Criticising learning styles is not sexist

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The current scientific consensus on the idea of learning styles is clear: People often express a preference for learning in a particular way, they may even have distinct ways of thinking, but the notion of differentiating teaching to match students’ learning styles is one that lacks supporting evidence. We can have a semantic argument about whether this means that learning styles ‘don’t exist’ but I don’t think that advances us very far because it is this last meaning – learning styles as a guide to differentiation – that is the one that is commonly understood in the teaching profession.

The fact that differentiating according to learning styles is a practice that lacks evidence, coupled with the fact that differentiation is time-consuming for teachers, means that it is important to get the message out there. If you are differentiating your lessons to suit your students’ learning styles then you are wasting your time.

On EduTwitter, it is easy to assume that everyone has received this message by now. But we all know that EduTwitter is not the real world and there is plenty of literature and training out there that still perpetuates the learning styles myth.

Now, one prominent proponent of learning styles, Carol Black, has written a blog in defence of the idea. Black seems to think that the idea of matching teaching to learning styles is a ‘straw man’ i.e. nobody actually thinks that we should do this. However, it is not clear to me what she therefore thinks is the value of learning styles theories for teachers. But that does not seem to be the main point of the piece.

Instead, throughout her blog, Black reproduces a number of Tweets debunking learning styles that are all written by men. She comments:

“A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a prominent debunker, has shared some rather patronizing speculations as to why the vast majority of (mostly female) teachers persist in thinking their students have different learning styles (“I think learning styles theory is widely accepted because the idea is so appealing. It would be so nice if it were true.”) His paternal tone is especially disturbing since he makes his case by failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views from respected scientists and education researchers.”

Is this really about sexism? Are learning styles debunkers really just a bunch of men having a go at what they perceive to be the silly beliefs of women?

No. It is about science, and men and women can access scientific truths equally well.

With very little effort, I managed to find the following Tweets from some pretty smart women. Hopefully, this will restore a little balance to the universe:



Tricks and dummies

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I was never actually taught how to play football at school. We just played it. A lot. Our Physical Education teachers would throw us a ball and we would get on with it. Sometimes, they didn’t even bother to referee and so games would descend into arguments about whether someone had handled the ball and whether it was deliberate. I was never great at learning football by discovery but I did figure out one important thing: Keep your eye on the ball. My ability to keep looking at the ball when an attacker was trying to baffle with tricks and dummies enabled me to become a competent defender. That was my niche.

This is good advice for Edutwitter: Keep your eye on the ball.

The central point of my recent Quillette article was that it is a mistake to think of literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and other constructs as learning progressions that are largely independent of context, in the way that the Gonski 2.0 review does. I explained where I thought this argument comes from and I advanced my alternative view on the basis of my understanding of cognitive science. I suggested that we need to pay much more attention to the knowledge that students learn.

There is plenty to refute here. A critic could attack my understanding of the cognitive science or provide evidence that critical thinking can be taught as a general capability. He or she could dispute my reading of Rousseau or his influence. This would be good for debate. I am under no illusions: It is highly likely that some of my arguments are incomplete, flawed or just plain wrong. So it would help if they were properly tested.

However, despite drawing criticism, I am not aware of anyone refuting the main idea in this way. Instead, I have seen people making comments to the effect that they do not like Quillette or they see Quillette or me as part of some movement they object to. Probably the strongest criticisms of my piece were plain contradictions – i.e. that I am wrong or that the piece was poorly researched – and the objection that I should have included more on the history of Australian education. Neither of these really leads anywhere unless a critic can explain why I am wrong or why my omissions affect my argument.

We are in quite dangerous times when it comes to reasoned debate. I started blogging six years ago. At that time, I don’t recall anyone having their argument dismissed on the basis of their skin colour or gender, and yet, it some quarters, that seems quite legitimate now. Ad hominem is still a logical fallacy but some commentators have embraced it as a badge of honour.

It is not emotional labour to explain why people are wrong. It is not good enough to claim that they have not done their homework. These are just tricks and dummies. If you have done the work and you know something that sheds light on why another person is wrong, then the human thing to do is to share that understanding and not to write people off as others who are somehow beyond redemption.

Look for these tactics in the education debate. Keep your eye on the ball.

