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Learning Styles Strike Back

November 30, 2015

One of the few signs of progress in changing the debate in education had been a concerted rejection of the most obviously pseudo-scientific parts of the education climate, namely Brain Gym and learning styles. The greater involvement of cognitive psychologists in education, (e.g. Dweck and Willingham), challenges from outside education (e.g. Goldacre) , the creation of ResearchED and the opening up of debate on social media had helped create a climate where these most obvious frauds could not hope to flourish. Even those conducting and promoting rotten research would use opposition to learning styles and Brain Gym to signal that they were not complete charlatans.

Sometimes the picture of progress was mixed, particularly for learning styles. Evidence suggested teachers still believed in them. University PGCEs continued to recommend books that encouraged their use, but a growing number would also include a lecture denouncing them. Some would even show Dan Willingham’s video on the subject:

Textbooks used in teacher training still mentioned learning styles, but they might at least signal that there was some debate around them. There were frequent stories of schools and colleges still using VAK tests or putting VAK boxes on lesson planning forms but they were 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 TES as having “enjoyed carrying out research into learning styles”. A recent OFSTED report for Bedford Academy contained the following comment:

Teachers use class-context information to support their planning so that individual needs and pupils’ preferred learning styles are taken into account.

So the myth was not dead, but it was at least something that turned up unexpectedly, rather than being all over the place. At the very least, where people were familiar with the debate, there seemed little dispute about which side was supported by evidence and which side was, either accidentally or deliberately, spreading lies.

However, over the weekend, a concerted backlash to the rejection of learning styles appeared on Twitter and in blogs. Most of it followed the standard ploys used against scientific evidence (and involved the usual fallacies):

  1. I may have no evidence for my position, but you can’t prove it wrong to my satisfaction (shifting the burden of proof).
  2. The words used to describe my position might mean something else other than their usual meaning (equivocation).
  3. I am offended by your challenge to my position (objection to tone or ad hominem).
  4. Lots of people agree with me (argumentum ad populum).
  5. You are not qualified to question this. (ad hominem or appeal to authority).
  6. It works for me (anecdote).
  7. It’s all just a matter of opinion (relativism).
  8. The challenge to this is just a bandwagon (ad hominem).
  9. I am being persecuted by being challenged (argumentum ad misericordiam).
  10. Testing my empirical claims with science is positivist/evil/right-wing/attacking teachers (poisoning the well).

I’m not going to explain why each of these fallacies is a fallacy; that can be found online or in any good book about pseudo-science or valid and invalid arguments. But I will make a simple point about why this matters. Learning styles are not simply a misconception, like discovery learning, that spread before people had a chance to check the evidence. They are not a hypothesis, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, that was proposed with the absence of evidence admitted. The dominant ideas about learning styles stem from a well-known body of fraudulent theory (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and from rewriting the ideas of Howard Gardner without his agreement. Learning styles tools have been invented and sold by people who had no reason to claim they work. Therefore, it is fair to say that the claims about learning styles are not simply wrong, they are lies. I don’t hesitate to claim that most of what teachers have been told about learning styles is simply a pack of lies. In education it is a given that we might disagree; that we might think other people are wrong. But this is different. This is about whether it is okay for people to spread lies in education, whether deliberately or through having been fooled themselves. It is worth asking what future we have as a profession if teachers or educationalists are complacent – or indifferent – about lying.

Update: I posted this just now, without adding the following important point. If any of the people who denied that learning styles were bogus, were actually right then they need to explain why they haven’t attempted to claim the prize offered to anyone who can demonstrate a useable system of learning styles. It currently stands at $5000. Details here.

13 comments

  1. One of the mysteries of the learning styles myth is its popularity with primary school teachers. One would think that differentiating instruction to meet a normal distribution of abilities would be challenging enough without having to differentiate according to perceived learning styles (to say nothing of any perceived ‘special needs’).

