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Learning Styles – The fad which will not die

May 5, 2018

Teacher Tapp is an app that surveys teachers every day. While those who answer are self-selecting so it is probably not completely reflective of all teachers, it’s probably going to be biased towards the more informed teacher, rather than the less informed. This makes the following result (reported here last week) somewhat concerning.

That’s an overwhelming vote in favour of learning styles. This is a shock.

I’ve written about learning styles in the past:

A rough summary of the situation is that there is no good research evidence for any learning styles, the most famous types of learning styles are known to be based on pseudo science, and there is still a significant unclaimed reward available to anyone who can demonstrate that learning styles work (details here).

In recent years, although there have remained a handful of true believers on edutwitter, it’s been almost a given that nobody believes in learning styles. I’ve seen traditionalists attacked for daring to point out something so outdated or irrelevant. It’s been described as an easy target and a non-issue that people only raise to signal their own virtue, not a live issue in teaching. And now we see this.

Of course, as was the case with my last blogpost, people who have turned out to be wrong, and people arguing for something that’s without evidence, will always declare unambiguous statements to be ambiguous or find ways to dismiss or attack those who are interested in the truth.

Here are the main excuses given for why this result about learning styles isn’t an embarrassment to the profession.

  1. There’s good and bad learning styles. Like most pseudo-science, the first line of defence is to suggest that’s what has been discredited is completely different to what’s actually still being promoted. And so, there’s been a lot of claims that while the bad, old VAK learning styles may have been discredited, there’s no problem accepting that there may be some new theory of learning styles out there that it’s okay to believe. In the same way one might argue that newspaper horoscopes might not work, but there are still expert astrologers out there who can tell you your future. Of course, nobody can prove that a theory too new or obscure to be tested has been shown not to work, but the burden of argument is on those who put forward new theories of learning. If they haven’t, even with a prize available, then there is an obvious explanation: the theory is not true.
  2. They didn’t actually mean “styles”. For those who really like learning styles, but know they’ve been discredited, there has been a tendency to say one is talking about “learning preferences” instead before saying all the same things again. This is the same trick use by anti-semites, who replace the word “Jew” with “Zionists” before expressing all the same prejudices. Of course, people probably do have learning preferences. They might prefer to learn one way and not another. But this is pretty much an irrelevance if you want somebody to learn effectively. In fact, indulging those who want to learn in an ineffective way might be actively harmful to them; it might develop bad habits that prevent learning in the future. We all know kids often have preferences that damage learning. Think of the kids who revise by covering their book in highlighter pen rather than by self-quizzing. Think of the child who “cannot write” unless their book and their entire body is turned to face their friends (and it is always to face their friends, they never have the same need to face the wall).
  3. It just means children are different. If one is caught making an indefensible statement, it is best to redefine it as a truism. Of course children are different. They different in knowledge, behaviour, personality, and working memory capacity. But, all theses things can be used to some degree, and under some circumstances, to make reliable predictions about learning. The point is that nobody can make reliable predictions about learning based on learning styles theories. If we want teachers to look at differences that matter to learning rather than those that don’t, we can’t simply redefine the latter to be the former.
  4. But what about…? I guess this is down to the fact that a politician shared the results above and said they were “concerning”, but loads of people suddenly found a strong desire to discuss every possible educational issue other than learning styles. This is a bit of a test of what people think the education system is for. If it’s about getting kids to learn, then widespread false beliefs about how we learn should be very concerning. If it turned out doctors were trying to treat cancer by finding the correct balance of the four humours, nobody would say “Who cares? The real issue is NHS funding”. It is only because many of those involved in education, don’t see learning as central to the purpose of schools, that people will can dismiss this as an unimportant issue. If it doesn’t matter what teachers believe about teaching and learning, then we aren’t teachers. If people are to be paid as professionals, we expect professional expertise.

Teacher professionalism has become a bit of an issue lately. A lot has been written about whether teachers need new organisations, more training, or a different career structure in order for teaching to be more professional. Here’s my suggestion: How about we actually train teachers in the facts about learning, not the myths, and don’t let them qualify without passing a test about this? When I trained to teach, I had to sit a skills test assessing that I knew how a spreadsheet works, but nobody ever checked I knew how learning worked.

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3 comments

  1. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Learning Styles – The fad which will not die


  2. I’m afraid you are whistling in the wind here Andrew. This issue is symptomatic of the wider problem, namely that teaching is not a unified profession, mainly because of the massive disparity in educational level and subject knowledge across the profession. Training teachers in the facts of learning, as you put it, won’t make things better for two reasons. First you need need to agree on the facts, and second you need to decide who controls the teaching of them. As an illustration I would point out that learning styles are still taught on some PGCE programmes, even if that teaching comes with a caveat.
    The real problem with teaching is that it is the only profession (so-called) that is in effect run by the people who are the least qualified or competent, and that is because those teachers are in the majority. For example, in FE most teachers/lecturers that I have come across have no university education or A-levels. Some don’t even have GCSEs in maths and English. Yet these same people are often promoted to management roles where they are responsible for lesson observations across the college. Some then even go on to become Ofsted inspectors. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they believe in hocus-pocus ideas like learning styles given their educational background. I suspect there is a similar educational deficit/bias in many teachers at primary level which probably explains the majority support for learning styles in your survey results.
    Then there is the other reason why there is so much hocus-pocus in education: CPD. This encourages those in charge to embrace the latest fad in the name of professional development. Couple this with the demand that teachers should always be “reflecting on good practice” and trying something new in order to comply with professional standards and you get the mess that is current teaching pedagogy.


  3. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.



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