Simon Jenkins done a thought burp

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Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist and a former teacher. You may therefore expect him to have insightful comments to make about England’s education system.

Not so.

Instead, he has written a polemic seemingly based upon what a primary school child and a few teacher friends told him, and laced it with half-remembered facts.

Jenkins has ‘never seen the point of exams’. As a Guardian journalist, he should probably be more aware of the social justice argument that supports the use of exams. Yes, they are an imperfect measure, but the alternatives are worse. Without exams, entrance to university and careers would be based even more on privilege and connections, and on the ability to hire the right person to help you put your portfolio together.

Jenkins has a particular dislike of maths, taking a purely functional view of its value and suggesting that the only reason that the education system focuses on maths attainment is because it is easy to measure.


Writing is probably the hardest academic outcome to measure and yet we also focus a lot on that, so this claim simply makes no sense.

When Jenkins writes of, ‘All the maths a normal grown-up needs,’ I want to ask him: What is all the history a normal grown-up needs? What is all the literature a normal grown-up needs? What is all the music a normal grown-up needs?

Maths suffers from the misconception that it is just a tool for calculating change at the supermarket, a misconception that is perhaps promoted by well-meaning primary school teachers trying to motivate their students, but maths is of value in its own right. Its mundane uses are hardly the point. Jenkins may as well ask why we get children to write stories when adults don’t need to do that.

Unless, perhaps, you become a Guardian journalist and need to tell the story of the poor primary school child who ‘can handle counting and proportion, but he cannot access the world of complex numbers and algebra.’


The new English curriculum sounds amazing. I admire the primary school child in question because proportion is probably one of the most difficult concepts to learn. And in Australia, some primary school children might just touch on a little algebra, but complex numbers is a topic reserved only for Year 11 and 12 students studying the highest, most specialised level of mathematics. Are English primary schools teaching calculus, too? Where are they getting the teachers from?

Finally, Jenkins ends with a slur on South Korea:

“Britain is on its way to the purgatory of South Korea, where secondary-school children are made to cram for 14 hours a day to get into university, with suicidal consequences.”

Given the many factors that affect a country’s suicide rate, responsible journalism should avoid assigning it to a single cause such as the education system. There is something deeply unpleasant about reaching for such an argument.

When I last looked into it, the most recent data I could find was from the OECD. The youth suicide rate in South Korea is high, but it is higher in Finland and higher still in New Zealand. Is this also caused by their education systems, because these countries are not known for their focus on exams?

Jenkins hints that schools should focus more on creativity, life-skills and self esteem, but they don’t because these are hard to measure. Well, quite. They are hard to measure for the same reason that they are hard to teach: they are vague, nebulous concepts.

I do not believe that the goal of social progress will be served by educating an illiterate and innumerate generation that is high in self-esteem and creativity. If anything, that sounds like a recipe for entrenching the privilege of those who can afford to opt for a proper academic education, either by going private or employing tutors.

Jenkins should have a little think about that.

What did you learn during your teacher education?

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A few days ago, I tweeted out a horribly typo-ridden poll that gained quite a number of votes. It should have read, “During your time training as a teacher, were any ideas presented to you as facts that you now believe to be untrue?”

It is hardly scientific. A sample from people who follow me or who follow people likely to retweet my poll is not a representative sample of the teaching workforce. We are constantly being told that the preoccupations of educators on Twitter are not shared by the majority of teachers and I am inclined to agree. Nevertheless, around 500 responses from people who are at least pretending to be teachers agreed that they had essentially been taught falsehoods.

I wonder whether other professions feel this way about their professional training?

The quality of teacher education is a difficult issue to grasp because it is hard to research the totality of teacher education courses. If I point out, for instance, that a particular university was teaching learning styles in its teacher education courses, at least until very recently, a critic may reasonably suggest that this is a rare exception. We cannot know whether this is typical without wider research and yet it would be hard to collect, digest and synthesise the curriculum materials of lots of different education courses.

A more systematic way to evaluate the quality of teacher education courses is to survey the knowledge of trainee teachers. We should be able to infer something about the quality of education courses from what new teachers know.

I was reminded of a recent article by Jennifer Stephenson of Macquarie University who sought to review papers published on the knowledge of Australian preservice teachers. Stephenson obtained data from 52 peer-reviewed articles and it makes for depressing reading. The 52 studies identified a number of holes in content knowledge and knowledge of teaching. However, we should avoid drawing firm conclusions because the studies were often limited in scope and in some cases it was not clear that the sample of preservice teachers was representative.

