Should we differentiate for different ‘learning profiles’?

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The concept of a ‘learning profile’ is critical to the model of differentiated instruction developed by Carol Ann Tomlinson and colleagues. It is this model that is often cited by researchers, alongside the diagrams-of-brains approach known as ‘Universal Design for Learning’ or ‘UDL’. For this reason, it is probably worth exploring the concept of learning profile more fully and to asking whether we should differentiate our lessons in response to these profiles.

According to Tomlinson, learning profiles consist of four elements: Learning style, Intelligence preference, Gender and Culture. I find Tomlinson difficult to pin down on the first two of these. Sometimes, she seems to conflate learning styles with multiple intelligences, yet at other times she is at pains to point out the distinction between them.

Learning styles theories are conceptually different to multiple intelligences. The former suggest that particular students learn best in particular ways. For instance, the VAK learning styles scheme suggests that some students are visual learners, others are auditory learners and still others are kinaesthetic learners who like to learn through movement. Multiple intelligences theories hypothesise that intelligence is made up of a number of components and that students may possess more of some of these components than others. The most famous multiple intelligence theories are probably the ones proposed by Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg.

Tomlinson is aware of the controversy around the idea of taking learning styles into account when planning instruction. In a recent presentation, she goes as far as to summarise the arguments and evidence against the idea. This includes large-scale reviews that show no advantage in teaching students according to their preferred learning style. You might think this would have caused Tomlinson to alter her theory in the light of this new evidence, perhaps by restricting the concept of learning profile to gender and culture alone, even if this might still raise other issues.

But no, learning profiles persist in their original forumlation and, instead, we are presented with an argument that I found confusing. While learning style is still part of a learning profile, a learning profile is not a synonym for learning style. We are advised; “Do not assign students to work based on learning style, intelligence preference, gender, or culture,” and, “Do teach in multiple modes.”

This is sound advice. The findings of cognitive science suggest that it is valuable to make use of multiple modes when teaching. For instance, a diagram accompanied by a verbal explanation is likely to be superior to an explanation alone due to the finding that we are able to process visual and auditory information simultaneously.

What I really don’t understand is what this has to do with a model of differentiation. Differentiation implies that different students, to some extent at least, be treated differently. An exhortation to use multiple modes is just as relevant to a teacher using the dreaded one-size-fits-all teaching method as it is to differentiation. And yet Tomlinson still places the concept of learning profile at the heart of her theory about differentiated instruction.

It seems to me that learning profiles are something of a zombie. At one time, reasonable people might believe that learning styles and multiple intelligences were relevant to classroom practice. However, the verdict is now in and we know that they are not. Rather than killing off this part of the theory, learning profiles lumber on through a series of rationalisations.

So I don’t think we should be differentiating according to learning profiles. My concerns about the kind of differentiation that Tomlinson’s theory represents remain unchanged. There is little empirical evidence to support it and by labeling students and making assumptions about what is best for them, we potentially limit what they may achieve. I would rather start with an open mind than a box to place students in.

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3 Comments on “Should we differentiate for different ‘learning profiles’?”

  1. Tunya Audain says:

    Reading: The 60/40 Issue

    The latest information is that probably 60% of primary students will learn to read by any method.

    But that 40%, upon identification through screening, will need the phonetic approach if they are to be able to read. Whole-language and its spin-offs would be harmful for this group. See Whole-Language Hi Jinks https://edexcellence.net/publications/wholelanguage.html

    Therefore, differentiation is justified in this matter of teaching to read.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I’m not sure why this implies differentiation. Why not use systematic synthetic phonics with all students as recommended by reviews for the U.S., U.K., and Australian governments?


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