Learning Styles


Isaac Asimov’s third robot story, “Reason“, has all the hallmarks of his early work: painful stereotypes, hackneyed dialog. Still, the conflict it explored has always hooked me.

Powell and Donovan, two troubleshooters who fix puzzling problems with experimental robots, are stuck on a remote sun-mining station training a new robot to capture energy from a planet’s nearby sun, run it through an energy converter, and direct it back to the planet. The robot, QT-1, or Cutie, decides that these humans are naturally inferior and must be early models that his superior frame and brain are designed to replace. His world was the station, his god was the Energy Converter, known as the Master, who wanted Cutie to direct beams to the dots. Powell and Donovan try to convince Cutie that the dots are planets, that he is a robot created by humans to do their bidding. Cutie thinks this is absurd and creates his own cult of believers, indoctrinating all the robots on the station with the will of the Master, with  Cutie as the Prophet. Powell and Donovan worry themselves sick with aggravation and fury.

The tale reaches a climax when Donovan spits on the Energy Converter. Cutie is horrified and angry at the sacrilege and refuses to let the two men into the Operations room. Powell and Donovan see a dangerous asteroid storm coming,  a catastrophic event that could cause the energy beam to misdirect and incinerate a third of the planet. Desperate to convince Cutie of his wrongthink, they hit on the idea of building a robot from the box, as it were. They uncrated a spare robot,  disassembled into parts, and spent three hours painstakingly putting the robot together. See? They created the robot! Just like they created Cutie!

Cutie shakes his head. Silly weak humans. Of course, they assembled the parts. But how did the parts get to the station? Only the Master could achieve that. So he turns away and ignores the two men, who stop sleeping and eating in sick anxiety over the incoming storm and the annihilation it will pour down on earth.

When, after the storm, they are finally released into the Operations room, Powell and Donovan rush in to assess the devastation. But no! Cutie protected all the humans on Earth perfectly and kept the energy supply constant. Or, as Cutie describes it,  Cutie “obeys the will of the Master” and keeps the beams directed to the right place on the dots.

Powell and Donovan realize they were worried for nothing. They just have to bring all the robots be indoctrinated in the Will of the Master as told by the Prophet (that is, trained by Cutie)  and the stations will be run beautifully. Cutie waves goodbye to them regretfully, knowing they are bound for “dissolution”, but encourages them to believe they are going to a better place.


tl,dr: If learning styles make no difference in outcomes, who the hell cares what teachers believe?

About educationrealist

14 responses to “Learning Styles

  • TracingWoodgrains

    It’s less an issue on the classroom level than on the institutional level. Their beliefs direct research, reform initiatives, spending, and training programs. Belief in learning styles makes no difference in student outcomes, but it consumes an outsize share of attention, makes people less likely to support things that have some hope of being useful, and makes training programs even more untrustworthy to the informed than they otherwise would be.

  • Polynices

    Wow, I haven’t read that story in 30 years but it stuck with me too. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    • Paul McGuane

      Where I think the analogy to the robot story breaks down is that Cutie’s underlying belief was that the energy had to be directed to the correct points. His belief in WHY that was so was irrelevant. I see the analogy playing out with learning styles is that irrelevant and useless activities that are inserted into a lesson solely for the purpose of appealing to this or that “learning style.”

      Those activities take time from other more useful activities. That’s a cost to the students. They take time to develop. That’s a cost to the teacher (and the students, because the teacher has less time to devote to developing useful activities). At least some students are turned off by them, but if your lesson plan requires approval or gets reviewed or evaluated by a believer and it does NOT include the mandatory nods to the supposed styles, that could impact evaluations.

      I think most of this is more important at the elementary grades, where the value of repetition for the acquisition of factual information and development of motor skills is vastly under-valued. We don’t call it “drill and kill” because we think it’s a cool idea.

      • educationrealist

        “Those activities take time from other more useful activities.”

        You don’t know that. That’s what research doesn’t show. If you want to prove that there are more useful activities, then prove that teachers who don’t use learning styles get better results than teachers who do. Every bit of your third paragraph is every bit as much religion as Cutie’s.

        ” if your lesson plan requires approval or gets reviewed or evaluated by a believer and it does NOT include the mandatory nods to the supposed styles, that could impact evaluations.”

        Well, I’ve said this before. Willingham doesn’t go after administrators. He goes after teachers and completely ignores the fact that many states require nod to learning styles. But Willingham’s whole objective is to convince people that *teachers* are stupid. Blaming administrators doesn’t get his job done.

  • DavidGriswoldHH

    Look, I have to do a fair bit of PD. I am pretty much resigned to the vast majority of it sucking, though every so often something good comes out of it and to me, perhaps idealistically, that makes it worth it. But when somebody gets paid to talk to me about something that is PROVABLY FALSE and I have to listen to it, it pisses me off and I want it to stop. So I don’t care if teachers believe it, but I sure would like it if people who decide on PD would stop believing it.

    (The same is true for mindset beyond a simple “it’s probably good if kids believe in themselves” message that can be given in 5 feel-good minutes before something actually real is discussed.)

  • nflanagan

    The Asimov story is perfect.
    Me? I’m always in favor of something that teachers have field-tested and can explain as a useful tool. Even if, technically, it doesn’t exist in the realm of the empirically testable. Maybe ‘visual learners’ don’t exist, but if Jessica needs to see something to have it sink it, I’m perfectly willing to put it in writing, even if it would be quicker and easier for me to tell her.

    • educationrealist

      In the technical world, we have something called “waving a dead chicken”. It works. We’re not sure why. But it’s just a chicken.

      It’s not exactly the same thing–coding is less art than teaching is. But ultimately, if the method helps a kid learn, who cares?

  • Chester Draws

    Some comments above I agree with.

    There’s also the blow-back against people who don’t believe in “learning styles” from those that do. When we suggest — with evidence — that there is no such thing as a kinematic learner, we can face outright hostility from those who do believe.

    Doubly bad if — as in my country — there are people who believe that some races are instinctively more likely to have different learning styles. If we doubt that publicly, we risk being tagged as racist, because we don’t want to teach differently based on race.

    I can’t believe I have to actually defend opposition to a set of beliefs known to have no utility. But that’s teaching for you!

  • David Conroy

    If faffing around with random bullshit harms student outcomes we have a very clear utilitarian reason to denigrate learning styles. As another commentator pointed out, the analogy doesn’t hold.

    If faffing around with random bullshit does not harm student outcomes, the teaching must be extremely … sub-optimal. And, since there is a very strong evidence base for what type of teaching is effective, we have a good headstart on what to replace the mountain of bull that is learning styles with.

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