Stop recycling learning styles

“You need to include learning styles to show how you’re going to differentiate for each learner”

 

This is a comment that a learner on my course received from their employer last week. I often hear comments about learning styles and still have to challenge the beliefs of teachers and learners about it… IT’S 2016 god damn it!! It’s almost as if the whole notion is being recycled, rather than trashed.

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It was over a decade ago that Coffield et al (2004) critically reviewed the literature on learning styles, examining in detail 13 of the most influential models. Apart from the fact that they could find no credible evidence for the utility of any model, during their research they stumbled across a whopping 71 models of learning styles! Let’s imagine that every learner had each of these types of learning style (imagine each was dichotomous), then according to DeBruyckere et al, that would be 2 to the power of 71 combinations of learning styles, or in other words:

Two sextillion, three hundred sixty-one quintillion, one hundred eighty-three quadrillion, two hundred forty-one trillion, four hundred thirty-four billion, eight hundred twenty-two million, six hundred six thousand, eight hundred forty-eight.

Let me remind you that there are only 7.2 billion people on earth. So the numbers don’t quite add up. Moreover, if you wanted to cater for every individual need in your classroom, it would be a pipedream.

 

Apart from the aforementioned, there are two other main problems with learning styles according to Debruyckere et al.

  1. Most people do not fit one particular style – we’ve all done the tests haven’t we… eagerly waiting to find out what our label is, only to find that we are a bit of everything.
  2. The methods used to assign learning styles are inadequate – Due to the fact that all learning styles inventories are self reported, depending on how you feel that day will determine the result. i.e. I have just read a cracking article in the paper, would I be more inclined to think of reading activities more favourably?

 

Despite the distinct lack of evidence for them and the problems associated with determining so called ‘styles’, they are still at large in the teacher training text books and on teacher training qualifications. I kid you not. There has been a name change in some of the literature to ‘learning preferences’, but this has done nothing to reduce the myth, rather the terms are conflated.

 

This is ACTUALLY a picture in a teacher training textbook published last year. Learning styles is so popular that they’re included twice.

 

Why are they still so prevalent? Well, I believe that it is often those in decision making powers that are not in touch with the research. This lack of understanding, along with a positon of power, propagates the myth. As mentioned above,  I have a trainee teacher that was only informed last week that they needed to plan to meet individual learning styles by their manager. When she challenged this, she was shot down with my favourite comment of all time… “because Ofsted like it”. How did she know this? Well it turns out that she once worked as an inspector. Whilst Ofsted’s recent attempt at myth busting has only been a positive thing, there are many ill-informed inspectors (current and ex) that continue to perpetuate myths and reinforce poor practice.

 

In general, those that believe in learning styles, believe in making learning easier and more accessible for learners (note: I am not against inclusion). However, despite easier learning activities improving immediate performance, it is detrimental to long-term learning. Here Pashler et al offer more on this:

‘Conditions that make performance improve rapidly during instruction or training, such as blocking or temporal massing of practice, can fail to support long-term retention and transfer, whereas conditions that introduce difficulties for learners and appear to slow the learning process, such as interleaving different types of problems, or employing temporal spacing of practice on what is to be learned, often enhance long-term retention and transfer.’

Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties has also demonstrated vast improvements in long term retention when learning is difficult. With this in mind, were learning styles to exist, one would be better to teach using an approach that contradicts the style e.g. using an auditory mode of learning for kinaesthetic learners, as alluded to by the Learning Scientists in their recent blog post.

 

So there we have it, no one really likes learning styles. They don’t help learners, so, rather than just recycling them, let’s stick them in the trash once and for all and focus on stuff that works.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Stop recycling learning styles

  1. I have to suppress a scream every time a senior manager at our College refers to Learning Styles. One keeps insisting they are ‘a visual learner’, so can only understand something When it’s put in a diagramme or graph!
    Grrrrrrr.
    Ps great post once again – thanks.

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