Some time back I did my bit to publicise a rather good video made by Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology from the University of Virginia, about how learning styles don’t exist. Roughly speaking, Willingham argues that we learn mainly through grasping meaning, not through recalling images or sounds, or anything that is dependent on how it was taught and, therefore, the method of teaching should not be determined by trying to identify learning styles which tell us what kind of teaching individual students will recall best. Willingham provides a reading list indicating some of the sources for his conclusions here, and further resources for the topic can also be found here. The message is pretty much unanimous: all the research shows that students don’t have learning styles.
Against this background it is hard to believe that anybody would still be trying to suggest they do. However, a quick internet search reveals a mass of resources still based on the same flawed idea. Similarly, it is commonplace for books aimed at teachers to claim that the research confirms we have learning styles and teachers should teach to them. For instance, flicking through the books on my bookshelf I find the following claims (admittedly from books I shouldn’t have bothered buying):
“Researchers have found that we all have different thinking and learning styles…The implication of these findings is that no one teaching style suits all students” (Fisher, 1995, p15)
“the work of D. Kolb and others, on the differing ‘styles’ in which individuals learn most comfortably, illuminates this area further …Good teachers take account of these differences in ‘learning styles’ in lesson planning and teaching…” (Walford, 2003, p56)
“Each of us has a preferred learning style and preferred working style…Sure it is probably impossible to cater to every learning style all the time. But it is possible to design school curricula so that all learners are either tested to determine their preferred learning style… and then for the style to be catered to at school” (Dryden et al, 2001, p99)
The fact that people trying to sell books to teachers are promoting this guff shouldn’t be a major problem. Unfortunately, it is also the norm in our schools. Even some of the official guidance to secondary teachers claims that it:
“…offers some practical strategies that teachers use to accommodate pupils’ preferred learning styles. The techniques suggested are tried and tested; they draw on both academic research and the experience of practising teachers… Through an understanding of learning styles, teachers can exploit pupils’ strengths and build their capacity to learn.” (DfES, 2004)
My experience as a teacher has repeatedly involved people who claim to have expertise telling us this same message: students have learning styles; the research shows this; teachers must use learning styles. At one school, and I still have difficulties believing this happened, the entire staff were made to sing a song about learning styles to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in morning briefing.
Although there exists a fair number of models of learning styles out there in the wider world of pseudo-science, there are two in particular that have repeatedly been presented to me in school.
The first is the “Multiple Intelligences” model. Back in the early eighties, the psychologist Howard Gardner, like many psychologists before him, made a name for himself by pointing out the completely obvious. Apparently, people can be smart at different things. Almost immediately, this was leapt on by people who wanted to suggest that if people are smart in different ways, then they must learn in different ways too. This misreading of Gardner’s theories give us the Multiple Intelligences model of learning styles. I see little point in exploring in detail a theory whose very origin is in misrepresenting research, however, I will draw your attention to what Gardner himself has had to say:
“[M]y intelligences are specifically linked to content…Most stylistic accounts are assumed to cut across content… rather than being analogous to styles … intelligences may well need to cross-cut other kinds of analytical categories… There is, in fact, empirical evidence on this issue…we have found that certain ‘working styles’ prove to be quite content specific”. (Gardner, 1993a, p xxv)
“Are intelligences the same thing as ‘learning styles’ or ‘working styles’?… MI theory begins from a different point and ends up at a different place from most schemes that emphasize stylistic approaches…Those who speak of learning styles are searching for approaches that ought to characterise all contents…Work in Project Spectrum casts doubt on the notion that such styles are generic.” (Gardner, 1993b , p44-45)
“I identified a number of myths about multiple intelligences …
MYTH … An Intelligence is the same as a learning style…
REALITY… The concept of style designates a general approach that an individual can apply equally to every conceivable content. In contrast an intelligence is a capacity, with its component process, that is geared to a specific content in the world (i.e., musical sounds).” (Gardner, 1999, p80-84)
The other model is known by the acronym “VAK” standing for Visual/Auditory/Kinaesthetic. Whereas the MI model resulted in a long list of intelligences/learning styles the VAK model fits on forms and planning sheets more easily by identifying only three styles, those who learn by seeing (V), those who learn by hearing (A) and those who learn by doing (K). While the MI model of learning styles is attributed to a reputable expert (who nevertheless has denounced it) the source of the other model, the VAK model, is never as clearly identified. This is because its origins are in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). This fad in psychotherapy has been around since the 1970s and, despite quite a troubled history, has never died out or ceased to make money ever since. However, it is fair to say that it is not widely regarded as having a sound basis in psychological facts.
