Thursday, 5 November 2009

Learning Styles are "Bunk"!

Seán posted a comment on an earlier post of mine about learning styles and linked to his views on the subject. I thought I would reply.
Here's a devastating scientific criticism of the popular but groundless VAK learning style theory, which also attempts to explain why teachers love it, despite its complete lack of supporting evidence.

While the debunking of learning styles once and for all would be welcome, I would question that teachers "love" them. In my experience their use is down to an expectation that tutors use the popular methodology and in many cases it is an institutional *procedure* and has to be followed. This is what Frank Coffield (2008) would call "tactical compliance".

I think often we slavishly get students to complete the learning styles tests and file away the results, so we can bring them out when Ofsted (or whoever your education inspectorate is) comes along to prove that we 'really do care about diversification in our teaching'.

That learning styles should make much if any difference to teaching approach may well be dubious. Frank C certainly has my respect. But that they are "love[ed]" by the teaching profession at large is, certainly in my experience, a nonsense.

We do it because we are told to (because line managers and quality auditors expect/demand it).

If learning styles are "real" in any sense - even being that learners do have "preferences" or find it easier to learn in one way rather than another then they must have some value in that sense. The issue is how to apply it. But the hard reality is that no state education system has the funds, and no teacher the time, to tailor every subject to the whims of each and every student's preference in detail.

Only a superhuman could actually apply the required level of personalisation in any meaningful way. So we lip serve the tests just as we lip serve our application of their results.

I generally agree with Seán's comments in his working hypothesis that:
...a mixture of types of material and techniques seems likely to maximise the possibility of learning, and interestingness of delivery...

But I would put it the other way round - a mixture of types of material and techniques seems likely to maximise the interestingness of delivery and therefore the possibility of learning.

In my own experience of teaching and observing others, the approach to applying learning styles has been diluted to pretty much that. Use a variety of approaches (so much testing finally results in what was common sense to most of us anyway).

The final reality is of course that once a learner leaves education no one, and I mean NO ONE, is going to care for their learning preferences. They must simply get on with the job. So the final value for any learning style profile, (if you accept that they have value), may be to identify a learner's area of weakness and therefore area of required development. If they are poor at Kineasthetic - they may simply have to get better at it - their future boss simply won't care to make special allowances for them - they can either do the job or they can't.

Having said all that, while I have to do it there's no harm in seeing what correlations appear as part of teacher training - don't you find it interesting?


Finally I would like to thank Seán for his comment, otherwise I might have missed the Frank Coffield report he mentions, which is by far the best education read I have come across in a long long time - reference below. Thanks Seán... and good luck with the ongoing battle against the unnecessary.

Frank Coffield (2008). Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority.... London: Learning and Skills Network. 51


Anonymous said...

My comment about teachers "loving it" is probably out of date now, as the bandwagon has moved on to ECM, but it was an informal way of putting the following bit of the paper I linked to in my post :

"The belief in modality theory is very common among teachers. More than 25 years ago, Arter and Jenkins (1979) reported that more than 90 percent of special education teachers believed it. Today, the prevalence of books describing the theory and lesson plans suggesting ways to implement it suggest that it still enjoys widespread acceptance."

Insight said...

In that context I have little to argue against. Though the prevalence of books may be sympomatic of the expecatation that teachers do it, and the books help teachers do what they have to do. One wonders if there is not now a circular cause and effect on this issue perhaps?