In 2005, Daniel Willingham used his “Ask the cognitive scientist” column in American Educator to answer the question “What does cognitive science tell us about the existence of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and the best way to teach them?”
The question refers to the learning styles model used in many schools which assumes that children learn best using their preferred sensory modality – visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. Fleming’s VARK model, and the more common VAK variant, frame learning styles in terms of preferences for learning in a particular sensory modality. Other learning styles models are framed in terms of individuals having other stable traits in respect of the way they learn. Willingham frames the VAK model in terms of abilities.
He summarises the relevant cognitive science research like this; “children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement” and goes on to discuss what cognitive science has to say about sensory modalities and memory. Willingham’s response is informative about the relevant research, but I think it could be misleading. For two reasons; he doesn’t differentiate between groups and individuals, and doesn’t adequately explain the role of sensory modalities in memory.
groups and individuals
In the previous post I mentioned the challenge to researchers posed by differences at the population, group and individual levels. Willingham’s summary of the research begins at the population level “children do differ in their abilities with different modalities” but then shifts to the individual level “but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement” [my emphasis].
Even if Willingham’s choice of words is merely a matter of style, it inadvertently conflates findings at the group and individual levels. Group averages tell you what you need to know if you’re interested in broad pedagogical approaches or educational policy; in the case of learning styles, there’s no robust evidence warranting their use as a general approach in teaching. It doesn’t follow that individual children don’t have a ‘best’ (or more likely ‘worst’) modality, nor that they can’t benefit from learning in a particular modality. For example, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and sign languages are the only way some children can communicate effectively and ‘talking books’ gives others access to literature that would otherwise be out of their reach. On his learning styles FAQ page, Willingham claims this is a matter of ‘ability’ rather than ‘style’; but in some cases ability will have an impact on preference.
memory and modality
Willingham goes on to explain “a few things that cognitive scientists know about modalities”. His first claim is that “memory is usually stored independent of any modality” [Willingham’s emphasis]. “You typically store memories in terms of meaning — not in terms of whether you saw, heard, or physically interacted with the information”.
He supports this assertion with a finding from research into episodic memory – that whilst people are good at remembering the gist of a story, they tend to be hazy when it comes to specific details. His claim appears to be further supported by research into witness testimony. People might accurately remember a car crashing into a lamppost, but misremember the colour of the car; they correctly recall the driver behaving in an aggressive manner, but are wrong about the words she uttered.
Willingham then extends the role of meaning to the facet of memory that deals with facts and knowledge – semantic memory. He says “the vast majority of educational content is stored in terms of meaning and does not rely on visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory” and “teachers almost always want students to remember what things mean, not what they look like or sound like”. He uses the example ‘a fire requires oxygen to burn’ and says “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.” Certainly the idea of a fire requiring oxygen to burn might be neither visual nor auditory, but how many students will not visualise flames being extinguished under a glass when they recall this fact?
Willingham’s second assertion about memory and sensory modalities is that “the different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another”. He cites a set of experiments reported by Dodson and Shimamura (2000). In the experiments a list of words was read to participants by either a man or a woman. Participants then listened to a second list and were asked to judge which of the words had been in the first list. They were also asked whether a man or woman had spoken the word the first time round. People were five times better at remembering who spoke an item if a test word was read by the same voice than if it was read by the alternative voice. But mismatching the voices didn’t make a difference to the number of words that were recognised.
Dodson and Shimamura see the study as demonstrating that memory is highly susceptible to sensory cues. But Willingham’s conclusion is “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.” This is a rather odd conclusion, given that almost all the words in the experiments were spoken, so auditory memory must have been involved in recognising the words as well as identifying the gender of the speaker. I couldn’t see how the study supported Willingham’s assertion about substitute modalities. And substitute modalities are widely used and used very effectively; writing, sign language and lip-reading are all visual/kinaesthetic substitutes for speech in the auditory modality.
