Why I’m happy to say that learning styles don’t exist

There is a curious constituency out there who are desperate to make the case for learning styles, despite all of the evidence that we now have. Some recognise the issues with the way learning styles have been implemented and yet still wish to keep them from the grave. We read that there might be something in it, somewhere; it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.

This is a moral issue. Teacher workload is increased when managers pursue learning styles and we are all aware of the recruitment and retention problems affecting teaching. It is simply wrong to require teachers to fill-in boxes on lesson plans when it’s clear that there is no proven value in doing so. And yet this is an inevitable result of learning styles theories being undead. Just look at the responses to Tom Bennett’s recent tweets. The Zombie is out there and it is consuming the flesh of good, honest teachers. It is up to those of us with knowledge and a bit of a platform to try our best to kill it off.

Learning styles also risk labelling and stereotyping students; possibly the most dangerous part of the whole concept. As Coffield et. al. explain:

“The theorists warn of the dangers of labelling, whereby teachers come to view their students as being a certain type of learner, but despite this warning, many practitioners who use their instruments think in stereotypes and treat, for instance, vocational students as if they were all non-reflective activists… Similarly, students begin to label themselves; for example, at a conference attended by one of the reviewers, an able student reflected – perhaps somewhat ironically – on using the Dunn and Dunn Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS): ‘I learned that I was a low auditory, kinaesthetic learner. So there’s no point in me reading a book or listening to anyone for more than a few minutes’.”

The latest reanimation attempts seem to stem from two arguments. The Coffield et. al. study was one of the earlier reports to conclude that learning styles models offer little value (in the context of post-16 education). As part of the research, it found that certain learning styles surveys have more internal reliability than others (the same person would be assigned the same traits on repeated tests). That’s pretty much it. It certainly did not find that this is particularly useful and it recommended focusing on other strategies.

The other argument seems to be about the semantics of falsification. A scientific hypothesis is one which makes a testable prediction. Learning styles theories do this. If they are correct and there is some advantage to taking learning styles into account when planning lessons then we should see improved learning when we do this – this is the ‘meshing’ hypothesis. We don’t see such improvements. To most reasonable people, and to most scientists, this is seen as a falsification of the hypothesis (of course, it could perhaps be true that learning styles exist but have no implications for teaching whatsoever – I’ll leave you to ponder the logic and implications of that). Science uses inductive logic and therefore the scientific process of falsification must also use inductive logic.

The claim is that you cannot prove the non-existence of anything

The claim is that you cannot prove the non-existence of anything

Falsification does not meaning proving with absolute certainty that something does not exist because you can’t do this and it would therefore be impossible to falsify anything. If a psychic informs us that he has special powers then we may doubt this. We may ask him to demonstrate and he may fail. However, we cannot prove that he will always fail under all circumstances. Philosopher Steven Hale takes-up this theme in “Thinking Tools: You Can Prove a Negative“:

“Maybe people mean that no inductive argument will conclusively, indubitably prove a negative proposition beyond all shadow of a doubt. For example, suppose someone argues that we’ve scoured the world for Bigfoot, found no credible evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, and therefore there is no Bigfoot. A classic inductive argument. A Sasquatch defender can always rejoin that Bigfoot is reclusive, and might just be hiding in that next stand of trees. You can’t prove he’s not! (until the search of that tree stand comes up empty too). The problem here isn’t that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about negative claims (like the nonexistence of Bigfoot), but that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about anything at all, positive or negative.”

If we take such a strict line then it would be equally invalid to claim that fairies don’t exist or that Santa Claus does not exist or any strange and bizarre product of the human imagination. Perhaps we should be placing boxes on our lesson plans in which we explain how we intend to take account of UFOs or telepathy? Perhaps we should be incorporating tracts on reiki and homeopathy into trainee teachers’ reading lists? You never know, there might be something in it that teachers might find useful. There might just be a Bigfoot behind the next tree.

No, this is not a sufficient reason to ask teachers to spend valuable time on a concept. I admit that it is an inductive leap but I am happy enough to say that fairies don’t exist and I am happy enough to say that learning styles don’t exist either. And I am quite prepared to review this, if and when someone produces evidence that they do.

I will leave the final word on this to Pashler et. al.

“Our review of the learning-styles literature led us to define a particular type of evidence that we see as a minimum precondition for validating the use of a learning-style assessment in an instructional setting… we have been unable to find any evidence that clearly meets this standard. Moreover, several studies that used the appropriate type of research design found results that contradict the most widely held version of the learning-styles hypothesis, namely, what we have referred to as the meshing hypothesis… The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”

Fairy Island


6 Comments on “Why I’m happy to say that learning styles don’t exist”

  1. Tara Houle says:

    Brilliant. Thanks once again Greg.

  2. […] past week learning styles have been in the buzz again, but we can’t blame teachers for believing in them. They have been thought over and over […]

  3. […] We have also seen a defence of learning styles that consists mainly of the idea that you cannot definitively prove that something does not exist. […]

  4. […] the day (Greg Ashman has written about various fads and fashions in education including here, here, here and here). Additionally, I have heard the “it worked when I was in school/first started […]

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