This is an area that clearly needs more rigorous research.

My challenge to Bill Lucas and The Mitchell Institute

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The Mitchell Institute and Bill Lucas have released a rather thin report on ‘capabilities’. The case seems to rest on the idea that lots of different organisations have developed similar ideas and so there must be something in it. The report then lists various models of capabilities, many of which are amusingly alliterative. You may choose from six C’s, seven C’s or even 8 C’s. It is an amazing coincidence that so many important capabilities all start with the same letter. It is almost as if someone just made them up to fit the pattern. And I was amused by the reference Lucas cites for Guy Claxton’s dreadful Building Learning Power programme – “resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity” – which is, rather fittingly, a Wikipedia page.

In Australia, the term, ‘capabilities’ refers to the general capabilities of the Australian Curriculum which consist of literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding.

According to Lucas, after the recent “Gonski 2.0” report sought to boost the role of capabilities:

“There has been some resistance to the idea… with capabilities considered as ‘novel’ or even a fad. This isn’t the case – capabilities have been recognised by a variety of names in many places for hundreds of years.”

I am not aware of anyone who suggested that the idea of general capabilities is novel. They have been around as educational goals in one form or another since at least the start of the twentieth century, as Lucas points out. However, in contrast to subject-specific curriculum goals, there is scant evidence that, even after all this time, we have actually become any better at delivering them.

I have argued that it is a mistake to think of even literacy as a ‘general’ capability. Once children progress beyond the initial stage of decoding words, their comprehension of text is largely related to their possession of relevant knowledge. They will be able to read and understand texts set in contexts where they have sufficient knowledge, but they will not be able to if they lack this knowledge.

Given that it is hard to pin down even literacy as a general capability, we should approach the others with extreme caution. The ability to think critically, which usually includes the ability to problem-solve, is also highly subject specific. I may be able to solve a physics problem but it will not help me solve a chemistry problem, let alone the problem of explaining the causes of the first world war or the problem of a leaking tap. To solve these problems we need solution methods specific to each type of problem.

Lucas is wrong to suggest that critics simply dismiss general capabilities as a fad. There is far more substance to the criticism; substance based upon current understandings of cognitive science.

Here is my challenge to Lucas and the Mitchell Institute: Instead of trying to build a case by referring to the fact that lots of different organisations have attempted to do something similar, support your argument with evidence that these things actually exist as general capabilities and that they can be honed through educational experiences.

Given the hundred-or-so years of their existence, we should now be able to point to evidence that shows that students who receive educational programmes focused on, say, building problem solving capabilites, are then better at solving problems in a general sense i.e. that this improved problem solving ability transfers to a range of different types of problem. This would be pretty easy to test with a properly designed randomised controlled trial.

I am not aware of any such evidence but I am happy to be proved wrong if Lucas and the Mitchell Institute are able to provide it.

If they cannot provide such evidence then why continue to push the idea?

A short history of sneaky teaching

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In my recent article for Quillette, I noted a paradox. Jean-Jacques, the tutor of the eponymous hero of Rousseau’s Emile, avoids any form of expository teaching on the assumption that education must follow the contours a child’s natural, and therefore good, inclinations. Rousseau explains that children are taught by three masters; nature, men and things. However, the education provided by men and things must follow that of nature because the goal of education is the goal of nature.

However, Rousseau reasoned, if you simply plant a child directly into the busy ‘highway’ of life, he or she will be exposed to the wrong influences and be corrupted. Jean-Jacques therefore carefully controls Emile’s environment. But how is Jean-Jacques to make decisions as to what this environment should be? Is Jean-Jacques not himself part of the corrupt world? How can we be sure that his influence will nurture Emile’s true nature rather than corrupt it? Indeed, Jean-Jacques does far more than simply build a protective wall around Emile’s environment, he actively manipulates it.

