Monday, February 15, 2010

Learning Styles - final nail in coffin?

You can't go for more than 30 mins at an educational conference without hearing the phrase 'learning styles'. It's one of those fixed narratives trotted out by every teacher and educational academic in the land, without the slightest concern about whether there's any evidence that they're useful or whether they even exist. I've posted Coffield's research in the past, which I thought would finally put paid to this madness, but no, almost every school in the land trots through this stuff in useless INSET days.

So thanks to Wil Thalheimer for this blog post. The Association of Psychological Science commissioned a review of the evidence for the benefits of using learning styles, and the report is clear.

"We conclude therefore, that at present, 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. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. (p. 105)

Research Citation:

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

Surely, someone in charge of teacher training will finally kill this stuff off, before we stereotype learners into pigeon-holes which limit, rather than enhance, their educational aspirations.


Stephen Downes said...

The citation is two years old, and hardly new evidence that suddenly makes us rethink all the arguments.

moreover, it - like the rest of the material 'refuting' learning styles - is based on a strictly instructivist perspective, where the only strategy considered is the 'dump and regurgitate' model.

As for Thalheimer's challenge, it is biased against a result. For example, perhaps you could explain why this would be a requirement: "The learning-style program must be created in an instructional-development shop that is dedicated to creating learning programs for real-world use."

It simply creates a condition where someone like me cannot possibly prove him wrong, because I've been screened out ahead of any work I could do. (The $1000 isn't exactly an inducement to spend 6 months work either.)

Unknown said...

Thanks, Don.I spread this message as often as i can.

'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.'

I imagine that one thing they are are referring to is the Assessment for Learning work that is going on. Any thing else?

Rob said...

Yes, absolutely agree. I once had a student who had presented herself as a "kinaesthetic" learner. I asked one of our "experts" how I was supposed to take account of this whilst teaching her the nineteenth century novel. No reply.

Donald Clark said...

Not sure that the age of a piece of research matters here. This is often because of the rate of dissemination (glacial in eduaction until the internet and blogs acelerated the process). For example, few in North America know about Coffield's government funded research into learning styles, which was published 6 years ago in 2004. In general, resaarch into learning styles is completely ignored in education (this side of the pond) as it shows its inherent weaknesses.

On the 'instructivist' issue, most practitioners of learning styles are applying it in this context, literally labelling children VAK (visual, audiory or kinaesthetic) and adopting what they think are matched types of instruction. This dangerous stereotyping is what Coffield warned us against.

The term has its origins in instructional strategists such as Kolb. It was then adopted by all sorts of half baked theorists, like Honey and Mumford, and transformed into a saleable product through slick marketing.

Wil's challenge is reasonable I think, in that he wants a real experiment with real learners in a controlled environment. You'd have thought that the hundreds of htousands of practitioners who talk about learning styles, and tell us that it's useful, would come up with at least one clear piece of evidence for its efficacy by now.

Unknown said...

Afew years ago we had to give children at the school I worked in questionnaires to establish their preferred learning style. It would ask questions relating to situations in business, far outside the experience of the average 11 year old.

You'd also had questions asking whether they were more likely to say 'I hear what you say' or 'I see what you mean'. This would be indicative of their PLS. First of all, it assumed that the child could even remember.

Furthermore, I think that the words you might use could easily depend on the stimulus. If somebody repeated words for emphasis (e.g. Do not,I repeat do not think I'm clearing this up after you')somebody might reply, 'OK OK I hear what you 're saying. Whereas, if somebody was explaining something and used a picture or moved their hands about to demonstrate then one might say 'I see what you mean.'

In all fairness to the VLK-ers they do say that learners must develop all their skills in all three styles of learning. Just as well because in many cases, they will have to put up with the style the teacher/lecturer chooses to teach in...and we know what that will often be!

Owen Ferguson said...

Absolutely agree that the age of the citation is of no import here (and in any case it's 14 months old, not two years).

The broad concept of learning styles is one that should be investigated. That's what an evidence approach is about: stating a hypothesis, conducting an experimental study, making conclusions based on the results.

The problem with learning styles is that they've been adopted by the learning and educational community as a universal truth. What we've actually got is the work of snake oil salesmen. The core concept is seductively simple and it sounds nice and scientific and there are claims of 'research shows' and 'scientists have found'.

While experimentation should be encouraged, and hypotheses tested, it's just wrong that the experiment is the whole education system.

And in terms of the time and money spend, there are far more interesting concepts that should be investigated in more detail.

However, I am intrigued by Stephen's comment. What are the learning styles investigated in this study (and Cauffield's) good for? I ask out of genuine curiosity.

Paul Angileri said...

This is a timely post because I am in a class right now that is covering this exact subject. I am by no means up on all of the evidence one way or the other, but people do think about things and remember them in different ways. This could be tied to the learning styles concept.

The other thing nobody has mentioned yet is that whether or not learning styles matter, technology provides a solution in that materials can be delivered in a number of ways, with increasingly slim development times. So at some point, our content will cut across all or most spectrums anyways, and students will use what suits them best be it podcasts, YouTube clips, animations, plain text, etc. And on top of the technology issue, we also have disabilities concerns that the learning styles concept can at least provide options for if not totally prescribe.

I do agree that some subjects jsut do not fit the learning styles idea because catering to the styles is either not possible or would create a prohibitively large development workload that would be difficult to reuse and update. But to also do the learning styles side of the question a bit more justice, it's not so much that an instructor must figure out how to teach 19th century literature kinesthetically; it's about how the material is conveyed linguistically, as Francis alluded to.

Damien DeBarra said...

It doesn't really seem to matter how often the refutation of something is posted online: certain 'myths' persist no matter what is said.


Rob said...

I was at a meeting today in an office in our learning development unit. On the wall, a rather faded poster illustrating the VAK learning styles, rather like those pious bible mottoes that used to adorn the walls of schools.
Francis's point about how these styles are defined through questionnaires is a useful one. It seems to me that they are about as much use as those magazine features that ask "are you a real man?" or "are you trustworthy?"

Andy Tedd said...

The only reason I think 'Learning Styles' continue to be mentioned is because they make a good crutch for Interweb designers who are having a go at a learning app to show ignorant clients that they know what they are talking about.

Anyone who has been involved in education for even a few years will have worked out that even the most retarded human brain is capable in all 4 styles and will subconsciously switch to the most appropriate when required.

When the BBC did its huge Leadership sheepdip in the Dyke era someone decided it was good idea to do the Honey & Mumford Learning Styles questionnaire on BBC management. What we found was that the preferred learning style was overwhelmingly activist.

Was this a function of learning preference of the well educated elite we were dealing with?

Or a reflection of the pragmatic nature of making radio and telly?