Learning Styles Strike BackNovember 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):
- I may have no evidence for my position, but you can’t prove it wrong to my satisfaction (shifting the burden of proof).
- The words used to describe my position might mean something else other than their usual meaning (equivocation).
- I am offended by your challenge to my position (objection to tone or ad hominem).
- Lots of people agree with me (argumentum ad populum).
- You are not qualified to question this. (ad hominem or appeal to authority).
- It works for me (anecdote).
- It’s all just a matter of opinion (relativism).
- The challenge to this is just a bandwagon (ad hominem).
- I am being persecuted by being challenged (argumentum ad misericordiam).
- 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.