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Home » Speakers' Corner

Are ‘Learning Styles’ a Myth, or does Science Miss the Point?

Submitted by on November 23, 2012 – 2:04 pm9 Comments

Katie Beswick (@ElfinKate)’s been reading about education and scientific discoveries, and she’s not sure she cares about what science might have found.

As readers of my own blog (there are some, I swear) will no doubt be aware, I have a healthy scepticism of science. Even though that scepticism is mostly jokes, it’s also a bit real. This is not only due to my personal ignorance of the intricacies of the discipline, but more precisely to do with the way that science is simplistically disseminated and discussed in the mainstream media, absorbed into the public consciousness, and spouted from careless drunken mouths at social events. Evolution, used to promote sexism by science-lite references to cave-people’s behaviour (me man, me spread seed, me light fire), is my biggest bugbear. But this week, neuroscience has got right on my nerves too.

In a blog post entitled ‘Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance’, Cedar Riener, neuroscientist, reports that amongst the myths held by teachers about the way the brain works, a recent study found that an overwhelming 94% of teachers believed in the myth of ‘learning styles’. The concept of ‘learning styles’ is well known in teaching practice, and informs many contemporary teaching methods. Because each student has different skills and experiences, a learning styles approach means modifying teaching to incorporate the style a student is most comfortable with in order to improve attainment.

Riener’s argument, actually, is very well reasoned and rigorously evidenced. He says that the problem with learning styles is that they uphold the myth that ‘all children can learn all content equally well and quickly’. He references a recent Wall Street Journal article that reports on a study which shows that when recalling information in a specific experiment, there was no difference in attainment when no relationship existed ‘between the learners’ preferences and the instruction style.’ The thrust of Reiner’s argument is the acknowledgement that dogmatic belief in learning style theories comes from the deeply held values of committed teachers. So far, so fair enough. It’s not that bit of the science (the science bit) that I’ve got a problem with.

My problem is with the underlying assumption easily extracted from that science: that teachers take the knowledge that children have learning preferences ‘to the extreme’ and seek to deliver content to students in styles that will never work (kinesthetic algebra anyone?) because of a flawed belief in the cognitive science behind learning style theories. I find this problematic for three main reasons:

1) Already, an acquaintance has told me that science has discovered ‘learning styles are a myth.’ No, acquaintance, I’ve read the blog now, science finds something, as I illustrate in the paragraph above, a bit more subtle and specific than that. I worry that disseminating the message ‘learning styles are a myth’ will set us on a backwards trajectory where we revert to simplistic understandings about what ‘intelligence’ is (algebra anyone?).

2) I don’t believe that any decent teacher thinks you can learn Pythagoras’ theorem by dancing it (although students with an interest in dance might be more engaged if their teacher were to apply their understanding of dance to maths teaching). Calling learning styles ‘myths’ is to misunderstand how many teachers apply them. The learning styles methods I was taught in my own teacher training, evolved from Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ , which isn’t really about being able to learn one thing (say algebra) better if it is delivered kinesthetically for example. It is more ideological, and is about acknowledging that an ability in art, or dance, or with words is a kind of intelligence just as an ability in maths, or science is an intelligence. Although this is different to a theory of learning styles, it does point to how adopting different teaching styles might be useful in the classroom: because doing so increases students’ confidence in their individual abilities, and allows students and teachers to attempt overcoming learning limitations in innovative ways.

3) As an educator it is clear to me that offering a range of learning experiences does enhance engagement in and enjoyment of learning, and thus attainment. It also allows students, who are often quite poor at noticing where they excel, to find out what they are best at by trying different things. But this is nothing new – practicing one’s discipline, reflecting on results, innovating, discussing, encouraging independent thinking; these are all techniques a good teacher would use regardless of a belief in ‘learning styles’, because they allow our students to be adaptable. Learning facts by rote is not useful to students wishing to succeed in the world, being able to apply ideas, innovate and problem solve in a multitude of contexts is.

There are obviously many arguments that could be had about the value or otherwise of adopting a ‘learning styles’ approach to teaching, and I’d be happy to hear your experiences below. I have found using different styles of teaching to be useful, although I don’t believe that learning styles are a science that can be applied to improve results, like one might administer medicine to cure a headache. To learn to drive you have to drive, being good with numbers won’t mean you can learn driving by solving an equation. That’s self evident. So discovering that learning styles have limitations isn’t that useful to me as a teacher. It’s like being told a hot water bottle doesn’t cure period pain.

The science community run into difficulty when their findings are used to argue that teaching in different styles is not ‘proven’ to increase individual students’ attainment in a particular area because ‘proving’ the effectiveness of learning styles in hard science attempts a black and white ‘this works or it doesn’t’ approach. Which is worryingly close to the kind of smart/stupid binaries that can damage student confidence and become a real barrier to effective teaching. Most teachers are working with shades of grey (in the proverbial sense, not with the sex book, hopefully) attempting to teach multiple students with multiple skills, and trying to employ techniques in the classroom that allow each student to understand and engage with a subject.

What I fear is that studies like the neuroscience one I refer to here will be used as evidence to support the draconian educational ideals that seem to underpin the current government’s education policies, such as the sidelining of arts subjects in the Ebacc, which I wrote about a few posts ago. Of course, teachers should be aware of scientific advances that might improve the quality of our practice, but we must realise that teaching is not only a science of understanding and improving cognition, it is also a practice with social and emotional concerns at its core. I ask you all to read your science with care.