little difference in the classroom
Willingham’s third assertion is “children probably do differ in how good their visual and auditory memories are, but in most situations, it makes little difference in the classroom”. That’s a fair conclusion given the findings of reviews of learning styles studies. He also points out that studies of mental imagery suggest that paying attention to the modality best suited to the content of what’s being taught, rather than the student’s ‘best’ modality, is more likely to help students understand and remember.
the meaning of meaning
Meaning is one of those rather fuzzy words that people use in different ways. It’s widely used to denote the relationship between a symbol and the entity the symbol represents. You could justify talking about memory in terms of meaning in the sense that memory consists of our representations of entities rather than the entities themselves, but I don’t think that’s what Willingham is getting at. I think when he uses the term meaning he’s referring to schemas.
The sequence of a series of events, the gist of a story and the connections between groups of facts are all schemas. There’s no doubt that in the case of complex memories, most people focus on the schema rather than the detail. And teachers do want students to remember the deep structure schemas linking facts rather than just the surface level details. But our memories of chains of events, the plots of stories and factual information are quite clearly not “independent of any modality”. Witnesses who saw a car careering down a road at high speed, collide with a lamppost and the driver emerge swearing at shocked onlookers, might focus on the meaning of that series of events, but they must have some sensory representation of the car and the driver’s voice in order to recall those meaningful events. And how could we recall the narrative of Hansel and Gretel without a sensory representation of two children in a forest, or think about a fire ceasing to burn in the absence of oxygen without a sensory representation of flames and then no flames?
I found it difficult to get a clear picture of Willingham’s conceptual model of memory. When he says “the mind is capable of storing memories in a number of different formats”, and “some memories are stored visually, some auditorily, and some in terms of meaning“, one could easily get the impression that memory is neatly compartmentalised, with ‘meaning’ as one of the compartments. That impression wouldn’t be accurate.
mechanisms of memory
In the brain, sensory information (our only source of information about the outside world) is carried in networks of neurons – brain cells. The pattern of activation in the neural networks forms the representations of real-time sensory input and of what we remember. It’s like the way an almost infinite number of images can be displayed on a computer screen using a limited number of pixels. It’s true that sensory information is initially processed in areas of the brain dedicated to specific sensory modalities. But those streams of information begin to be integrated quite near the beginning of their journey through the brain, and are rapidly brought together to form a bigger picture of what’s happening that can be compared to representations we’ve formed previously – what we call memory.
The underlying biological mechanism appears to be essentially the same for all sensory modalities and for all types of memory – whether they are of stories, sequences of events, facts about fire, or, to cite Willingham’s examples, of Christmas trees, peas, or Clinton’s or Bush’s voice. ‘Meaning’ as far as the brain is concerned, is about associations – which neurons are activating which other neurons and therefore which representations are being activated. Whether we remember the gist of a story, a fact about fire, or what a Christmas tree or frozen pea looks like, we’re activating patterns of neurons that represent information associated with those events, facts or objects.
Real life experiences usually involve incoming information in multiple sensory modalities. We very rarely encounter the world via only one sensory domain and never in terms of ‘meaning’ only – how would we construct that meaning without our senses being involved? Having several sensory channels increases the amount of information we get from the outside world, and increases the likelihood of our accessing memories. A whiff of perfume or a fragment of music can remind us vividly of a particular event or can trigger a chain of factual associations. Teachers are indeed focused on the ‘meaning’ of what they teach, but meaning isn’t divorced from sensory modalities. Indeed, what things look like is vitally important in biology, chemistry and art. And what they sound like is crucial for drama, poetry or modern foreign languages.
In his American Educator piece, Willingham agrees that “children do differ in their abilities with different modalities“. But by 2008 he was claiming in a video presentation that Learning Styles Don’t Exist. The video made a big impression on teacher Tom Bennett. He says it “explains the problems with the theory so clearly that even dopey old me can get my head around it”.
Tom’s view of learning styles is the subject of the next post.
Dodson, C.S. and Shimamura, A.P. (2000). Differential effects of cue dependency on item and source memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 26, 1023-1044.
Willingham, D (2005). Ask the cognitive scientist: Do visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction? American Educator, Summer.