    However, I suspect the real reason for its durability is that it can be used to justify the claim that teaching is a profession that must be closed to those who have not been initiated into its arcane mysteries.


    • I’m sure there are a number of reasons. Certainly anything that helps shift teacher expertise from the realm of subject knowledge to the realm of “pedagogy” will have support among progressives. I would also point out that failing to cater to learning styles is an excuse that can be used to blame teachers when the progressive methods they are forced to use don’t work. I think teachers are actually fairly cynical about learning styles, but they often still think they are true, but impractical to use, rather than that they are a lie.


      • Good points.

        However, I doubt that many secondary school teachers have ever been enamoured of learning styles–I never heard it mentioned once in the three years that I taught. However, when I was conducting INSET in primary schools in conjunction with our synthetic phonics programmes, I soon dropped any reference to research on learning styles because it got too many backs up. Never mind that our materials made no reference to learning styles whatever–it was definitely a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. However, I was able to convince them that a multi-sensory approach was superior.


  2. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    À reblog because it’s so needed….


  3. After reading this

    http://www.learningspy.co.uk/research/is-growth-mindset-pseudoscience/

    I have reservations about Dweck too.


  4. Another good read.

    I teach in an international school overseas and I’d suggest that ‘learning styles’ are still alive and kicking. This is beyond colleagues merely talking about differentiating a lesson for a student based on their ‘preferred learning style’ and is embedded in the actual curriculum. We use the IB curriculum and in middle school (Year 7 – 10) this is through the Middle Years Programme (or MYP). The main document that shows how this is to be implemented is the “MYP: From principles into practice” (PiP guide), which can be freely downloaded.

    Learning styles are mentioned on 5 separate occasions and included in such comments as: “Effective teaching and learning in context helps students and teachers to: plan concrete, memorable engagements that can be tailored to individual students and their learning styles, diverse backgrounds and cultures” (pg 17).
    “Effective formative assessment also provides teachers and students with a way to explore personal learning styles…” (pg 67).

    The school I teach at ignores these elements much to my relief but as the Principles into Practice guide is used by all international schools that teach the MYP, but I’m not sure how widespread this attitude is.


  5. I think learning styles are popular because they help give teachers who can’t get through to a kid a reason other than blaming themselves or the kid.

    So a boy who struggles to learn Algebra because he is a “kinetic learner” bullshit, lets both the student off the hook for not applying himself and the teacher for not being able to get through. She’s an “auditory” learner bullshit lets an awkward girl get excused from reading the difficult book in English, which keeps the girl happy, and the teacher from having to confront her.

    I’m sorry, but kinetic learners still have to do Algebra, and auditory learners still have to read books.

    If learning styles do exist, then we should use them in exactly the opposite way to the way we do. Just as weedy boys are expected to still do PE, and timid girls still have to do speeches, we should use the known difficulties to stress the importance of dealing with what you are bad at, not ignoring it.


  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  7. I’ve used learning styles to great success for more than 15 years. They have proven to be a useful concept which informs my teaching. I’ve taught teachers to be more capable teachers for the last ten years and every single one has become more effective when taking on the concept. I don’t teach a system nor do I implement great charts and sheets and all the paraphelia that made it a bigger and more false an idea. But it does work, in my experience and really is pretty damned obvious.


    • If you have a system of learning styles that do work, I’ll refer you to the $5000 prize available for demonstrating this. If, however, you are just saying that you pass on the lies about learning styles and you are convinced that it has a benefit to those who hear it, I would ask you about the ethics of this. Should you really be passing on lies, even if you think it is for the good of the person who is fooled?


      • It’s not lies. It works. It’s as simple as that. Calling it a lie doesn’t make it so.

        I’ve seen teachers struggle with making lessons work, learn basic principles of learning styles and then employ them and seen immediate results. I was, effectively, employing the ideas before the term was even being bandied about. I’ve seen short, medium and long-term benefits.