For instance, Jean-Jacques sets out to teach Emile the notion of property. There is no value in simply telling Emile about property because such words ‘have no intelligible meaning’. Instead, ‘lessons should always be in deeds rather than words.’ So Jean-Jacques hatches a plan. He lets Emile observe the gardener and encourages him to wish to garden for himself. He helps Emile plant beans and explains, ‘I shall approve of his plan, share his hobby, and work with him, not for his pleasure but my own; at least, so he thinks’. He tells Emile that the beans belong to Emile. However, when they return they find the beans have been pulled up by the gardener. Emile has planted his beans on the gardener’s land and the gardener is pretty cross about it because he had already planted some Maltese melons there.

Clearly, Jean-Jacques and the gardener have conspired to play this trick on Emile in order to teach him a lesson. Is this really about following Emile’s nature or is it about imposing adult ideas on to Emile?

This tension is present in every enactment of the progressive approach.

Consider, for instance, the constructivist science investigation that I used to lead as a young teacher. Students would react different sized marble chips with acid and observe the amount of fizzing or, in a more sophisticated version, the rate at which gas was produced. There was a clear intent – the students were supposed to figure out that smaller marble chips react at a faster rate than larger ones because there is more surface in contact with the acid. I was not meant explain this (although I often did find myself explaining it in a later lesson because students didn’t figure it out). Instead, I pretended to be finding out alongside them. Nonetheless, I was clear what I wanted them to learn.

Being the subject of someone else’s manipulations – being played tricks on – is not always a pleasant experience. If anything, it seems mildly disrespectful because this is not the way we tend to treat people who we see as equals. However, at least in this case, we are discussing a technical, scientific concept.

I am far less comfortable with sneaky teaching being used to form students’ ideas about politics, religion or other areas where morals and values are involved. If a teacher stands at the front of the room and explains what capitalism is, why some people are in favour of it and why some people are against it, then at least a student knows the source of the argument and can decide how much weight to give it. Yes, in this case it would still be wrong for the teacher to be willfully biased because students tend to listen to their teachers. However, imagine trying to teach the same idea through a series of emotive videos where the teacher smiles enigmatically and noncommittedly as he or she draws thoughts out of the students. I think this is far more dangerous because there is a deliberate ambiguity. The teacher clearly knows what ideas he or she intends the students to develop and has selected the materials accordingly – just as in the example of the marble chips – yet these ideas are presented as if they are the students’ own.

This is one of the reasons why I am so sceptical of critical pedagogy. The claims is that it develops critical thinking and yet its premises are rarely questioned. You can’t question the premises of sneaky teaching because they are, by definition, obscure. And that serves a purpose.

The publication of Emile was received with enthusiasm among the thinkers of the day. Thomas Day, a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, a group of influential intellectuals who met on the night of the full Moon, was so taken with Rousseau’s model of education that he concocted a quite extraordinary plan. Day, who was not much to look at and had poor personal hygiene, was surprised and dismayed to have a number marriage proposals rejected and so he enlisted the help of his friend John Bicknell. First, they visited a foundling hospital in Shrewsbury where Bicknell selected a twelve-year-old girl, Ann Kingston, who they procured on the false pretext that she would be indentured as a servant to an unknowing Richard Edgeworth. They then proceeded to a foundling hospital in London where, using the same story, they procured an eleven-year-old, Dorcas Car.

Renamed as Sabrina and Lucretia Sidney, Day took the girls to France to train them according to Rousseau’s methods. Day’s intention was that one of them would eventually become his suitably educated wife.

France was chosen because the girls could not speak French and so would not be exposed to corrupting influences. France, however, did not work out well, and Day returned home and quickly apprenticed Lucretia to a London hat maker.

Day persisted with Sabrina, whose training involved, among other things, having to wade fully clothed into cold lakes, having hot wax dripped on her arms and a gun, loaded with a charge but no bullet, fired at her feet. This was intended to foster stoicism – or what we might today call ‘grit’. It did not work very well and Day was disappointed when Sabrina yelled out and failed to maintain her composure when shot at. It was many years later that she learnt of Day’s plan.

Day never married Sabrina. She ended up marrying John Bicknell.

The Tragedy of Australian Education

In April, the Australian government finally published its airy and platitudinous report and review of the country’s schools. Popularly known as ‘Gonski 2.0’ after David Gonski, the businessman who chaired the review panel and who had chaired a previous review of school funding, it provided little evidence to support its proposals, despite evidence being a key requirement in the terms of reference. The report states that Australia must ditch…

Continues at Quillette