves as one learning style over another. Since learning is an everyday occurrence, we are not giving our environment credit for setting up so many other opportunities to learn; learning that may be outside of what we call our learning style. In order to truly know something, we must respond as such under any situation - be it visual, auditory or tactile etc. Teaching should therefore cover all of these elements.