Story time: When I was in high school, many of my teachers (perhaps all of them) went to a training about learning styles. They came back, clutching this newfound knowledge, ready to make a difference in the unfolding lives of the teenagers in their charge. The teachers gave us quizzes to asses our learning styles at the beginning of the semester. Curiously, I never seemed to get the “right” result. My answers never pointed to one learning style for me*. They were always pretty evenly distributed. I think that there is a reason for this: those quizzes don’t work because learning styles don’t exist.

If you are wondering what all this has to do with language learning, or learning Chinese, stick with me! I promise I will get to it

To illustrate just why quizzes like these are BS, let’s look at a few example questions. This quiz, assigns one of three learning styles: visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Most learning style quizzes focus on these three, however, some inventories of learning styles count up to 70. Here we go:

learning styles quiz question 1

Ummmm, how many students (assuming they are at least high school aged) would cop to preferring picture books? Are books of word searches and crossword puzzles even really considered books? They are great and all, but isn’t asking people to chose between Pride and Prejudice and Sudoku kind of an idiotic way to see if they like to read?

But wait, there is more!

learning styles quiz question 3

This quiz isn’t hosted on Geocities. The copyright says 2019. I am assuming that this is not some dusty corner of the internet that is still worried about Y2K. And yet, the writer of this quiz is seemingly unaware of smart phones. Maybe they do know about smart phones, but need to force some other choice for the sake of the quiz.

Let’s look at the options then. I understand that we need to pretend that smart phones don’t exist for the sake of this silly quiz, but surely if you can’t use a phone your next choice is not CHATTING TO THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU. I can’t think of a faster way to alienate my fellow humans than trying to chat them up at the checkout line. Maybe talking to oneself about how “everything must burn” will be slightly more alarming to strangers, but only slightly more.

This next questions is truly deranged:

learning styles question 10

Where do I even start with this question? Its just… so dumb. I think that I got dumber just by reading it. But why it is it so dumb? I think because it is a really good example of the problems with these kind of quizzes. The creators decide on whatever learning styles they believe in, and then crowbar in some questions that seem to “fit.” I don’t know any adult who would answer “act really hyper” in response to the question “what do you do when you are happy?” But you can see how each answer is supposed to align with visual learning, auditory learning and kinesthetic learning (in that order).

This one quiz is a great example of silly nonsense. I am aware there is no shortage of pointless quizzes on the internet. I am sure that there are also others that come off as more rigorous. I probably wouldn’t be able to tear those apart quite so easily. But I don’t have to, because some prominent psychologists and neuroscientists have done that for me. This is a letter that they wrote to the Guardian (the British Newspaper) in 2017 about how educators shouldn’t waste their time thinking about learning styles.

What I like about this letter is not that they explain that the supposed science behind learning styles is complete hokum. The problem with learning styles, as the authors point out, is not that they don’t exist. The problem is that every minute we waste talking about them, we are not doing something else. This is the opportunity cost of educational quackery.

When we are spending time taking bogus quizzes and thinking about how to make a lesson more kinesthetic for all those made-up kinesthetic learners out there we are not spending out time doing more valuable things.

This is what I think is really harmful for language learners. Folks who have really bought into the learning styles nonsense lose valuable time on task. Time spent on getting comprehensible input in the target language is really the name of the game in language learning. No amount looking at pictures is going to make up for not listening to Chinese, spoken at the appropriate level.

It gets worse. Beginner students really do just need to listen. Thinking about how to learn Chinese through interpretive dance is not going to help. Unfortunately, I think that the focus on learning styles has convinced a lot of people that they learn best by doing almost anything else other than listening. Every semester, I’ve got someone telling me that they’re a “visual learner” or that they need to make flashcards, or that they need a list of rules in order to learn. They don’t.

For better or for worse, we all learn languages the same way. If you are wondering if I am going to talk about comprehensible input again, you are correct! You learn language by listening to (and later reading) language that you can understand. Your brain doesn’t care that an online quiz told you learn best by drawing pictures, or chewing gum while studying.

I get a lot of resistance from telling people that they just need to listen in class (and of course they should tell me if they don’t understand something). I promise that is what you need to be doing, though.

If you have an auditory learning style (just kidding! :)), this podcast explains why they are bunk. More on the origin of this pernicious myth is in this article from the Atlantic.

*I think that I just… liked learning.

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