Who is to blame for perpetuating the myth of learning styles?

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.

16 thoughts on “Who is to blame for perpetuating the myth of learning styles?

  1. Nice article Greg, even Gardner the creator of multiple intelligences which learning “learning styles” is based off has been recorded as saying that it shouldn’t be assessed and used as a means of teaching but instead that the mind connects with information and that a range of tasks will engage different areas and can aid understanding.

    We do need to be careful of lazy language, using the term learning styles may not link to AVK modelling but instead be talking about explicit vs constructive styles. I haven’t meet to many student teachers talking about learning styles to the exclusion of other theories.

    I do think it’s dangerous to dismiss PBL with similar effects. Most research and assessment is done through testing which the PBL model acknowledges is an area of weakness. But outside of academia the PBL model is more accurate of how people work so should we be preparing students for life or doing the next test?

      1. Hi Greg

        Now there I agree with you, but name a component of education that is. To be more difficult can research prove it is?

  2. The same thing tends to happen with Bloom’s Taxonomy (ugh) these days. The more sensible academics are starting to distance themselves from it, but when some power-dressing academic turned professional intellectual snake-oil salesman turns up at a school’s Staff Development Day, good old Bloom inevitably makes an appearance. (I’ve begun collecting the more laughable examples of what these hucksters describe as “higher-order thinking”.) Ditto with another old favourite, Genre Theory.

  3. Just to expand on what Mike has written, with the proliferation of observations linked to career progression and schools guessing what school inspectors want to see, many teachers who don’t believe or particularly want to use these labels (learning styles, Bloom’s taxonomy…) have to be familiar with them and even name check them in observations. It is not just consultants, it is also SLTs who trained when Bloom’s taxonomy and learning styles were all the rage, and when students were told to analyse how they learn to learn better. This has led to very stupid practices who do not benefit anyone and increase hugely my workload: I teach languages and I have to engage in long written exchanges in which students write (in English) about how they are learning Spanish and how they can learn better (mostly gibberish, as they have even less knowledge of Second Language Acquisition theories than my observers, and I don’t have time to teach them the lingo and Spanish).

    In one of my last observations I started the lesson testing students’ vocabulary, something that I do regularly while playing a song to time them. We are not supposed to ask students to recall (very low in Bloom’s taxonomy: apparently making up a word in a foreign language is better than accurately recalling and using it) but the activity was praised for being kinaesthetic and therefore more suitable for lower ability students.

    I might be wrong, but I think that potty ideas have increased with the higher accountability system that we’ve had for the last few years. Anything can now called “evidence-based” to support lesson observation and lesson grading.

    1. This is very true. Spurious “evidence” is generally used as a stick to beat down any reasonable scepticism when it comes to new education fads. I was able to observe a little more closely just how flimsy this all was a few years back, when some researcher from Harvard came to our school conducting some study (I use the term loosely) on her particular hobby-horse. This “research” failed the credibility test at the very first hurdle, given that the whole school was given a gee-up about how wonderful this new approach was BEFORE the relevant year group was split up into a test group and a control group. (And, of course, it was made quite clear to the kids which group they were in.)

      I tried gently pointing this out to some of the teachers, mostly on the career up-and-up, who were involved with this program, but nobody wanted to know. I would suggest that about 95% of these studies on you-beaut new interventions are designed to reach pre-determined conclusions, and are of no academic value whatsoever.

      1. Bloom’s taxonomy does not work for foreign languages. A long tradition of investigation (50 years or more) does not use Bloom’s taxonomy anywhere that I could find. I have met the school liaison officer of one of our “golden universities”, teacher of German and investigator in Second Language Acquisition and she had never heard of it. I am not surprised, because that is not how you learn a foreign language. Are you making up a new word or conjugated verb form because you cannot remember it because it is too low for you? I don’t think so!

        I wonder if outside of secondary education anyone has heard of Bloom’s taxonomy. In my experience, nobody has. I am not an academic and I have not tried to find out in a systematic manner, but I have training in the scientific method as part of a research based Master in Second Language Acquisition that required a lot of reading. And claiming that the pyramid only applies to the school environment is cheating.

        Can you analyse and evaluate a historical event without factual knowledge? Can you do away with remembering accurately because it is not important in Maths, Science, Language, PE? What is more skillfull: to create a (horrible) cake or to recall instructions to make a classic, as described in XIX French manuals?

        Recently SOLO taxonomies have been summarised to me as “recalling/recalling in the usual context and recalling and applying in a new context. I don’t have a problem with this, but it is a truism, I am more interested in how to achieve all this recalling and correct application, despite where it is in the pyramid.

    2. I’ve missed something here – when did Blooms become problematic, and why?

      Our school is revisiting it. I’ve not read anything that’s too critical of it, except when it’s paired with the idea that you should only swim in the deep end and thumb your nose at the shallow end?

  4. Many education schools in Canada also feature courses prominently mentioning learning styles in their posted syllabi. The comparison to teaching according to students’ astrological signs is an apt one. In fact, given the number of studies showing negative effect of trying to follow learning styles, there’s a possibility that an empricial comparison might give a slight advantage to astrology…

  5. Yes learning styles and other dubious practices are being taught in pre and inservice courses at universities, hence my use of the word ‘educators’ rather than teachers.

  6. Absolutely agree that these myths are also perpetuated in initial teacher education courses, part of the battle that is in some degrees self perpetuating.

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