h1

Nobody Believes in Learning Styles Any More, Do They?

April 22, 2015

If you are a connected teacher, reading blogs and following Twitter, you could be forgiven for thinking that nobody believes in learning styles any more. It’s been discredited again and again. I was dismissing them 5 years ago. Just a few minutes searching online (and knowing that adding the word “debunked” to a search for an educational idea is always worth a try) shows that while there might still be material out there promoting them, learning styles are no longer the mainstream idea they were a few years ago. They are often used, perhaps along with brain gym, as an example of nonsense that we don’t believe any more.

To think they have gone though, is a mistake. Whenever this comes up teachers can give recent anecdotal examples of observation forms or teaching and learning policies that still push them. I can find recent blogs that promote them (e.g. here or here) and or that mention them in passing as if they were still credible (e.g. here). They are the walking dead of pedagogy, still shuffling about long after they should have been buried.

However, we shouldn’t be surprised at finding a few mentions in blogs (although we perhaps should be surprised I found several just from this month). Blogs are just one person’s opinion and are not always up to date. Last year I seem to recall discovering that at least a couple of blogs of the blogs I read about learning styles were by people who had gone overseas for a few years, and missed the fact that learning styles were no longer in fashion. Nor should we be surprised that some schools take longer to get over old fads; they may also have been the last to adopt them. What is of more concern is where learning styles are still being taken seriously by those whose influence is felt more widely.

For starters, a source sent me a copy of material used for a course at the University of Warwick for undergraduates wanting to become teachers. Here’s the details of a session held in January of this year:

Screenshot 2015-04-22 at 20.57.56

However, the most incredible example of the continuing existence of learning styles is in the one area of education most conspicuously left alone by Gove, Early Years. In the statutory framework for the Early Years, in effect from September 2014, the section on assessment requires the following (by law):

Assessment plays an important part in helping parents, carers and practitioners to recognise children’s progress, understand their needs, and to plan activities and support. Ongoing assessment (also known as formative assessment) is an integral part of the learning and development process. It involves practitioners observing children to understand their level of achievement, interests and learning styles, and to then shape learning experiences for each child reflecting those observations. In their interactions with children, practitioners should respond to their own day-to-day observations about children’s progress and observations that parents and carers share. [my emphasis]

So here we are, 5 years after the blogosphere cottoned on to learning styles being nonsense, and they are still being taught by educationalists in a top university, and it is required by law they be assessed by EYFS practitioners.

31 comments

  1. I am reading Tom Bennetts Teacher Proof at the moment and god do the scales fall from ones eyes!!


  2. The EYFS is politically very sensitive, and early years ‘professionals’ are as doctrinaire as they get. Gove followed most of our recommedations in our Centre for Policy Studies paper on the Children’s Plan, and he was willing to take a lot of flack for abandoning School Sports Partnerships. However, he didn’t get rid of the EYFS, even though I know Nick Gibb was strongly in favour of abolishing it. I’d guess that Gove thought that cutting back on Sure Start had to be accompanied by some sort of sop to the industry.


    • your ‘sarcastic’ quotes reveal a great deal. Good EYFS teachers are probably the most skilled of all teaching staff and certainly the most critical. Ask any Y1 teacher.


  3. The Dutch had it right a few years ago, assessing well being in conjunction with cognitive skills and simply measuring both by a 1-5 scale then building progress on observed involvement in tasks. The notion of emotional intelligence is paramount in assimilation of new thinking after all (I know- back to old Piaget!)


    • Except that emotional intelligence is not a thing!! It is not defined conceptually and can not be measured as a result. Seriously there is no credible research or evidence to support its existence. Emotional wellbeing, adjustment, social skills might be a better way to go – beware the snake oil sellers!!


  4. I think you are mistaken. In the Canadian province of Alberta the idea of learning styles is cutting edge science! This is a video of a grade 4 math lesson at a special research school associated with the education department of a local university:

    At two minutes in they say “for our kinesthetic learners, we wanted them to see and act out what multiples of one are.”.

