Archive for April, 2010


Never Forget: Learning Styles are Complete Arse

April 21, 2010

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


Three Opinions Best Ignored

April 7, 2010

No doubt there will be some debate over education during the election campaign. It should involve scrutiny of the future plans and past records of all the parties. If we are lucky, issues such as the behaviour crisis, the dumbing down of teaching and exams, and the level of paperwork and bureaucracy will be raised.

However, there are three opinions that will make me put my palm to my forehead. They are more likely to be expressed by journalists, “experts” and insufferable middle class people presented as examples of public opinion, than by politicians but they come up again and again. They are:

Opinion 1: The problem with education in England is the power and influence of the teaching unions.

An opinion often expressed by people under the impression that the teaching unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, or by people who get their opinions from Americans on the internet. The claim is that education policy is at best severely constrained, and at worst dictated, by ideologically driven unions.

The problem with this theory is that our teaching unions are crap. Properly crap. There are too many of them and they spend their time fighting each other not influencing policy. The next education secretary could announce that every day he is personally going to beat a teacher to death with a rolled up DCSF circular live on Teachers TV and the only response would be the NUT demanding consideration of the workload implications of death and the NASUWT insisting that, although they welcome the move, it should be reviewed after six months.

Our unions are incapable of working together effectively; incapable of distinguishing between the interests of different types of teacher; incapable of identifying the most important issue (clue: it’s behaviour); incapable of enforcing even those working conditions which the government has agreed to; incapable of identifying issues where action is worthwhile; incapable of organising effective industrial action, and incapable of presenting themselves as responsible stakeholders rather than barking loons to the public.

Sometimes it is claimed that unions block bad teachers from being sacked. Nobody ever gives an example of a union going on strike to protect a bad teacher. Invariably, the only thing unions do to protect bad teachers is supporting their members’ legal rights and protections, i.e. rules that the government have already agreed to. Unless you accept that people should be sacked in defiance of the rules this is hardly a major intervention or an illegitimate influence.

Another claim is that the ridiculous politics of some of the unions affects government policy. Apart from the sheer naivety about how politicians make policy, it also seems to be based on ignorance of the teaching unions. They are not affiliated to the Labour Party. They are not noticeably sympathetic to Labour (beyond the fact that the last Tory government managed to do a spectacularly good job of alienating teachers). Although there is a sizeable leftwing caucus in the NUT it is noted by its hostility to the government and its support for fringe leftwing parties. The policies of the unions are often as silly as the policies of government but they certainly aren’t the same policies. The unions are obsessed with getting rid of exams. The government is obsessed with setting targets based on exam results. The unions are (I’m glad to say) against increases in workload, the government is in favour. The unions are preoccupied with making all schools the same. All the political parties are preoccupied with inventing more and more different types of schools.

Opinion 2: Vocational qualifications should be given parity of esteem.

This is an opinion with a less obvious political bias and is expressed by people (who should know better) from all points on the political spectrum. Simply put, the idea is that so many school leavers are unemployable, not because of their lack of academic skills or poor attitude, but that they haven’t spent enough time doing courses to prepare them for the world of work. When it is observed that to a large extent people don’t want to do vocational courses, and employers don’t actually want to employ people who have done the courses, then it is claimed that this is due to snobbery, and that the problem is simply a lack of esteem being given to the courses rather than any inherent problem with the vocational courses.

Of course, there is no problem with esteem for vocational courses simply as a result of them being vocational. If your vocational training happened to be the professional training of a doctor or lawyer (I’d better not mention teachers here) then people have plenty of esteem for your skills and training. This is because, although vocational, these are as challenging as (or more challenging than) most purely academic options. People have no problem with showing respect for vocational options where they are as demanding as the academic options. Similarly, nobody thinks a degree in engineering (despite its strong vocational elements) is somehow inferior to a degree in feminist theory, or for that matter that a GCSE in drama is better than a City and Guilds in structural engineering.

The problem is that esteem is related to difficulty and rigour. Where “vocational” simply specifies “useful for employment” then it carries no stigma. However, the lack of esteem for vocational qualifications has a different origin. It comes from the idea that instead of some people being smarter than others, there are “academic” people and “vocational people”. Now while it is true that some people’s intelligence might be shown more easily in a practical activity than a written one, or vice versa, there simply isn’t a general divide. Somebody who is academically weak is not especially likely to be good at practical activities. Somebody who is good at practical activities and making things with their hands is not especially likely to be poor at academic work. Perhaps there are two types of intelligence here (likely), perhaps they are independent of each other (unlikely, but certainly there are plenty of people who show one without the other) but what is most certainly not the case is that they are negatively correlated. Failure at academic qualifications does not suggest that success at vocational ones is likely. Vocational qualifications aimed at those incapable of academic qualifications cannot simply be an “alternative pathway” deserving of equal status, they will always be a mark of academic weakness. You cannot avoid this. The only way for vocational qualifications to have status is to be in addition, not instead of, academic ones. Vocational qualifications cannot be for those who lack academic smarts, simply because the key academic skills of reading, writing, calculating and thinking are also highly desirable vocational skills.

Simply put, vocational qualifications cannot be dumbed-down qualifications aimed at other people’s children, and still be of equal status with academic qualifications. They can be equally demanding and equally high status. They can be different in the extent of their demands and be of different status. Vocational qualifications can’t be inferior but equal.

Opinion 3: There is too much rote memorisation in schools.

It is a standard line for those who simply don’t have a clue about what is happening in schools, but do have a general inclination to dumb down, to complain that schools are biased towards memorising content rather than concentrating on understanding, and thinking skills (or worse, social skills and self-esteem). Of course, this is based on an old classic. Anyone who actually looks at the issue properly, whether from the point of view of philosophy or psychology, soon realises that you cannot separate knowledge from understanding in this way and simply teach one without the other. You understand more, and think more effectively about a topic the more you remember about it; you remember more about a topic the more you think about it. There aren’t really generic thinking skills that apply regardless of topic, and no amount of new technology can avoid the need for knowledge. You cannot become good at adding and subtracting fractions without knowing your times tables; you cannot analyse historical events without knowing the facts about what happened when.

Now this argument about knowledge and understanding is all background (I’m sure I’ve covered it before and I’m sure I will cover it again.) My specific concern is with the ludicrous claim that, even after decades of dumbing down, child-centred learning and all the rest, schools still focus on learning by rote. Partly, this is simply the favourite myth of the educational radical who, in order to hide the failure of progressive education, claims it has never been tried. To these people schools are still basically Victorian, and the appalling results of our schools system simply reflect this, rather than a reality of, except for one or two brief interruptions, decades of progressive teaching methods.

“Ah”, they cry: “How can the system be based on anything other than rote memorisation when you look at all the exams kids have to do now and all the time they spend cramming for them?”

“Bollocks!” I cry back.

Something that never seems to enter this debate is the fact that the tide has turned against actual exams in the last decade or so. Far from students being examined more than ever, Key Stage 3 exams have been abolished, and the number of GCSEs has been drastically reduced by the introduction of worthless, coursework based vocational qualifications which are never examined. The demands of the examination system have never been lower.

More importantly, those exams that exist are not focussed on memorisation, far from it. SATs are designed to be tests of thinking skills and understanding, not rote memorisation. GCSEs are now going the same way with the introduction of “functional skills”. The reason kids spend so much time preparing for exams is not in order to get them to memorise more knowledge, but because the exams don’t test knowledge well and so end up testing exam technique instead. If you could do well on the exams simply by learning a body of knowledge, schools would spend more time teaching knowledge and less time preparing for examinations. The culture of exam training is opposed to a culture of rote memorisation, not part of it.

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