There’s a well defined cycle to internet discussions of learning styles. Someone like me will mention them in passing. I’ll say something like, “We all know learning styles theories are false but…” while making some different kind of point. Others will pick up on this, claiming that they are unaware of anyone who suggests that learning styles are true. Finally, a third party will appear who claims that learning styles perhaps have some legitimacy after all.
I initiated such a discussion with a post ostensibly about teacher education. But this time I decided to disrupt the cycle. Instead of accepting the ‘I see no ships’ argument, I decided to investigate the websites of various Australian universities. I found a few smoking guns.
However, I was unprepared for Victoria University. Its 2016 handbook contains details of many courses for trainee teachers. Learning Styles are mentioned no fewer than 15 times. For instance, for the course, “Literacy and Language,” students are required to, “pass one hurdle task related to an understanding of self-directed learning and learning styles by week three.” In “Development Studies 2”:
“…pre-service teachers undertake a period of teaching in an early childhood setting with children three-eight years of age. As their professional competence develops, they increasingly take responsibility for learning experiences and the program within a team environment. Using a praxis inquiry protocol, pre-service teachers consider a range of strategies and approaches to reflect on and improve personal teaching practice. Pre-service teachers are introduced to major theorists and current research across a range of developmental areas including: cognition, physical, emotional, social development; diversity issues; individual learning styles; and the contribution of play to children’s development. “
By the end of “Early Childhood Curriculum and Pedagogy: The Arts” we read that students will be able to, “Articulate a range of strategies for learning which reflect the needs and preferred learning styles of young people and which presents and investigates a range of genre in visual and creative arts.”
In “Performing Pedagogies,” Students, “will address a number of areas as they influence pedagogy and teaching and learning practice. Students will investigate definitions of pedagogy and andragogy; learning styles and approaches; teaching styles and approaches; praxis inquiry about personal pedagogy; multi-literacies and their impact on teaching and learning.”
I could go on.
The problem is that learning styles theories have been comprehensively debunked. Although many people will express a preference to learn in a particular way, the matching hypothesis – adapting teaching to meet these preferences leads to better learning – has zero evidence to support it. Instead, the way that something is learnt should be matched to the content. You can read a meta-analysis of the research here and cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham’s accessible learning styles FAQ here.
A teacher education faculty that promotes learning styles is like a notional medical school that promotes the theory of the four humours or a chemistry department that promotes phlogiston theory. Although once plausible, the lack of any substantiating evidence would see the inclusion of these ideas in a professional curriculum as a source of considerable embarrassment.
It is small wonder that teaching struggles to be taken seriously and it is further evidence that teacher education needs reform.