    The only way what you say above is true is if those who teach the teachers here would ignore decades of research and continue to support bad science in order to support their own careers. And, since no moral person would ever do that to the most vulnerable people in our society (children), I can only conclude that you are wrong about the effectiveness of “learning styles”.

    And, if you need more proof about the effectiveness of the “new pedagogies”, here is a video of how a student used inquiry (and technology) to show how traditional educational methods are wrong:

    IMHO it is much better than the old methods where children were brainwashed into accepting a given opinion… much better to be guided to the brainwashing.


    • “The only way what you say above is true is if those who teach the teachers here would ignore decades of research and continue to support bad science in order to support their own careers.”

      I can’t decide if this post is ironic or not. In case it isn’t, I suggest you have a look at Carol Tarvis’s book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me for an explanation of how caring, moral professionals manage to shut their eyes to the evidence that contradicts their most cherished beliefs.


      • Oops, just saw OA’s tweet. Apologies to Nick (although it’s still an excellent book).


    • Seriously read Tom Bennetts Teacher Proof – I have recommended it to a teacher friend over in Canada as she was saying the same as you!! There is absolutely no evidence for it, the only credible studies show the exact opposite – that it has no impact. Some students may express a preference but preferences do not mean styles or they learn better that way.

      As for teachers ignoring decades of research – they do so all the time – multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence, group work, brain gym, use of technology (which I love but the evidence does not show the impact claimed). Many of the studies that are lauded are biased or by groups interested. The problem with many of the theories in education is that they are just that theories based on a set of assumptions – like all ideas they may turn out to be good… or not. When money is involved and products are being sold then it skews matters even more. To be fair one video does not constitute ‘proof’ it constitutes an opinion but that opinion is instantly refuted by a single opinion the other way. Where is the empirical evidence?


  5. One issue is that ‘learning style’ is such a badly defined term. Learning styles could be legitimate but VAK and MI are not. Also the ‘everyone learns differently’ meme is pretty powerful.

    This will take a long time to die. Remember that newspapers still have horoscopes and homeopathy is big business.


  6. I feel that one of the many problems with “learning styles” is the term itself, a general term used by both the proponents of the debunked and the debunkers.

    These debunked ideas were latched on to by many I suspect because it provided a magic bullet of learning, in a world that uses a one size fits all educative system yet demands personalised learning for all. As a result people took ideas within the learning field out of context to create this holy grail, the general “learning style”. Unfortunately or fortunately, these “learning styles” have been debunked yet there are models of learning out there that are in danger of being tarred with the same brush because of the demonising of the general phrase “learning styles”, as opposed to the actual flawed concepts .

    What has actually been debunked? The idea of a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic “learning style” has been, though the fact that we all process new and old information through our senses and each of us has a preference or lead system through which we process that information in different contexts has not. The idea that MI theory should lead to a “learning style” based on different strengths we have/develop seems illogical and would seem debunked. Yet Gardner’s theory of intelligence, a theory that highlights that people have different strengths that represent intelligence in different forms other than the flat earth view that is IQ, has not.

    Therefore we must be careful not to throw babies out with bath water when debunking, just because of someone somewhere’s flawed interpretations of research.

    Dan Smith


    • Gardner is rubbish, he has no empirical evidence fit. “Yet Gardner’s theory of intelligence, a theory that highlights that people have different strengths that represent intelligence in different forms other than the flat earth view that is IQ, has not.”

      See http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/1263/1/WhiteJ2005HowardGardner1.pdf

      see page 17

      &

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences#Lack_of_empirical_evidence


    • I think it is more than flawed interpretations. Education research has become more about teaching teachers how to teach than actual good research in many cases. The fact is that good researchers study their hypothesis and accept that it may be proven false or require revision in the face of empirical evidence. In education research the opposite is true where researchers simply look for evidence that supports their ideas or in some cases don’t bother with evidence at all. Teachers are not qualified enough in many cases to check for this. In a high stakes system the latest fad which may produce results is sought after because of the need for results to avoid a bad inspection.


  7. I think you need to define ‘learning style’, especially now where using tech is the answer to all problems. If you’re simply discussing VAK, then its over-simplistic and suggests that a learner can only use one style – VAKs big downfall. It deserves to be thrown in the bin.

