Who is to blame for perpetuating the myth of learning styles?Posted: September 5, 2016
Professor Stephen Dinham of Melbourne University has written an excellent piece for The Conversation. In the article, he debunks the myth of learning styles and, in the process, makes an excellent point about the role of evidence in education:
“Teachers need to be critical consumers of research – as with medicine, lives are also at stake – yet with the best will in the world and without the knowledge and time to do so, decisions may be made to adopt new approaches that are not only ineffectual, but can actually do harm.”
This is essentially the point that I was trying to make in my previous post (and the subsequent comments) about Project Based Learning. Few educational initiatives are neutral. At the very least, pursuing an ineffective approach is a waste of time. But there is also the potential for active harm. Project Based Learning may lead to less equitable outcomes. On learning styles, Dinham notes:
“When I have pointed this out to educators, the usual response is that “it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter because of the problems and harm that can be caused by the categorisation and labelling. These can lead to negative mindsets in students and limited learning experiences through the continued belief in and application of so-called learning styles, not to mention the time and money wasted. We might as well teach students according to their horoscopes.”
Yet I do want to take issue with an inference that Dinham makes here. If you read the article, you would be forgiven for thinking woolly-minded teachers and administrators are guilty of perpetuating the myth of learning styles despite the best efforts of sensible academics:
“References to learning styles still abound in many curriculum documents at system and school level, despite the lack of evidence for their efficacy.”
This isn’t the whole story.
I recently had a look at some of the content published by university schools of education and found evidence that they were also perpetuating the myth. Most significantly of all, I found 15 references to learning styles in Victoria University’s 2016 College Of Education Handbook. The handbook lists modules and the sorts of concepts that students of the college will be expected to learn as part of these modules. For example, in the ‘Learning in a Changed World’ unit, “Students are… required to pass one hurdle task related to an understanding of self-directed learning and learning styles by week three.” In the ‘Development Studies 2’ unit, one of the learning outcomes is that students will be able to, “…identify, interpret, analyse and evaluate specific teaching strategies for a range of individual children’s learning styles and abilities…” Similarly, in ‘Early Childhood Curriculum and Pedagogy 2: the Arts’ students will learn 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.”
So it’s not just silly teachers who are to blame. They are being taught these myths as part of their training.