*Photo courtesy of photostock at freedigitalphotos.net

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9 Comments »

  • Alison Neale says:

    I think this is relevant to what you’re saying: A few years ago I was studying a new language. Students in the psychology department (I think it was) asked us all to complete a questionnaire about the way we learned the language. I remember ticking through the various methods I used and thinking how absurd the other suggestions were, but upon comparing answers with classmates afterwards, we had all chosen very diffent options. Some people had very visual memories, some learned by rote and recalled sounds easily, while I do word association and prefer to understand the root and origin of words. None of us were particularly better or worse at the language, but as adults we had long-since worked out what suited us and were applying it. Probably all children could learn with one method applied, but it would give an advantage to some rather than allowing them to discover how their own brain learns best.

  • ElfinKate says:

    That’s interesting, thanks. I wonder if Reiner or other neuroscientists have looked into language learning, because that seems an interesting area for learning styles type experiments to be carried out?

    I am not sure these preferences are necessarily innate, but it certainly seems that in some instances we apply methods and techniques to learning new things that we’ve found useful in the past.

    Reiner’s findings are quite as it would seem that if we adopt different learning modes to those we think work for us,it seems to make little difference in terms of our actual ability to learn. I think maintaining interest in a subject by choosing to come at it from an angle that interests you is also central to learning.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      I do not know of studies looking for learning styles in learning a second language.

      As far as how the studies work, to find evidence for learning styles in a laboratory, the idea would be find a case where you had two different ways of learning something (let’s take visual and auditory) and two different kinds of people (visual vs. auditory). Then, each kind of person gets each kind of lesson. For the study to show evidence of learning styles, the visual people would have to do better (than the auditory person) with the visual lesson, and the auditory people would have to do better (than the visual person) with the auditory lesson. If both do better with the visual lesson, then that content is better presented visually. If visual people do better in both cases, then you have found that they are higher in ability, not a different style.
      This pattern of results has not been found, despite a fair amount of effort (in many different domains) to find it.

  • ElfinKate says:

    *quite interesting that should say!

  • Cedar Riener says:

    I think we actually are mostly in agreement. For me, the take home message is not to apply a scientific concept in the classroom unless we are sure that we can at least observe this scientific concept under controlled conditions in the laboratory. Otherwise, I am in favor of trusting the craft knowledge of teachers over shaky science. I see learning styles as a case were the science simply isn’t there to document that this difference in stated preference matters in general.
    As far as the difference between Gardner’s multiple intelligences and learning styles, I don’t think one grew from the other. Gardner’s book was published in 1983, and learning styles (of one form or another) have been around since the 70′s. Kolb’s theory (convergers/divergers, assimilators/accomodators) was published in 1984, but wasn’t really an outgrowth of Gardner as much as it was parallel.
    I think Gardner is about valuing different kinds of abilities (by valuing different tasks as well as content), and learning styles is really about applying a certain pedagogical approach across any subject area.
    I am agreement that varying mode of presentation helps everyone, mostly because it maintains everyone’s attention, as well as providing some repetition from divergent perspectives, which again, often helps everyone. I see two big dangers with approaching this in a learning styles, categorical framework. First, the idea that somehow you are only reaching the “auditory learners” when you are telling an interesting story is unfortunate, and to my mind divisive. Second, it is distracting from the things that really matter. If I design a lesson and try to find an audio portion, a video and a movement, that may come at the cost of me thinking about telling an interesting story, or spending a long time staring at a particularly striking piece of art.
    Again, I don’t disagree with most what you are saying at the end, and I think many scientists feel similarly. I do think that science is not black/white, and actually quite gray most of the time, which is part of the reason it is difficult to simply cut and paste scientific findings and apply them to classroom. We should trust teachers to decide which student preferences are to be respected and which should be pushed against (“no, you can’t always have a video, sometimes you do have to read” vs. “ok, you’d rather read this novel a few pages at a time rather than all in one sitting, let’s work with that”). Scientists (or simplistic policymakers) shouldn’t railroad teachers into teaching for different learning styles when we don’t have the evidence in the laboratory that they even exist.

  • ElfinKate says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad we’re in agreement, mostly.

    Apologies for conflating learning styles and multiple intelligences, I was trying to word it so as not to; what I meant is that the learnig styles methods I was taught stemmed from Multiple Intelligences. I’m a fan of Kolb’s cycles, trying to include as much action/reflection as possible, but agree with some of your work I’ve read since writing this that says it is a mistake to apply ‘learning styles’ as if they are a science, when they are not. Also interested in something I think you suggest which is how teachers are measured and assessed on their teaching. Some literature in gov.uk I’ve read recently refers to adapting classes to students’ ‘preferred style’, which is obviously worrying, as the dance/algebra I reference in my piece suggests this is not always practical, and if inspectors are looking for such methods this is potentially problematic.

  • ElfinKate says:

    Also, I notice I’ve spelt your name wrong. Which is embarrassing, and I will now amend that.

  • Valerija says:

    Wow, superb weblog structure! How lengthy have you ever been running a blog for?

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