        It is possible, I suppose, that I’ve had over twenty years in education, been praised to the hilt by OFSTED, management and peers, and have left a legacy of former students who continue to see me as one of the most important and helpful parts of their educative lives both in the UK and in Bangladesh where I taught for six years and totally duped myself, the teachers I trained and all my students – even now. But if so, then researchers should come and study what I did because, quite honestly, I must be the greatest conman ever known and it’s worth knowing how I did it – because all of the above still think what I did got it right.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending systems (which I abhor) nor the mass marketing and insistence on schemes which don’t work. But when something does, very definitely, actually work in the classroom (and I’ve worked in rough, hard-to-handle working class state schools, not had it easy with the posh lot) then I don’t give a damn whether it has empirical evidence (which when dealing with psychology – and I am trained in psychology – is a farce in itself) or is ‘in’ or ‘out’ with teachers at the moment.

        If it works and helps inform my teaching then I use it. If it doesn’t then I ditch it and I teach my trainees to do the same using their own intelligence, judgement and commitment to giving the best service to their students. Learning styles, when correctly understood and made use of, work. Simple as that.

        Just because you don’t agree and don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s a lie and that I, and others like me, must be ethically suspect. Horses for courses – if it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. But I’d love to see you teach and I would bet my bottom dollar that you do use learning styles without knowing it – either that or you’re a hopeless teacher!


        • It’s not lies. It works. It’s as simple as that. Calling it a lie doesn’t make it so.

          My point is that it’s not either/or. Even if you think that pretending we have learning styles works, it doesn’t change the fact that we don’t have learning styles.

          I’ve seen teachers struggle with making lessons work, learn basic principles of learning styles and then employ them and seen immediate results. I was, effectively, employing the ideas before the term was even being bandied about. I’ve seen short, medium and long-term benefits.

          What ever comes out of these principles, doesn’t mean the principles themselves aren’t lies.

          It is possible, I suppose, that I’ve had over twenty years in education, been praised to the hilt by OFSTED, management and peers, and have left a legacy of former students who continue to see me as one of the most important and helpful parts of their educative lives both in the UK and in Bangladesh where I taught for six years and totally duped myself, the teachers I trained and all my students – even now.

          It’s more than possible. I mean learning styles don’t exist. Cognitive biases do. Particularly given that we went through 10 years of unquestioning belief in learning styles in this country and saw none of the advantages you are claiming.

          But if so, then researchers should come and study what I did because, quite honestly, I must be the greatest conman ever known and it’s worth knowing how I did it – because all of the above still think what I did got it right.

          Or didn’t feel they could tell you what they thought. We’ve all had teacher trainers who told us rubbish, but who actually challenges them?

          Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending systems (which I abhor) nor the mass marketing and insistence on schemes which don’t work. But when something does, very definitely, actually work in the classroom (and I’ve worked in rough, hard-to-handle working class state schools, not had it easy with the posh lot) then I don’t give a damn whether it has empirical evidence (which when dealing with psychology – and I am trained in psychology – is a farce in itself) or is ‘in’ or ‘out’ with teachers at the moment.

          You keep making this same point, that you don’t care about the truth of that matter as long as you consider methods based on the lie to “work”. I do. I think it is unethical to tell people we have learning styles when we don’t.

          If it works and helps inform my teaching then I use it. If it doesn’t then I ditch it and I teach my trainees to do the same using their own intelligence, judgement and commitment to giving the best service to their students. Learning styles, when correctly understood and made use of, work. Simple as that.

          Just because you don’t agree and don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s a lie and that I, and others like me, must be ethically suspect. Horses for courses – if it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. But I’d love to see you teach and I would bet my bottom dollar that you do use learning styles without knowing it – either that or you’re a hopeless teacher!

          If what you call “learning styles” can be used without knowing it, then it probably isn’t learning styles. Which could explain why it seems to work.


  8. Maybe learning styles justify the activity of colouring in and letting the kids play football on the back oval. It certainly keeps them quiet and life is long, we can’t be thinking all day long.



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