    On the other hand, I know that I have a very clear learning style. I like text on paper, nice clean lines and absolutely no flow charts or other snazzy imagery. I have SERIOUS issues with online-only delivery methods which flies in the face of the ‘we-must-use-tech-or-we’ll-fail-our-students’ brigade. Tech is complementary, as are videos, audio recordings, pretty pictures and hands-on activities to a society that revolves around the written word…..


    • Is that a style or a preference? I would have said the latter!


  8. It’s helpful to understand the difference in the way psychology is taught in the US compared to the UK. Psychology in the States is a massively popular, undergraduate subject and is much more like Sociology in the UK. Gardiner is essentially a social psychologist not a clinician. I’ve even seen an interview in which he acknowledges this and expresses considerable surprise at the way his theories (which is all they are) have been co-opted by politicians and educators alike, for their own ends.


  9. Hi Andrew,

    I’m afraid my learning styles are musical and visual/kinaesthetic, so I’m unable to understand your argument in word form. Would you be able to repeat it as a tap dance, while humming the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

    Thanks,

    C. Fox


  10. Just before the Easter break in 2014 , we paid a speaker from an English university well known for its teacher training courses to come give our year 12s a presentation on preparing for the AS exams.

    They did a big spiel on “learning styles”.

    Our Psychology department was rather disappointed and the kids practically walked out at that point.

    We didn’t invite that university back this year. I doubt if anyone fed back to them why that was so I’ve little doubt they’re still pushing this stuff to their own ITT students and to any school daft enough to let them in.


  11. Reblogged this on Apprenticeship, Skills & Employability..


  12. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    This makes me sigh quite a lot… We still got a lot of work to do!


  13. The frustration is that there’s so much pseudoscientific nonsense in our primary schools. Whereas i used to feel like a lone skeptical voice crying out for evidence in a wilderness of guff, I now visit the blogosphere and realise that there are a lot of you out there. Unfortunately I still have to deal with the institutionalised versions of half baked fads in my working life.


  14. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  15. where do you sit with this, currently being forced on all teachers in my school
    http://www.aboutlearning.com/what-is-4mat?start=3


    • Type 5: advocate of objective reality.

      Key Question: WTF?


    • q. what is 4mat?
      a. illiterate, and perhaps anti-literate.

      And that is supposed to be an educational website.

      Words fail me.


  16. Interesting – I’m not a teacher (and admire all those that can – 30 x 10 and 11 year olds – not for me!) but am an experienced Gov involved in a number of schools across all key stages. I have heard learning behaviours being discussed on a number of occasions at CPD events, Governing body meetings and during Gov monitoring. Learn to learn is definitely still around. Having “Wiki’d” the term I can see there is a discussion to be had.


  17. great read and helpful comments too, i always enjoyed school more when there was different types of learning in the same lessons, so teaching styles to me important.


  18. I guess Urban Myths about Learning and Education hadn’t hit the ‘bookstands’ when you wrote this, Andrew. Anyway, this is one book well worth delving into. It’s written by Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner and Casper D. Hulsof and covers the gamut of the daft and the indefensible. The first myth the authors deal with? Step forward ‘People have different learning styles’. the book comprises six separate sections on different kinds of myths (learning, neuromyths, etc.) with a neat summary at the end of each. And, for those who want to know more, there is an excellent set of references to the current research at the end of each ‘Myth’.


  19. At Birmingham City University they teach the meaning of ‘learning styles’ and why they are important in the ‘Individual Learner’ module which is part of there PGCE.

    http://www.bcu.ac.uk/education/courses/pgce-secondary-mathematics-pgce

    If the concept of learning styles is so flawed why do University PGCE departments teach it?


  20. it’s just like religion: “fossilized fashion”,
    i heard somebody call it. you might as
    well open up the whole nature-nurture
    thing. it’ll never stop for long and nobody
    will say anything useful about it. next slide.


  21. […] no longer ubiquitous. I did highlight some cases of the continued promotion of learning styles here. I can add to this. When the College of Teaching announced its trustees, one was described in the […]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: