Babies in the learning-style bathwater

A recent Guardian article reports on a letter sent to the paper by 30 eminent academics from neuroscience, education, and psychology disciplines, voicing concerns about the absurd popularity of learning styles among teachers.

They are, of course, correct to be concerned. There is no good evidence that being taught according to your learning style has any positive value, despite decades of spurious attempts to show a correlation. Moreover, even if there were such a correlation, it would behoove teachers to help learners to learn using different styles because real-life learning doesn’t come neatly packaged in forms that fit with how we want/are constituted to learn, and teaching should primarily be concerned with supporting learners’ capacity to learn. The fact that there are scores if not hundreds of incompatible learning style theories, most of which have similarly (un)compelling evidence to support them, should be a clue that there is something seriously wrong with the whole idea. And it’s not a harmless foible. Not only is it a massive waste of time and money, not to mention a terrible example to set in truthiness acceptance, it can be actively harmful to learners, teaching them to believe that they can only learn properly if things are packaged to suit their style.

What’s shocking in the article is the report on the number of teachers who, despite a total lack of evidence and copious amounts of debunking, continue to use and believe in the things. To our shame, I have even seen examples of it at AU (our own Math Site mentions them) where we really ought to know better. But we are not unusual in this. Not at all. In the UK and Netherlands in 2012, 80% of teachers apparently believed that individuals learned better when doing so in a manner according with their preferred learning style. This is like discovering that 80% of the world’s scientists believe that their horoscopes determine the results of their experiments.

That said, there’s a baby in this very dirty bathwater that should not be thrown out.

If a belief in learning styles means that teachers feel challenged to design learning experiences in different ways to suit more diverse needs, that’s not a bad thing, apart from that it increases the costs of learning development. In fairness, it would work at least as well if they used astrological star sign personality characteristics as a basis but, whatever the reasons, giving students choices is a worthwhile outcome. And, just like horoscopes, there is value to learners themselves in providing an opportunity and a framework for reflection, even if the framework itself is erroneous and based on fallacies.

I’m a sceptic, but even I use variants on the theme. For example, I often try to provide versions of learning content that are meant to cater for serialist and holist ways of learning (Gordon Pask’s approach to categorizing learning strategies). Notwithstanding the extra effort and cost of designing at least two ways to approach a topic, it’s a good creative catalyst for me, and it gives students greater choice and control over their own learning.

And, in fairness, not all learning-style types of theory are equally awful. Slightly less harmful variants talk of learning preferences rather than styles, which does not necessarily imply that those preferences are a good idea nor that they even need to be catered for, though it still perpetuates the myth that there are relatively fixed characteristics in such things. Much better ones, including Pask’s, talk of selectable learning strategies rather than stable characteristics or preferences of learners, which seems eminently sensible to me: it’s just about general pedagogical patterns. It’s not about labelling learners, though (sadly) some do try to apply the labels to learners, and even Pask himself (arguably) sometimes seems to present it in that way. The best of breed models recognize that learning strategies can and should change in different learning contexts as well as over time, and make no attempt to label or pigeon hole learners themselves at all. I think it is really useful to find regularities and patterns in learning designs, and that’s the baby we should not throw out when we (rightly) reject learning style theories.

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