Back in the late 80s, a review of the literature (Sharpley, 1987) concluded:
“there is little use to the field of counseling research in further replications of previous studies of the principles underlying NLP. In 44 studies of these principles, they have been shown to be without general support from the data. … Elich et al. (1985) referred to NLP as a psychological fad, and they may well have been correct. Certainly research data do not support the rather extreme claims that proponents of NLP have made as to the validity of its principles or the novelty of its procedures.”
Although those who make money from NLP will find all sorts of research (rarely peer-reviewed or in psychiatry or psychology journals) to dispute this conclusion it has been accepted by the academic community, so for instance Devilly, 2005, simply referred to this by observing that:
“by the late 1980s a host of controlled trials had shed such a poor light on the practice, and those promoting the intervention made such extreme and changeable claims, that researchers began to question the wisdom of researching the area further and even suggested that NLP was an untestable theory”
More recently, a distinguished psychologist (Roderique-Davies, 2009) wrote:
“NLP singularly fails to stand up to scrutiny concerning its face validity and its construct validity. NLP’s predictive validity is more difficult to ascertain as proponents of the ‘discipline’ engage in academic goal-post shifting and arguments about its ‘constructivist’ nature. Claims about what NLP can and do persist though and as such it is analogous to Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot with the burden of proof to support its theoretical foundations and efficacy as an intervention lying with its proponents … NLP masquerades as a legitimate form of psychotherapy, makes unsubstantiated claims about how humans think and behave, purports to encourage research in a vain attempt to gain credibility, yet fails to provide evidence that it actually works. Neuro-linguistic programming is cargo cult psychology.”
So, the learning styles theories we are presented with in schools, are not just disproven by the research, but the two main theories that I have encountered in schools never had reputable research evidence behind them in the first place. There was only a misunderstanding of a theory and a pseudo-scientific fad. Unfortunately, being rejected by the relevant academic disciplines does nothing to stop an idea being embraced by schools or those who advise schools.
Beck ,John and Earl, Mary (eds.) “Key Issues in Secondary Education”. 2nd edition.. Continuum. 2003
Devilly ”Power Therapies and possible threats to the science of psychology and psychiatry” The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry Volume 39 Issue 6, 2005
DfES, “Pedagogy and Practice:Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools Unit 19: Learning styles” 2004
Dryden, G and Vos, J “The learning revolution. To change the way the world learns.” Network Education al Press Ltd, 2001
Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. “Mental images as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, 12. 1985.
Fisher, Robert. “Teaching children to learn. (2nd ed.).” Nelson Thornes Ltd., 2005.
Gardner, Howard. “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. 2nd edition“ Fontana Press, 1993a
Gardner, Howard. “Multiple Intelligences: The Theory In Practice.” Basic Books. 1993b
Gardner, Howard. “Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century.” Basic Books. 1999
Roderique-Davies, Gareth, “Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Cargo Cult Psychology?”, Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Volume 1 Number 2, 2009
Sharpley, “Research Findings on Neurolinguistic Programming: Nonsupportive Data or an Untestable Theory?“) in the Journal of Counselling psychology 34, 1987
Walford Rex, Classroom Teaching and Learning, in Beck, 2003