No, you aren't a 'visual' learner

It’s a damning indictment of our collective resistance to truth that the point of this article still has to be restated, yet again. Amazingly, 93% of the general public and 76% of educators still erroneously believe that we should be taught in ways that match our learning styles. I assume this is so in the US – unless things have changed recently, the percentages, for teachers at least, are even worse in some other countries where the idea has been pushed harder from the top down, such as the UK and Netherlands. To be quite clear: this belief is not supported by any compelling evidence at all.

The fact that it is false (or, at best, no more provable than, and just as likely as, astrology) doesn’t mean that designing for learning styles necessarily a terrible idea, inasmuch as it can encourage reflective practice on the part of teachers and can even result in quite useful outcomes. As the article puts it:

“If you’re trying to vary what you do in the classroom to respect different styles, variation in instruction is probably a good thing, anyway,” he says. But rather than formatting lessons differently for auditory, kinetic or visual learners, he and Macdonald suggest that teachers tweak their instruction based on content.

“I think it really depends on your objectives for the lesson,” Macdonald says. “Some types of content really lend themselves to visual presentation … if you’re teaching maps, that’s got to be visual. If you’re teaching music, those are [the] types of things that need to be auditory.

“But if your goal is to get a multifaceted exposure to certain content, it can be helpful to weave in all different types of modalities.”

That thinking about learning styles can be a useful design tool is a fair point, and one that I have often made myself (including in quite some detail in my first book), though it’s a happy side effect of a mistake, rather than a consequence of a good theory. Using star signs would probably work just as well.  I am not convinced that content should always lead design either: objectives-driven teaching is not the only fruit and, for some expansive subject areas and pedagogies, it is positively (positivistly?) harmful. But, notwithstanding its constraints and limitations, at least it is not based on a fiction.

There are many risks to using a false world model, even if it has some practical value or plausible results (pre-Copernican geocentric astronomy was better than Copernicus’s own theory at predicting movements of planets), not least of which being that it blinds us to real possibilities and leads us in worthless, wasteful, or even harmful directions. Even when the consequences include better teaching, it’s a terrible lesson to teach someone that they are a visual (or sensing, or whatever nonsense the particular theory suggests) learner. No they are not. They might have some habits, reinforced patterns, or preferences, sure. But that just means they need to try a bit harder to extend themselves and to learn to use some alternative approaches because they are definitely going to have to use them at some point when there’s no teacher in control of things but themselves, and nothing to fit their preferred style available. My learning style is and should be whatever the hell I need.

I’ve mentioned before that I believe a better (if less attractive) term would be ‘being-taught habits’ because one of the least savoury aspects of the whole learning styles gestalt is that it actually has little to do with learning, and everything to do with achieving better indoctrination; of asserting the power of the teacher (at least, it would if it worked). For that kind of thing, we’d learn more from the sciences and arts of the advertising industry than from any snake oil learning style theory. We might equally learn from preachers and religions: they are mostly pretty good at making people think and behave the way they wish.

There are other ways to gain the useful side-effects of designing for learning styles that do not rely on falsehoods, or that make no claims that they match reality one way or the other – de Bono’s Thinking Hats, for instance, or design-based research. And it doesn’t take much to make learning style theories less dumb. I am personally quite fond of Gordon Pask’s serialist/holist model, despite coming perilously close to a learning styles theory at times, because it describes a continuum of learning strategies, without suggesting too much (OK, fair enough, Pask slipped here and there) that such strategies be fixed, habitual, or generally preferred by particular learners.  They are simply perspectives we can choose as and when it is helpful to do so. However, if possible, when designing learning activities, we should use approaches that are based as much as we are able on how the world is, not how we think it should be. From that perspective, learning styles are a potentially dangerous and time-consuming dead end.

Address of the bookmark: http://theweek.com/articles/725352/no-arent-visual-learner

Original page

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.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education

Original page

On learning styles

This post by James Atherton makes the case that, whether or not it is possible to identify distinctive learning styles or preferences, they are largely irrelevant to teaching, and are potentially even antagonistic to effective learning. Regular readers, colleagues and friends will know that this conforms well with my own analysis of learning styles literature. The notion that learning styles should determine teaching styles is utter stuff and nonsense based on a very fuzzy understanding of the relationship between teaching and learning, and a desperate urge to find a theory to make the process seem more ‘scientific’, with no believable empirical foundation whatsoever. This doesn’t make the use of learning styles pointless, however.

Teaching is a design discipline much more than it is a science. One of the biggest challenges of teaching is making it work for as many students as possible, which means thinking carefully about different needs, interests, skills, concerns and contexts. So, if learning styles theories can help you to think about different learner needs more clearly when designing a learning path then that can be a good thing.

The trouble is, thinking about personality patterns associated with learners’ astrological star signs or Chinese horoscope animals would probably work just as well. A comparative study would be a fun to do and, I think, the methodological issues would reveal a lot about how and why existing research has signally failed to find any plausible link.

There are alternatives. In the field of web design we often use personas – fictional but well fleshed-out representative individuals – in order to try to empathize with the users of our sites and to help us to see our designs through different eyes. See https://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/personas.html for a thorough introduction to the area. I use these in my learning design process and find them very useful. Thinking ‘how would John Smith react to this?’ makes much more sense to me than thinking ‘would this appeal to kinaesthetic learners?’, especially as I can imagine how John Smith might change his ways of thinking as a course progresses, how different life events might affect him, and how he might interact with his peers.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/learning_styles.htm