Differentiation in a world without learning styles

Man wandering down a path

My Experience

It was in an 8th-grade social studies class that I first encountered differentiation based on learning styles. At that time I was a student assistant, gaining classroom experience in preparation of my student teaching assignment to follow the next semester. My cooperating teacher liked to do “learning choice” activities. Essentially, students could choose from a variety of tasks that were designed to engage different learning styles. Namely visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles were the ones that she targeted. My cooperating teacher’s approach seemed to be in line with differentiation strategies. So in the early years of my teaching career, I created similar activities for my own students.

The Dilemma

The thing is that creating a “choose your own adventure” novel for every lesson took copious amounts of time without the kind of return on investment that I expected. I have no issue with applying considerable elbow grease for the sake of student learning but it has to work. In fact, lesson design was and still is a huge passion of mine.

I was troubled by my observation that most students chose a similar pathway through the lesson anyway and it was always the activity that I had first conceived. All I was doing was putting superfluous learning options around one-size-fits-all instruction.

As my experience working with students grew, my interactions with students only continued to reinforce my belief that everyone learns in ways unique to them. But I also started to realize that it was very difficult to design learning tasks that would accurately predict the learning needs of every student. I began to seek more effective personalization strategies.

Gaining perspective from cognitive psychology

In Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? he describes personalization from the perspective of cognitive psychology. His conclusion is that while students differ from one another in their cognitive abilities they don’t fit into nice little boxes as learning style theories would suggest.

Therefore, Willingham argues to think in terms of content and not in terms of students. While it is true that some students have really good auditory or visual memories, this does not mean that these abilities translate to learning different types of content.

A geography lesson, for example, that requires a student to identify the shape of countries is an inherently visual learning interaction. Auditory information is not being tested in this learning situation. If the goal is for students to be able to identify countries by their shape and location on a map, and you were teaching a student with an auditory learning style, how would you describe the shape of West Virginia? How would you describe where it was on a map?

In this circumstance, trying to come up with a lesson interaction that engages an auditory learning style is ineffective because map skills are inherently visual-spacial. The competencies that we are asking students to master will dictate the type of learning engagements that we design for a student, not a learning style.

Searching for an effective personalization strategy

So if learning styles aren’t an effective use of time and energy, what should teachers be attending to? I’ve been reflecting on this question because personalization is an important aspect to the lesson designs I’m currently partnering in with teachers.

Seemingly wondering the same thing, Willingham says that teachers should “… treat students differently on the basis of the teacher’s experience with each student and to remain alert for what works.”

No silver-bullet personalization method exists. It requires understanding the nuances in how each student learns. To build this understanding, we must intentionally design aspects of lessons that inform us of how students are doing. More than right or wrong answers, teachers need to be informed about how students are thinking.

Each student has chunks of knowledge, along with gaps, in long-term memory that are unique to them. Adding to the complexity is the level of expertise that they have in specific content areas. Teachers are well aware that as students start to learn new content, they build upon these varying foundations. So at the onset of lessons, consider inquiry methods that encourage students to think about their prior knowledge that relates to the new stuff. This is a good way for students to see themselves in the new content, while their responses will give teachers an idea of how they are thinking.

Understanding how students are thinking is the first step. Acting on it is the next.

As a teacher, I had a good pulse on student understanding to lead off lessons. Activation components of lessons are intentionally designed to coax prior knowledge to the surface and build on these thoughts. But it’s important to be aware of how students are thinking throughout lessons. I didn’t do enough of this. When helping to design guided and independent practice activities now, I urge teachers to build in ways to “see” their students’ thinking. The more conversation you can have with your students about their learning, the more you’ll be able to provide them with insights and point them to specific resources that will benefit their specific needs.

A final thought is to build lessons that embrace problem-solving over task completion. When I embraced learning styles as a differentiation tool, it narrowly focused me on how students would show their learning in each of the different styles. This led me to create lots of tasks that required them to do things in specific ways, instead of trying to ignite wonderment around big content questions.

We should insist on content mastery, not hoop jumping mastery.

As content experts, we often have the urge to have students discover everything we know. If we lead student thinking too much, it instills a seek and destroy mentality to find the “right answers” when really we want to put them in a space for discovery. Giving students more creative input can result in them demonstrating their learning in ways that we could have never predicted.


Coming to terms with the learning styles myth allowed me to see that students don’t fall into three or four boxes. Differentiation is much messier than this, but our approach need not be complicated. It all comes down to getting students focused on a problem that when solved demonstrates their mastery. While on the journey to mastery, it’s important to have conversations with your students to know where their learning is at so that you can help them fill in the gaps.

Please help to push my thinking forward on personalized lesson design! What are your thoughts on my suggestions? Can you offer your own and/or share your stories of how you’re trying to put this into practice?

Picture of Jeff Gerlach

Jeff Gerlach

Jeff is passionate about helping teachers enhance learning for students by way of strategic technology integration. This fuels his work as an instructional design coach. Prior to his time at Michigan Virtual, Jeff was a social studies teacher for six school years and he earned a master’s degree from Michigan State University in educational technology. Away from the education world he enjoys spending time at the ice rink, at home with his young family and head nodding to hip-hop music.

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