The enduring appeal of learning styles

The enduring appeal of learning styles

We formed groups of three using the cards we’d received: each group had an ‘M’, a ‘T’ and a ‘V’.  Each person described a celebration three different ways.  First, what we would hear: I described the cracking of a log fire, the clink of glasses and the rustle of paper.  Second, how people would move: ripping paper, drinking wine, eating.  Finally, what we would see: crackers, stockings and a pine tree.  In the midst of life, I woke to find myself being trained in learning styles.  Once I was certain what was going on (this was in Danish) and had stifled my astonishment, I tried to observe dispassionately.

Having retold our celebration visually, auditorily and kinaesthetically, we were asked which kinds of learning we had used.  The presenter pointed to a different ‘part of the brain’ for each, the ‘Motor cortex’, ‘Temporallapperne’ and ‘Visual cortex’; we repeated each term while imitating her pointing, following the principles of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Brain.png

We all have preferences, we were told – 30% of people prefer auditory learning, for example – but what works depends on the lesson’s content.  “Students will have to write in the exam”, a trainee noted; but the presenter explained that students may remember something kinaesthetically but express it verbally.  We were assured that, though Hattie had found learning styles have no effect, paying attention to diversity is powerful.  Discussion over, we formed small groups and conceived activities employing different learning styles: in my group trainees engaged enthusiastically, but struggled to adapt their subjects to ‘auditory’ learning; the presenter suggested that ‘a moment of silence before a key point’ would be one way.

The enduring appeal of learning styles

It’s easy to mock; perhaps it’s more useful to analyse the enduring appeal of learning styles.  Jack Schneider set out four criteria for research to reach classrooms: perceived significance, philosophical compatibility, occupational realism, and transportability (discussed by Gary Jones here).  Learning styles have all four:

Perceived significance

Learning styles discuss the brain: few people can gainsay ‘neuroscience’ and this approach holds a ‘seductive allure’.  They also offer a compellingly plausible explanation for the educational failure of some young people.

Philosophical compatibility

Trainees are often desperate to effect change in their schools; they are sometimes encouraged to believe they can do so from the outset.  Learning styles fit this well, placing trainees in the vanguard of transformational practice.  Trainees were encouraged to contrast themselves with teachers who have bored them; this memory of boredom is explained by too much talking and not enough kinaesthetic learning.  Learning styles offer the trainee, keen to be inspirational, a radical, novel, fun way to do so.

Learning styles also emphasise individuality: “people are concerned that they, and their children, be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals” (even though there is more helpful research about the similarities of learners than their differences (Pashler et al., 2008)).

Occupational realism

On the one hand, crafting a kinaesthetic activity when students need to write an essay is a challenge; but it’s not a hard one (moving students holding sentences around maybe?).  It’s certainly easier than paying close attention to the misconceptions students’ may have about the essay’s topic.  I suspect learning styles are in a sweet spot: sufficiently clever-seeming and plausible to offer some challenge (and appear worthwhile), sufficiently simple (and malleable) to apply to anything.

Transportability

I’m sure the hour’s session was sufficient for trainees to understand and recall the three learning styles.

What is to be done?

One can point to the evidence that:

Students do not have different “learning styles.”
Deans for Impact (2015)

And pursue references to reviews which demonstrate conclusively that:

There is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number.”
Pashler et al. (2008)

Yet learning styles still thrive.  So what might we do?

Inoculation

The Carter Review emphasised the importance of teaching trainees:

How to become intelligent consumers of research; this means teaching them where and how to access research findings, how to interpret and challenge research and how it can be applied in practice.”

This sounds great, but I’m not sure it’s sufficient.  My experience of professional development suggests that most teachers’ interest lies in how strategies may improve their classroom, not the evidence behind them, perfectly fairly.  Moreover, this places the burden of spotting poorly-evidenced practices on those least able to do so: by definition, if they knew enough to judge, trainees wouldn’t be in the session.

Substitution

Criticising unevidenced practice seems insufficient (particularly if learning styles are common in schools, as in Denmark).  Asking people to stop thinking about learning styles is not enough; we need to offer simple, evidence-based heuristics for trainees – or they will compose their own, implicitly or explicitly.  Sharing clear, evidenced-based structures like Rosenshine’s (2010) ‘Principles of Instruction’ and Deans for Impact’s (2015) ‘Science of Learning’ is one approach.  Turning this research into practical guidance, whether in the form of checklists or collections like Tom Sherrington’s is another.  Whatever we choose, we must avoid the mystification of teaching as ‘too complicated’ to be susceptible to clear guidelines: the confusion this creates for trainees is ripe soil for zombie theories like learning styles.

Publication

If we accept that trainees are not best-placed to assess the evidence informing their training, we must make it easier for others to do so.  For this, a prerequisite is having teacher training organisations and professional development providers publish their ‘learning bets’ and course reading lists.  This permits neat (if depressing) studies like Pomerance et al.’s (2016) paper which analysed the content and techniques to which trainees in the US are exposed (and found them wanting).  Sharing curricula and reading lists would be useful in its own right, it would also leave trainers open to critique, critique organisations should welcome if they wish to improve.

Conclusion

I now understand better the enduring appeal of learning styles.  Breaking up lessons and varying activities is no bad thing, but learning styles lead teachers down blind alleys in which they misdiagnose barriers to learning and waste lesson planning time on ineffective approaches.  Waiting for good ideas to out-compete poor ones seems insufficient: we need to help them on their way.

Update

This post was edited on 2nd September, 2016; at the request of the training provider, the original image, which came from the provider’s workbook, was removed.  The caption read:
Teacher: It just doesn’t feel natural for me to involve their bodies in learning. Researcher: Now it’s not about you but about your students’ learning, so what strategies would be good for you to use when you want to activate their motorcortex?”